* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on February 15, 2015 *
Text: Matthew 16:24-17:8
Please pray with me:
Give us hearts that
shine like the sun.
Quick poll, show of hands: Who can tell me what season we’re in?
Winter, Time after Epiphany, Basketball season, Less than a week until pitchers and catchers report…
All great answers, but ultimately incorrect… C’mon, it’s Awards Show Season!
Now, this is a pretty recent thing for me, but Tiffany and I have worked out a pretty good deal over the past few years, I think. See, I get Sunday nights during football season to watch such riveting games as the Browns versus the Bengals… And Tiffany gets awards show season. And I think we both just “put up” with the other.
But we love it, don’t we?!? The glitz, the glamor, all those celebrities packed into one place, the music, the theatrics…all completely over the top. And it seems like, in addition to the shows themselves, the pre-show has become just as important. That’s right, the red carpet coverage now takes up just as much time as the award show itself!
It’s not enough to see who takes home the statue for Best Actress or Best Film; we need to know about the suits and dresses. With glam cams, and mani cams, and jewelry, and accessories, and the singular question on everybody’s mind……“Who are you wearing?” Right. Who are you wearing…?
And we watch, starstruck, as these lovely people walk up and down the carpet, often waiting for a mishap or slip-up. And these slip-ups, these so-called wardrobe malfunctions, are part and parcel of entertainment these days. Ever since Janet’s infamous malfunction 11 years ago… Part of me thinks that we relish the opportunity to see the mighty fall. We love to see that these people that we place on pedestals are just as prone to mistakes as you or me. No one’s perfect.
What an interesting commentary, I think. Are we not more than the labels on our clothes or the occasional fashion faux pas?
And I wonder if Jesus would be asked this question in our story today… “That’s quite the sparkly robe you have on there, Jesus. Who are you wearing?”
A silly question, but in all seriousness…where did Jesus get these flashy new robes? And maybe more importantly, what does it mean?
Well, first, let’s take the story itself. Jesus takes 3 of his disciples up on a high mountain, more on that later. Then Jesus is transfigured; insert shiny robes and gleaming complexion. Then enter Moses and Elijah. Then Peter has to ruin the moment by opening his mouth. But as Peter is speaking, the verses read, “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” We can infer that this is the voice of God, but notice the statement here. God is not talking about what Jesus has done or will do. This is not a commentary about Jesus’ flashy new threads. These are statements about who Jesus is. The son of God. The Beloved. One in whom God is well pleased. Statements of identity.
Next, let’s consider the transfiguration event itself; the dazzling white clothes and sun-like facial features. The Greek word we translate as “transfigured” is metamorpho’oo. It’s where we get our English word……“metamorphosis,” right. A change. But not simply just a change, more like a transformation. It’s what St. Augustine and German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “an ontological change;” a change…in being. A change in identity. A change in the very fabric of who Jesus is.
And if we back up from where our reading started today, we have more statements of identity. A few verses earlier in Matthew chapter 16, starting at verse 13, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And after some back and forth, and fumbling around by the disciples, Jesus presses the issue. “Yes, but who do you say that I am?” And suddenly something clicks for Simon, he says, “You are the Messiah—the Christ—the Son of the living God.” Yes…… There it is! He finally gets it… And at this point you can imagine Jesus’ face glowing, like a proud parent, or in this case, a proud teacher. And then this from Jesus, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! No longer are you to be called Simon, but you are Peter—Petros, literally, ‘the Rock’—and on this rock I will build my church.” A statement of identity, both of Jesus and of Peter. Statements about who they are.
And finally, lest we think that these stories are abstracted from our own story, consider the first part of our reading today. Teachings from Jesus about what it means to be a disciple. “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me… Those who want to save their life will lose it. And those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Lose by saving. Gain by losing. More of the same counter-intuitive, paradoxical ways of Jesus; yet certainly a convicting statement for those of us who claim to follow Jesus.
Maybe this story is less about wearing the right clothing, and more about our identity as children of the living God. Identities that we can cling to when the violence in our world tears the very fabric of God’s creation. See, when we fail to see the garments of love that God puts on all of God’s creation, we get tragedies like what happened in Chapel Hill and Copenhagen – children of God viciously slaughtered… Our failure to see others clothed in the light of God has devastating consequences.
Maybe this story is less about how we look, and more about who we are as followers of the risen Christ. See, yes, the way of Jesus is one of the light and love of God; but it also the way of the cross. Yes, the way of Jesus is the promise of resurrection, but that way goes through this instrument of death atop the city landfill and into the tomb.
And as we prepare to enter Lent on Wednesday, marked, literally, on our heads with the reminder that we are nothing more than the dust from which we came; as we prepare to travel 40 days with Jesus, that end in his suffering, and death; as we enter deeply into the suffering of the world and are confronted with our own depravity…I cannot stress this enough…
Dear friends, hear me say this…this way does end with resurrection. Death is not the final word. God’s final word to us is resurrection…life from death…restoration…the reconciliation of all things to God.
It’s why we sang an Easter hymn as our Gathering this morning. It’s why we try to cram as many “Alleluia’s” as possible into one worship service. We need something that will feed us for the journey.
We need to experience the mountaintop, to be sustained for the valleys of life. And life does have valleys. We enjoy the feeling of mountaintop experiences – they’re palpable, tangible. And like the disciples, we may just want to sit and stay in this moment, build a dwelling and remain here – but we must come down from the mountain, because that is our call. Not just to the mountaintop joys, but also to the deep valleys of sorrow. And in all those places, both the tops of the highest mountains and depths of the darkest valleys, Christ goes with us.
So let this morning be a mountaintop for you. Be present in this moment of joy. We have 4 baptisms this morning! There’s nothing more joyful for the life of the church. But you may feel like it’s a little bit of a let down that there are no bright blinding lights, or it may seem like somewhat of a wardrobe malfunction that there are no sparkly clothes to go along with these baptisms today, but make no mistake, the thunderous affirmation from God is just as resounding, “These are my beloved children… You are all my beloved children. With them, and you, I am well-pleased.”