The Light of God in dark places

Transfiguration of our Lord, Year B, February 15th, 2015

2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

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. Amen.

The Transfiguration is a weird thing. Most of Jesus’ career is the sort of thing we can relate to rather easily: he wandered around with a group of friends, telling people about God. Some of us talk about God more than others, and some don’t talk about God much at all, but we can all relate to hanging out with your friends and travelling a bit, right? And he also healed people. Most of us can’t heal people with a touch as Jesus could, but we do have faith healers, and we pray for people who are sick all the time, and when we are sick we pray for healing. He had enemies who were trying to spread rumors about him—too many of us have experienced such a thing in our own lives. He ate dinner with a lot of people—we can relate to that, too! And then we have today’s story where he goes to the top of a mountain and gets lit up like a bonfire. And while I’ve seen such things done by special effects in science fiction TV and movies, I’ve never seen anyone glow with a heavenly light. I doubt any of you have, either.

So while it’s generally fairly easy to find a way to connect other Gospel readings to our everyday lives, I’ve always struggled with the Transfiguration. And I think that Peter and James and John did, too. Now, they lived in a day when people were far less skeptical about miracles and wondrous things, but that doesn’t mean they happened every day. Which is why Peter and James and John were terrified and confused and trying to search around for some way to fit this awesome thing into their heads. So Peter suggests building three “dwellings”—temples, tabernacles, booths, something like that. A chapel, maybe. So that people could come to the mountain to the special place and pray to God for whatever miracle they needed. As if it were the mountain that were holy.

That’s actually a pretty common human reaction to an encounter with God. Let’s set up a shrine to mark it! And tell everyone else about it, too, so that they could come up and see the special place where it happened! And pray there, because maybe God will be more likely to hear their prayers at that special place where special things happened! God is most likely to be there, on the mountaintops, right? In the special places? Where special things have happened? And if you go to the right place and pray the right way, you are closer to God than you are in your ordinary life, right? And if you worship in a beautiful church building you’re closer to God than when you worship in a mall or a hotel, right? It’s all about location, and ambiance, and going where you know people have encountered God before and hoping he’s still there. Peter’s confused and scared, he doesn’t know what’s going on, so he thinks “A special place needs a special building for people to visit. Let’s build some!”

It’s not necessarily a bad impulse; after all, we do need places to gather and worship together and celebrate God’s gifts and presence among us. It’s just not what God was trying to show the disciples. The point of the Transfiguration is not that mountaintops are holy, that particular mountain or any other. It’s not about the place. God is with us always, no matter where we go. God is in the most awesome locations—like mountaintops—but God is also with us in the nastiest, most horrible places on earth. That mountaintop is no more or less holy than any place else on earth, no matter what happens there. No, it’s not about location. It’s about connection to the past, to the future, and to God. And it’s about light.

The connection to the past is easy to spot. Moses and Elijah showed up! The two most beloved and awesome holy men of Israel’s history! Jesus is the culmination of what God has been doing in the Jews since he called Abraham out of Ur, since he called Moses through the burning bush, since he spoke through Elijah! God is doing a new thing through Jesus, but it’s not out of the blue. It’s all connected. For thousands of years God has been trying to teach his people to love God and to love one another so that they might be a blessing to the world, and Jesus is the fulfillment of that teaching, the manifestation of that love. No matter how much the religious leaders argued and quibbled and rejected Jesus, no matter how different he looked from what they expected the Messiah to be, Jesus is where the story has been heading all along. And now is the time the disciples most need to learn that.

You see, the Transfiguration is the turning point. The hinge, if you will, of Jesus’ ministry. Up to this point, he’s mostly been staying out in the hinterlands. The backcountry. With the hicks and the country people. And yeah, crowds came to see him, and the local community leaders are annoyed by him, but he’s not much threat to the powers that be, at this point. So he pretty much gets ignored by the authorities. But he’s about to set his face toward Jerusalem, and the sorts of trouble and stirring up crowds that’s acceptable out in the backwater of Galilee is just not going to be tolerated in Jerusalem. As Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and disagrees publicly with the political and religious establishment, things are going to get dire pretty quickly. And by “dire” I mean conspiring to have him crucified on trumped-up charges just to get rid of him. That’s what the disciples are going to be facing, when they walk down that mountain. Everything is going to get worse—a lot worse, as bad as things can possibly be—and it’s going to start with the religious leaders of their country trying to prove that Jesus is some sort of heretic.

