February 7, 2016 Sermon (Transfiguration Day) “Mistaken Identity”

posted Jul 6, 2016, 4:07 PM by David Hawkins
Old Testament Reading: Exodus 34:29-35

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 

When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
New Testament Reading: Luke 9:28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" — not knowing what he said. 

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Sermon: "Mistaken Identity"             Rev. David Hawkins

You may have noticed in the bulletins for the last several weeks that we have been in what the Church calls the season of Epiphany, that time after Christmas and before Lent. This period is also sometimes called Ordinary Time, but this year, considering the Gospel texts that we have been reading, I felt that it was appropriate to use the word Epiphany instead. 

For the last 6 weeks, Luke has been trying to show Jesus to us, step by step. And today, we finally get to see Jesus in full view. But it’s taken a while to get here.

You may remember several weeks ago, we first encounter Jesus as a slightly rebellious tween-ager, separated from his parents on one of their annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem. On one hand, we see that his attitude toward his parent’s fear is somewhat dismissive – a typical reaction. On the other hand, he commands respect and admiration from the scholars and priests in the temple for his wisdom. This twelve-year old boy has amazed them with his questions. Jesus is revealed as being both human, and something more than just human.

And then we meet Jesus again, this time on the banks of the river Jordan, about to be baptized. While Jesus isn’t necessarily baptized for the same reasons that the rest of us are baptized, in some mysterious way, he does need to be baptized. The heavens speak, and Jesus hears a voice naming him God’s son. In baptism, he is revealed again as something more than just someone in the crowd. 

The Next time we catch up with Jesus, he’s at a party where the wine has inexplicably run out. His mother expects him to fix it, and despite his initial protestation that it’s not quite the right time for him, he does. In an exaggerated way, he takes care of the problem. Jesus is revealed as an extravagant guest, someone who not only can work miracles, does so unexpectedly, overwhelmingly in a time of his own choosing, when and where and why we cannot predict or command. 

And then, two weeks ago, he is re-introduced to his home town, during a worship service in his home church. Imagine the scene: it’s as though, say, Parker Adamson comes back from a being gone from us for a while, let’s say he’s been at college and then spent 5 years in the peace corps and we’ve heard stories of him teaching and working with the poor and so forth, and then he’s here, back here, worshipping with us, serving as a liturgist, and he reads some prophetic words of scripture from Isaiah, something about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor, that sort of thing.

And then, instead of saying something like, “Holy Wisdom Holy Word,” Parker says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Well, that would be quite a moment, right? How would we react to such a thing? Of course, those who know Parker like I do might not blink an eye. But I think that most of us might react with a variety of emotions. Has Parker lost his mind? Who does he think he is? What if he really is the Messiah? How can we know? All these thoughts would probably be running through our heads. 

But then, last week, Jesus puts his finger on a tough reality, that prophets are not recognized in their home town. And boy, is this true. How often have we hired consultants from out of town to come tell us things we already know? We hire clinicians and technicians from exotic places like Dallas to come and critique us, as though the fact that they are strangers adds weight to their words. 

Jesus points this out, and then he says something even worse: that he has come, not just for Israel, but for all people. For the enemies of Israel. For those the people of Israel fear, and hate and despise. 

It’s as though, if we stretch our metaphor to its breaking point, that Parker had come back and said that he was dedicating his life to working with Muslim Syrian Immigrants who were moving into Plainview, making sure that they had everything they needed to find work, homes, schools and job. Making sure that they felt welcome, secure, free. 

Or, that Parker was recommending to the session that we offer some space here in our church for them to observe their Friday afternoon Jumma worship services. 

Well, that might be tough for some people to hear. There might be some people that take issue with poor Parker. Now, I’m pretty sure that that this particular church wouldn’t try to kill him, that seems a little extreme for us Presbyterians, but I could see those words making some folks in this part of the world angry. I could see some folks wanting Parker to just go away with his radical ideas about social justice and politics. 

And so, when Jesus announces his ministry is not just to the Jews, but also to the enemies of the Jews, his friends and his neighbors turn on him. The people he grew up with can’t deal with the idea that God might not just be on their side, he might on other people’s side as well.

I understand this feeling all too well. I have a hard time imagining that God might be on the side of the Carolina Panthers. I mean, honestly.

And so the people in Jesus’ home town take their anger out on Jesus. They drive him out of the synagogue, to the edge of town, to the edge of a cliff. Frankly, he was lucky to get away alive. 

