Saturday, February 28, 2009

Listening to God’s Son: A Sermon From February 22 at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community

When I was a kid and one of my parents used the phrase “Listen to me,” it was usually followed by some kind of statement which I knew required my obedience. It was never said in a way which would have led me to believe that all I needed to do was “listen” and then I could go on doing whatever I wanted to do. It was usually intended that I either stop doing something or start doing something. It certainly wasn’t always done in a stern way. If my mom said that tomorrow morning, my sister and I needed to get up when she called us and help pick strawberries, then we pretty much knew that we were expected to do just that. Listening to my parents meant that some kind of action on my part would need to follow.

The scripture which we are gathering around this morning describes an event, the transfiguration, which most of us probably know is an important one if we want to understand who Jesus really is. Something beyond the everyday happens when Jesus takes three of his disciples along with him up to the top of a mountain. Jesus’ clothing become “dazzling” - probably whiter than Oxyclean or Tide could ever get them. People from the distant past show up and start talking with Jesus. A cloud appears and a voice comes from it, speaking to the disciples with great authority. Then it’s over. And the person at the center of this extraordinary activity says to the others, “Don’t tell anyone what you saw here until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” A strange thing to say given what has just taken place, don’t you think? And why were only three disciples there? Why not more? Why not a big crowd?

All of this strangeness and wonder leaves us asking “what does this mean?” I certainly asked that question. It’s not a bad question. It’s a very interesting question. But it’s also a question that can distract us from what Mark wants us to hear through this story. Sometimes we can get so caught up in possible and various meanings that we forget that God wants to reveal something to us. The question that Mark’s gospel deals with throughout is, “Who is this Jesus?” And that’s what this story is about.

Of course this story is part of a larger story. And earlier in this larger story, we see Jesus asking Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gets it right, “You are the Messiah.” “Don’t tell anyone,” Jesus says. Yet Peter’s remarkable confession of Jesus’ messiahship is incomplete. He doesn’t yet understand that saying Jesus is the Messiah requires a commitment to obeying and following that Messiah all the way to the cross.

But why does Mark the gospel writer reveal this truth about Jesus in such a strange and slow way? It seems like Mark could have been more effective if he would simply and clearly present a story which doesn’t play these hide and seek games with Jesus’ identity. The transfiguration is kind of like that. Jesus seems to pull a “now you see me for who I am, now you don’t” trick. And then he says, “don’t tell anyone what you just saw.” If Jesus were a salesman, you have to wonder how successful he would be.

I think our confusion here comes from having a shrunken and tamed understanding of the confession that Jesus is the Son of God. We shouldn’t feel too bad since Peter had the same problem. Remember Peter rebuked Jesus for saying he would suffer and die and be raised again. No, the knowledge and the confession that Jesus is God’s Son is so much more than just mental knowledge or spoken words. It is knowledge that is revealed to us through the things he did and said, as well as through the miracle of the transfiguration. It is bodily knowledge. It is bodily because it reaches out and touches people with leprosy or uncleanness and heals them. It sits down at the same table with sinners and tax collectors and shares food and drink with them. It humbles itself to the point of self-sacrifice. Lamar Williamson says this in his commentary on Mark’s gospel, “There is no way rightly to understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die and rise again.” I’ll repeat that. “There is no way rightly to understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die and rise again.” Peter and the other disciples had not seen that yet.

The apostle Paul helps us see how this works in Romans chapter 12. This is such a wonderful piece of scripture.

1. I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5. so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7. ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8. the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 9. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10. love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20. No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In verse 2, we see the word “transformed.” That is how biblical scholars have translated the Greek word “metamorphoo.” The word “transfigured” in Mark is also translated from the same Greek work “metamorphoo.” Paul wants those who hear this message to be transformed into the kind of people who do the things that he lists later on in chapter 12. When you are not conformed to this world and trapped in its ways of thinking, and when you are transformed by renewing your minds and encountering the fullness of Jesus the beloved Son, then you are able to discern what God wants and become obedient to that in the body of Christ. You can serve the Lord. You can be patient in suffering. You can bless those who persecute you, associate with the lowly, feed your enemies. You can overcome evil with good. Can we see how this is not being conformed to this world?

