Sermon 2/14/2010

February 14, 2010

Texts: Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-36

I’m not sure what the word should be for today.
Is it transfiguration?
Or disfiguration?
Are they the same thing?
Which one reveals God to us?
to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to :
transform outwardly and usually for the better;
to change the appearance of a person or thing very much,
usually in a very positive and often spiritual way
Example: As she gazed down at the baby,
her face was transfigured with tenderness.

to spoil the appearance of something or someone completely,
especially their face
to impair (as in beauty) by deep and persistent injuries
Example: She was horribly disfigured by burns.

Transfiguration is a curious Sunday to me.
Aside from the weird and wonderful details of the story,
what does it help us see?
Jesus is really a glowing figure underneath all that human skin?
Peter was almost always out of his mind?
Moses and Elijah appear as a great dramatic ending,
like the conclusion to the Star Wars trilogy
when the ghostly Yoda and Darth Vader and Obi Wan
show up to make everything better?

Maybe, except this isn’t the ending.
It’s just the middle.
And things might glow for a minute,
but they don’t stay that way.
Moses and Elijah disappear,
and Jesus is again all alone.
And things aren’t getting better.

This transfiguration story comes right after
Jesus has been telling his friends and followers
that this gravy train isn’t going on forever.
He was going to have to pay the full price
for his unwavering devotion to God and God’s reign among us.
He would be rejected in Jerusalem
and suffer, and die,
and then be raised to some new, life-giving existence.
The problem is,
nobody much cares for Jesus’ thoughts on the matter.
They all dismiss it as some kind of messianic histrionics.

Jesus is absolutely alone in facing his journey.
So he goes up on the mountain to pray,
and brings a few friends with him.
He is praying, no doubt,
that even if no one is going to encourage and support him,
he may have the strength to live the path God has given him.
While he is praying,
two of his great ancestors appear to him,
and talk with him about his God-given path.
The text says the spoke about his “departure”
and the word in Greek is really “exodus.”
That’s a rich biblical word filled with meanings
of redemption that comes through great struggle.

I imagine that Jesus is getting comfort, reassurance,
and encouragement to continue on his path,
even if it feels like he is alone in doing it,
because the ancestors themselves
have walked their own God-given path,
and they know now better than anyone:
When God gives you the path to walk, God walks it with you.

It is during this prayer and this appearance of the great faith ancestors
that Jesus’ appearance changes and his clothes become dazzling.
Peter, seeing all of this wonderment,
starts to freak out, and then seems to think:
We did it! The kingdom is here!
Jesus’ was wrong!
We don’t have to go to Jerusalem and face suffering and death!
It came so quickly and easily!
That’s why Peter talks about building three shelters or booths.
In Jewish tradition,
one of the three great holidays is the Feast of Booths.
Today it is called Sukkot,
and has been observed faithfully for thousands of years.
Jewish families build a shelter outside their house,
and set up a living space in it,
and spend a week celebrating in it.
It is both a celebration of harvest and the abundance of the earth,
and of the time the Hebrew people spent wandering in the wilderness.
Well, the key thing about this Feast of Booths is
it became a symbol of the messianic age,
a symbol of the day when the celebration would not end.
So Peter is ready to build those shelters,
set up the celebration,
and bypass the whole Jerusalem problem entirely.
And then like a dream upon waking,
it all fades away.
And the voice from heaven says:
Listen to him! He is my chosen one! He was right all along!

After this, it seems the issue is not really transfiguration,
but disfiguration.
If those disciples are going to keep looking at Jesus’ face,
they will soon see the disfiguring of a man,
the anguish of his faithful path followed,
the tension of pain,
the scare of doubt,
and then the unsettling peacefulness of death.
The real question for them
after seeing God shining in Jesus on the mountain is:
Could they see God shining in him then, in suffering and death?
Could they see God in Jesus’ disfiguration,
and not merely his transfiguration?
Could they, as the voice from heaven said,
Listen to him, and believe him,
and even, maybe, if they have a bit of Jesus’ own courage and faith,
even follow him,
by taking up their own God-given path and really living it?

