It’s About Change

Transfiguration, Year C, March 3, 2019

Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-43

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When you hear the word “transfiguration,” how many of you think of Harry Potter?  I know I do.  For those of you who are not fans, transfiguration is one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  It is taught by Professor McGonigal, who is capable of changing herself into a cat whenever she wants to.  And on a daily basis, she teaches young wizards and witches how to transfigure things: to turn needles into matchsticks, and rats into teacups, and any object into any other object.  Transfiguration, you see, literally means to change shape.  Leaving aside the world of fantasy, to transfigure something is about making one thing into something else.  And not in little ways, either.  To transfigure something is to completely and radically alter it.  It’s about conversion.  It’s about transformation.

Today is the Sunday of the Transfiguration.  It is one of the minor festivals of the church year that we celebrate every year on the last Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.  On this day, we remember the transfiguration of Jesus, when he went up on a hilltop with some of his disciples, and changed before their eyes into something heavenly, something glorious.  For a few brief minutes they saw him not only as their friend and a fellow human being, but also as the Son of God.  Two of the ancient Jewish heroes of the faith, Moses and Elijah, appeared with him and spoke with him.  And a voice from heaven repeated the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him!”  And then, things went back to normal, and Jesus and the disciples went back down the mountain, and Jesus began walking to Jerusalem to be crucified.

Jesus was transfigured before his disciples’ very eyes.  He lit up like a superhero in a movie.  It was the first time that the glory of God was revealed, not just in Jesus’ actions, but in his appearance.  Jesus’ nature did not change—he had always been God’s Son, fully human and fully divine—but that nature had been hidden.  There, on that mountain, for just a few brief moments, he was revealed for all to see.  The power of God wasn’t just something he could call on to heal people or feed people, it was a part of him.  What changed was that the disciples could see that, even if only for a short time.

But Jesus’ appearance wasn’t the only thing about him that had been transfigured.  His mission was transfigured, too.  This is the hinge point of Jesus’ story.  Before this, Jesus had been wandering around the area teaching and healing and feeding people and eating with them and welcoming them and, generally, doing ordinary ministry.  After this, Jesus’ face was set towards Jerusalem.  After this, Jesus started teaching his disciples about his coming sacrifice, suffering, and death.  Jesus didn’t stop teaching and healing and loving people along the way, but there was an urgency to it.  A sharper edge.  Jesus was getting ready to die to save the world: Jesus was getting ready to use his own suffering, death, and resurrection to begin the transfiguration of the whole world into the kingdom of God.

When you get right down to it, God’s work in the world is all about change.  It’s about bringing life to places where there is death.  It’s about bringing healing where there is woundedness.  It’s about bringing salvation to places where there is sin.  It’s about turning this world into God’s kingdom.  And none of that happens quickly or easily, and none of that will be complete until Christ comes again, but that is what we’re here for.  The church is not a social club.  The church is not here so that we have a place to have coffee and chat with our friends once a week.  It’s certainly not here just because we’ve always done it that way.  No.  The church is here so that we can worship God, and here God’s word, and be transformed by God’s presence in our lives, and sent out into the world as God’s people.  The church is the place where ordinary, sinful, conflicted and conflicting human beings are gathered into one and formed into the body of Christ.  God does not call us to remain mired in all the things that have shaped us—our society, our fears, our sins, and the words and actions of others.  God does not call us to conform to the ways of the world.  God calls us to be made new in Christ.  God calls us to be transfigured.

The problem is, most people … don’t really want to be transfigured.  We don’t want to be changed.  Even if we’re not happy with who we are, we’re used to it.  How many times have you seen someone stay in a bad situation or repeatedly make the same bad choices over and over again?  This is something that humans do a lot of.  We cling to what we’re used to even if it’s terrible, because then we know what to expect.  We want life to be predictable.  We want to feel that we have control.  Acknowledging that there are things outside our control—even God!—is scary.  Letting God start us on a journey we can’t see or imagine the end of is pretty dang unnerving.  Which is why we tend to respond in fear, or denial.  We pray for God to do the things we want, but we very rarely pray that God will change us according to God’s will.

