from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Today on this last Sunday of the Epiphany it is time to say goodbye to the green as well as to the spoken and sung Alleluias. By Wednesday this holy space will be quite different. These few days ahead are a time of transition as we move from Epiphany-tide into the season of Lent.
Today completes a cycle of readings in which we have heard of God’s encounters in the world in several special ways. We began with the arrival of the Magi who had followed a star to see this poor infant who is the long-predicted Messiah.
At the Baptism of Jesus in the rush of a dove’s wings, God said, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” In the next Sunday reading Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana, as the first of his signs. And then we heard the lesson of Jesus reading from the Torah in the synagogue in Nazareth, and his incredible announcement that the text was fulfilled in their hearing that day. Another Epiphany gospel told when Jesus called his first disciples, they were convinced to follow him by the sign of a miraculously large catch of fish. God in Jesus has shown himself present in the world throughout this entire season. Epiphany includes many wonderful declarations of who Jesus is and the incredible power he has.
Today’s lesson is the ultimate in the season’s overall message. Hearing these texts on Sunday mornings it may seem as if God’s presence was self-evident and easy to believe. These incidents, from our perspective, post resurrection, seem clear cut. However, if we read them more closely, and perhaps in an entire gospel rather than in short excerpts, we see that for the original disciples, those who experienced these events in time certain, it was not as understandable.
With each occurrence they needed time to talk with Jesus and each other about what had happened to begin to understand what they had seen and heard. Each incident was an incredible statement that the man Jesus whom they knew, was in fact God’s son. This was a major change for them. Those disciples needed time to process this reality, a time of transition, to be able to say yes to the call to move into God’s future.
Transitions in life are not easy for any of us. Whether it is a major move we are facing or a different school or job, or in being born or in dying, times of significant change are not easy. In giving birth, before the end stage of pushing the new life into the world there is a brief period called transition. The baby is still firmly in the womb and yet most definitely ready to come out. It is a recognizable moment that something life altering is beginning and there is no way to stop it.
The same is true of death, the time of wanting to hold onto life to keep things as they have been, changes. In this transition, the person who is dying surrenders to what is coming next. Those with them may see them move their lips or cry out the names of those who have already passed or raise their arms upward reaching out to Jesus. These transitions between life and death are generally short; there is no turning back after all. In major life changes the transition time allows those affected to come to acceptance of what is about to happen and to emotionally be able to move ahead.
Today’s gospel lesson is about such a time of transition. Peter, James, and John on the mountain with Jesus, away from everyone else, experience a glorious moment. They see Jesus with Moses and Elijah. They want to hold onto this moment, Jesus standing with the ancient ones who represent the law and the prophets all glowing, shining with bright white. How magnificent! There can be no denying who Jesus is at that precise moment, and they do not want it to end!
Perhaps they yearned to hold onto the way of life they knew well, to cling to familiar ways of being faithful and of understanding they have known through the presence of Moses and Elijah. But suddenly the vision changes and Jesus alone remains. It becomes clear that a new thing is coming into being. And in this most powerful moment they hear God’s voice echoing what they heard at Jesus baptism. God tells them without a doubt that Jesus is his beloved son and that they are to listen to him.
This event is a significant turning point for Jesus, himself. Before going up the mountain, his primary focus has been on his ministry to the people. After coming down the mountain he begins his journey to the cross, death and resurrection. He no longer is focused on healing and doing miracles, or teaching about how to live life as God intended. Rather his focus is solely on fulfilling his purpose for coming to earth as savior and messiah.
The transfiguration is an important gift given to Jesus and to the three disciples as affirmation of the reality that is, before what is to come. Jesus receives a sort of pep talk from the ancients; that yes this is the time; it is starting now. And the disciples see Jesus in his glory and majesty before they are going to walk with him through his agony. They receive the unmistakable message of knowing Jesus as Messiah and are told to trust what will happen next.
