Transfiguration Sunday

The Text: Matthew 17:1-9

 

Here’s a question for you. You’re not allowed to phone a friend, but you could chat with the person next to you. The question is: what is the first commandment? The answer is: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ Why would God command that? Is he some sort of control freak or on a power trip? bobIsaiah 40:18-20 (NIV) really gives us the answer:

To whom, then, will you compare God?

  What image will you compare him to?

As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.
A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple.”

 In the religions of the pagan nations surrounding Israel, each person had their own personal idol they would have had carved or had made and each year they would take it up the mountain for an enthronement festival. God’s own people Israel got caught up in this abomination. Either they made an idol overlaid with gold, or if they are too poor for this, used a block of wood and hoped that it would not be vulnerable to rotting when exposed to the elements! Further, these blocks of wood and stone and metal couldn’t be in all places at once. They couldn’t be a saving presence wherever the people were, so they had to be carted around, and then set up and chained to the carts so that they didn’t fall over in transit! Quite comical, really. And the Israelites themselves fell for this cult of nothingness.

 The irony is astounding. Whereas the Almighty Creator created humankind in his image, mere humans created idols in their own image hoping by them to control the weather, but which were instead impacted by the weather. Those which were not everywhere present had to be carried around, and chained down so they wouldn’t fall over. And so the ironic reality for those who worshipped these idols is that they are not freed by, but chained by these idols and the worship of them and this is their downfall. For even though these idols had carved eyes they couldn’t see. Even though they had carved mouths they couldn’t speak. They were not life giving. They could not save, but only enslave.

 By contrast, today’s account of the transfiguration clearly portrays Jesus as the true living God. Unlike the little idols that had to be pulled up a mountainside on a trolley, Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a high mountain to be with him alone. And for a brief shining moment Jesus is shown in the fullness of his glory to indisputably be the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. And that’s the Father’s verification from the cloud: “This is my Son; with him I am well-pleased.”

 This Jesus is the One, who, up until this point in Matthew’s Gospel, has overcome the Devil’s temptation of him in the wilderness, he has healed lepers, the paralysed, and cast out demons from crowds of people. While he was in a boat with his disciples, he effortlessly calmed the storm that was lashing at it by simply telling it to stop. He restores a little girl to life and heals a woman who had been suffering from bleeding for 12 years. He restores sight to the blind. He feeds the multitudes with five loaves and two fish. He walks on the sea.

 There is nothing outside the scope of Jesus’ authority and power. So confesses Peter, just before our text today, in Matthew 16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

 There on the unnamed mountain, for a few moments, the appearance of Jesus is changed so that his glorious divinity is on show. This really is the Son of God, the Saviour, God made flesh who dwelt among us, the One in whom the fullness of God dwells in bodily form. Accompanying this dazzling visual manifestation of God’s glory is the Father’s declaration: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Then adds: “Listen to him!”

 Why? Because Peter’s not listening.

 Peter just has to say something. We’ve probably all wished that at times: “If only I knew what to say”. Imagine this spectacular sight; it’s impossible to comprehend; it would be mind-blowing—what would we do or say? Peter blurts out the seemingly bizarre offer: “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

 Peter wants to hang on to the mountain-top experience. He wants to bask in the glory. He hasn’t listened to what Jesus had just told them (for us, the verses immediately before today’s text: that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed—to which Peter replies: “No Lord, that will never happen to you!”—and that his disciples must also lose their lives by dying to self and take up their cross and follow him.

 We shouldn’t be too hard on Peter and the others. We have the benefit of the whole story. We’ve received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost to bring to remembrance everything Jesus had said. They were about to lose their dear friend. They were confused and didn’t understand. They expected Jesus was coming to free them; to save them. How then could Jesus possibly talk of death on a Cross? That hardly sounds like the victory and rescue that people had hoped for and had come to see in Jesus.

 Jesus’ claim that he must suffer and die smacks of failure, defeat, and compromise of God’s mission. How can suffering and death possibly happen to the One who is the agent of salvation? How can Jesus succumb to the very forces that he’s just overcome? Where is victory in a ruler who is going to be brutally murdered? Such humiliation sounds preposterous!

