Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year A] - February 26, 2017 (Matthew 17:1-9)

The late Jim Valvano, basketball coach for the NC State Wolfpack, whose team won the NCAA Championship in 1983, had a very unique and some would say outrageous way he’d begin each season of practice. Before they would practice a single free throw shot, before they would run any passing drills, before they’d even do laps around the court, Jimmy V would have his players dress out and bring them out on the court with a ladder. He’d put the ladder underneath the basketball hoop and then hand them a pair of scissors at which point he would have the whole team practice cutting down the net. In case you’re not familiar with college basketball, the act of cutting down the nets from a basketball hoop is reserved for tournament champions. Only one team gets to do it, obviously, and it is done right at the end of the final victory. As the television crews come onto the court and the wild, celebrating fans are corralled back into their seats for the presentation of the trophy, someone brings out a ladder and the winning team-members climb up, one-by-one, to cut the net down. And in the Men’s NCAA Division 1 basketball tournament, which will begin in a little less than a month, the song they begin playing in the background is “One Shining Moment.”

Practicing that championship ritual, that end-of-the-season, final, culminating ceremony is how Coach Valvano began his season. It’s a bit outrageous, but I suppose he did that in order to get his players to glimpse the glory that could be theirs before they descended into the hard work and discipline and day-to-day drudgery of the season. I suppose he did it to inspire them forward, to give them a vision of what they could be before the season had a chance to disillusion them.

In many ways, that is what the Transfiguration of Jesus was for his disciples. This whole experience is outrageous, if you look at it. Even Jesus refers to it as a vision once it’s over, as if something about it wasn’t quite real, almost a figment of their imagination. Whatever it was, it was a glimpse of the final glory of Jesus, a brief peek, if you will, into One Shining Moment that would be a precursor, a little foretaste, of the Everlasting Shining Eternity Jesus would bring at the end of his story.

An 11th century icon of Christ's Transfiguration. This is at St. Catherine's
Monastery, which sits at the base of Mt. Sinai
The fact of the matter is they needed a brief peek, they needed a glimpse of that glory, for two main reasons. First of all, they don’t really have a clue about who Jesus is. They’ve never been given the information that Jesus is, for example, God’s Son. For those of us who have the benefit of reading the gospel of Matthew, that’s something that’s been more or less clear since the beginning. We know the story of his birth, and the miraculous, mysterious events that surrounded it. We have heard about the angel that visited Joseph in dream that informed him his son would save the people from their sins. We also know about the events at Jesus’ baptism, how he went down in the water and when he came up a voice boomed from on high identifying Jesus as God’s Son.

None of the disciples, you see, were there at those occasions. For them, Jesus is a rabbi with some very compelling (if not confusing) teachings and an incredibly insightful understanding of God’s law. For them, Jesus is a teacher and leader who also has the ability to work some miracles every now and then. There have been a small handful of vague references to Jesus and God the Father, but no one has an idea of the depth of that relationship until this One Shining Moment.

Who is Jesus for you? Hearing the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is an excellent time to ask ourselves that question. Is he an idea in your head? How do you see him? What’s his point?

Sorry for the blurriness. This was in the days before cell phone cameras.
I remember one of the the first times I really grappled with these kinds of questions and the difference between the Jesus in my head and the Jesus that’s out there, as a real person I was in Hong Kong for a trip during seminary and we were at a Chinese Lutheran Church one morning during worship and Sunday School. Some kind of special faith formation event was going on between the worship services that morning—much like our Explore Camp Day today—and there were some materials and pieces of art laid out on a table. And among those pieces of art was a pair of painted plates. One plate had nothing but Chinese writing on it, which I couldn’t understand. The other plate, however, was a picture of a man under a tree surrounded by a bunch of children. One of the children was even on his lap. And it took me a second to figure out who I was really looking at because all of the figures were Asian. It was Jesus blessing a bunch of children, but Jesus had what I would consider—and what I think the artist would have considered—Asian features. Even the tree they were under looked like something out of an old Asian piece of art, branches kind of bending downward like a willow. While my brain understood that Jesus was not Asian, it made me acknowledge that in my mind’s eye I had always formed Jesus into a white, Caucasian Jesus. I had essentially imagined Jesus just as a wiser, more capable version of myself and the people that were around me most of the time.

