This week's texts:
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
"Stars," David Crowder
There’s a lot of intensity in this week’s gospel story. There’s the dazzling light of the transfigured Jesus on the otherwise dark mountaintop. There’s the thundering voice of God coming to them from a terrifying cloud. There’s the shrieking, convulsing child, seized by a spirit. There’s the aggravated Jesus, rebuking the people and the unclean spirit. And all were astounded at the glory of God.
Peter, James, and John have climbed up this mountain with their friend, Jesus, to pray. The story tells us that they are weighed down with sleep—it’s probably been a long day. There were probably a lot of long days walking alongside Jesus. This is turning out to be a day not unlike most other days. As Jesus is praying, though, suddenly he is changed. Suddenly, his clothes are dazzling white. Reminiscent of the star at Bethlehem, a light is shining in the darkness.
In any given congregation on this Transfiguration Sunday, you’re probably going to sing “Shine, Jesus Shine.” As a matter of fact, the choir will offer up an arrangement in just a few minutes, here. What I like about this hymn is that just before we descend into the darkness and minor keys of the Lenten season, we are reminded of that light of Advent and Epiphany. We’ll sing, “Lord the Light of Your Love is shining –In the midst of the darkness, shining. Jesus light of the world shine upon us, set us free by the truth You now bring us.”
The last two weeks, we heard the story of Jesus reading in the temple and proclaiming the scripture fulfilled by his life. The scripture he read said that he had arrived to bring good news to the poor—that he had arrived to proclaim release to the captives, sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and declare a year of the Lord’s favor.
These are no small feat. The promises of the gospel are not small. They are intense and radical and disorienting and socially unacceptable. By Jesus’ truths, we have all been set free from the sin that so easily entangles.
And the promises of the gospel don’t stop with Jesus. The gospel begins with Jesus. We as hearers of the story are now tellers of the story. Singers of the story, even. As “Shine Jesus Shine” continues, we sing. “As we gaze on Your kingly brightness, so our faces display Your likeness. Ever changing from glory to glory, mirrored here, may our lives tell Your story.”
And that’s the crux of it, I think. In this story, Jesus has been visibly changed. His clothes were made dazzling white! But Peter and James and John are deeply changed. It is these three men who, now, knowing something different about their friend Jesus, will never be the same.
Before this mountaintop experience, their understanding of Jesus is that he’s a slightly outside-the-box kind of teacher, and that he spends his days among his friends, some simple peasant fishermen. And yet here, now, he’s beside Moses and Elijah, heroes of their people! Something has changed about their friend, Jesus.
And just as much as something has been changed in Jesus, something has changed in Peter, James, and John—and something has changed in us. We, too, have been transformed by the light of Christ.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that, “this shining is not a ‘phenomenon’ by which to be dazzled, but a summons to ministry ‘outside the box’ of untransformed assumptions, having been transformed. Beyond Moses and Jesus, it is the church that is caused to be ‘aglow.’”
This year’s theme for the ELCA’s 25th anniversary celebration is “Always Being Made New.” You may remember seeing that on our annual report covers a few weeks ago. We are always being made new. The church is always being made new. New responses to the world in which we live cause the church to grow and change and adapt, moment by moment.
If we were Jesus, we’d have said that we went up this mountain to work some things out, or to better ourselves, or to be the active verb in some way. But the way that it works—the way it seems to have always worked—is that we go up the mountain to be changed by God. We go up the mountain to be dazed and dazzled.
And we don’t all need to be changed in the same way. Some of us need to quiet down, some of us need to speak up; some of us need to be fed, some of us need to feed others; some of us need to hear, some of us need to be heard; but we all have been changed and will be changed by the grace of God.
We talk about mountaintop experiences as being transcendent realities that slowly fade as we journey back down to the real world. The day-to-day workings of our walking-around lives are not mountains or even necessarily valleys—sometimes they’re mundane. And while this mountaintop event in the life of Jesus and these three disciples is far from mundane, it is the day-to-day workings of this itinerant party that make it what it is.
We, like Peter, want to live in those mountaintop times—can’t we just go to camp again; can’t we just go on another retreat? Can’t we just stay here a while? The real place that we live the gospel, though, is not on those mountaintops. It’s in our real homes and schools and places of work and of worship and of recreation. The mountaintop experiences may dazzle us, but it’s the day-to-day reality in which we are always being made new. The way we go about our everyday existence can shine the light of Christ onto others.
At preschool chapel recently, we talked about the ways that we can show people that God loves them by loving them ourselves. The suggestions the kids had for ways to do that ranged from flat-out telling people that God loves them—effective!—to sharing our toys, hugging our friends, and forgiving each other. They get it. Their day-to-day lives are full of the gospel.
In the Exodus text, Moses has to veil himself after he is transformed by God, because it is too much for others to handle. The 2 Corinthians text extrapolates that to our faces as the public church. We cannot veil our faces when it comes to sharing the good news of Jesus the Christ. We cannot hide this little light of ours. All of us are being transformed.
And while the world is sometimes overwhelming, and we, too, can be weighed down by sleep, the world needs transforming. We, the church, are called to bear witness to the transformational power of God to bring light out of darkness.
And so the hardest part about this text, I think, is not the supernatural shining Jesus part, but the part where the disciples are silent as they come down the mountain. They have sworn themselves to secrecy. We have not been sworn to secrecy. On the contrary, we have been commissioned to tell the story in all times and in all places. The disciples remained silent because of the dangers of telling the truth at that time. And we may feel like there are dangers to sharing the story of Jesus in our context, too.
In his book Public Jesus, Tim Suttle writes about our call to be salt and light, from Jesus’ sermon on the mount—a different time important stuff happened between Jesus and the disciples on top of a mountain.
Tim writes that, “Our mission is to shine a light and bring out the God-colors. Our mission is to season the earth like salt and bring out the God-flavors.”
He continues that the way that we do this is to organize our common life together. When we organize, “in such a way that we shine like the light of the world,” he writes, “we will somehow be visibly, undeniably, rudely interrupting the world that has chosen to go its own way. The light emanates from a city, a community, not just individuals. The city on the hill shines and bears witness to all who are living in the valley of the shadow of death. The salt of the earth restores flavor to those whose life has become bitter and unbearable.”
When we sing that the shining face of Jesus shines on us, so that our faces display his likeness, this is what we mean. As we have been transformed, so we seek to transform our world. We are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and freeing the captive. We as tellers and singers of the story are the hands and feet of Jesus at the foot of the mountain.