SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
FEBRUARY 19, 2012, THE LAST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY: TRANSFIGURATION SUNDAY
Today we come to an end that is also the edge of a beginning. It’s the end of Epiphany, and unless you’ve had your head in a log somewhere, you know we’re just on the edge of the beginning of Lent, the forty days leading to Easter. But in Mark’s gospel, which we’ve been reading the past several Sundays, we are actually in the middle -- we’re midway through the book of Mark itself, and midway through Jesus’ public ministry, when we come to the story of the Transfiguration. If it’s true you don’t really understand something unless you are able to explain it to a six-year-old, we may have a bit of a problem. This is actually the second time I’ve gotten to speak about the Transfiguration in the past couple weeks. The first time was to a gym full kids in my son’s and daughter’s elementary school. Park Street School has been focusing in chapel on “Signature Moments with Jesus” this year, and when my turn to speak rolled around, wouldn’t you know it, I got the Transfiguration -- one of the weirdest, scariest, most confounding events recorded in the gospels. I don’t know how effectively I explained it to the kids, but today I get another shot to explain it to you, and I want to do that in three points: I want to think about (1) Peter’s blindness; (2) our blindness; and (3) the transfiguring power of the presence of God.
First, Peter’s blindness – Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them . . . . And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters -- one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mark 9.2-3, 5) Sometimes in the bible, the way a story is constructed and told is just as important as what happens in the story itself. What do I mean? The middle part of Mark’s gospel, the central block, spans chapters 8-10. It’s a block that begins with Jesus healing a blind man in chapter 8, ends with Jesus healing a blind man in chapter 10, and the Transfiguration account is right in the middle in chapter 9. I believe Mark told the story that way on purpose because when he brackets the Transfiguration between two blind men being healed, it throws into stark relief Peter’s blindness to who Jesus is and what he is about.
“Master, it is good for us to be here.” Peter wants to keep Jesus like he is. Clearly Peter was terrified, he didn’t know what the heck was going on when Jesus started to light up like the sun, but he knew he wanted to preserve the moment by building booths on the mountain for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. You see, Peter is still blind to to Jesus’ real ambition, the singular agenda of his life, which is the redemption of the world, and that redemption would only come through Jesus’ suffering and death. For Jesus there will be no glory without the cross, and from this point on in his ministry every step Jesus takes brings him closer to Jerusalem and his cross.
Now, before we get too smug thinking about Peter’s blindness, consider that we are rather like Peter ourselves, which is the second point: Our own blindness – Remember Peter said “It’s good for us to be here,” and for most of us in this room, we’re fine right where we are, thank you very much. We are clinging to our lives as they are, when God is intent upon making into something altogether different. We’re blind. We are blind to how far from God we are, and blind to how much more blessed we would be if we were closer to him. That’s where Lent comes in.
This is our Lenten Devotional for 2012 at the Advent. There are copies in the rear of the church and on the website (http://theadventboston.org/parilife/lentbook.pdf), and in it there is an explanation of what Lent is for, a set of daily readings, and some common Lenten disciplines for us to take on as a parish family. This is an invitation for you to join a group of parishioners in ordering our lives during Lent, and one part of that ordering is weekly fasts. In week one, we fast from sweets and treats, in week two from TV and media, and so on. Why do we do that? Do we skip sweets to lose weight? No. To build up our spiritual muscles? Not completely, although that often happens in Lent, too. One reason for Lenten fasts is to show us just where our blind spots are, the ways we will ourselves not to see how obsessed we are with our own comfort. The disciples couldn’t see how the cross was central to Jesus’ mission of redemption, and we don’t see how taking up our own crosses is central to participating in our own redemption and -- get this -- how central it is to us ever attaining true joy. Are you going into Lent thinking “Man, this is gonna stink!” or are you already anticipating and expecting the joy that God wants to pour into your life?
In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis wrote about the rewards that await us if we deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Our problem, Lewis says, is that we desire the wrong things, things that ultimately will not make us happy.
[I]f we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
We are like ignorant children, too easily pleased because we’re blind to what our hearts were really made for. We are too easily pleased with drink, sex and ambition because we don’t know our desires are really for God. We satisfied with distractions like TV and shopping sprees, when our souls are made for communion with God.
One last point: If you hear echoes in the Transfiguration of another famous story from the OT, you should. Think back to when a cloud enveloped another mountain, and God’s voice rumbled out. In that story, the mountain was Sinai, and it was Moses who met God and came down the mountain with his face shining. In Mark, it is Jesus who is transfigured after having been with the Father. But the principle is the same: When God shows up, he transforms the things and people he comes into contact with. That is the transfiguring power of the presence of God.
Mark says Jesus’ clothes “became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” Fuller isn’t a term you hear every day, but there’s another place place it shows up, at least in the some versions of the bible -- In Malachi 3, the prophet asks “Who can abide the day of God’s coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap.” (Mal. 3.2) A “fuller” is a workman who “fulls,” or cleans, freshly-woven cloth. That’s what a fuller does for a living. God, we could say, cleans or fulls us for a living. Call it “sanctification,” God’s progressive washing of us, transforming us more and more from children of darkness to children of light. One of my seminary professors wrote: “The transfiguration shows the glory God will give to his chosen ones. It shows how the glory of God that briefly transfigured Moses and Jesus will one day transfigure all people who are found in Christ . . . .”
Lent is like a lever, a lever God uses to make space in our hearts so he can get more of himself into our lives. Lent can be a vehicle God uses to transfigure us, to displace the darkness in our lives with his glorious light. I hope you will pray about that over the next couple of days. Take the Lenten Devotional home and look through it. Talk about it with your family. Ask yourself if you want the joy that Lent can bring us, and come on Wednesday to start the journey together.