(Originally preached at Alger First UMC, 2/7/2016)
Most of you know that I’m in my first year of seminary, working on getting my M.Div. For one of my classes last semester, one of our assignments was to read the whole Gospel of Mark in one sitting.
It was actually a great experience. I read the whole book of Mark in one sitting and it was like I was seeing Jesus in this whole new light. I wasn’t segmenting the Gospel into sections, I was reading the whole thing. And I found that this Jesus wasn’t as likable as I thought. I remember just having to pause several times thinking, “Jesus, are you serious? You want me to do that?” Sell all I own and give the money to the poor? Nope! Eat and hang out with people who are different from me, who I might even disagree with? No thank you!
Have any of you come across something like that when you’re reading about Jesus? Maybe when you were going through that Daily Bible Reading Plan we gave you last week, something stuck out to you and you said “Are you serious?” Turn the other cheek? No! Forgive someone no matter what they do? Why?!
There are some hard directions to follow in here, ideas that we don’t want to hear. But Jesus said all of this, so we have to wrestle with it. Now our text for today leads us to one of these moments.
28 About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning.30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. 31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.
33 As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying. 34 Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.
35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” 36 Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.
This story has been labeled “The Transfiguration.” In the liturgical calendar, this Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, always falls on the Sunday before Lent, and every year we get this amazing moment with Jesus’ disciples when we get this all-too-brief glimpse of the glory of Jesus, the Son of God.
The Gospel reading tells us that the appearance of Jesus’ face mysteriously changed, his clothes flashed white like lightning, and two giants of the Jewish faith, Moses, and Elijah, were seen talking to him. Visually, this is a spectacular event. But when we read the story in Luke, it seems to me that it’s not actually about seeing what’s going on at all. The disciples catch a glimpse of Jesus in his transfigured glory, talking to these two giants of their faith’s history, but something like a cloud suddenly covers them so they can’t see anything, and they hear a voice saying “This is my son, my chosen one. Listen to him.”
The voice that we can assume is God’s voice doesn’t tell them to gaze at Jesus in awe and splendor. God doesn’t tell the Peter, James, and John to camp out here in the glory; they’re not told to stick around here and bask in the glory of this moment when the past, present, and future have all come together.
Peter, James, and John are given a glimpse of the full and unadulterated glory of the Son of God, the bright light of the Word that existed before the World, but then they’re told to not stop and stare but to… listen.
Now the problem is…Jesus doesn’t actually talk here. Jesus doesn’t actually say anything here, so what are they supposed to listen to? Well we actually have to look before this account to understand what’s going on. 8 days before Jesus, Peter, James, and John went up on this mountain to pray and Jesus was transfigured, Jesus was talking with his disciples and teaching them something incredibly important that they needed
In v. 23, just a few verses before this passage, Jesus said to his disciples and everyone around him at the time “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them. What advantage do people have if they gain the whole world for themselves yet perish or lose their lives?” (vv. 23-25)
Now it seems to me like Peter, James, and John were brought up to the mountain top just to get them to pay attention to this message. Because this message is important.
It’s also a hard message to hear. I picture Peter up on the mountain hearing God saying from the cloud “Listen to him!” And I picture Peter saying “Listen to him? He didn’t say anything, what am I listening to? Oh!…you mean what he said 8 days ago? All that business about taking up our cross and following him, losing our lives because of Christ so we can actually find our true lives? I’m supposed to listen to that noise and not look at this amazing stuff that’s happening up here?”
He and James and John were in the midst of this bright, shiny, miraculous vision. They were in the very presence of the Divine. But they experience this so that they will actually hear what Jesus said those 8 days ago.
This tells me something very important, and I think it’s something very important for all of us to hear. It tells me that the glory of the Lord is not to be found up on this shiny mountaintop, but in the valley of humiliation. Glory is found in humiliation.
Now I know that sounds strange, but let’s unpack this. Humiliation could refer to making someone feel ashamed or foolish, like we normally think of. But the word humiliation also means simply to reduce or lower one’s position in one’s own eyes or others’ eyes. That’s what Jesus is talking about here.
Now that’s a really hard message for us to hear. We want to stay up on Mt. Feel-Good. But we’re called down the mountain into hard work and humiliation, lowering ourselves so that others may be raised up. That’s what Jesus told the disciples to do 8 days before this and that’s what we are called to listen to today.
Now think of this: Maybe the disciples realized that Jesus meant what he said about losing their lives to find it, picking up their crosses and following Jesus, living the hard, unrewarding life of a disciple. Maybe that’s why they wanted to build the three tents, to keep them up here in the shiny glory of it all and to not let this experience end because then they would have to go down the mountain and effectively ruin their lives by following Jesus.
The big point I see here is that we don’t want to be too close to this glory that’s really humiliation. Because we might get some of it on us. Our lives might be disrupted, our beliefs might have to change, the way we’re living might need an overhaul. It might be very inconvenient for God’s glory to shine out from the face of someone near us. Because that means it could get on us. And we don’t want that. So we cover our eyes and we cover our ears so that we can’t actually hear the life-changing truths that Jesus tells us, so that our lives won’t change.
Lent starts this Wednesday with our Ash Wednesday service at 7. All throughout the season of Lent, we’re going to prepare for Easter by discussing what these words of Jesus mean for us and how Jesus is calling us to listen to him and change our lives and humiliate ourselves.
But today, we would do well to hear God’s voice telling us to listen to Jesus and then actually do that and hear what Jesus has to say: the glory of God is not found on Mt. Feel-Good. It’s found in the valley of humiliation. As followers of Christ, that’s where we’re called because that’s where Christ leads us and that’s where true life is to be found.
Now the valley is a hard place to live. It’s hard to listen to Jesus and follow Jesus and lower ourselves. It is completely counterintuitive to lower ourselves so that we may be raised up, to die to ourselves so that we may live. It doesn’t make sense.
During Lent, we’re going to spend some time in the valley, learning how to live there and learning how to listen even more closely as we’re there. But this work can’t stop when we leave here. Listening to Jesus and climbing back down into the valley of humiliation is day-to-day work for the follower of Jesus, not just on Sundays. So that’s why the worldwide church has this practice of picking up Lenten disciplines. Now we are called to practice spiritual disciplines all year long-the practices and life habits that continually renew our relationship with God and keep us in touch with God. Lent is a time to renew our practice and maybe pick something new
It’s a time to pick up a new spiritual discipline that helps us keep the line open between us and God, something to help us listen to Jesus more, something to help us grow into the image of Christ, something to sustain us while we are living in the valley.
[For those reading, at this point I explained an insert in everyone’s bulletin with suggestions for Lenten disciplines and challenged them to pick one or two and commit to them for the whole season of Lent.]
On this Sunday of the Transfiguration, we are all called to transformation into the image of Christ. We do that by living in the valley of humiliation and by practicing these spiritual disciplines. When the church does this, when the church commits to leaving ourselves behind and following Jesus into the valley of humiliation, sustained by our practice of these spiritual disciplines, that’s when the church is at her best. Look through that list, pray over it, pick one discipline from each category and commit to them for Lent, starting this Wednesday with our Ash Wednesday service at 7. This is how we can be transformed.