When Moses spoke with God directly, God’s glory shone on and around him, and the people of Israel were afraid.  He had to cover his face so that they couldn’t see the visible manifestation of God’s power.  The people had promised to follow God’s commands and be God’s people.  They had promised to worship God and put God first; and yet they were still afraid of God’s power manifest in their midst.  And no matter how much the promised to love and serve God, they kept going astray.  They kept returning to old ways.  They kept hollowing out God’s words until they were following the letter but not the spirit.  They set up society the way they thought it should be, and told themselves they were following God’s will.  They kept turning away.  They did not want to be changed into the people God kept calling them to be.

But don’t be too harsh on them.  After all, the disciples were no better.  They heard Jesus’ teaching, and they saw his glory manifest on that mountain, and they did not understand.  They chose not to understand.  They wanted God’s power to fit neatly into their expectations.  They wanted God’s power to be something they could control.  They wanted God to turn the world into what they imagined, with themselves in positions of power.  And when Jesus tried to talk about his death, when he tried to talk about sacrifice and resurrection, they didn’t listen.  They told him to be quiet.  Peter and John and James saw Jesus transfigured before them, but they didn’t allow themselves to be changed by that awesome sight.  And, when at last Jesus was arrested and put on trial, they fled.  Peter denied Jesus altogether.  It took both the Resurrection and Pentecost to get them to truly follow Jesus out of what they were used to; and even then, they sometimes fell back into old habits instead of following where the Spirit led them.  There have been times in Christian history where a group of people, large or small, truly opened themselves up to whatever God might ask of them, and each time they accomplished amazing things.  They were transformed, and so was their community.  But it never lasts for long, before we slip back into our old, bad habits.

And think about us, here, today.  How many of us come to Christ to be transformed?  How many of us truly conform our hearts, minds, and lives to Christ?  All too often, even devout Christians come to church hoping for their opinions to be confirmed, rather than opening themselves up to the possibility of something new.  And this is true regardless of ethnicity, age, political ideology, gender, economics, or nationality.  We want Jesus in our lives as long as he has the same opinions we do and doesn’t ask us to do anything we don’t already want to do.

But what if we were willing to change?  What if we opened our hearts and minds to Christ and allowed him to transform us according to his will?  I don’t know what that would look like, but I bet it would lead to awesome, amazing, wonderful things.  May we be open to the transforming love of God, now and always.


In the Presence of God

Transfiguration A, February 26th, 2017

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.  Amen.

When I was a kid, I believed in God.  I believed that he existed, and I believed that he had created everything, and I believed that he had sent his only son Jesus Christ to die for our sins and save us.  I was quite clear on that.  I just didn’t see what any of that had to do with me.  Because while I believed everything that the Bible says about what God had done, thousands of years ago, I was pretty sure that God wasn’t involved in the world any more today.  I mean, not really.  Sure, I believed that faith in God dictated where you went where you died, but I found the idea of UFOs and aliens more plausible than God actually being active in the world in the then-20th Century.  And part of the reason for that was Bible stories like today’s Gospel and first readings.  You see, I looked around me and I didn’t see anybody being transfigured in glowing array on a mountaintop, and I didn’t see any burning bushes, or arks, or food for five thousand people appearing out of thin air, or any of those spectacular miracles and wonders the Bible describes.

It’s easy to read stories like the ones in today’s Gospel and first reading, and get caught up in the glamor of it.  God reveals God’s power in a tangible way.  Yes, we know that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God come to save the world, but it’s a little easier to believe when he’s lit up like a Christmas tree with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament, on either side and a booming voice from heaven proclaiming him THE BELOVED SON OF GOD and telling us to listen to him.  They’re beautiful.  Wondrous.  I can just picture them as dramatic scenes in a movie, with lots of special effects.  But eventually, you have to ask the question: if that’s what God’s actions are like—if such dramatic, obvious miracles are the way God works in the world, why haven’t I ever seen anything like it?

