Transfiguration: 3 February 2008
(Exodus 24:12-18/Psalm 99/2 Peter 1:16-21/Matthew 17:1-9)
Living the Story
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Books on preaching abound. They generally fall into two categories: collections of sermons and how-to books on preaching – Sermonating for Dummies or An Idiot’s Guide to Speaking for God, or some technical title which amounts to the same thing.
I like the best of the first type very much, the collections. I read those by “masters” of the art like William Willimon, Frederick Buechner, and Flemming Rutledge, men and women acknowledged by their peers as the finest preachers of their generation – though by what criteria I’m still a bit vague. These sermons seem to me a fitting and costly response to the offeratory,
Let us, by the mercies of God, present ourselves as a living sacrifice,
holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.
And let us not neglect to do good and to share what we have,
for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
There’s a Little Drummer Boy quality of humility about each of these preachers and its music is the back beat of their sermons: I wish I had better to offer, it beats out its rhythm, but this is what God has given me and I return it with full heart to his glory. I hope, if it wakes him, it doesn’t make him cry. Each knows the power of words about the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us for awhile, knows it and I think fears it a bit. Each feels inadequate to stand and proclaim, “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” and yet each feels called, compelled to do so. Each could have been, maybe is, Moses hoping God will send Aaron or some other golden tongued orator to Pharaoh. But, no: I made your mouth, now go, tell Pharaoh to let my people go, God says. And so they do, week after week, page after page, word after word. I like these books very much.
The others, not so much. These are books by the experts, by the ones who know exactly how to preach and are only too happy to tell you how to do it too. “Preaching must be expository,” one writes, “a word by word explanation – emphasizing all Greek roots, mind you – of verse after verse of a text.” This is often “real time” preaching it seems: if Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, it takes these preachers about a year and a half to preach through his letters to the Corinthians. “Oh, no,” others say. “Preaching should be topical. Pick a subject and survey the entire Bible to see what God has to say about it.” And so the congregation spends the next 6 months listening to in-depth research on a topic that may be of no interest except to the preacher. Some advocate lectionary preaching, some preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Pick a way and there is a champion of it and books about it. I read one – Read is too generous. I scanned it and put it back on the shelf. – that had broken down the mystery of preaching into discrete steps and had assigned them to particular days of the week. God forbid that God speaks on Wednesday when the day for listening to God is Monday. These books I don’t like so much.
Me? I’m no expert. I have no precise plan. I sit down with my Bible, a blank sheet of paper and a pen, and a prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer. And I wait, wait for a word from the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us for awhile. Sometimes I have a full heart and an empty cup of coffee. Sometimes it’s the other way round. And so I wait, listening for the whisper, for the still, small voice. Sometimes I think I hear it; sometimes I’m not so sure. I do what I can do and commit the offering to the Lord’s keeping.
As far as I can tell Jesus didn’t preach much, at least not what we think of as preaching, and that should be cautionary for those of us who do. I’m pretty sure he read no books on preaching and I’m absolutely sure he wrote none. He told stories: wonderful stories, beautiful stories, confusing stories, frustrating stories. And he was content to let the stories do their work as he moved on. And they’ve continued to do their work for two thousand years, for all those with ears to hear.
Stories are powerful because they create worlds and draw us into those worlds. And though the stories themselves don’t change, the worlds they create do and the roles we play in those worlds do. The Prodigal Son is what it is; the words haven’t changed. But I have changed every time I’ve entered the story and come out again on the other side. I’ve been the prodigal and his elder brother. I’ve been the slave who brings the robe and ring. I’m hoping someday to be the father. And these roles have revealed me and convicted me and changed me. That’s what stories do; they form us and change us.
For the past 300 years or so our most learned scholars and philosophers and scientists have told us that stories don’t matter so much anymore. They’ve encouraged us to step outside our stories, to find a place to stand beyond them – a place where we can see the world not as our stories tell us it is, but rather as it really is. The ancient wisdom knows better. There is no such place beyond our stories; we are storied people. All of us, all of our days, are formed by the stories we hear and tell and live. We cannot escape story even should we want to. We are not free to be free of story. All we can do is to choose the story we will hear and tell and live, the story that will shape us and form us. And that is a most important choice.
So, we find ourselves in a marketplace of stories, each clamoring for our attention, each vying to be the dominant story of our lives. As now, so too in the 1st century. Peter preached and wrote into a world of stories: the story of Greek wisdom and philosophy, the story of Roman power and domination, the story of Israel’s God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who had spoken through the Law and Prophets; the God whose people were still in exile. Peter preached and wrote a new story, really a new chapter of the Ancient Story, the climax of every story. The Creator God has not abandoned his fallen, sin-infected creation but has personally entered history – literally His Story – in the person of his Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, we crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…Let all [the house of Israel] therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom we crucified (Acts 2:23-24, 36, ESV, adapted).
