Sunday, March 3, 2019

"Holy Transformation." A Sermon on Transfiguration Sunday.

"Holy Transfiguration"

Exodus 34;29-35; Luke 9:28-43

         Many of the great events in the Bible took place up on a mountain.  Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  Elijah called down fire from heaven on Mount Carmel.  Peter made his confession of faith on a mountain.  Jesus often preached on the mount.  That's a pattern we can see in the scriptures.
            In both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons we heard today, we see a pattern.  Generally, when Moses heard God's Word for him and the people of Israel, it was when he was off by himself...  away from too much busy-ness and noise.  At times, Moses brought the Israelites out of the camp...  away from the distractions of their everyday work and routine-- to hear God speak to them directly.  
            When we study the Bible, we see this pattern of withdrawing-- going apart for awhile to be with God-- and then returning.
            Sometimes it takes longer than we think it might.   When Moses came down from Mount Sinai the first time after a time apart with God, he found the Israelites worshiping the golden calf.   Since they'd broken the covenant, Moses broke the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.
            Then Moses made a second trip up the holy mountain.  He stayed there forty days and forty nights, fasting.  He wrote out the second set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments.   He prayed, "Show me your glory,” and God passed before him.  The LORD proclaimed the holy NAME to him and revealed more of the divine nature than had ever been revealed to the people before, saying,
            "The Lord... the Lord,
              a God merciful and gracious,
              slow to anger,
              and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
              keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
              forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
              yet by no means clearing the guilty....

            It was after this revelation that Moses came down among the people with his face shining so brilliantly that the people were afraid to come near him.  His appearance had been changed by his time apart with God.   There'd been a holy transformation.
            We know from reading the gospels that after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness.  He spent forty days alone in the wilderness, fasting and being tested, before he began his ministry. 
            Jesus had been praying alone, with only his closest disciples near him, when he began teaching them that he would have to undergo great suffering...   be rejected by the religious authorities...  be killed...  and the third day be raised.  Then he told them that anyone who wanted to be his disciples would have to deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him.

            It's eight days later when Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples and goes up on a high mountain to pray.   While he was praying they saw his face change, and his clothes become dazzling white.   Then Peter and James and John saw Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus.
            A cloud comes-- a sign of God's presence, as it had been in the Exodus.  From the cloud, a voice speaks:   "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” echoing the voice heard when Jesus was baptized. 

            At his baptism, there's a moment when the veil of the present is stripped away to reveal who Jesus is     and who he will be.   Now, the disciples are told not only who Jesus is-- but they also hear that they are to "listen to him."

            This strange mountaintop experience of worship happens on the way to the cross.  The end of the drama is over the horizon-- a tragedy that will end in death for Jesus...  and the scattering and disillusionment of his disciples.  On the way, there’s this mountaintop experience that looks toward the cross...  and yet transfigures the cross in a burst of revealing light and glory.

            On the Sunday of Transfiguration, just before Lent, the church makes its weary way toward the cross on Good Friday.  The story we heard talks about withdrawing and returning-- a dynamic we see throughout the gospels.  I believe this pattern of withdrawal and return is at the HEART of Christian worship...  and at the heart of our Christian life.

            In the midst of the pressures of life...  in the hectic busyness that most of us experience as ordinary time-- it’s hard to find the time and space to develop a spiritual life.  It takes commitment and discipline to look and listen for God. 

            This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday-- the beginning of Lent...  the forty days leading up to Easter.  If we want to grow in our faith...   if we want to be ready to experience the new life of the Resurrection, then we need to "take time to be holy." 

            Today's scripture lessons remind us how important it is to take time apart to be with God...  and listen for what God wants to say to us. 
            On the way to the cross, we need to withdraw and listen. We need to watch for the shining light of epiphany-- as God reveals his glory to us and transforms us gradually into God's likeness. 
            That's the reason for a Lenten discipline.   If we want to be followers of Christ-- we need to be true disciples.  We have to give Christ time to teach us...  and transform us into his likeness.
            I think some of you can testify that worship makes a difference in your lives.  I'm convinced that worship, study and prayer make all the difference.
            We withdraw up on the mountain, so that we can return to the valley.  We return to a world that hasn't changed.   But we've changed-- however gradually.  We have seen the Lord.  We've heard a voice. 

            Without such precious times of renewal... withdrawal... and vision, we wouldn't be able to endure life in the valley.   We wouldn't be able to walk the road that leads to the cross. 
            If we expect immediate and total spiritual perfection-- we're expecting too much.  Our transformation is happening gradually, like the transformation of the first disciples.  The Peter who was so enthusiastic about the mountaintop experience is the same Peter who denies Jesus in the face of the cross.  Human failure to comprehend, let alone live up to, divine revelation is a hard fact of life. 
            God calls us to accept it as fact, but to be strengthened by the assurance that God never gives up on us.  The Lord never abandons us to failure.   
            God gives us the hope we need to follow Jesus boldly, and gives us the Spirit of the Lord to lead us further into the truth...  further into the freedom that Christ offers us.
            The Apostle Paul said that we "see the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror dimly"...   and that we're being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another."  

            God isn't finished with any of us yet.  At our worst moments-- both individually and as a church-- we act as if God is finished with us.  We act as if creation had been finished a long, long time ago.  But nothing could be further from the truth. 
            The Holy Spirit still moves over the face of the waters.  God still breathes life into piles of dust.  Jesus still shouts us from our tombs. 
            God still sheds new light on our understanding...  and lights our faces with the radiance of His glorious self-giving love.  God continues to shine upon us... to transform us, almost imperceptibly, one degree at a time.   

            And that, my friends, is good news!
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 3, 2019



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