Metamorphic Jesus

sermon on Matthew 17:1-9; 2nd Peter 1:16-21


My first year of seminary I had to do a project on Luke’s version of this Transfiguration passage. I still resent it, like having to deal with divorce verses in a first preaching class. This is such an unusual story, and even experts don’t really know what it’s about or what it means or why it’s there. Now (if I’m one of the so-called experts) I could list off some details and stuff to try to explain it, in that clever way of at least creating some smokescreen for not really knowing what’s going on.

I’ll try it. An observation to begin, then, is that this is a turning point in the Gospel stories. In the previous chapter, Jesus predicted his death for the first time. Peter had identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, as God’s chosen or anointed one. Peter was praised for that faithful discernment, but went on to blow it by arguing with Jesus that of course the Messiah must not, couldn’t possibly die. We’ll return to today’s version of blundering Peter. But to keep on with more explanation, if the previous chapter pointed to Good Friday’s death on the cross, the Transfiguration might similarly begin to point to Easter’s resurrection.

Or this may mark a transition in the story where the rubber is really about to meet the road. Jesus is going to draw more conflict as he’s opposing the rulers. This passage, then, could be a little pause, a momentary interlude vacating, as it were, to the Smoky Mountains.

Or, rather than the diversion of a bright and cheery spiritual getaway, it might highlight the looming showdown, a big flashing light that draws your attention to the clash. That might be why Moses and Elijah appear. See, nobody is much too certain about what they’re doing there—other than the fact that they’re the two big name Old Testament personalities, almost alone embodying the scriptural traditions of law and prophets—nor is it clear how Peter recognized them or what kind of discussion they would’ve been having with Jesus. But we could highlight that both Moses and Elijah spent time on a mountain while running into testy conflicts with political leaders. For Moses it was on the other side of skirmishing with Egypt’s Pharaoh, and for Elijah as he was fleeing for his life from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel. So Jesus up the mountain may not necessarily be a majestic mountaintop experience of spiritual enlightenment; it may, rather, be the setting indicating a political showdown.

To change theme, for us Lutherans, this festival of Transfiguration is always on this final Sunday of the season of Epiphany and last Sunday before Lent begins. For the Epiphany season, it bookends a shining star, with magi seeking the Messiah and then sneaking away to keep another nasty king from hunting him down. The first Sunday of Epiphany gave us God’s voice echoed today, as the voice from the cloud at Jesus’ baptism also announced “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It’s a nice reiteration and today God makes one addition, wrapping up the declaration with an instruction, “Listen to him.” So with this reading we look back through the season of Epiphany.

And we also look forward toward Lent, and beyond that to Easter. I used to figure this was a brief, shining celebration before the drudgery of Lent. It is a stark contrast between the dazzling white today and the blackness of an ashen smudge that will mark us on Wednesday. This may feel like a little party to carry us through a somber season, a feast before the fast, with the last of joyful Alleluias before they are shut up for a time. Again, this might forecast radiance that awaits us as Easter dawn comes, especially hinted in Jesus’ concluding words that his followers weren’t to talk about this until after he was raised from the dead.

If Jesus’ words are oddly ominous, there’s little way to hear Peter’s utterance as anything but ludicrous. The best he can muster? “It’s good to be here.  I’ll make three huts: one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” At least Peter wants equitable sharing. Though nobody really knows, some claim his idea is about reenacting the Jewish festival of tabernacles, Sukkoth. But why in the world he’d try that makes not much more sense than claiming he was playing ring-around-the-rosie in his pajamas. Mainly Peter seems unsure of how to encounter this strange event and so he blurts out randomly just to busy himself with something. Better to do anything than have to deal with Jesus.

But with that I need to pause and apologize. Because mostly I’ve also been trying to blurt out random things to busy myself and keep you preoccupied amid the mystery of this strange Transfiguration story. I’ve been lining up interesting tidbits, but which may be beside the point. On any given week, I want to stride assuredly to this lectern with a couple sheets of paper of manuscript in decent grammatical shape to sound intelligent or at least a little interesting. But that’s not my job as your preacher, and—at the worst—it risks distracting from the main point, those words of God today that are telling us to attend to Jesus.