He has been made Lord and Christ – Ruler of all creation – so that he might restore creation, destroy sin and death, and reconcile all things to his God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever. Amen.
This is the story that Peter preaches and writes: a story of creation, fall, and restoration; a story of death, burial, and resurrection. To many, then and now, it seems madness; yet, Peter insists it is true. “If only you had been there,” he says, “you would have seen it, too.” Peter refuses to let this be just one more story among many. He will not be dismissed as a spinner of yarns. Too much is at stake. And so he writes:
16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased," 18we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:16-21, ESV).
There are many myths, many stories, cleverly devised and persuasive. This isn’t one of them. This is the truth. That’s Peter’s conviction and proclamation. He knows. He was there. He saw and heard. He’s not writing this story to the broader pagan community that has no reason to believe him. No, he’s writing to the church, to the church which knows his story, to the church which knows that his only lie was in once denying this story – a lie for which he bitterly repented, a lie for which the risen Lord graciously forgave him. This is Peter, for God’s sake, the apostle on whom Christ built the chruch; yes, and it is for God’s sake that he tells this story. And for ours. He writes because false prophets have arisen in the church itself, false teachers
who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep (2 Peter 2:1b-3, ESV).
Even in the church there are competing stories – now as then.
As Peter tells it here, the true story is a story of transfiguration, of Jesus on the holy mountain in the presence of Moses and Elijah, of Jesus encompassed by the glory of the Divine Majesty, of Jesus shining with the uncreated light of his divinity, of Jesus endorsed by the very voice of God, itself: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mt 17:5b, ESV). If we are storied people – and we are; if we must live under some story – and we must; then Peter says, “Choose the story of transfiguration.” The purpose of a story like this is not just to inform its hearers, but to form them, to draw them in and make them participants in the story, and to change them in the process. What happened to Jesus on that mountain – what Peter and James and John actually heard and saw – is only part of the story. What will happen to you on that mountain is the other part of the story. By telling the story of the transfiguration Peter calls us to come apart from all lesser stories, to climb the holy mountain and there to spend time with the Law and Prophets, to delight in them until they become luminous, until the presence of God engulfs us with the uncreated light of his presence, until we see Jesus revealed in all his majestic glory, until we see Jesus and Jesus alone, until we hear the voice of God: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Peter calls us to live out of the story of Jesus’s transfiguration, because it will become the story of our transformation.
Can you imagine how the world would be transformed if it lived the story of transfiguration?
Come, you politicians. Come, you leaders of the nations. Come to the holy mountain and see Jesus in his glory. Come hear God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” How would these leaders govern once they had taken their place in the story, once they had truly seen Jesus, once they had begun to listen to the one in whom God is well pleased? Would they continue to build nuclear weapons or border fences? Would they continue to pursue economic policies that privilege the rich and dispossess the poor? Would they endorse the abortion of babies in the name of choice and the execution of criminals in the name of justice? How would the leaders govern once they had taken their place in the story of transfiguration?
Come, you generals. Come, you arms merchants. Come you agents of death in all its forms. Come hear God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” How would these soldiers and mercenaries wage war once they had taken their place in the story, once they had truly seen Jesus the Prince of Peace, once they had begun to listen to the one in whom God is well pleased? Would they shock and awe their enemies? Would they prosecute military campaigns that destroy hospitals and schools, churches and mosques – even as collateral damage? Would they waterboard and torture and humiliate their prisoners for the sake of expediency? How would the generals and commanders wage war once they had taken their place in the story of transfiguration?
Come, you artists. Come you writers and poets. Come you singers and actors. Come to the holy mountain to see Jesus in his glory. Come hear God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” How would these artists create, what would these artists create once they had taken their place in the story, once they had truly seen Jesus in all his beauty, once they had begun to listen to the Beloved? Saw 18? Rambo 47? Piss Christ? Music and videos that extol drugs and violence and degrade women? Pornography? An industry that uses up its young stars and then casts them aside, that benefits from the notoriety of their downward spirals? How would these artists create, what would they create once they had taken their place in the story of transfiguration?
Come, you businessmen and captains of industry. Come to the mountain.
Come, you scholars and teachers. Come to the mountain.
Come, you scientists and engineers. Come to the mountain.
Come, you preachers. Come to the mountain.
Come, all you with ears to hear and minds to think and hearts to love and hands to serve and stories to live. Come to the mountain. Come see Jesus transfigured before your eyes. Come see Jesus revealed in all his majestic glory. Come hear the voice of God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Come and take your place in the story of transfiguration. Amen.
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