I mean, there are healings that people call miracles, where doctors can’t explain them.  But most of those don’t happen because a faith healer lays hands on someone, and there is no dramatic moment of healing where everything is magically all better.  And people sometimes experience the light at the end of the tunnel when they die and are brought back to life by medical science, but all that proves is that God is waiting for us when we die.  It doesn’t show that God is active in the world.  And there are movies, and TV shows like Touched by an Angel, and stories of miracles, but nothing that I, as a young Christian, had experienced personally, or had been experienced by any of the faithful Christians I knew.  And so I believed in God, but went about my daily life without paying God any attention whatsoever.

And then I got a little bit older, and had to figure out how to deal with the fact that not only was God active in the world, God was active in my life, and was calling me to ministry.  This was a rude shock.  And, at first, I didn’t want to believe it.  After all, there still weren’t any burning bushes or glowing lights.  Just a nudge, a tug on my soul that got ever more insistent as I grew older, until finally I couldn’t deny it anymore and went off to seminary.  God’s activity in my life is not and has never been a constant thing, but I find the more that I pay attention, the more I see things that speak to me of God’s hands at work.  Often through indirect means, like other peoples words, or things that look like random coincidences except for the way something deep inside me says otherwise.  There are times that the presence of God feels overwhelming to me, even if nothing looks like it is happening on the surface.  The handful of times I have felt God’s presence so strongly it was hard to keep from falling on my knees, nobody else noticed anything.  But on the other hand, there are times when I feel nothing spiritually but dryness and emptiness and even with what I have experienced it is still hard to believe that God is really, truly present in this world, in my life or anywhere.  In my years of ministry, here and in Pennsylvania, I’ve talked with a lot of people, and while not all Christians feel the presence of God on a conscious level, those that do feel God’s presence only feel him some of the time.  We have all gone through dark and weary times when we feel abandoned even by God.

So the question I have now is, why do such moments of God’s presence only come to some, and only some of the time?  Why don’t we all feel God’s presence, all the time?  Why is the mountaintop experience so rare?  I have to tell you if it wasn’t rare, not only would faith be a lot easier, but doing the right thing would also be a lot easier.  We all get times of temptation, times when we don’t want to do the right thing we know we should.  If we could feel God’s presence, God’s loving arms wrapped around us, at those moments, I think we would be a lot less likely to sin.  An intellectual knowledge that God is with us seems like a poor substitute to his tangible power and glory.

Let’s look at our lessons.  Moses experienced the power and glory of God … but the rest of the Israelites mostly just saw the storm up at the top of the mountain.  Peter and James saw Jesus transfigured, and Moses and Elijah appearing with him, but the rest of the disciples didn’t.  Most of the people who appear in the Bible never hear, directly, God’s voice.  Instead, God’s presence and God’s message is told to them by others.  Nobody gets God’s tangible presence all the time, but there is always someone experiencing God.  God’s people are never abandoned, but God is present to different people at different times.

This is one of the reasons we need one another.  This is one of the reasons we have to come together as the Body of Christ.  Sure, like Moses, we might be able to go experience God on a mountain-top by ourselves, but we can’t sustain it.  The experience ends, and we come back down the mountaintop.  And in those times when we ourselves can’t feel God, it’s not our own intellectual knowledge of God’s presence that sustains us, and it’s usually not the memories of those mountaintop experiences.  The love and support and witness of our brothers and sisters in Christ is what sustains us through the dark times.  We witness to others, and in our need they witness to us.  Sometimes in words, sometimes in deeds, sometimes by just being there with us when we desperately need them.