Indeed, that’s highlighted for us in the other reading attributed to Peter. Today’s chunk of 2nd Peter portrays him recalling his experience as eyewitness at the Transfiguration. Oddly, though, it doesn’t relate eyewitness details, like dazzling white phenomena, a face shining like the sun, or the bright cloud overshadowing them. Rather than eyewitness details, it focuses on being ear-witnesses to majesty, of hearing the voice, which confirms Scripture so the Holy Spirit, in those words, can serve as a beacon amid dark places.

Apparently we don’t need explanations of why it’s so dark or enumerations of phenomenal, strange details or any “cleverly devised myths.” Rather, what we need is again to hear the promise, to recall the words that don’t just point us toward the light or toward godliness, but that are God. And so, as it says just before our passage in 2nd Peter today, I intend “to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you” (2Pet1:12).

The main thing for today isn’t to explain a spectacular event that happened on a mountaintop or its place in the narrative or a liturgical calendar. It’s not to account for mystical wonders or discount them with scientific reasoning. Neither is it to get swept up into the extraordinary so that we imagine faith is only for marvelous glimmering visions. Rather, our call is to attend to Jesus, to listen to him, to hear again God’s promise in him.

For that, though I want to stop explaining, I’ll do it with one more explanation. The word used in this reading and the name for this day are highly unusual, used no place else, the kind of churchy word I have to teach my spellchecker. Transfiguration is just plain not a word we know. That’s the Latin version. The Greek you probably do know, though. The Greek word here is “metamorphosis.” You know that one? It’s the word we use for a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. It’s often been used as a Christian symbol, of resurrection, of Jesus being changed from a plain old human into a beautiful new creation as he emerged from the tomb, a kind of chrysalis or cocoon.

But I want to proclaim to you today that gets the point backward. Jesus isn’t a caterpillar waiting to turn into a butterfly. He’s a butterfly whose metamorphosis was to become human. That is the point. That is what this Metamorphosis Sunday is about, not a glimpse of Easter but an assurance of God’s presence in the plain old regular daily Jesus who’s all too human and faces the hardness of life and suffers death. That’s where God wants to be found and where God is for you, not as a special light out of the darkness, but there amid the hard uncertainty, striving with you. That reversal is what we are supposed to pay attention to.

See, thinking of God as awesome shining brightness doesn’t strike us as all that remarkable. We expect it. We’d be kidding ourselves if we claimed this reading of a shiny Jesus was very strange, because we associate him with a star and we like the play-on-words of calling him the Sun, and have expected that he had a halo illuminating his head since the night he was born.

But that’s not the point, not our truth. One of the most important Bible passages about him uses today’s terminology and says that Jesus “morphed” from such heavenly bliss into regular life, not by mountain amazement but descending into the valleys of the shadow of death. That passage declares, “though Christ Jesus was in the form—the morph—of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of [morphing into] a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

That remarkable, stunning passage declares Jesus took on your figure, your form, not grasping for power or glory or whatever it is that our ridiculous elites think they’re striving toward, not expecting ecstatic light to be the utmost importance. Instead Jesus morphed to take your humble human form and to be a slave—not a slave to obey a big bossy God, but a slave to serve you. His metamorphosis wasn’t a diamond in the rough, but to join the dirt and grime and muckiness of all that you’re going through. That is where God’s majesty is found.

You don’t need a miraculous escape to find God. God is already here with you, and wants you to know it. Even this worship—as our shiny mountaintop encounter—isn’t a distraction or pause from the world, but is to re-attune your awareness that God’s presence is with you, here on earth, in your life.

As we are about to shut down singing mt17-1-9-cardAlleluias for the season of Lent, and though that practice would seem to move us away from the mountaintop glory, the real majesty of God continues with you. So with our hymn of the day, the ushers are going to hand you a little card with an Alleluia. For Lent, the Alleluia won’t be in the beauty of church but in the regularness of your life. I encourage you to take that card and tuck it someplace random and ordinary where you’ll come across it—a sock drawer, your wallet, a backpack, the dashboard, a cupboard, by the litterbox, by the computer where you encounter bad news. It’s in those places where Jesus abides and wants to be known. That’s our Alleluia.