 Jesus’ death is not defeat or failure. The transfiguration is the visual confirmation that the freedom and hope they long for in Jesus will be fulfilled. But glory can only come after the Cross, where his death is the beginning of his victorious rule, once for all. Here Jesus will liberate from sin, Satan and death itself.

 Perhaps, like the disciples, we too have experiences in our faith journey where God does not work in the way we would expect. We might struggle to understand what he is doing—or seemingly not doing—in our lives. We might not like the sound of ‘dying to self’ and ‘taking our Cross’ and following Jesus. But only when we do, do we grow in Christian faith and love and life, becoming more like Jesus himself.

 “This is My Son; with him I am well-pleased. Listen to him.” When our faith journey is not going as we might expect it to, our text today gives us hope in three ways. First, in Christ, God is a personal God. He is a God of communication. A relational God. He has something important to say to us. He wants to speak to us. Unlike carved idols, He can…and does speak.  He wants to talk with us and reveal himself and his saving will to us. “This is my Son; with him I am well-pleased. Listen to him.

 Second, when we do listen to Jesus, we grow in the life of God. When we hold firm to the Word of God and endure in faith to the end, we too will join Peter and James and John and will see Christ face to face in all his glory, not just for a fleeting glimpse but for all eternity. Despite our failings and ways we haven’t taken up our Cross and followed Jesus, but have followed our own heart, or the times we haven’t died to self but revelled in it, through trusting in Christ and his word, we are pronounced righteous, not guilty and we will see Jesus face to face for all eternity and he will say to us, as he did to the terrified disciples: “Do not be afraid.”

 Third, until that time, whenever that day will be, Jesus journeys with us. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” the Father says. When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus came down with them.

 Jesus is on the plain with us too. He is in the wilderness. He is in those parts of our lives where there seems to be no hope of change for the better, those parts of our lives where we just don’t know what to do, who to turn to, or what to pray. Jesus journeys with us in the depths of our despair and brokenness, our illness, our struggles, our grief and pain. He journeys with us and will remain faithful to his promises even in the times we are unfaithful to him.

 How does our appearance need to be transfigured? Where do the commandments painfully show us the areas in our lives where real change needs to come? As we are called to die to self by picking up our cross and following Jesus, hear his comforting words to each of us: “Get up. … Do not be afraid.”

 For he is with us and will remain faithful to his promises to us to the very day when he will take us up the mount and we see him in the fullness of his glory, worshipping him forever in brilliant and dazzling light. There, our mortal bodies will also be transfigured to be completely without sin and frailty. Our face will shine like the sun, our clothes will be as white as the brightest light as we stand in the presence of the Lamb.

 Praise be to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because all of this is possible only because of him alone. The mountain of transfiguration points ahead to the mountain of Calvary, where Jesus’ blood brought us victory over the devil and released us from our sins.

 His outstretched arms nailed to the wood of the cross are the keys to the gate of Heaven, for us. Nothing else could possibly be added to his sufficient work. Nothing else needs to be. You share in all of this, personally, through your baptism into Christ. By virtue of baptism, we become children of God. That is why the Father’s proclamation about Jesus in our text are his words to us: “You are my son/my daughter whom I love, with you I am well pleased.”

 Where else could you possibly find more precious words?

Amen.

Third of March Transfiguration

Galatians 3 : 26 – 29

 ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’gus1

 All people are equal.

Now there is nothing new about this, is there? But when you really understand the implications of our being equal, this becomes a radically new idea!

I am sure that if you were in a large gathering of people, in a busy shopping centre or at a major sporting event (as long as it wasn’t a footy game involving Collingwood!); and you asked people randomly if they believe everybody is of equal value and worth, you would find very few people disagreeing with this idea.

Equality is a foundational value of most western democracies.

It is foundational for our democratic system of government.

But what very few people in western nations ever consider, or ask, is: ‘where does this idea of equality come from?’ ‘Why do we believe that all people are equal?’

 However, in saying this, we must understand two realities …

  1. While we may say and believe that all people are equal, our society rarely treats people equally!

It is an idea we aim for, but mostly fail to live out; either personally or in community. But while it is true that we fail to embrace this value, this does not mean we don’t inwardly believe that it is a value we ought to hold and embrace in life.

     2.But while all people are equal, this does not mean that all ideas are equal.