Yet, seeing Jesus in his glory did not remove all the difficulties from those disciple’s lives. They could not remain on that mountain top. When they did come down, they were in the middle of opposition, of struggles and of confusion. The road to Golgotha was long and difficult. But the experience on the mountain gave them the courage to keep going. And more importantly the knowledge that through trusting God and listening to Jesus they would know this glory again.
Where does this leave us as we experience changes and difficulties in our lives? When we face our transition moments? While most of us have probably not had such a vision as did these disciples at the transfiguration, or of any of the other Epiphany stories, we have had moments of grace. Our moments may not have had the magnitude of those disciples, but we have had those times when we knew clearly that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. However, like the disciples, our visions of grace will not make our life struggles go away. With reflection these moments help us to remember who is in charge and to whom we belong. Our perspective changes through these experiences as we are pulled back to God.
We are grateful for those mountain top experiences as we are able to see and feel God’s glorious presence. We are grateful for these moments when we know without a doubt that God is in charge. These are the times that support us and give us courage and strength to continue through the changes that life inevitably brings. God is with us all the time, whether we can perceive him or not. There is great comfort in remembering this.
Epiphany season is almost over; This gospel passage of the transfiguration is the final one of every Epiphany tide; we are in transition again. May this be our lasting message of the season: From the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Amen.
Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same...
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
With phrase after phrase in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus ruthlessly decouples love and goodwill from personal interest and relational connection. This decoupling is something he does more than once, but it’s particularly uncompromising here. And what he says does not, intuitively, make much sense to anybody.
Don’t love just people who have some pattern of connection with you, but people whom you know wish you harm? Don’t show kindness just to those who will be kind in return, but to those you expect to take advantage? Don’t lend at a normal interest rate, but without even asking for your principal back? The Greek and Roman culture which surrounded early Christianity found teachings like this laughable when they first heard them. One Roman writer called it “depraved, excessive superstition,” and another said that Christians just treat “all things indiscriminately and consider them common property,” making ourselves easy prey for “any charlatan or trickster” who comes along.
Now because we live in a culture that still retains some vestige of respect for Christian thought, we may not be ready to laugh in the face of this text the way the Romans did, but we aren’t likely to obey it, either. If you don’t believe me, let’s do a little thought experiment. So I’d like to invite you first to think of someone you have a connection with: a sibling, a cousin, a close friend or colleague. Imagine that person asking you to do something for them: give them a ride to Bloomington Normal, say. Go with them to a cancer treatment. Most of us would feel, I would guess, that it’s natural to provide those kinds of things to a friend or family member. There is a mutual connection, because of the existing bonds of relationship, that makes it easy for you both to take an attitude of kindness and responsibility for one another. We may even tell the person, “there’s no need to thank me; I know you’d do the same for me.”
Now invent in your head, if you will, someone you have never met before. Just for fun, let’s make it a person of a different gender identity, race and age than you are. Imagine that person ringing your doorbell unannounced and telling you they need a ride to Bloomington Normal or that they want you to sit with them at a cancer treatment. I am willing to wager that barely a single person here would agree, and that most of us would find the request ridiculous and totally out of line. We would say to our housemates when we got back to the TV room, “Some guy just showed up at the door and asked me out of nowhere to take him to Bloomington Normal!” Everyone laughs, and maybe you tweet about it, and the story’s over.
But what Jesus is describing here is a goodwill, a readiness to give, that is so indiscriminate, so decoupled from normal connections, that anyone who had it would be as willing to inconvenience themselves or take a risk for a stranger as they would for a spouse. Jesus is describing a benevolence that is boundless, impartial and unafraid of consequences. Your heavenly father, Jesus says, is merciful to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Now the title of this sermon is not “Go out and give rides to Bloomington Normal to random people.” I’m just trying to get us to see how outlandish what Jesus is saying is by our standards. Jesus is claiming that it’s at least possible that ordinary Christian people could love and give with the very same indiscriminate free generosity we see in God himself. So let’s ask: What could underlie this way of living he’s telling us about? What could enable someone to do that? -- to put aside their own natural interests and live from a love that was merciful and generous and indiscriminate in the very same way that God is merciful and generous and indiscriminate?