What God’s Growing

sermon on Matthew 5:21-37; 1Corinthians 3:1-9; Deuteronomy 30:15-20


As Acacia and I prepare to go visit my cousin in North Carolina tomorrow, I’m thinking about kudzu, recalling my first time down south seeing this invasive weed that completely enshrouded other plants and stretched up over telephone poles, becoming the only green thing in sight.

With that, I’m also remembering a visit when this cousin lived in California and we stopped to see redwoods and giant sequoias along the way. So I’ve been picturing the way two different plants stretch and grow, and their part of how they fit with (or don’t fit) the natural environment and our world.

These two images have been on my mind with the declaration in 1st Corinthians that “you are God’s field.” Since you’re God’s field, it has me pondering what God is cultivating and what sort of farmer your God is, what growth you might be experiencing, the fruits you should be bearing. I’m suspecting the vision of a towering sequoia could be representative of your place in God’s field, more so than the overwhelming incursion of kudzu.

That answer isn’t a foregone conclusion, though, because the Bible is (as usual) ambiguous on this. Where we might presume that God favors the straightness and strength and beauty of ancient sequoias, and as much as that’s our direction today, that’s not always so; when Jesus describes the heaven-ish empire like a mustard seed, that’s exactly the weedy invasive image, directly saying that your work as a Christian is to get into the mix of so-called good order and foul it up, to put a wrench in the gears (to switch from agricultural to mechanical imagery). In that case, that a small shrub wouldn’t seem mighty, but spreads and spreads until it overcomes. So we might need to rethink the kudzu this summer when we get to Matthew 13.

But today God is cultivating you to be more sequoia-ish, which may fit the more traditional version of God as farmer. It parallels images of God pruning grapes, cutting off branches so the vine will be more fruitful (John 15), or of Jesus as the fertilizer salesman who wants to spread more manure around the tree and give it a chance to produce figs (Luke 13). So you are God’s field, and God the farmer is striving to cultivate you to bring forth what you’re intended to produce.

And that can frame this portion of the Sermon on the Mount for us. It’s a helpful frame, because otherwise this section can sound mostly legalistic and stern without much good news. Again, it’s worth asking what God intends for you and for the relationships you share, for your place in community and this world. And we’d have to expect that God intends maximal good, the best possible outcomes, and not simply the lowest common denominator, robust growth and not a pale spindly seedling. That’s the point of this reading.

As a first example, a discussion I was part of a week ago was pondering what it takes to “count” as a Christian. It was originally in terms of the Apostles’ Creed, on how many standard beliefs you could pass up and still qualify, on how few of those doctrines you’d have to claim still to be defined as Christian —if you needed to believe in the virgin birth or not, if you had to subscribe to a resurrected Jesus walking out of the tomb on the third day. Now, I love the value of theological debates and wonderings. But that’s different from a question asking, “how little can I get by with still to count?” I don’t believe Jesus would find much interest in categories of creedal assertions as gate-keepers to the faith, but even more particularly he wouldn’t try to ask how to minimize connections influencing faith and God.

Another example, moving from thought to action: I used to have sermon notes in my Confirmation curriculum. I figured the value included paying attention during worship and noticing the setting and thinking about how it integrates with the rest of life, but it most simply boiled down to the importance of joining regularly into these essential central gatherings of worship, this place where our faith is most deliberately cultivated. Yet without fail, if 20 sermon notes were required, I’d instantly be asked how far you could fall short and still manage to be confirmed.

We’ve somehow got this tendency to ask about the bare minimum, to wonder about how many Sundays you can miss church or how much you really should give or how nice you need to be and how many nasty thoughts you can get away with. Yet I suspect for Jesus this is asking the question exactly backward, that we shouldn’t be trying to get by by doing less and less as Christians.

In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to slide by as having fulfilled the Commandment just because you haven’t directly murdered anybody, a mark all of us can quite easily meet this week. He presses us more to recognize the damage and destruction caused by hatred and to stop those similar forms of small death. Luther pursues this direction, too, as we’re seeing in the Small Catechism. It isn’t only a simple negative of “thou shall not,” but the larger positive of how God’s commands shape your life. So a command of not murdering eventually manages to push you toward helping your neighbor in all her needs. That’s an utter insistence on not abdicating your responsibility in relationship, not thinking you can get off easy with minimal expectations.

