Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Transfiguration - 2/3

          Sitting by a lake doing nothing except watching the water; the view from the top of a mountain; getting lost in a piece of music; gazing at the face of a sleeping child or grandchild; a single candle shining in the darkness; they’re all experiences that on the one hand can be profoundly moving but on the other hand, they defy words and explanations.  They just are.  Sometimes trying to talk about them just diminishes them; words get in the way.  The experience is what matters and it doesn’t need to be explained.

          The story of the Transfiguration is kind of like that.  It is a story…it is in words, but every year when this Sunday comes around I kind of think it would be best if people just closed their eyes as the gospel was read and visualized what is described, that mountaintop experience with Jesus’ face shining like the sun, his clothes dazzling white, Moses and Elijah there and then gone, the disciples overcome with fear, the voice from heaven.  Don’t try to figure it out, just visualize it.  Because after all, what we are talking about here is the glory of God…and that poses problems. 

Karl Barth, perhaps the most influential theologian of the twentieth century said, “As ministers we ought to speak of God.  We are human however, and so cannot speak of God.”  He didn’t exactly follow his own advice though, writing volume after volume of dense, dogmatic theology but following his line of thought I could say, “As a preacher this morning, I’m called to say something about the Transfiguration and the glory of God.  I’m human however, so I can’t.”

          You might like that, if I stopped right now or if I simply asked you to close your eyes and I just read the gospel to you again; you might like that, but like Karl Barth, I’m not going to follow my own advice.  I have to try and say something about the Transfiguration even if the message ultimately is about entering into the mystery of God.

The first thing I should say though is that we’re not very good at religious mystery.  We’re rational Lutherans and rational Lutherans want explanations; we want our theology to make sense.  At seminary one of the foundational courses is Systematic Theology which is an effort to explain the God of the Trinity in a systematic, logical way.  But the Trinity is a mystery; as Lutherans though, we want our mysteries solved.  We think children shouldn’t receive communion until they “understand” it, when in reality Holy Communion is a mystery of God’s grace that can’t be understood, can’t be solved, can’t be explained, only experienced.   

We don’t do well with mystery but on Transfiguration Sunday that’s what’s on the agenda even though some might prefer to skip right over this day and move into Lent with its ashes and confession and repentance and guilt and maybe giving up something.  We’re better at that.  We Lutherans can do guilt. 

All of that Lenten stuff is coming, but not today.  Today we enter into the mystery of God’s glory which is exactly what Moses did in his mountaintop experience, there on Mt. Sinai.  Hearing the voice of the Lord he entered the cloud, the mystery, the glory which is described as a devouring fire; this is scary business.  Moses went where no one had ever gone and who knew if he’d ever come out.  He was gone for a long time, forty days and forty nights.  In fact the people did kind of give up on him.  It was during that time that they molded the golden calf because maybe they couldn’t deal with or didn’t want to deal with the mystery of the God in the cloud either.  They wanted something a little less frightening, a god they could see and touch, hence the golden calf.

But Moses had entered into the mystery of God’s holiness and today in the story of the Transfiguration, like Peter, James and John, we too get a glimpse of the reality of God’s holiness and importantly we find that this holiness is part of who Jesus is.  At other points the disciples had hints of this, moments when they were moved to awe, even fear in the presence of Jesus who in many ways they thought they knew so well.  But in this experience, they saw something else.  Jesus was more than a teacher and rabbi, more even than a prophet sent by God.  The very holiness of God himself reflected from Jesus and like Moses before them, for a time those three disciples experienced that holiness directly.  What could they do but cower in fear?

Despite Peter’s stammering suggestion that he build dwellings so they could stay there forever, neither they nor Jesus could do that.  For Jesus there was a journey to Jerusalem ahead of him, a journey that would end on a different mountain called Calvary, the place where his life giving glory would be revealed, glory revealed in yet another mystery, the mystery of the cross. 

For us, the story of the Transfiguration tells us that we are destined for similar glory, but the cross is part of our journey too, not in a literal sense but as we follow Jesus in the mission to which we are called; and we are called to mission.  In this story you could say that our commissioning comes in the voice from the cloud saying, “Listen to him.”  “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” 

Part of what we are about as a church and as individuals is to listen to the words and teachings of Jesus in an effort to discern what it is that we are called to do.  Then, in whatever ways we can, we do it.  In part it’s a mission of invitation because as Jesus called others to follow him we invite others to be part of our fellowship so that they too can listen to the words of Jesus and follow him.  In part it’s a mission of caring and service and action in which we give of ourselves for the benefit of others.  Someone joked last week that we’re getting to be like the Catholics with three offerings, the general offering, the noisy offering for the Salvation Army and the Souper Bowl offering for the homeless shelter; and so it is today too.  But view these as opportunities to listen to Jesus and to act on his words as you are able.  Actually, I know you do view it that way because those offerings have been very generous.

The Transfiguration is about mission, about listening and following, but…I think that mission is approached differently when we really have glimpsed the glory of God, the glory of Jesus.  So I’m not in a rush to go down from the mountain today.  Maybe Peter wasn’t completely out of his mind when he thought it would be a good idea to stay there for awhile. 

The question though becomes, can we really get a sense of that holiness and glory?  I think we can, probably not as a regular, ongoing experience, I don’t think we could take that anyway; of necessity it’s always going to be in glimpses but that’s how it was for Moses and the three disciples.  They couldn’t stay on the mountain forever.  I think we can sense the holiness and glory and I don’t think that there is just one way to do it; but one experience that we share in common is worship, and for me, worship ought to be designed and approached with the glory and holiness of God in mind, with the idea of providing a glimpse of or evoking that glory and holiness.

The beauty of the space in which we worship has something to do with it.  The vestments that we wear and the paraments and vessels that adorn the altar are intended to help convey holiness.  Even more though, it has to do with how we approach what we do here, both as worship leaders and as the gathered congregation.  What we do isn’t a show, it isn’t a concert, it isn’t a lecture series; it isn’t a performance; it’s not a form of entertainment; it’s worship of a glorious and holy God we name as Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Because it’s different, we go about it differently, with reverence, with awe because we are in the presence of the mystery of God’s holiness, the holiness experienced by Moses and by Peter, James and John.

We can’t evoke that holiness all the time and as I said, that’s probably good because we couldn’t bear it, but in approaching worship, we should have holiness, a sense of the sacred in mind and we should accept and allow that mystery is part of it.  The Transfiguration reminds us that this God revealed in Jesus’ glory on that mountaintop is the very God who invites us into relationship, unworthy as we are.  For us to be invited into such a serious relationship and conversation is awesome and transformative, and a little bit frightening.  But it’s true.  It all comes under the realm of mystery and holiness and we are invited to be part of it. 

At least for today, don’t try to figure it out.  Just let it be.                    

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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