If they’re going to go up against that—if these uneducated hicks are going to stand firm in the face of the disapproval of the most educated, powerful religious leaders of their day—they’re going to need some reassurance that Jesus truly is of their God and of their faith, and there’s not much better way to prove that to them than to have them see him with Moses and Elijah. In the dark days to come, the disciples are going to need to be able to draw on the faith of their forefathers and foremothers to help them survive and get through. And here are Moses and Elijah to reassure them. Put yourself in their shoes. Think about a time when remembering a faithful person has helped you when your own faith has faltered. Maybe it was someone from the Bible, maybe someone you knew personally. Even just remembering a story of their courage or commitment can help, can’t it?

But the faith of their ancestors will only carry the disciples so far. After all, this isn’t just a case of following the next prophet. God is doing a new thing, and that new thing—the salvation of the cosmos—is going to lead them to places they never dreamed, through hazards they can’t imagine yet. They’re going to go through some awfully dark places, and they’re going to need a light to carry them through. And the thing is, when you look at the story of the Transfiguration, it is really similar to some of the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Like, the blinding white robes, the two supernatural beings, it’s all very similar. They’re getting a foretaste of what’s coming. Not the horrors and death and despair that are in their immediate future, but the joy and wonder that will come after. They’re going to go through Hell on Earth for the next while, but they are not going to be facing it alone, and that hellish time won’t last forever. It can’t. God is going to win, in the end. The power of death and hate and fear will be broken forever. They don’t know it, but they are witnessing a foretaste of God’s victory. They’re seeing a little bit of the great party to come. They don’t understand what they’re seeing, but it’s going to help carry them through when they need it. Because they can’t just stay up there on the mountain in a nice pretty building remembering the good old days. They have to go back down the mountain and head towards Jerusalem. And this experience, this shared vision of light, is going to help them stay together and get through the dark days ahead.

Think back to your life, to the times when you’ve had dark times to walk through. The death of a loved one, or a serious illness, or abuse, or addiction, or depression, or isolation. We’ve all had dark times of one kind or another. How did God help you through them? What light did God give in your darkness? You may not have realized what it was at the time—the disciples didn’t get what was happening, either, and I know in my own life when I’ve had dark times, I was never able to see God’s presence until I looked back afterwards. God’s light may have come in many different forms. It may have come through the support of friends and loved ones. It may have come through memories of better times. It may have come through prayer or scripture or music or art or a good book. We look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom—when death will be no more, when we will be healed and made whole, when all evil will be wiped clean and all tears will be wiped away. But in the mean time—as we walk through dark places—thank God for the light. For the faithful ones of past years who have helped to shape us, and for the light even in the darkest place. May we see God’s light and be comforted by it.

Amen.

The Love Mandate

Maundy Thursday, (Year A), April 16, 2014

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31-35

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.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another, that your joy may be full.” I learned that song in Sunday School as a child. It’s taken from John’s Gospel, not very long after our text. The Gospel of John devotes several chapters to Jesus’ last teaching for this disciples. And the command to love one another is repeated over and over throughout. In fact, the name for tonight’s service, “Maundy” Thursday, is taken from an old Latin word for command: “Mandatum,” from which we get the word “mandate.” Jesus’ last command, his last mandate, was to love one another as he has loved us. On the night before he died, in the last meal he shared with his disciples, the theme was love.

Of course, the theme for all of Holy Week is love, when you get right down to it: everything happens because of love. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save us. Jesus loved us so much that he died for us. That’s the greatest kind of love there is. Being willing to sacrifice for the sake of someone else. And that’s the kind of love Jesus wants us to have for one another.

Sometimes we think of love as something selfish. Think of someone who is jealous that their boyfriend or girlfriend has other friends. Or a dog who doesn’t like you paying attention to someone else, and so shoves his nose in between the two of you. Sometimes, for some people love drives them to hurt the ones they claim to love. There are a lot of abusers who use love as an excuse for their actions. And there are a lot of people who talk a lot about love without ever showing that love in their actions. But these are all examples of a love that is twisted and broken by sin and the powers of this world. Yes, even love can be twisted by sin. The kind of love Jesus was talking about is just the opposite.

Jesus’ love is all about service. That’s what the foot-washing is all about. Jesus shows his love for his disciples by doing something for them that’s a little bit icky. Jesus’ love is not about himself. It’s not selfish in any way, shape, or form. Jesus’ love inspires him to consider other peoples’ needs. In Jesus’ day, they walked everywhere, and they wore sandals instead of shoes. So peoples’ feet got really dirty and smelly, even when you were trying your best to stay clean. So in a rich household, a good host would send a slave to wash his guest’s feet. The host wouldn’t wash the feet himself—washing peoples’ feet is kind of gross. But he’d send a slave to do it. Jesus didn’t send a slave, he did it himself. Why? Because he loved them, and he was willing to do something uncomfortable and gross to help those he loved.