That also invites a word at this spot in the reading about being “liable to the hell of fire.” It’s not likely Jesus is threatening eternal torment for you if you ever misbehave. The actual word is “gehenna,” the town garbage dump where waste was burned outside the city. It changes the hearing of this to have Jesus say, “if you think you can get by with the least behavior toward people, that’s rubbish, that’s junk and you should be tossed out.”

The following part against adultery maintains this standard for respecting each other. With its vigorous effort to quell chauvinism or objectification, it may seem almost the only way to avoid lust would be to shut off our TVs and not look at any sexualized advertising—nearly the modern equivalent of plucking out an offending eyeball. But Jesus is saying community relationships are that important to value.

The next saying on divorce arises from similar shared demands for practicing wellbeing. In Jesus’ society, this was a word specifically to a man, that he should not take divorce so lightly as the legal standard of handing a certified piece of paper to his wife that ended the marriage and effectively abandoned her to a system where she would have little chance even of survival. So Jesus was telling men to take women’s lives more seriously.

In the emotional weight of divorce in our time, we both know the concern of taking the relationship too lightly by not considering the harm and hurt divorce can cause, while we also know hurt and harm can cause the very need for divorce. In that way, we shouldn’t reverse the apparent legalism of this saying as if Jesus were concerned only about the preservation of the institution or estate of marriage but ignoring the real point that he was actually striving for the wellness of the people in the marriage (or out of it).

Such complex distinctions are likewise in the phrase from Moses in our first reading. “Choose life” has become an earnest and faithful rallying cry primarily for those who oppose abortion and advocate amid the vulnerability of babies and before.

Yet I would suspect that the predominant earnest and faithful response amid those gathered here would press for a broader and fuller understanding of “choosing life,” that it can’t be so simply limited to restricting abortions, but also should ask how we choose life for the mother-to-be, and what it would mean to be more adamant about a father-to-be’s role in choosing life. Choosing life could go on to mean health care for the fetus during pregnancy, and maternity and paternity leaves for family bonding when the baby is born, and then education, and a safe environment free from pollution, and housing and careers, and so on until the very end. That’s what it means to choose life, the full extent, and that’s what Jesus must be calling us into.

While I hope this keeps motivating our sense of responsibilities to each other, of not letting ourselves off the hook, expanding rather than shrinking and shirking our commitments, it may also make us wonder if this is too much, if we’re bound to feel worn down by impossible demands. Some have argued that’s exactly the point of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, that it’s more than we’re capable of and leaves us condemned to realize how far we fall short of God’s laws. Others have gone the opposite direction and figured that these big expectations will turn off some, but true Christians will take up the task of bringing about this utopia.

I commend yet another understanding. These are, indeed, guidelines of God’s will, for how God wants us to live with each other. But God doesn’t just instruct you to try as hard as possible and do the best you can at it, to give it your all. Sermons (I’ll continue to remind you) aren’t motivational speaking. They don’t serve as peptalks. Rather, the essential thing of a sermon, the message that you need most to hear is the promise and assurance from God, a promise that is always trustworthy, where God’s yes always means yes.

God promises you are loved, you are cherished, with you God is well-pleased. You ultimately are in God’s care and have a place in God’s community. To return to our beginning, you are God’s field. God is the farmer, not to grow some rare species of orchid, but here in the rows of this field, gathered in God’s greenhouse of this worship space, you are tended and nurtured, cultivated, and fertilized, and pruned when you need to be. Here you are exposed to renewing and rejuvenating waters and find growth from the sun’s rays, the photosynthesis of new creation as the Spirit fills you with God’s energy.

With the assurance that you are God’s field, it is clear that these instructions aren’t a lecturing reprimand, insistently jibing that God expected a nice, strong, tall sequoia and so why are you so kudzu-ish, so unruly and ugly and counterproductive. Rather, if God wants a sequoia, that is exactly what God promises to bring to fruition in this world, including through your life and actions and potentials, no matter how un-seqouia-ish you expected yourself to be.