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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Transfiguration 3/2/2014

There were a lot more people here on Christmas Eve than there are today; Transfiguration Sunday isn’t one of those days that registers with the wider culture as being a day on which they should go to church.  In a way though, those Christmas Eve people should be here today because this is the day that ends the Christmas cycle of seasons, those seasons being Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, and it’s the day on which we get an important look at Jesus, kind of an exclamation point on Christmas.  Christmas is great, don’t get me wrong;  I always glad there are lots of people here then, but the bottom line is, if Jesus never leaves the manger, which sadly is the case for many people I’m afraid, then Christmas is a nice story, but that’s about it.  To begin to really know who Jesus is, we have to stay with him and follow him, eventually up the mountain of Transfiguration which is where we go today.

During these weeks after Epiphany there have been revelations about who Jesus is but it’s not until this story of transfiguration that Jesus as more than a prophet becomes abundantly clear.  All of the gospel writers, including Matthew, believed that Jesus was more than a prophet and this becomes one of the key stories in their effort to bring others to that belief.  Whether the story is based on the memory of the disciples recalling an event that actually happened just this way or if it’s more of an imaginative vision can be debated, but it doesn’t really matter.  Either way it’s the theological significance of it that dominates. 

In part it’s another chapter in the Jesus story that echoes the story of Moses but on top of that Elijah is brought into the mix as well.  Both of them are crucial to the memory of Israel and both of them had mountaintop experiences with the Lord.  When Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, as he came down from the mountain his face shined because he had been talking to God.  Elijah went up Mt. Horeb to wait for the Lord to pass by but the revelation he got was not in the power of the wind or earthquake or fire, but instead it was a still, small voice, a sound of silence.

With the Transfiguration there are similarities to these two stories but then there’s more.  Not only does Jesus’ face shine like the sun, his clothes also become dazzling white.  With Jesus it’s not a still, small voice it’s the voice of God proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved!  Listen to him!”  Moses and Elijah were heroes of the faith but the intent of this story is to portray Jesus as greater than Moses and Elijah, more than a hero, more than a prophet. 

As the gospel writers believed and as millions of Christians after them have believed, Jesus is indeed more than a prophet; he is the revelation of God!  That baby we celebrated back on Christmas Eve did enter fully into who and what we are; he was fully human.  But his Transfiguration gives us the other dimension of his identity: he was also fully divine, God incarnate, God made flesh.  When we encounter Jesus, we encounter God.  When we talk about Jesus, we’re talking about God.  All those Christmas Eve people should be here today to hear this story.  It was important for those who wrote the gospels and it’s important for us, those who continue to call ourselves Christians.

This story that gets us closer to Jesus’ divine identity is important for us not just as a piece of doctrine that is difficult to understand, the mystery of how Jesus can be fully human and fully divine, but also because it reveals what kind of a God it is that we believe in.  The human traits of Jesus, things like compassion and forgiveness and welcome are also divine traits.  What I’m afraid has happened though, is that over a couple of thousand years the divine nature of Jesus has often been badly distorted causing God to be portrayed in ways that are not consistent with who Jesus was.  One of the ways this came to mind for me has to do with the Bible study discussion we had this week around the topic of predestination. 

Predestination gets complicated but what it basically says is that from before creation God predestined some for eternal salvation and some for eternal damnation.  That would mean that for some there is no hope, there never was any hope, there can’t be any hope.  Keep in mind that predestination isn’t just a fringe kind of belief that only weirdoes and various cults ascribe to.  It’s pretty mainstream; Martin Luther believed in some version of predestination although some argue that he only believed that God predestined some for salvation but that he didn’t predestine any for damnation; I’m not sure how you can have one without the other.

My question though, would be, “Does this sound like something the God revealed in Jesus would do?”  I’m going to say no, because if the answer is yes then I’d rather be at home on Sunday morning with the rest of the people for whom God isn’t even on their radar; that’s not a God I’m particularly interested in because it’s God as a dispassionate tyrant.  The God revealed in Jesus, the God the voice from the mountain said to listen to is a God of hope, a God of hope for all people.  If some are doomed from the get go, then Jesus didn’t die for everyone, he only died for certain people, and again that doesn’t square with what I believe. 

Another distortion of Jesus’ divinity comes from those who primarily want to make God out as a strict rule giver, a morality policeman just waiting for people to mess up so they can be punished.  That too doesn’t fit with Jesus who welcomed those who were perceived as sinners and outsiders.  He didn’t celebrate sin, but he didn’t write sinners off as being beyond hope either.  The story of the God revealed in Jesus is a story of new life, new possibilities, second chances, even for those who struggle with sin, which after all is all of us. 

Distortion comes from the other direction too.  Jesus can be made to be so bland, so inoffensive, so warm and fuzzy that he’s little more than a divine teddy bear or a divine security blanket.  The God revealed in Jesus is gracious and loving and forgiving, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love as it’s often put in the Old Testament.  But there’s also an edge to Jesus.  The Jesus, the God we just encountered for four weeks in the Sermon on the Mount is demanding.  For those who follow, there are expectations if we listen as the voice from the mountain tells us to do.

This is a God who proposes and envisions a different reality, a God who gives us glimpses of that new reality and who expects us to live into that reality.  We can’t do it perfectly, most of the time we don’t even come too close, but that always points us back to the God revealed in Jesus who doesn’t condemn us for our failure, but welcomes us back, offering us forgiveness and another chance. 

I said that if Jesus stays in the manger, Christmas really doesn’t amount to much; it’s a nice story but we miss the reality of what God was doing in that birth.  The same kind of thing could be said about the Transfiguration.  If we leave Jesus up on the mountain in his transfigured glory, while we do get a mysterious glimpse of his divinity, mostly it’s just a strange story.  What the Transfiguration does is to call us to come down from the mountain and imagine the reality of this God revealed in Jesus and, as the voice said, to listen to him.  When we do that, we come to know a God who is both abundantly gracious and abundantly demanding, a God who loves us so much that he would die for us, a God who loves us so much that he did die for us.  That’s the reality that leads us into the season of Lent that begins on Wednesday.  Knowing this God we can come down from the mountain, not overcome by fear as the three disciples were, but overcome by love, love that lets us live.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

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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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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