More importantly, do we see how the confession that Jesus is the Son of God is something which we must believe in our hearts and minds, but also in our mouths, and our arms and hands, our legs and feet? We believe this with the whole of our bodies, and that is one very critical way in which we act as witnesses for the Son of God and his kingdom, and his rule, his way of living.
Back to considering the transfiguration. What keeps us from hearing the message in this story? What keeps us from being gripped and shaped by it? Perhaps it’s the blinding light. Maybe it’s the presence of these Old Testament characters or the odd idea that Peter seems to blurt out of nowhere. Or maybe it’s our over-familiarity with it. We know this story – it’s about Jesus flashing his glory for us. It’s about his power and authority finally being made visible. Those things are true enough, but we can still get tripped up by the fact that this happens in the presence of only three people who are told to keep quiet about it.

The Word of God (and by that I mean the scriptures and the person of Jesus) won’t let us remain in our confusion or our misunderstanding anymore than Jesus allowed Peter to remain in his confusion and misunderstanding in chapter 8 when Jesus said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Understand this, you who just confessed that I am the Messiah: I am going to be crucified and then be raised again. Your human understanding is misleading you. You need divine understanding. I am calling you to take up the cross and follow me to where I am going.”

Today, we Christians sometimes try to understand things in the Bible by dividing them up. Then we say that we like this part over here, but we don’t like that over there. We want things to conform to our way of thinking. That’s understandable. There are many hard sayings and teachings and stories in there. I would suggest that we have a hard one here before us today which we might be tempted to divide up: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” If these words of God are split up and sorted and sifted through our own understanding, our Christian faith becomes weakened. For instance, if we say Jesus Christ is the Son of God with our mouths, and do not do what he calls us to do, then our witness is inconsistent and we become hypocrites. If we say that Jesus might not really be the Son of God, but we still ought to do what he says, we have removed the authority from the one we want to obey. If Jesus is just a really good guy, then he becomes one teacher among many, many other teachers. And what would make Jesus a better teacher than the others?

Now I don’t want to pick on the Christians “out there” who do what I just described. I want to pick on us. And I’ll use the best example I know of – me. It can be easy for me to get caught up in the finer theological points of who Jesus is with respect to the Trinity, and Christology, and ecclesialogy. Debating and discussing that stuff is a lot of fun for me. And I think those are good things. But I can forget to do what I am talking about. I can forget that I have neighbors who I barely know. I can forget that the poor and the weak and the lost are not far from my house.
And sometimes, but not as often, I can get caught up in the “listen to him” part, wanting people to obey Jesus even if they don’t know who he is. I can ask “why don’t those people over there do what I think is right?” I can be tempted to think that people have to do what Jesus taught even if they don’t believe he is God’s Son.

But the transfiguration story crashes into those tendencies and exposes them as misleading and untruthful. I am a follower of Jesus, God’s Son. We are following Jesus. God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” He has loving authority, and it is completely trustworthy. This Jesus will faithfully lead us to places we would never have planned to go. He suffered. He was crucified. He has been raised to new life. He is the Beloved. He loves us. And his transfiguration calls us to be transformed into listening followers of Him, who is the Son of God. Amen.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On faulty thinking and basic amentality

Sentimentality poses the most insidious threat to Christianity in modern times.  The earth-shaking truth of the gospel is seldom heard in clarity by anyone, save those who silence their minds amidst the cacophony of competition to true Christian discernment.
Sadly the gospel itself seldom has more competition to deal with than on Sunday morning, for where two or three are gathered, so five or six opinions seek to rule the day.  
Applied Theology (in the professional pastorate) has a unique place among the professions.  For we have learned that anyone who can read can think theologically.  
Further, humanity is of the opinion that the deepest truths of the world are somehow up for interpretation based on a variety of factors that vary from individual to individual.  
I agree with Stanley Hauerwas, who has argued that one of the best things that could happen to North American Christians would be if the Bible was taken out of their hands.  
We don't appreciate that which we get for free.