Think about what parents do for their children. There’s a lot of things parents do for their children that are not fun at all. Changing messy diapers, taking care of them when they’re sick, cleaning up all kinds of really nasty messes, tending wounds and fishing toys out of toilets—these aren’t fun, but they need to be done. Nobody does them because they like doing those things. And most parents do them out of love. They love their children, so they are willing to do messy, icky things that otherwise they would never do. That love isn’t just words. That love is shown in everything parents do for their children.

That’s the kind of love that Jesus showed when he washed his disciples’ feet, the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice to benefit others. It’s a love that is shown in actions. It’s not just talking the talk, Jesus’ love walks the walk. And washing his disciples’ feet is just the beginning. Jesus is going to show his love for the entire world by dying. He loves us all—every last, sinful, one of us. And because he loves us, he’s willing to die for us. Not because it’s fun, not because sacrifice is good on its own merits, because we need it. It’s something we can’t do on our own, something we would die without. And Jesus loves us, and he can save us, so he does. Even if it means his own death.

But even dying for us, to save us from our sins, isn’t the only thing Jesus’ love means. Jesus doesn’t just want to free us from sin and death. That’s huge, but Jesus’ goal is bigger than that. Jesus’ goal isn’t just to change what happens to us when we die; Jesus’ goal is to also change how we live. Jesus loves us, and he wants us to be happy. He wants us to be healthy. And in order for us to be healthy and happy, we have to love one another. We have to live lives filled with joy, with relationships that build us up and spread God’s love to every corner of the globe. We have to be willing to open ourselves up to the kind of love that is bigger and more powerful than sin, the kind of love that is more powerful than selfishness, more powerful than hate, more powerful than jealousy, more powerful than fear. In order to live the kind of life God wants for us, we have to love God and one another deeply and truly. So Jesus spent his last night before his death teaching us about love.

It wasn’t the only time Jesus talked about love, or showed what love meant. Jesus talked about love a lot. And he spent his life acting on that love. For Jesus, love was stronger than anything. Love was stronger than politics, stronger than proper behavior. Love was stronger than religious rules, stronger than gender or race. Love was stronger than money, stronger than fear. If there was a chance to show love for someone, Jesus took it. Whether that was healing them, eating with them, accepting them, forgiving them, Jesus always chose to love people. No matter who they were or what they had done. That was actually a lot of the reason the authorities didn’t like him: he showed love to people they believed to be unworthy of it. If Jesus saw someone who needed help, he showed them his love by helping them. Even when it was messy. Even when it broke the rules. Even when they didn’t deserve it. Even when it would cost Jesus.

The disciples had seen this, but they hadn’t really understood it. Jesus had one last night to teach them, to teach us, about what it means to love people as God loves us. So he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed his disciples feet, and commanded them to love one another as Jesus had loved them. “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We talk about what it means to be a disciple, what it looks like to follow Jesus. Well, Jesus tells us quite clearly here what the core of a disciple’s life is, and it’s love. The kind of love Jesus has for us. The kind of love that doesn’t ask “are you worthy?” but rather “how can I help?” The core of discipleship isn’t memorizing scripture, and it isn’t perfect morality, and it isn’t worship or any of the common things we think of. Don’t get me wrong, scripture reading and worship and how we live are important parts of the life of a disciple. But they support a life of discipleship, they’re not the core. The core is love. If we love one another as Jesus loved us, we are truly his disciples.

If we love one another, we are closer to the kind of life God wants for us. We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world of extreme poverty and extreme riches, a world of hate and violence and fear. We live in a world where most people would rather turn a blind eye to the injustice and abuse around them than lift a finger to help. We’d rather point fingers than fix things. As Paul put it, we have all sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. And the only way that’s ever going to be healed is through love. Through the love of God, poured out through Jesus on the cross. And through our love for God and one another, poured out in our words and our actions.

So Jesus commanded his disciples, commanded us, to love one another. He showed what that meant through washing their feet, and he showed what that meant again by dying for us all, to save us and redeem us and heal us. Unlike the disciples two thousand years ago, Jesus is not going to walk into the room to teach us this lesson and show us what love is. But Jesus is still with us here and now. Because washing feet and talking about love isn’t the only thing Jesus did that night.

The other thing Jesus did was to share a meal with his disciples. He took the bread, and blessed it, and gave it to all to eat. And the wine, also, he gave them. And he told them it was his body and blood, given to save sinners, and that he would always be present in it. When we eat the bread and wine, we eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood. We hold in our hands a tangible proof of how much Jesus loves us, we smell it and taste it and feel it. Jesus’ love fills us, and inspires us. May we let Jesus show us how to love one another as he has loved us.