I want to turn to perhaps an unlikely source to try and start answering that. Some of you may have seen this video clip already. A couple of weeks ago on the Late Show, the singer Dua Lipa asked Stephen Colbert about how his Christian faith and his comedic sense overlap. His answer, to me, is a pointer to the mental shift we would have to undergo to love our enemies and to give even when we get nothing in return. You may or may not like Colbert’s show, but the answer he gave about how his faith enables him to be joyful in the face of defeat was really profound.
Here's what Colbert told Dua Lipa. “I’m a Christian and a Catholic,” he said, “and my faith is always connected to the idea of love and sacrifice being somehow related, and giving yourself to other people, and that death is not defeat….” He commented if you don’t have confidence that God has defeated death, you will turn to what he called “evil devices” to try and protect yourself from negative experiences. But when we are confident that God is victorious, we have less need to try and prevent defeat ourselves. Colbert concluded, “If there’s some relationship between my faith and my comedy, it’s that [I know that] no matter what happens you are never defeated; you must see this in the light of eternity and find some way to love and laugh with each other.”
Love and sacrifice are related. No matter what happens you are never defeated. You must see this in the light of eternity. Whatever your opinion of Stephen Colbert, that is Christian thought at its finest, applied directly to life as we all live it. If you believe you are in charge of preventing your defeat, of course you will be less likely to perform a loving action for a stranger, because that’s more likely to result in a negative, defeating experience than performing a loving action for a friend. We dismiss Jesus’ decoupling of love from personal connections and reciprocal benefits because we’re trying to protect our own finite resources and manage them to avoid as many experiences of defeat as possible.
But Jesus has no need to do that. He knows that death is not defeat. He knows what it is to see daily decisions and priorities in the light of eternity. He has unshakeable confidence in the ultimate victory of love, such that actions based on the victory of love are always a better idea than actions that based on his own self-interest. And so Jesus is totally free to abandon self-protection and put himself at immense risk for the sake of that love. And he does. And we kill him for it. But God raises him from the dead, and through Jesus, just keeps on offering indiscriminate, infinite love to us who killed and refused him. He loves us, the very people who made ourselves his enemies.
So what might change for you, if you were convinced that for a Christian, no matter what happens you are never defeated? What would change in our behavior, if we were absolutely convinced of the ultimate victory of love? If we saw things in the light of eternity? Might we just risk lending and not asking for anything back? Might we just risk being a servant to a stranger we don’t even know? Might we just risk loving someone for whose opinions we have contempt? Might we just refocus our priorities away from caring for our own to caring, period? If we put our full and unqualified trust in the God Jesus reveals, I think we just might.
What does it mean to be blessed?
It’s not a word we really use anymore, unless you’re on Instagram or you’re around someone who sneezes. “Blessed” has been demoted. Once it was an adjective applied to a person or a family we envied, people with virtues or money we could only dream of having. Now it just captions the perfect snapshot or proves we have good manners.
To Jesus, though, “blessedness” means much more.
In our Gospel lesson today, Luke tells us that Jesus, after a night of prayer, hikes down a mountain only to find an enormous crowd waiting for him at its base. People had come from all over that region. Some were there for healing. Some were there for hope. And some people just wanted to have a good time.
But before he began speaking, before Jesus launched into the blessings and woes we heard just a few minutes ago, he did something else. He looked at the crowd. He looked at the crowd and saw how desperate all of them were. He saw how much they needed him.
He saw the wealthy merchant who could barely contain his grief at the death of his child. He saw the beggar who would steal his mother’s last coin for one more night at the bar. He saw the life of the party, the guy everyone likes, who was hungry for something more.
