Journey with us through the season of Lent as we explore Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The One who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion!
In December, I ran at Secor Metropark in Toledo, Ohio near my in laws house where we were staying for a Christmas celebration. I hadn’t run there often but there is a beautiful trail through woods, fields, along a creek and all of it opens to a really old cool graveyard near the nature center, where I parked and started my run. It was really cold, so I figured I would do just one of these loops around, hit the graveyard and call it a day. However, when I came upon the old graveyard a second time, mild panic set in. At this point I had already run a couple more miles than I planned and the 18 or 19 degree temperature was starting to feel like 18 or 19 degrees. When I came across the graveyard a third time, I nearly started to cry. I needed liberated from the gravitational pull of this creepy place.
I looked for high ground in order to see the Nature Center that I was sure was just spitting distance away from this graveyard. I was in Northwest Ohio, though, and there is no high ground. I looked at the largest tombstone, an obelisk and briefly thought of climbing it. A clear vision came to me of getting to the top and having the old granite crack, break and crushing me. Bad idea I decided. My fingers numb, my body chilled, I began mile 8, feeling hopeless that I would ever lose this graveyard and find my car. If only, I had someone to follow who knew the way.
Whenever I read this story of Transfiguration, I always walk away with a withering critique of the disciples. Why are they so thick? I mean Jesus is glowing right in front of you, talking to Moses, Elijah. You hear God’s voice in a spooky, scary cloud telling you who Jesus is. Yet, before we even get out of Chapter Nine of Luke Jesus yells at them twice, calling them a part of a faithless and perverse generation. They seem unchanged by this mountaintop experience. This week a scholar I read said something simple. The reason they were unchanged is because the transfiguration was God’s gift for Jesus. Jesus was the one changed.
It ain’t easy being Jesus. First, the disciples tell Jesus that they think he is the Messiah, the chosen one of God, blessed to be a savior for God’s people. Jesus responds to this news by telling them a revelation of his own, that he is the Son of Man who will have to suffer and die before leading God’s people to the promised land. The good news is you are the Messiah. The bad news is that the job description involves suffering and dying.
Jesus might have been overwhelmed by these revelations. Maybe, he questioned whether he heard God right. How does blessed and chosen go with suffering and dying? Who wouldn’t wonder whether they got that wrong? Scripture tells us that Jesus went for higher ground, to pray, to discern, to listen to God again. Maybe, like my run when I was just worn out and done and thinking about climbing that tall tombstone to figure out where that car was parked, Jesus climbed Mt. Moriah to get a look for what lay ahead. Tired, maybe frightened, Jesus climbed Mt. Moriah to see if he was still going in the right direction.
And Moses and Elijah met him on that mountain. Moses and Elijah, who live in heaven by the way, met him on Mt. Moriah. Because they live in heaven and hang around God all day, Moses and Elijah were burning bright, reflecting the bright light of God. This is what getting near God does to you, we hear in Exodus this morning. Then Jesus started to burn bright, too. Brighter than them, maybe, almost like the presence of God was coming from within him. Jesus whose very human feet, bruised and cut from his travelling ministry on earth seemed to be planted in heaven instead as he talked to two VIP’s of heaven, Elijah and Moses.
What did they talk about, Moses, Elijah and Jesus as they left our world, but still stayed on Mt. Moriah? Directions, afterall that’s why Jesus had climbed Mt. Moriah in the first place. Moses gave him directions for his exodus, Luke writes in Greek. Our scripture translated the word exodus properly as departure. The problem is that departure loses the Greek wordplay Luke intended. Moses, the guy who led the exodus is telling Jesus about his exodus.
Moses’ exodus was about leading people who were cruelly enslaved to the promised land. Jesus’ exodus would be leading people enslaved by sin to the promised land. Moses’ exodus meant liberation for God’s people. Jesus’ exodus meant liberation for God’s people, revealed by Jesus to be all people. Moses’ exodus was a hard journey for Moses, forty years, wandering in circles in the desert, people hungry, people thirsty, people grumbling, people losing hope. Jesus’ exodus would not take forty years, but it would be even more painful and horrific than all those years in the desert. Before Jesus gets to the promised land, he would indeed pass through a time of suffering and death. Moses tells him you heard it right Jesus, you are going in the right direction, heaven, but the path is not going to be easy.
The disciples weren’t the ones transfigured, it was Jesus. They weren’t the ones who needed to climb the mountain to make sure they were on the right track. It was Jesus. They weren’t the ones who needed sight of the promised land that day, it was Jesus. Peter wanted to build a booth to stay up on that mountain, as if that little bit of supernatural glow on Mt. Moriah was heaven itself. Of course, that was foolish. They were just in sight of the destination. The exodus that Jesus would lead still had days ahead of it, some surely filled with joy, but the last days on earth would be horrific.
What God asked of the disciples on Mt. Moriah was simple and direct. Listen to Jesus. He is leading you on an Exodus. He is leading you on a journey to me. He is leading you to the Promised Land. Listen to Jesus, he is liberating you from what enslaves you, your brokenness, the brokenness of this world, everything around you that seems so screwed up. He is at the front of line. The faithful thing they were asked to do is get behind Jesus and follow him down that mountain. Continue the journey behind him.