Everyone has equal value, but the values and ideals we may hold are not equal. Just think of some of the evil ideas people have sought to carry out over the centuries. Like the ethnic cleansing of communities, undertaken by Hitler, Pol Pot or the more recent actions of the Myanmar military against the Rohingya minorities. Or even our own interactions with our Indigenous people. In communities where we hold people as equal, purging a society or an ethnic group due to their heritage is simply appalling. The people who push these attitudes and actions are of equal value, but we do not give their ideas equal value.

Now, if you were to ask why we think people are equal, the answer will usually be: ‘this is what everyone thinks; and this is what everyone has always thought! But neither of these responses is true!

The reality is: people have not always treated everyone as equal!

During the time of Jesus, the Greco-Roman world did not believe people were of equal value and worth. the well known Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato did not believe all people were equal. Aristotle believed there were subclasses within society, where the lower classes of slaves existed to serve the upper classes.

The term he used for these slaves was neither ‘male’ nor ‘female’. They were non-persons!  He believed people were born into that role. They were the property of their owners. Literally: ‘living tools’. In his mind slaves were much like working animals, for they both, with their bodies, served the needs of life.

Now, how would you like to be reduced to a ‘thing – a living tool’, for others to use?God’s own Son, Jesus, came into this world of structural inequality!

Teaching and treating all people he encountered with equal dignity and worth.

Around the world there are many communities with structural inequality.

If a nation chooses to follow the Hindu teaching, the logical outcome will be structural inequality. That is underpinned by two key ideas …

  1. Firstly, through reincarnation – where every soul returns again and again.
  2. Secondly, your behaviour in each life will impact your place in the next life. This is what is called ‘karma’. So, upper class Brahmins feel justified in their privileges, because this reflects their past life. Theirs is a culture where inequality is ‘institutionalized’ through the religious philosophy and teaching.

So why then, did Jesus and the early church treat people equally?

Where did this idea come from?

It is really an Old Testament concept from the Jewish faith which is now foundational to what we as Christians believe. The creation story in Genesis tells us that: ‘God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27) Every human being has God’s own signature on them!

All of Scripture repeats and echoes this idea. You are of worth because God made you. You are precious, because you reflect God’s own image. You are loved, because God promises to be with you.

It doesn’t matter whether you are brilliant, powerful and wealthy, or whether you are poor, disabled, or unable to contribute in some ways, before God you are of equal worth. So this principle of everyone being equal must be what we believe. It must be what we hold on to and promote in the world.

The beautiful words of Psalm 139 reinforce this concept of equality … (Psalm 139:13-16)

“For you (God) created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful,

I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

It is helpful to remember that equality became the foundation for modern democracies like the United States of America. In their Declaration of Independence, it boldly states …

‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all people are created equal.’

Jesus taught and treated people as if they were equal.

At a time when people believed in inequality; Jesus taught equality!

He tells us the: ‘Parable of the lost sheep.’ The shepherd leaves the ninety nine sheep and goes after the one lost. In a powerful way this teaches us that everyone matters and all are precious to him because they are equally valued. Every single one is precious – eternally precious.

In John’s gospel, Jesus also outlines the two ways a shepherd cares for his sheep …

  1. One is the common pen for holding sheep in the village overnight.

A number of different shepherds would come in from the fields with their sheep for the night. They were kept in a common holding pen until the next morning. Each shepherd would call his sheep. Recognizing the shepherd’s voice, they would follow, for they knew and trusted their own shepherd.

  1. The other is where the shepherd is with his sheep, in the countryside for a number of days.

The shepherd would build a small holding pen from sticks and branches. There was no door to the pen, so the shepherd lay across the opening through which the sheep came and went. He was their protector.

The apostle Paul reminds us that we are all one in Jesus.

All the barriers of class and status are broken down and destroyed. In Jesus, we are all equal.

These structural inequalities of the Greco-Roman world remind us that now everything is changed. In Jesus!  ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave of free, male or female, for we are all one in Jesus!’

So what does equality look like in our lives?

It begins with our attitude. Considering and treating everyone as equal. ‘Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God,’ we are told. (Romans 15:7)  Accept the lonely, the poor, the sick, the unemployed and the homeless. Accept them, as in Jesus, God lovingly accepts you.

Do that in your life today?  When we treat all people equally, we bring praise to God!

Gus Schutz