Jesus looked at the crowd; and he loved them, even though he knew the secrets of their hearts and the direction of their thoughts. And so it is that before he told them what his kingdom is like, he showed them.
Walking from group to group, Jesus stretched out his hands to the blind and the lame. He greeted the women and the children. He saw the grief and the anger and the pain that plague humankind and he didn’t look away. He came down the mountain for a purpose. And that is to lead us back up.
When he descended from on high, Jesus knew that every person — regardless of their physical health or social standing — needed a healer. As the Prophet Jeremiah wrote, the human heart is sick and deceitful. No one can understand it. We can’t understand it. Only God, who knows our innermost thoughts and desires, can do so. And he still wants to save us.
We may seek him out for healing or for hope or for one of the many other reasons people look for the divine. But as we stand in his presence, as we gaze at the one who knows us more completely than we do ourselves, we are changed. For it is the nature of God to bring wholeness to what is broken, to bring life where there is death. To show us what blessing really looks like by giving us his Son.
And there we have found our answer: To be blessed is to be with Christ, to look at him as he looks at us and to stay there, no matter what he says next. To be blessed is to cling to him, the Blessed One. Jesus is our sure hope. Our only trust during feast or famine. Jesus is our blessedness because he was never swayed by the counsel of the wicked or tempted by the way of sinners. His delight — all his energy and motivation and desire — was and is and will forever be caught up in love for the LORD.
So it is that when we follow him around, when we refuse to leave his side for money or success or respect, our hearts grow healthier, our sight clearer and we begin to see that what he says is true. In the Kingdom of Heaven, the happiest people are those who choose Christ above everything else.
And that changes things. The paycheck becomes less about us and more about serving others. The daily grind of life becomes less about success and more about seeing Christ in our neighbors. The desire for respect and clout and power becomes less about earthly blessings and more about seeking God’s blessing – which is seeking Christ.
And that is what it means to live under God’s reign, to enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. Blessed are those who seek Christ over everything else. Blessed are those who find their life in Life himself. We will not fear, for we are connected with Life and Love himself.” AMEN.
Today Peter cries, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” when he realizes that he is in the presence of God. Today Isaiah cries “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!" when he realizes that he is in the presence of God. In both these readings, and throughout Scripture, we hear the shock and shame human beings experience when they see God’s infinite holiness in contrast to who they themselves are. When it hits home how big the gap between the two is.
In both our readings today, God also immediately responds in love. In Isaiah, we hear how God acts to purify and redeem his overwhelmed servant. The seraph touched my mouth with a coal, and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" God moves Isaiah from trembling recognition of his uncleanness to being commissioned as the messenger of God.
Peter has a similar experience on the lakeshore with Jesus. As soon as he sees the presence and power of God, he also sees his own sin, but immediately Jesus replies, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. Jesus moves Peter from trembling fear at his sinfulness to being commissioned as a follower of Jesus.
When we read the whole story, what stands out most is how God reaches out in love and forgiveness, despite each person’s unworthiness. God instantly moves to heal and transform. Yet both these stories of transformation begin with the person’s clear-eyed realization of their unworthiness. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!"
Because sentences like that sound negative, there are all kinds of forces around and within us that encourage us to avoid them. Almost anybody living in the West in the 21st century will be tempted either to denounce this kind of talk as unhealthy, or to pass over it as outdated, or to give it only a superficial glance before turning to something that feels more affirming and encouraging. Now in one sense I understand this.
Scriptural language of judgment and sin (what a priest I once knew used to call “miserable worm” language) can be misused, and has been, in ways that can all too easily end up suggesting a kind of self-loathing. In some quarters, the church gets a reputation of teaching that not feeling good about yourself is almost the goal of Christianity. And then part 2 of that reputation, I suppose, would be the idea that this teaching produces in church members an addiction to pointing at other people and telling them they should feel bad about themselves.