In a way, those plates transfigured Jesus for me. They presented him in a new way that made me pause and really consider not just what but mainly who it is that I believe has named and claimed me in faith.

"Transfiguration" (Raphael)
Jesus can often come across so much of the time as an idea, a concept that can be mulled over in our heads rather than a person that can be beheld, that can amaze us. We can so easily reduce Jesus to some kind of moral teacher, or even just a moral teaching. We go through life and its complex situations thinking in terms of “What Would Jesus Do?” almost as if that were some kind of philosophical question. And those kinds of questions and outlooks aren’t necessarily wrong or bad—because disciples are supposed to imitate their leader—but neither do they quite offer a complete picture of who Jesus is. On the mount of Transfiguration the disciples don’t hear, “This is a great wise teacher. He’s got great ideas. Listen to him!” Or “This guy’s a great example. Ponder him!” They hear, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!”

Disciples of yesterday and disciples of today may begin to follow Jesus with the hopes that they will just end up as better people. But the reality is that following Jesus means being given something better. It means being granted new life, a bright, unending future. It means being given Jesus—being in his presence, knowing him, sharing life with him—which is reward enough because he is the Son of God.

So, one thing this net-cutting event on the mountain does is tell the disciples more about Jesus’ identity. The other reason God gives those disciples a glimpse of the future glory is the one we already know. We know it in our bones, but we try to ignore it, deny it. Peter becomes voice of our denial because what we know (but have a hard time admitting) is that we have to head back down the mountain for a while and life is way different down there than on the top. Christian faith doesn’t call us to an escape from the world. It calls us to a greater engagement with it, and that is not always fun and games. Just as the Wolfpack learned from Coach Valvano that the season requires practice, drills, and sweat, we learn from Jesus that discipleship will involve a cross.

That is, in fact, what Jesus has just finished telling them when he takes Peter, James and John up the mountain that day. He has let them know that the Son of Man will undergo great suffering and be killed, but on the third day be raised again. It is on that mountain where we will see the nature of God truly revealed before our eyes, where we come to terms not just with a new kind of ethnic Jesus or fresh interpretation of his teachings—but that we are following a God who does not hold himself back from the darkest parts of our journey, a God who offers all of his life for us to have his. It is a God who is willing to lose everything, absolutely everything, to climb down into all of our “things” and make us new.

A faith, he is telling them, which is built on seeking out transfiguration experiences, linking them together, one mountaintop experience after another, will ultimately become problematic. Faith is built on learning to listen to Jesus, the Son of God. And faith is, most importantly, coming to know that when all fades away—when the cloud of our glorious vision dissolves when the exhilaration of a fresh new understanding of God wears off, when reality of whatever life has handed us hits us in the face—we will not be left alone.

I said two, but there we hit on a third little thing about this outrageous event. It involves some irony. Peter, you see, wants to do something so that he and the others can stay with Jesus. He sees the vision, beholds the glory, and wants to build some huts in order to remain with that God. But in the end, it is Jesus who does the staying. All that fades away and Jesus has to touch the startled disciples and show them that he, alone, is left. He shows them he will travel with them back down the mountain.

Brothers and sisters, I hope you come to know that the exciting, mountaintop experiences you have with God may become like a drug, enticing you to find more, but Jesus will remain. Your faith may get wobbly—like mine does—but Jesus will remain. The season before the championship will get rough, filled with disillusionment, but Jesus will remain. You, me, we all may forget to listen, forget what we’re heading for from time to time, but Jesus will remain. The valley below may get dark and dreary, but it won’t end there. Jesus remains. And pulls us through. He holds us fast and he promises the end will come, the victory will be won, and, let me tell you, it will not involve just one but a zillion back-to-back shining moments!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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