Transfiguration Sunday – A Sermon

A sermon preached on Sunday February 7, 2016 at St. Paul’s (Chatsworth) and St. John’s (Port Elgin).

Texts: Exodus 24.29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2; Luke 9.28-36

“Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy” (Psalm 99:9) Amen.

I.

When we see repeated images and figures within the Bible, we can be certain that God is drawing our attention to something especially important. As Christians, we read Scripture with the assurance of God’s providential ordering of the entire text. Therefore, what might strike some readers as a matter of coincidence or pure happenstance, should alert Christians to pay close attention. Though the Bible was written over a long period of time by various human authors, God stands behind and speaks through the text, ordering it to his purposes; there are no coincidences in the Bible.

If there are no coincidences in the Bible, then what are we to make of the strange images and occurrences in today’s readings? The language of journeys up and down mountains, supernatural clouds, shining and veiled faces and apparitions of prophets strikes us as the stuff born of mystical illusion. Moreover, the story of the Transfiguration is a rather strange interruption in the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus. Perhaps we can accept miracles; but what happens to Jesus and to Moses before him is mythology, sheer fantasy, right?

II.

It is precisely because the accounts of the mountaintop experiences of Moses and Jesus strike us as strange and even embarrassing that “we should take [them] with great seriousness”.[1] Indeed, the seriousness with which we should attend to these texts is underlined by God’s providential ordering of Scripture; “reading the Bible isn’t about confirming out ideas and experience and going away satisfied. It’s about being challenged, called into question”.[2]

Last Monday, Rev. Carrie, John, Ann Veyvara-Divinski, and I had the opportunity to travel to Wycliffe College to hear retired bishop Will Willimon speak. Bishop Willimon reminded us that “God uses Scripture as dynamite in our lives”. Scripture blows up all our preconceived notions of who God is; the truth of the matter is that God is not who we expected God to be. Christmas and Holy Week stand as powerful reminders of this, but so does Christ’s entire earthly ministry. The oddness of God, Willimon says, is seen Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is also revealed, I would add, at the Transfiguration.

The Transfiguration is dynamite because it blows up our tendency to create Jesus in our own image – a Jesus who never disagrees with me; a Jesus who supports everything I do, a Jesus who agrees with every opinion I have and every cause I support; a Jesus who likes the same people I do and hates the same people I do. The Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus is Holy; moreover, he is the long-awaited Messiah who will enact God’s freedom and forgiveness.

This all becomes clear when we attend to the words of Scripture as dutiful servants refusing to bend the text towards our own preconceived notions of who God is. On the mountaintop, we do not see Jesus meek-and-mild, the easy-pushover we like him to be. Rather, we see Jesus full of power and glory; we see him shining in the light of his holiness. The Transfiguration is not “merely an episode in the story of Jesus”; it reveals something true about “the whole of who he is, of all he does”.[3] Therefore, Luke is trying to tell us something in a not-so-subtle way: Jesus shares in God’s glory and holiness. Because Jesus shares God’s glory and holiness, Jesus is God’s likeness.[4] To know Jesus is to know God. The truth of the Christian faith hangs on the revelation of Jesus as the one who is, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “light from light, true God from true God”.

Furthermore, the language of mountaintop imagery in Genesis and Exodus pre-figures the Tabernacle. Moses ascends a cloud-covered Mt. Sinai to receive the Law and directions for building the Tabernacle.[5] As Mt. Sinai was covered in cloud, the “glory of the Lord settled” upon it, a glory that appeared “like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain” (Ex. 24.17) visible to all those gathered at the foot of the mountain. Moses stands as God’s chosen representative of God’s people to stand in the presence of a holy God in the way that the high priest alone will later enter the Holy-of-Holies in the Tabernacle on the Day of Atonement.

Luke clearly evokes this tabernacle imagery in his account of the Transfiguration. Jesus stands as God’s chosen representative of sinful humanity and is revealed as the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah who will atone for the sins of the world. Jesus is the high priest who will accomplish the sacrifice to end all sacrifice because he is the Holy One of Israel and the only mediator between God and humanity.

The presence of Moses and Elijah underscores Jesus’s identity as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets; everything about the Old Covenant God made with Moses on Mt. Sinai finds fulfilment in Jesus. Jesus inaugurates the New Covenant as the promised Messiah. Moreover, just as Moses led the people out of bondage, Jesus will free all people from their bondage to sin. Just as Moses called for the sacrifice of the lamb at the first Passover as God’s people prepared for their Exodus from Egypt, Jesus is the Lamb of God who will lead God’s people into God’s kingdom. Just as Moses fed the people in the wilderness, Jesus feeds his people with his body and blood.