And there are times when we desperately need them.  Times when sin and death and pain and all the brokenness of this world grabs us by the throat.  Nobody, in this life, gets God’s presence perfectly forever.  That gift is not given to us until Christ comes again and we stand in God’s kingdom.  In this fallen world, pain and brokenness and sin keep fighting back against the light of God’s presence.  And sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere.  Even where God’s light shines brightest, sin creeps in.  God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and Moses gave them to the people, who made a covenant with God.  And then Moses went up the mountain and experienced the glory of God’s presence in the giving of God’s moral teachings, while down below the people got so scared and bored they made a golden calf to worship and threw a party in which they broke the covenant and almost all of the Commandments at once.  If you had told Moses, up there on the mountain in the light of God’s presence, that something like that was going to happen, he probably would not have believed you.

And Peter and James, up with Jesus and Moses and Elijah on that mountaintop, if you had asked them whether or not Jesus was going to die within two months, they would definitely have said absolutely not.  Even after he told them three times he was going to die, even up to the actual arrest itself, they didn’t believe it was going to happen.  They didn’t believe that the sin and brokenness of the world was going to break in so devastatingly.  They experienced the highs, the power, the glory, and thought it would last forever.  They thought that Jesus would drive out the Romans and set himself up as king of a new Jewish kingdom that would last forever.

But the highs can’t last in this lifetime.  In this fallen world, sin and death and brokenness keep sticking their noses in.  And so God keeps breaking in to our world with his light and his presence, and sin and death and brokenness keep trying to make the world darker.  There will come a day when that is no longer true; there will come a day when Christ will come again and there will be nothing but light and life everlasting.  There will come a day when the last broken remnants of pain and grief and death and sin will be healed and wiped away.  But until that day, we have to deal with them.  But we don’t have to deal with them alone.  God keeps sending God’s light into the midst of our darkness; God keeps showing us God’s power and love and grace, in many and various ways.  And God gives us communities so that we can share the light and the love he gives us, and support one another in faith and love.  Thanks be to God.


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.


Not a Tame God

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.


Light in the Darkness

Transfiguration, Year B, Sunday, February 19, 2012

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

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the last two hundred years or so, there have been a lot of debates about the miracles and wonder stories and visions of the Bible.  Did they actually happen?  Did they happen as described?  What natural phenomena could explain them?  Were they hallucinations?  Wishful thinking?  Tall tales?  Poetic license?  If you had a time machine and a video camera, and stood on the banks of the Red Sea as the Israelites crossed, would it look like Cecil B. DeMille’s vision?

Modern society is all about facts.  Cold, hard, facts.  Things you can prove in a science lab or a court of law.  Names, dates, easy answers.  This is just as true for people inside the church as outside it.  In seminary, one of my professors told a story about teaching a Bible study about Noah’s ark to a class of adults whose most pressing question about the whole story was “what kind of wood was the ark made of?”  We treat the Bible as if it were a textbook, full of things to memorize or check off on a list.  We get so focused on trying to prove or disprove the facts, that sometimes we forget about the deeper reality they point to.  We get so blinded by the surface of things, that we forget to look for the truth inside them.

Peter could tell us a lot about being blinded by the surface of things.  It happened to him quite often.  Peter was forever missing the point, and today’s story is no exception.  Picture this: Jesus, Peter, James, and John, had been travelling around Judea for months, now, on foot.  Their clothes were probably in pretty sad shape, with dirt and grime ground in, and I doubt the rest of them was much better.  They probably didn’t look as pretty as they do in pictures, and I wouldn’t want to stand downwind of them.  But while they’ve been travelling, they’d done and seen some awesome things: Jesus had healed many people, cast out many demons, and taught thousands of people about how God wanted them to live their lives.  But not everything was so rosy.  Jesus had just begun telling them that he was going to suffer and die, and the disciples—Peter in particular—wanted to nip that idea in the bud.

So Jesus takes a few of his friends up on the mountain, and there something awesome happens.  Instead of the tired, grimy, ordinary guy they’re used to seeing, Jesus is transformed into a vision of light.  They glimpse, however dimly, that Jesus isn’t just an ordinary teacher, or even an ordinary prophet or miracle-worker.  The light of God’s presence shines in him.  They’ve been spreading God’s light through their ministry this whole time, and now, for the first time, they can actually see it, whether with their eyes or with their soul.  Jesus has said all along that God’s kingdom was near, and now they can see it, however dimly.