Get behind Jesus, all who are weary, tired and cold. Our Lord has sight of the promised land and he is taking us there. Get behind Jesus and be liberated from the rules of this Kingdom as he leads us to the Kingdom of God. Get behind Jesus worshipping and loving God with all our heart. Get behind Jesus loving our neighbor because they bear the image of God. Get behind Jesus leaving behind hate for those we disagree, malice towards those who would hurt us, venom for those we are unable to forgive. Our Lord is waiting for us. Fall into line and he will get all of us there, the promised land. You don’t need a mountaintop experience, you just need Jesus at the front of the line. Amen
So, there was this guy, Jim, that loved this woman, Patty, passionately. And when you met Patty, you knew why. She was funny, thoughtful, had a real gift for drawing people into conversation and listening to what others had to say. Jim daily thanked his lucky stars that Patty had found him and that they were in relationship with each other.
A year in to their exclusive thing, Jim started to get cranky. The problem was that he wanted her home more, around more, with him more. She was always helping someone in her family out of a crisis or taking a call late at night from someone at work. When they would entertain, she would get in these deep almost intimate conversations with one of his friends. It would unnerve him. It bothered him to see her talking alone for an hour with another guy, even when that other guy was one of his oldest friends. It all ended in one evening. After he made her a nice dinner, Patty got up kissed him and said she had to meet a girl at her work who was going through a divorce. He blew up. He was her boyfriend. He should be getting more attention from her than some loser in the cubicle next to her. She belonged to him after all. His words were ugly. Patty ended it a few days later.
I made Jim and Patty up, but it is a story that seems familiar to me. We just never seem satisfied with getting a good thing, when if we got more of that good thing it would be a great thing. Does this make sense? I can’t tell you how many times I filled my bowl to overflowing with ice cream to “finish” the carton, rather than just have a small bowl, leaving another small bowl for myself the next day or maybe even surprise Paige with a small bowl. Why be satisfied with good, when we can get great? Why should we sacrifice and get less so that someone else can receive what we found?
This is how I hear today’s gospel story. Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was not happy when they found out that Jesus wasn’t just sent to save them, but to save everyone. They would be saved. This was clear. Jesus’ love was for them. Using Isaiah 60, Jesus preached that he had been sent, anointed by God’s Spirit, to bring good news to the poor. They were poor and ready for some good news. He had been anointed he preached to free people from what keeps them from living life as God hopes. Demons? Gone. Blindness? healed. This is going to be great, they murmured. Smiles all around. Who would have thunk that the boy who used to climb their olive trees would be the one God sent to do great things…for them!
It was Jesus that ruined the good vibe. A preacher has got to know when to say amen and then stop. Jesus just kept right on talking. I came to bring good news to everyone who is poor, not just my family and friends in Nazareth, he preached. I came to free all of those who are bondage, not just my cousin Miriam with leprosy. I came to bring sight to all of the world, not only cousin Jesse. When the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ sermon became evident to those gathered, their belief that God should save them first if not solely, since he was one of their own, leapfrogged over their joy that God had sent a prophet in their midst. Like Jim drove Patty out of their apartment, they drove Jesus out of Nazareth. In the end, because they were not open to others receiving God’s gift of love in Jesus, they were not able to receive it themselves.
God’s gift of love is wonderful and great, life giving, but it is always meant to be given away. If we don’t understand this, then we can’t receive it. God’s love is not a big fat 401K just growing over the years in an account, ready and waiting for you when you need it. God’s love is an action verb. God’s love is a wild animal hating a cage. God’s love is a beautiful painting that would be obscene if we kept it in our home and no one else saw it. Sure, it’s a sacrifice to share, but, if we don’t understand it has got to be shared, we won’t ever be able to receive it in the first place. Our call to faith is not simply to be vessels to receive God’s love, but vessels to pour out God’s love.
For the last four weeks on Wednesday night, about twenty five of us have had a discussion on how to be church in an increasingly violent world. The crux of the problem is how can we protect ourselves from strangers while at the same time welcome strangers as passionately as God welcomes and loves them. Locked doors made no sense. We cannot love a neighbor we refuse to meet. Profiles of likely suspicious subjects made no sense. Who do we turn away because the risk is too high? When we got to the solution part, all the suggestions assumed we couldn’t keep someone out that wanted to do us harm. We would have to sacrifice a small level of security, let everyone in the doors, in order to do the greater work of God, to love and invite everyone passionately.
A sacrifice of love. This is what we are doing when we are okay with the person we love, sharing that love passionately with others, too. A sacrifice of love. This is what we are doing when our focus as church is more about the world outside our doors, than the needs inside our doors. A sacrifice of love. This is what Jesus wanted of his hometown when they heard the good news. Rejoice that God’s anointed one has drawn near then send that body of Christ into the world to share that great love with others. The love we have received is abundant, it is more than enough to be poured out and sacrificed for others.