Yesterday we observed Transfiguration Sunday. We read the story out of Matthew's gospel this year (Matthew 17:1-9). So if you are not familiar with the Transfiguration, you may want to read that passage before this homily...
February 23, 2020
Our second reading this morning comes from a New Testament writing we don’t hear from much… 2 Peter. Listen for the Word of God as it continues to speak to you this morning.
READ 2 Peter 1:16-21
As you may or may not know… I do tend to have a bit of fun with Transfiguration Sunday when it rolls around every year… but it’s because it’s such a strange little story to me. Why do we hear this particular story every year right before the beginning of Lent? Every year we hear about Jesus going up on a mountain with a handful of his disciples… while they’re up there Jesus glows white… Moses and the prophet Elijah show up and they have a conversation with Jesus… God appears in a theophany and repeats what was said at Jesus’ baptism… “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Then suddenly everyone disappears and… as Matthew tells the story… coming down the mountain Jesus tells the handful of disciples not to tell anyone… until after the resurrection.
If this was a story we encountered every three years… as a regular reading in the three year lectionary cycle… that would be one thing. That would make sense to me. But this is a special Sunday with a special name that always comes at a special time every single year. So let’s see if we can make sense out of that.
In our reading from Matthew, the story begins with “Six days later…” Six days before… Jesus was hanging out with the disciples and asked them that crucial question, “But who do you say that I am.” You know how the story goes from there. Peter is able to confess that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus tells Peter he is the rock upon which he will build his church. And then not too much later, Peter and Jesus rebuke one another because Jesus starts telling everyone about the coming cross… and Peter doesn’t want to hear such things… so Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Maybe this is why we have this Sunday every year right before entering into Lent… that season of reflection. I mean, here is Jesus telling Peter he is the rock upon which Jesus will build the church and not five verses later is rebuking Peter because Peter doesn’t want to hear what Jesus is saying to him. Not the last time that will happen in the church. The church can be surprisingly adept at not wanting to hear what Jesus is saying. But it’s not like there isn’t a precedent, either. For the last few Sundays we’ve been hearing the uncompromising words of the prophets spoken at different times in Jewish history. The times were different but the message was the same because the people didn’t want to hear what God was saying through the prophets. Again and again, God told them that their moral character mattered. How they loved the least among them mattered. Whether they embraced God’s justice or not mattered. Whether they shone God’s light into the darkness of the world mattered.
The writer of 2 Peter picks up that same idea telling the Christians in his time the same message. The same message. Your moral character matters. Being a Christian is more than following a certain way of thinking about things. There are lots of philosophies in the world. There are lots of ideas about the metaphysical machinations of the universe. In Christ was the wisdom and the light of the prophets and the law… the example of Christ, the words of Christ are what God commands us to listen to and to live by. Peter didn’t want to hear about the cross… “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But Jesus turns it around… like Jesus does… and the cross is not just something that will happen to him… the cross will happen to all who follow him… “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”
Those could easily be the words of the prophets who so often spoke against profit… profit gained at the expense of one’s moral character as defined by God. And I feel like I need to add that last piece to better explain what manner of moral character is expected… moral character as defined by God. Moses, Elijah, Christ and his cross… this is how God is defining moral character. Moral character shaped by American values or good middle class values… or the values of a certain race of people… or the values of politics or media or whatever else… we… like those who have come before and those who will come after us… we will confuse them and we will take those values and conflate them with God’s values. We will emphasize where they match up and downplay where they don’t. Peter is rebuked for setting his mind not on divine things, but on human things. The moral corruption of the ancient Jews may have just been good business… or what was needed to get ahead in this dog eat dog world. Their minds were set on human things… look at the profit we’re making… the economy is booming the borders are secure… surely God is blessing us because of all the good things we have… the richness of our food, the grandness of our houses… our pockets are full and we make all the necessary animal sacrifices and perform all the rituals that God requires. Human things. Human things that Jesus upends like the money changers’ tables when he places before his followers the cross. Not just his cross but theirs as well.
What does the Lord require of us now… but to take up our cross and all the divine things that that cross entails.
The prophetic message does not change throughout scripture. The Holy Spirit who gave the message to the prophets, gives the same message to the people who would be prophetic. On the mountaintop, Jesus becomes the literal light shining into the darkness… the embodiment of the message. It’s not a cleverly devised myth as much as it is a retelling of a timeless truth. God is love and God’s commandment to God’s people is that they love as God, through Christ, has loved them. There’s not much room for interpretation or nuance. We twist this one to our own detriment and demise… so scripture keeps telling us. As the prophet Amos said… “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”
As we enter into the season of Lent, as we go into the wilderness to face temptation… maybe that is why this story is here on this Sunday to be read and meditated upon year after year. As a disciple with Jesus on that mountain… we give witness to the light that is Christ… we see Elijah and Moses, the prophets and the Law that shape our moral character in such a way so that the cross before us isn’t so much of a surprise as it is the natural progression of divine love. There on the mountaintop every year, God tells us again that these… these are the words of the Lord to which we are to listen… that the Holy Spirit speaks through these living words… that by the power of the Spirit working within us we are to speak these same words… to have these same words find life through our lives… to die by these same words so that these same words would have eternal life.
There on the mountaintop it is important for us to look around and see who else may be there with us… who else may be inserting themselves into the scene… uninvited guests who we need to rebuke and tell to get behind us… so that we may be moved by the Holy Spirit and speak the actual word from God. Amen.