Preaching Transfiguration

February 23rd, 2017

Here is a video of a sermon I preached on Matthew 17:1-9 three years ago, and this same text will be my focus here. If you're interested in the Psalter, check out my Working Preacher commentary on Psalm 2.

Transfiguration Sunday. This text always moves me. It has no ‘point,’ no ‘takeaway.’ I’ve heard (and preached myself!) awful sermons, guessing about “mountaintop experiences,” but “then we go back down into the valley to serve…”  We have this nasty habit of always making the Bible about us, when it is really about God. How amazing is Jesus? He glowed one day. He kept company with the greatest of the greats, Moses and Elijah. Wow.

The disciples respond to Jesus with awe; so that’s the theme. I think of the African-American spiritual song that’s used so often, “How Great is our God.” Or even the old hymn sung so well at Billy Graham crusades by George Beverly Shea: “How Great Thou Art.”

I want to preach a sermon that is simply about Jesus and how amazing, fabulous, tender, brilliant, compassionate, wise, and holy he was, and is. It’s not about me; don’t put me in there, except as one who stammers in awe. It appears this is what we’ll do in heaven, by the way…
We call this “praise.” Praise is astonished wonder at God. We aren’t good at praise. We think of what God does for me. St. Augustine (in On Christian Doctrine) distinguished two kinds of love (in Latin, of course): uti and frui

Uti love is love of ‘use’: I love money, not so I can clutch it to my chest, but because I can use it for something else I want. Frui love is love of ‘enjoyment’: I love chocolate, not because of what I get out of it (which isn’t entirely desirable), but because it just is lovable, wonderful, delicious. We tend to love God with uti love, when God is seeking frui. As the Westminster Confession famously put it, our task here is “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”
My sermon really will be nothing but a pondering of various beautiful things about Jesus. This could take a while, and would be good for my soul, anybody's soul. Just this week I stumbled across this remarkable wisdom from Oswald Chambers:

“Up to the time of the Transfiguration, Jesus had exhibited the normal perfect life of a man; from the Transfiguration onwards — Gethsemane, Cross, Resurrection – everything is unfamiliar. On the Mount of Ascension the Transfiguration is completed. If Jesus had gone to heaven from the Mount of Transfiguration, He would have gone alone; He would have been nothing more to us than a glorious figure. But he turned His back on the glory, and came down from the Mount to identify Himself with fallen humanity.”
Then he goes on to show how, having endured and shattered the bonds of death, he returned to glory — but not alone. I love that.

Praise actually happens.  A few years ago I spoke at a conference of Pentecostal clergy. During the opening hymn (which lasted at least twenty minutes), the man sitting next to me drifted away from what everyone else was singing, and simply lifted his hands toward the ceiling (or heaven) and muttered, over and over, “Oh Jesus, you are so beautiful. Oh Jesus, you are so beautiful.” I envied him, and felt so small. The last time I had spoken directly to Jesus it had been when I’d gotten out of bed that morning and said “Jesus, my back hurts.” This man wasn’t asking Jesus for a favor. He wasn’t “enjoying” the music. He was praising Jesus.

Praise is our best attempt to feel, say, or sing something appropriate to God. Praise doesn’t “work,” it is not productive. Praise wastes time, lost in adoration, awestruck by the divine beauty.  The disciples asked Jesus, “Teach us to pray.”  We might pray, “Teach us to praise.”  Can the sermon instruct, or set an example of praising?

In my new book (just out!) book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, I suggest this: 

“Maybe like the von Trapp children, you could make a list of your favorite things. We’ve mentioned chocolate. What else do you simply adore? Do you have a favorite, most beautiful spot on God’s good earth? I remember my first glimpse of the old city of Jerusalem as our tour bus rounded the crest of the Mount of Olives. I couldn’t and wouldn’t speak; tears came from I don’t know where.

Can you recall falling in love? Or are you lucky enough to be in love right now? When Lisa and I began dating, I’d find myself at my desk not getting a thing done, just gazing off into no place in particular, relishing her beauty, the imbalance I felt in her presence. Time stopped, or crawled, or didn’t matter. I was lost in wonder, love and a praise that is a tantalizing imitation of what my praise for God could be.

Perhaps an old friend walks through the door. Perhaps you’re in a hospital waiting room, fearing the doctor will say the surgery failed — but then he’s all right, you spring to your feet, and you realize only then that you loved him more than you knew. Perhaps your toddler takes her first steps, or your grandson reels in his first fish. Ponder such moments, and then think about God. You can praise. You just need to redirect it toward God, to pay focused attention to God, and then find ways to make it more of a habit than an accident of circumstance.

Read a book about what’s out there, like Annie Dillard’s marvelous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. There is so much wonder. When God made the universe, God didn’t skimp. God didn’t strive for efficiency. Like a mad scientist, God tried this, and then that, dazzling us with a startling array of unique, quirky, beautiful creatures we could spend a lifetime cataloguing, or just staring. Ours is to notice, and to give glory to God. Silence is in order. Your jaw drops, and words fail. There is so much beauty.”

Or now I’m thinking of Mary Oliver’s wonderful poetry, including this:

     Except for the body
     of someone you love,
     including all its expressions
     in privacy and in public,
     trees, I think,
     are the most beautiful
     forms on the earth.
     Though, admittedly,
     if this were a contest,
     the trees would come in
     an extremely distant second.
I am a little interested in speculating on Moses and Elijah here… Why these two? Yeah yeah, law and prophets…  But I am thinking of their immense frustrations in ministry, and yet their intimacy with God. They, more than other Bible people, understood God’s marvelous, tender, awesome wonder — and then how it’s tough to serve, and yet doggedly you press on. There is glory, eventually. Again, Mary Oliver:
  Things take the time they take. Don’t
     How many roads did St. Augustine follow
          before he became St. Augustine?

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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