There is our great need:
In seeing Jesus’ glory hidden in his disfiguration,
all the result of his faithful taking up his own God-given path,
can we know the God who walks with us
when we follow our own God-given path?
Is there glory only in all that glows and is easy?
Or is there glory in walking the path that even disfigures,
the path that costs, and requires sacrifice,
and demands more trust in God
than we ever thought we would need to have?

Our house in San Antonio is close to Fort Sam Houston,
which houses the Brooke Army Medical Center, or BAMC.
BAMC has probably the world’s top burn center,
and many soldiers badly burned in Iraq and Afghanistan
from bombs and other horrors of war
end up there for treatment.
Austin Highway is nearby my house and Ft. Sam.
A lot of military personnel can be seen in the area at lunch time.
I have on several occasions been eating lunch in that area,
and seen soldiers who obviously are burn patients at BAMC.
Some have lost limbs,
some have faces so disfigured by burns
that it is literally painful to look at them.
I have at times watched a soldier who has suffered so much
walk through the line at Panda Express,
and struggle to carry a tray because his fingers are gone.
I have seen him get a drink,
sit down, and eat.
And I have been stunned.
stunned, that in the midst of such disfiguration,
someone can continue to carry on.
I was humbled by someone who could
face the pain and rejection and disability,
and carry on with life’s daily walk with grace and dignity.
I was haunted that someone like this could
even know how it is that God is walking with him,
and muster a grace-filled, disfigured smile that glowed.
It has been for me a sure sign of the glory of God
hidden right in front of my face.

Christian faith is the faith to see God hidden among us,
hidden in the disfigured faces of ourselves and others,
hidden in the grasped hand of a loved one dying,
hidden in the doubt that permeates all of life.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration
and the story of Moses and the glory of God shining on him
get close to the heart of mystery.
It’s a bit like particle physics, I think:
it seems the closer you get to it,
the less you seem to be able to touch it and understand it.
In both stories, Jesus and Moses,
getting close to the mystery, the glory of God,
God’s heaviness as the Hebrew translates,
is dangerous and fraught with death.
And instead of a full blown, unfiltered encounter with God,
we get a glimpse,
and we mostly get God hidden among us.
This was Luther’s great insight into the way we know God:
we only know God hidden in the cross of Christ,
and that is all the glory we’re going to get in this life.
if you can’t see God’s glory in Jesus’ passion and death,
you can’t see it anywhere,
but if you can see it there,
you can see it everywhere.

This means that if we people of faith are each going to walk
our God-given path in Jesus’ name,
we had better open our eyes to see God hidden among us.
We had better accept the cross as the full revelation of God’s compassion.
We had better expect disfiguration
more than transfiguration,
and trust all of the healing and renewal
and restoration we truly need,
to God’s own mysterious ways and times.
We had better trust ever more deeply
that if we are walking our own God-given path
God is walking with us.

When we gather at the Lord’s table,
it is a lot like Jesus on that mountaintop.
We gather with Christ himself giving himself to us as sacrificial love.
And we gather with all those
who have walked their God-given path for themselves:
Moses, Elijah, Deborah, Esther,
Peter, Mary, Paul, Chloe,
Janet, Wayne, Sam, and Nancy.
All those ancestors,
our mothers and fathers
and grandmothers and grandfathers,
are standing with us and behind us,
encouraging us and urging us on:
Yes, walk your God-given path,
not the easier path that is so enticing.
Walk the hard path that leads to life,
for God walks with you on that path,
and God’s glory is hidden within you all along the way.

And if we get occasional glimpses of it peeking through
and we feel it and we get it more deeply at times,
it still means we have to get up in the morning,
make the coffee,
feed the cat,
go to work or work at home,
and serve the world in our own God-given way.


  1. "if you can’t see God’s glory in Jesus’ passion and death, you can’t see it anywhere,"

    Does this mean we cannot see the glory of God in beauty and happiness, but only in fear and suffering and death? This is the impression that I got from your sermon - God will maim us in order to claim us, so "we had better expect disfiguration". How does this fit with the idea of a loving God?

  2. Thank you for reminding me in your sermon that God's glory is not only found in the mountain-top experiences. We serve a God Who can get down and dirty into the horribly disfiguring parts of our life and show us His glory there, too.


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