Weekly Preaching: Transfiguration Sunday, 2018

February 7th, 2018

This Transfiguration Sunday, we are blessed with two texts narrating the days two people slipped the bonds of mere peoplehood. As I’m writing, I’m not sure if I’ll fix our attention on Elijah, or Jesus — or if I'll try to connect the two, as 2 Kings is the premise for how Elijah was in a position to show up for Jesus’ shining, along with Moses, whose death and burial were left shrouded in mystery by the writer of Deuteronomy 34.

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Let me begin with Mark 9 before attending to 2 Kings 2:1-12, on which I wrote a blog (entitled “Onward to Mordor”) for Christian Century. When I try to wave my magic wand over the world of homiletics, the Transfiguration is the first text I point to, as it is the prime example of the understandable but deeply flawed way even well-meaning preachers take a text that is most clearly about God and try to turn it into something about us. In my preaching book, The Beauty of the Word, I explain how so many texts are about how amazing God is; it’s sufficient just to ponder the amazingness of God in the sermon! But we have to make it about us, our faith, our to-dos, our doubts, our serving… and then we struggle and wind up botching things.

With the Transfiguration, I’ve read and heard so many sermons like a few I tried when I was young, those with some ridiculous attempt at “Okay, you have a mountaintop experience, and then you go back down into the real world…”  All three Synoptic versions of this moment have as their “point” the simple fact that Jesus is amazing, someone to be worshipped, gawked at, and the only takeaway is to be lost in wonder, love and praise. Mark shows us the way the plodding disciples tried what preachers try: Lord, let us do something. Let us build three booths! Mark’s comment reveals a kind of mercy on them, and on us: “For they did not know what to say.” Indeed.

What the preacher knows to say is that Jesus quite shockingly started glowing, shining; the Greek means literally 'metamorphosized.' He shimmered. No ordinary guy, this Jesus; we get a preliminary peek into his eternal glory. The only conceivable responses are recorded in Scripture. In Mark, Peter offers the greatest understatement in religious history: “It is good that we are here.” Matthew 17:10 is even better: “And they fell on their faces in awe.”

I want to preach the sermon that simply causes me and my people to say “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place — and it is good that we are here,” or that would make me and them simply blush in awe. This sermon won’t attempt to resolve any personal or societal dilemmas; it won’t allow notes to be taken to put into practice on Tuesday morning; it doesn’t even try to get me to do anything but observe a bit of a sabbath from doing things like building booths or even being religious. It simply lets my jaw drop over how cool, how very different and glorious this Jesus is.

I have attempted this myself a few times. Here are two samples, one on Mark 9 and one on Matthew 17.

Mind you, the material extolling the beauty and glory of Jesus is plentiful. The birth, the incarnation... God becoming small to show us God’s heart. Wow. Jesus’ words, his holiness, the people he touched, the marvel of his healing... The temptation narrative (another one we botch by making it about how we overcome temptation), in which we see Jesus achieving what you and I wouldn’t have a prayer of doing — resisting the devil’s seductive allure... His suffering in silence, his compassion on the soldiers who just nailed him up, his tenderness toward a thief, his love for his mother...  “What wondrous love is this?”

Am I veering from Mark 9? I don’t mind if I do; the timing of Mark 9 invites this very speculation. Jesus has just asked the disciples about his identity, and he has just explained his vocation to go to Jerusalem, suffer, and die despite the strenuous objections of those who knew him best.

Jesus. His resurrection, and ascension. Gee, I’m going to need a heckuva lot of time to explore “Fairest Lord Jesus, Beautiful Savior.” Consider the appearances of Moses and Elijah: people try to make hay with them as Law & Prophets, which may well be. For me, they may ‘represent’ something too, but it’s way more important that these two guys, who last lived on Earth centuries before, are standing there with Jesus shining. This only enhances how unfathomably amazing Jesus is.

The only remote takeaways might be two: first, to try to do the awe thing every day. Second, as the voice from heaven (which echoes the voice at Jesus’ baptism) quite sensible suggests, “Listen to him.” The guy who glowed, the one who is God and who healed and touched the untouchables and gave his life? Listen to this guy and not all the other pretenders who’ve frankly never glowed for a nanosecond.

Jesus does hush the disciples: Don’t tell anybody about this moment! It's as if he intuited the way his shining would be misunderstood, the way charlatans would try to capitalize on such dazzling. Later, of course, once it was clear Jesus wasn’t just a dazzler, but a humble, holy, earthy one whose mission wasn’t dazzling but dying, they did tell loads of people, including us.

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So now we turn back to 2 Kings 2. The mantle is intriguing; Gandalf's related remark is fabulous.  Pondering Elijah as Elisha's mentor is, too (in this vein, I'd commend a recent book I contributed to and edited on mentoring, Mentoring for Ministry).

Regarding our text, I can’t do any better than the Christian Century piece I wrote. Read it in full here.

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

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