As if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah show up.  Now, any good Jew like Peter, James, and John, knew what that meant.  Moses gave them God’s Law, and Elijah was the most powerful prophet Israel ever knew.  Both died under mysterious circumstances: God took Moses’ body to bury it, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind to heaven.  Nobody ever found either body.  According to tradition, they were supposed to appear when the Messiah came.  So there they were, and there Jesus was, shining with the light of God.  Peter has already realized that Jesus is the Messiah.  This is all the confirmation he could ever want.

Knowing that Jesus is the Messiah, what does Peter want to do?  Stay there on the mountain top, with Moses and Elijah and Jesus shining!  Crowds have been coming to them for some time, willing to come great distances to hear Jesus preach or be healed by him.  Surely, they’ll come here, too.  Then everyone can see what Jesus is.  There will be more teaching, more healing, everything they’ve been doing all this time, except better.  No more talk of this scary “suffering” thing.  Everything will be great.

But that’s not why they’re up there on the mountain.  That’s not why they see God’s grace manifest in Jesus, their friend and teacher.  Because God’s plan isn’t just “more of the same, only better.”  God’s plan is not limited to healing a few lepers, feeding a few crowds, teaching a few people about the kingdom of heaven.  God’s plan is bigger than that, more radical.  God is going to turn the whole world inside out and right-side up.  God is going to heal all the brokenness in the world, all the sickness, all the sinfulness, not just a little here and there but all of it, in every time and every place.  And God is going to do it through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Things are always darkest before dawn.  In the days to come, after they come down from the mountain, as Jesus goes to Jerusalem to suffer and die, things are going to look awfully grim.  There will be high points, but there will also be deep, painful lows, worse than anything Peter can probably imagine at this point.  It’s going to get very scary.  Because brokenness and sin and death aren’t going to give up their hold on the world easily.  The entrenched power-structures of the world that feed off of injustice and evil aren’t going to give up easily.  Jesus will have to suffer and die to break their power.  And Peter, James, and John will be along to watch every minute of it.  No matter what Peter wants, there’s no quick fix, no easy solution.  Knowing the right answers will not make what’s coming any easier to endure.

That’s why the disciples need this mountaintop experience.  They need to see the light of God, because things are going to get very dark.  They need to know that even ordinary things—like the clothes Jesus is wearing, worn and stained from months of travel—can become extraordinary.  They need to know that God’s light is within Jesus, shining forth, even when they can’t see it.  No matter how dark things get, Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the Son of God and Son of Man.  And all the things that Jesus has done before this lead up to his death and resurrection.

Jesus heals people because in the kingdom of God all people will be well and whole.  The brokenness of the world that causes illness will be wiped away.  Jesus feeds people because in God’s kingdom there is abundance for all.  Jesus teaches people to help them live lives worthy of God’s kingdom, lives of grace and mercy and love for God and for all people.  And Jesus dies so that God’s abundant life may be given to all.  No matter how dark things look, God’s light is more powerful still.  Jesus shines on that mountaintop so that Peter and the others can see that.

And so that we can see it, too.  Jesus’ death and resurrection broke the power of sin and death, but the ultimate victory will not happen until Christ comes again.  In the meantime, there is still plenty of darkness in the world.  I’m sure everyone here has experienced that darkness.  We have experienced pain, and suffering, illness and injury, grief and fear and doubt.  We have experienced sin and brokenness and death.  We know that the pain is not the end, that brokenness does not have the final say, that death has lost its sting.  And yet, until Christ comes again we must wait to experience the healing and joy that we know is coming.  We need the light of Christ to shine in our darkness, to help us see that God is working in the world and in us.  We need the light of Christ to remind us that our pain and suffering we experience and see around us are not the ultimate reality.  In the end, God’s love and healing win.