Friday, February 20, 2009

Sermon: Transfiguration of Our Lord ( 22 Feb 2009)

Sermon: Transfiguration of Our Lord (22 February 2009)
(2 Kings 2:1-12/Psalm 50:1-6/2 Corinthians 4:3-6/Mark 9:2-9)
If you will you can become all flame.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

The church tells the story of two and a half men. It is our story, as much for women as for men, though the outward form is sometimes gender specific. And it is – as all true stories are – God’s story. It starts…well, it starts in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, when through the Word all things came into being: light and life and men. ”And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27, NASB). Adam and Eve, scripture names them – our first parents, the exemplars of our race.

Man was, by nature, oriented toward God, in communion with God – a partaker of the divine nature. God’s breath was man’s life. God’s will was man’s desire. God’s love was man’s goal. Man walked a path through the Garden toward God in company with God, progressing from one degree of glory to the next. Man, created in the image of God, would, through obedience and communion, progress ever toward the likeness of God and would be drawn ever more fully into perichoresis, the mutual life of the Trinity. Such was man’s purpose and nature – man’s logos. And so it was until man was deceived by the father of lies, the serpent Satan. Satan offered precisely what man wanted, a fulfillment of man’s God-breathed life and nature – to become like God.

1 Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:1-5, NKJV).

Rightly does scripture call the serpent cunning. Man is created in his very nature to desire God, to move toward God, to become like God – but only through divine grace that comes from obedience to God and communion with God. Satan offers to fulfill man’s greatest desire and rightful purpose through an act of disobedience and rebellion. Perhaps you’ve misunderstood God’s instructions, Satan suggests to Eve. Perhaps God wants you to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, wants you to be like him now. It sounds so right and the fruit looks so appetizing that man – in the person first of Eve then of Adam – through disobedience bows down to worship the creature – the serpent Satan. And all hell breaks loose; sin and death come forth victorious and claim their victims. Man is diminished in body and mind and spirit. Man, the glorious creation of God – the bearer of God’s image and the promise of his likeness – is reduced to half-man. Half-man hides from God, unable to bring his shame into God’s presence. And so, cut off from the source of life, death reigns supreme – not over the first man only, but over all the children of man. Man was made for light and life. Man inherits darkness and death.

Yet, the image of God within half-man has not been completely erased; man’s logos – man’s purpose and nature – compel him forward toward life and meaning. But, apart from God, faced with immanent death, half-man knows not where to turn. He has forgotten God, forgotten the height from which he fell. And so it is that half-man turns toward the creation, desperately rummaging there for the answer, desperately seeking there to stave off death and the fear of death, desperately grasping light and life in a place of darkness and death. And so, half-man spirals downward.

21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
28Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Rom 1:21-32, NIV).

Such is the state of half-man – not of each individual, of course – but of the race of half-men: distanced from God, unmindful of his glory, obsessed with self and power and pleasure and death, and spiraling ever downward toward corruption.

Then, into this world of half-men, comes the True Man, the new Adam – the One who spoke man into existence and breathed into him the breath of life, now himself incarnate, now in human form.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-5, 14, NKJV).

This True Man took half-man to the mountain: Sinai, Carmel, Tabor. Look and remember, he says to half-man. Turn from darkness and death toward light and life. See what God intends.

1 And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”2 Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. 4 And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”— 6 because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid. 7 And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!” 8 Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves (Mk 9:1-8, NKJV).

“Jesus, as far as we can we obey the Law and the Prophets – Moses and Elijah. We say our prayers a little, we fast a little, we give our alms a little. As far as it is in us so to do, we live at peace with all men. What more can we do?” say the half-men. And his clothes become exceedingly white and his face shines like the sun, and the voice of God speaks, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him.” Jesus answers without saying a word: If you will you can become all flame. This is True Man, man in the image and likeness of God. This is the proclamation that the gospel is about transfiguration, about half-men becoming true men, about darkness dispelled by light, about death swallowed up in the victory of life. It is about half-men receiving by grace through Christ alone what is Christ’s alone by nature. This is the story of two and a half men: of Adam and the fall, of the race of half-men, of Jesus and the transfiguration.

45 And so it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being.”The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. 49 And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man (1 Cor 15:45-49).

The power of the gospel is the power of transfiguration, not for Jesus only but for all the race of half-men. Jesus’ transfiguration points the way to yours and to mine and to all who will come to the light of his dawning.

Athanasius, newly consecrated bishop of Alexandria, determined to visit all the churches in his see, to make certain the orthodox faith was being proclaimed. On his journey he learned of three, old monks who lived alone on an island. Like the devoted bishop he was, Athanasius set sail to the island to shepherd, even if briefly, this small flock. He was greeted with great warmth and reverence by the monks. “Tell me,” Athanasius said to them after awhile, “how it is that you pray.” “Father, we are not learned men,” the monks replied. “We simply lift our hands to God and say, ‘We are three and you are three: Have mercy upon us.’”

“Ah, dear Fathers, this will never do,” said Athanasius. “I must teach you to pray as the church prays.” And for the next several days – the monks were slow learners – the new bishop taught the old monks the Lord’s Prayer. Satisfied at last that the monks knew how to pray properly, Athanasius set sail for Alexandria. That very night aboard his ship he noticed a glow in the distance, a glow getting brighter and rapidly approaching the ship. He looked and saw the three old monks running toward him on the water. When they reached the ship they simply stood on the water as on dry ground with holy light encompassing them. “Father Athansius,” they said, “forgive our slowness, but we have forgotten again the words of the prayer you taught us. Please pray with us again.” “No, my fathers,” Athanasius said. “It is you who must pray for me.”

For all the old monks did not know, they did know this: the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (cf 2 Cor 4:6). And through this glory – a glory seen not on Mount Tabor only, but supremely on Mount Calvary – they were transfigured.

And that is the heart of the gospel, that through Christ half-men become true men; that through Christ darkness and death are conquered by light and life; that through Christ man is reconciled to God, becomes a partaker of the divine nature, moves from glory to glory, from image to likeness.

The promise and the challenge of the gospel are one and the same: If you will, you can become all flame.

[1] From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Benedicta Ward. Cistercian Studies Series, number 59. This is saying 7 of Abba Joseph of Panephysis and appears on page 103.

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