And so, Epiphany is more than just a fancy word that the church uses to describe the season after Christmas. It is the revelation of Jesus, the revelation of who he is, and what he has come to do. And that revelation might be uncomfortable for us sometimes.

But it takes a while to really absorb this. Even his disciples, though they ate with him, walked with him, talked with him, watch him do amazing things, were even equipped by him to do amazing things, to cast out demons, to heal the sick and lame, even those who have lived every moment with Jesus for the last five chapters of Luke, even his very closest friends didn’t really know Jesus. 

And today, we find ourselves on a mountaintop, again trying with the disciples to figure out exactly who he is. 

Is he the next Moses, bringing the law of God for the people? You know there are a lot of folks that see Jesus this way. That Jesus is the bringer of the law. That he has come down from the mountain with the ten commandments in his hands, and will come again to condemn us to everlasting fire and brimstone if we fail to follow them. For lots of folks, Jesus is the embodiment of particular codes of behavior, of ways of thinking, of a particular ethical system. And a failure to conform to this system is a failure to believe in Jesus. 

Or, is Jesus the prophet Elijah, returning to announce the end of the world? For a lot folks, this is who Jesus is. That Jesus has come to announce the apocalypse, that Armageddon is at hand, that we all need to prepare for the rapture, that we can see in our current political environment all the signs of the end times, and you better get good with God, or you’ll be left behind. 

And I can understand both of these ways of thinking. It’s understandable that we mistake Jesus for a second Moses, the law-giver, or as a second Elijah, the harbinger of the end of the world. Even the disciples thought these things about Jesus. Even his closest friends, Peter, John, James, couldn’t quite sort out exactly who Jesus was, and what he meant to them, and to the world. 

But just when they thought that they had figured it out, just when they were about to put Jesus in a box with the law and the prophets, they are told in no uncertain terms by God himself that they have missed the point entirely. 

Jesus is not Moses. He is more than Moses. He is not the bringer of the law. He is the fulfillment of the law. He has not come to enforce the law. He has come to satisfy its demands. 

Jesus is also not Elijah. He is more than Elijah. He is not here to pronounce the end of days. He is here to proclaim the day of God’s favor. He’s not here to judge the world. He is here to save it. 

Epiphany is the season in which we are introduced to Jesus Christ. And today is the final phase of that introduction. And just when we thought we know who he is, everything we think about Jesus is turned upside-down, and we are left even more confused than when we went up the mountain with him. 

Who is this man? If he’s not the law-giver, who is he? If he’s not the prophet of the coming apocalypse, who is he? What does it mean that he is God’s son? What does it mean to really listen to him?

Transfiguration Day is the hinge between Epiphany and Lent. Today, we are in that ambiguous place between getting to know Jesus, and discovering what knowing Jesus really means for our lives. Today, Jesus turns the corner between his ministry in Galilee, and his journey to Jerusalem. And today is the day in which Peter, John, and James realize they really don’t know Jesus at all. 

And so, what do we do with today? Do we throw up our hands, and say, well to heck with it, we can’t possible nail down who this Jesus person is, so why should we even try?

Well, maybe not. We are given some hints as to who Jesus is, and what he wants from us by the story that follows immediately after today’s scripture text. If we were to read on, just a little bit, we would go with Jesus and his three closest disciples down the mountain, and see Jesus immediately curing the only son of a man in the crowd. This is the very first thing he does after being revealed in glory and blazing light, and we need to pay attention to it. 

Evidently, being the son of God means taking the time to heal those who are in pain. Being named the chosen one means doing the work of the kingdom. Evidently, being the Word of God means giving oneself to the world, for the world’s sake. 

Scholars have long debated the meaning of today’s scripture text. They have chewed over the symbolism of Moses and Elijah; they have tried to figure what Peter is trying to say about the booths. They have drawn our attention to the mountaintop and the cloud and the blazing face and the white clothes. And all these things are important, and they mean things. 

But for me, the scene on the mountaintop can only be interpreted through what happens down in the valley afterward. The first thing Jesus does after being transfigured is reach out and show compassion to someone in need. 

If we are ever at a loss as to who we are, or what we are called to do or to be, if we are ever confused as to our own identity as Christians, I can’t think of a clearer example. 

We are not called to build booths for Jesus. We are not called to bring the law for Jesus. We are not called to pronounce the judgement of Jesus. But we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, healing, consoling, forgiving, teaching, giving, welcoming, forgiving. 

And when we do that, we ourselves are transfigured, and live into our own identity as children of God.

And in the House of the Lord,
the people of God say: Amen.