If and when this happens in the church, though, we need to name that it’s wrong. It’s a misrepresentation and a misuse of Scripture. And the best antidote to misuse of Scripture is not to stop using it, but to use it well. Let me say that again. The best antidote to misuse of Scripture is not to stop using it, but to use it well. You have to read the whole story, rather than only the parts that sting – or, by the way, only the parts that comfort.
The climate we live in, though, means we have trouble sticking around for the whole story. We are sorely tempted to just stop reading as soon as a text gives any critique of the self, as soon as sin or unworthiness is mentioned at all. Contemporary Americans tend to be very, very cautious about allowing people to encounter any language that might lead to not feeling good about themselves. Affirming your self, accepting your self, in your own way and on your own terms, has come to feel like a sacred duty to us, something almost holy.
So I understand the desire not to talk about sin or unworthiness. And particularly in terms of correcting for past mistakes of the church, I think there are some good reasons for that desire.
But there are also a lot of bad reasons, short-sighted reasons, and honestly, those are the ones that more often motivate me to avoid the topic of my own sin and my own limitations. But what I’ve learned in the years I’ve been a Christian is that the more I downplay my sinfulness, the less I will be able to appreciate the infinite love of God. We see this dynamic hinted at in our readings today: the two go together, and in fact the two are proportional.
The extent to which we admit our own finite limitations, for example, is the extent to which we will marvel at what it means for God to make creatures like us partakers of his infinite divine nature. The extent to which we acknowledge our own mortality is proportional to the extent to which we will grasp how gracious God’s gift of everlasting life really is. The extent to which we recognize our own sins and the fallenness of the world is the extent to which our hearts will be melted by the lengths God went to in saving us and restoring his creation.
And that proportional effect works from the other direction too, as we saw in Isaiah and Peter today. When we discover God’s holy beauty, we will realize our shabbiness in a new way by comparison. When we get a wider vision of, say, God’s compassion for people we’ve scorned or feared, that itself will point up how small and confined our compassion has been. When the reconciling love of Christ starts to dissolve a chronic logjam in our family or friendships, and we watch in awe as this intractable problem is actually healed by Jesus, that itself will point up how absolutely powerless we were to do anything about it alone. The gap was too big. We couldn’t stretch ourselves far enough to overcome it.
I mean, think what kind of scale we’re talking about here. In the long run, if you really take a good look across that gap in both directions, we’re talking about two, by definition, irreconcilable opposites – however we name them -- sin and holiness, death and life, judgment and mercy, limits and limitlessness, utter powerlessness and effortless tender power. The two sides of the gap between humanity and deity have many names.
But however we name them, like Peter, like Isaiah, once we see the gap it’s overwhelming. We can barely conceive, much less hold, those two irreconcilable opposites. We want to shrink it. We want something easier and smaller. Or we want one side of the story without the other. Because we can’t hold them together by ourselves.
But here’s the thing. Those opposites were held, once. The whole story was encompassed, once. Not by you, not by me, but this gap, these two irreconcilable opposites – however we name them – they were brought together at a single meeting point, in a single body, on a Friday outside Jerusalem on the hill they called the place of the skull. Sin met holiness in Jesus’ body on the Cross. Jesus held them both for us. Judgment met mercy. Jesus held them both for us. Powerlessness met power. Death met life that day on the Cross, and you know, after that death was just never the same again. And life? Well, life was so different after that day, you almost need a whole new word for it. In the New Testament, there actually is one.
What Jesus did in his cross and resurrection unites the whole story, this story that doesn’t skirt sin and thus also doesn’t skirt mercy. This story that doesn’t shrink everything down to feeling good about yourself, but has room for overthrowing the power of death and sin, and redeeming all of creation. Thanks to that moment of God in Christ holding death and life for us, bridging that gap in one crucified body that became a risen body, we can face sin fully and find full redemption. We can encounter a love that overcomes every gap between the finite us and the infinite God. And we can see how much Jesus has done for us that we could never do for ourselves.
Simon Peter said "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" But Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." And they left everything and followed him.