Transfiguration, (Year A), February 28, 2014
Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever read the book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or watched the movie. For those of you who haven’t, the story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a Christian allegory by C.S. Lewis. Aslan the Lion is the Son of the Father who gives his life for a sinner and is resurrected, and, in so doing, breaks the power of the evil White Witch who has enslaved the land of Narnia. Aslan, in the story, represents Jesus Christ who died for the sake of sinners so that the power of sin and death might be broken. The story is told from the point of view of four children, brothers and sisters who find their way into Narnia and help fight the Witch. After the battle, after peace and justice and goodness have been restored, Aslan leaves, and the youngest child, Lucy, asks why. Mister Tumnus answers: “He’s not a tame lion.” Lucy says, “But he is good.”
Yes, Aslan is good. But he is still not a tame lion. He can’t be controlled by anyone; and throughout the series he is always surprising even those who think they know him best. Not because he is capricious, or fickle; quite the opposite. He is faithful even to those who turn purposefully away from him. But he is wiser than any other character in the books. He knows more, and understands more. He is a constant presence, even when the other characters don’t see his influence. Even when things seem to be going wrong, or when events seem to have nothing to do with him, Aslan’s hand is at work. But none of the other characters can see the big picture. They see only their own little corner of the world, and so they miss Aslan’s presence. No matter how faithful they are, Aslan can’t be pinned down or fully understood. He is not a tame lion, but he is good.
Jesus Christ, like the character Aslan who represents him in C.S. Lewis’s stories, is not a tame lion. And the disciples find that out rather abruptly in today’s lesson. You see, they didn’t really understand who and what Jesus was, yet. They began following Jesus because he was a great teacher, and because he had power to do things like heal people; but Jesus wasn’t the only great teacher wandering around the Holy Land in those days and he wasn’t the only miracle worker in history. Peter had, by this point, figured out that Jesus was the Messiah; but in those days, people mostly thought the Messiah was just going to be another righteous king like David, who would re-establish the kingdom of Israel. Throughout the Gospels, you can consistently see the disciples missing the point, misunderstanding Jesus’ words. They send away the children who have been brought to Jesus to a blessing. They want Jesus to rain down hellfire and brimstone on a village of Samaritans who don’t listen to Jesus’ teachings. They don’t understand the parables. They vie for position and ask who is going to be the greatest of the disciples. They scold Jesus for saying he’s going to have to suffer and die. They think they know who Jesus is and what he is going to do. They think he’s tame.
Then Jesus invites them up to a high mountain, and things get weird. The glory of God is revealed in Jesus, in a light show worthy of an Oscar for Best Special Effects. Jesus is no ordinary man; he’s not an ordinary king; he’s not even an ordinary miracle worker. He’s something more than that.
Peter, being Peter, is quick to react … but not necessarily quick to figure out what this means. Something special has obviously happened, he figures: they came to a new place, and Jesus lit up like a sun and great heroes of the faith appeared with him. So Peter figures they should stay in this special place where the awesome stuff happened! He seems to be assuming that the place is special, that it’s the location that caused God’s power and glory to be visible around Jesus. Peter figures that they can build special ceremonial buildings for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, and maybe if they stay up there on that mountaintop, God’s glory will continue to be shown. If they build it, God will come. If they just figure out the right thing to do, the right building project in the right place, God’s glory will be there. Tame. Controlled. Safe and predictable. Available on tap.
Peter, of course, is wrong. The mountain isn’t the key; it’s not the reason Jesus is lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and it’s not the reason Moses and Elijah showed up. They can see God’s glory manifest in Jesus Christ because Jesus is God; Jesus is God in human form, fully divine and fully human. God’s glory has always been part of Jesus; they just haven’t been able to see it before this point. They thought they knew who he was, but they were wrong. Jesus is not just a teacher. And he’s not just a miracle worker. And he’s not just a king—and he’s definitely not the kind of king they’re expecting. God’s plans are so much bigger than they had ever considered. God was doing something much greater than just restoring a single small kingdom. God was saving the world through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son, Jesus Christ. All the disciples can see is their own little corner of the planet; God’s eye is on the fate of the whole cosmos.
God interrupts Peter’s plans. While Peter is still talking about the shrines they should build on that mountain top, God’s voice speaks from the heavens: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Don’t just take his words and fit them into your preconceived ideas; don’t just assume you know who and what he is. There is more to Jesus than you know. No matter how smart you are, no matter how faithful you are, God is greater than you can possibly imagine. God’s wisdom is wiser than yours, and God’s love is deeper than yours. God is good, but God is not tame.
How often do we forget that? How often do we presume we know exactly who God is and what God wants? There are a lot of people in the world who are just like Peter. We see the glory of God, and we try and accept it on our own terms, as if our efforts can control God and keep him safely contained, present when we want, where we want. We assume, as Peter and the disciples did, that our goals are God’s goals. Yet God sees the world more clearly than we can; God is not limited to our understanding. God is greater than we are, and Jesus’ transfiguration is only a foretaste of God’s glory.
And sometimes, we need that foretaste. We need God’s goodness and light to drive away the darkness, to guide us even when we don’t know or understand where we are going. The disciples certainly didn’t understand what was going to happen; they didn’t understand what Jesus’ mission on Earth truly was, and they didn’t understand what their role in it was going to be. Even after Jesus told them quite plainly that he would suffer and die, they didn’t get it. They couldn’t see the threads of God’s plan to save the world; they thought too small.
Not long after Jesus and Peter and the others came down from the mountain top, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. He walked there knowing he was going to suffer and die. He walked there knowing that the fate of the universe was at stake, even if nobody else could see what was going on. In the dark days that were to come, when those in power conspired against Jesus and a traitor handed him over and the disciples scattered in fear and even Peter denied Jesus, I wonder if Peter looked back to that mountain top experience. I wonder if it gave him courage and strength, when it seemed like the darkness was going to win, to remember the light of God. I wonder if it gave him hope when human eyes could only see defeat and death.
Lent begins this Wednesday with Ash Wednesday. During Lent, we will remember Jesus’ walk toward Jerusalem and death. We’ll confess our own sinfulness that Jesus died to save us from. But in the midst of the gloom and sorrow, remember the light of Christ, shown here at Jesus’ transfiguration and again at his resurrection. Remember that Jesus is not tame, and that he is greater than we can imagine. Remember that even in the midst of darkness, and sin, and death, God brings light.