You will recall that upon Jesus’ crucifixion, the veil in the temple that separated the Holy-of-holies from the sanctuary tore open; the veil that stood as a symbolic reminder that the holiness of God must remain separate from the sinfulness of humans is now rendered mute and meaningless, a pile of ornate fabric clumped on the temple floor. The sacrifice to end all sacrifice definitively overcomes the division between God and humanity; God and humanity are reconciled through the mediation of Jesus Christ.

The tabernacle imagery is not lost on Peter; he sees but he does not understand what is happening around him. As a result, he attempts to domesticate God’s holiness: “let us make three tents” (Lk. 9.33). Time and again God’s people wrongly think that we can somehow manage God’s holiness in order to use it for our own purposes, dispensing it in small amounts as needed. However, the reality is God’s holiness means “God’s utter uniqueness; the majestic, undefeated freedom in which he is who he is”.[6] Indeed, when Scripture speaks of God’s holiness it is saying that “God is who God is”.[7] In the holiness of Jesus Christ, revealed at the Transfiguration, we see that God is this one. Therefore, to say ‘Jesus’ is to say ‘God’s holiness’.

Holiness is not an abstract theological concept over which there are differing opinions. Rather, holiness is the divine life of the Trinity lived in relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and holiness is that same relationship extended to humanity. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s holiness and, as the mediator between the Godhead and humanity, he brings us into restored and reconciled relationship with God.

III.

While the silence of Peter, James, and John was doubtlessly born of their confusion and wonder about their experience on the mountaintop, it is clear that they did not remain silent: their testimony stands in the words we read today. And so Paul enjoins us in 2 Corinthians that we, the Church, as priests of the New Covenant, must act and speak with great boldness about the truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not go up the mountain alone; the one who is God’s high priest takes with him those, who like Israel before them and the Church after them, are called “a royal priesthood [and] a holy nation” (Ex. 19.6; 1 Pet. 2.9). We are not holy because of our own efforts at piety, spirituality, morality, and religion; we are holy because Christ, through the Holy Spirit, makes us Holy and gives us a holy mission: to proclaim and embody Christ’s holiness.

We diminish Christ’s holiness when we fashion him in our image; however, we magnify Christ’s image when we submit ourselves to the work of the Holy spirit as it transforms us into Christ’s image – where Christ’s holiness is everywhere visible in our lives, the lives we live both as part of the gathered community of Christ’s body in Saugeen Shores and as individuals in our lives at home, work, school, and play; the One who is the Light of the World shining forth from our lives in a way the world cannot ignore.

God is the one makes us holy because he is a God who sanctifies. Sanctification is one of those $10 they teach you at seminary. But sanctification is also something that we modern Christians tend to ignore because it begins with and requires repentance: the acknowledgement that we stand before a holy God ensnared in the web of sin. Of course, this does not fit with the regnant cult of self-help spirituality our culture prizes so highly. Nevertheless, repentance is the beginning of the way of sanctification: the process by which God makes us, his beloved children, holy. Repentance is a turning our back to false gods and toward the holy God who lavishes his grace upon us in Christ Jesus; sanctification is how God makes us into saints: those who live by God’s grace alone.

As we enter into Lent, I encourage you to focus on the sheer immensity of God’s holiness. Let us approach the foot of the cross with humility, confessing our stubborn refusal to accept God’s grace in our attempts to domesticate God’s holiness. “Let us, therefore, pray that we may be put to death by [God’s] power [and holiness] and die to the world of the wickedness of darkness and that the spirit of sin may be extinguished in us. Let us put on and receive the soul of the heavenly Spirit and be transported from…the darkness into the light [and holiness] of Christ. Let us rest in life forever”.[8] Amen.

[1] John Webster, “Listen to Him,” in The Grace of Truth, 113.

[2] John Webster, “Listen to Him,” 113.

[3] Webster, 114.

[4] Cf. Webster, 115.

[5] Cf. Exodus 24.15ff.

[6] John Webster, “The Way of Holiness,” in The Grace of Truth, 201.

[7] Webster, “Holiness”, 201.

[8] Pseudo-Macarius as cited by John Webster, “Communion with Christ” in Eilers and Strobel (eds.), Santified by Grace, 138.

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