On Changes Within and Changes Without
February 19, 2023
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Today’s sermon is titled On Changes Within and Changes Without.
I am a child of the 70s. One of my favorite childhood photos of myself is of me standing in someone’s driveway, barefooted, wearing bell bottom jeans, a halter top with daisies on it, mirrored sunglasses that were way too big for my face, flashing the peace sign with my right hand. In my hometown of Durham, North Carolina, there was only one private Catholic school so quite a few Catholic kids went to my school. I only knew they were Catholic because they were allowed to leave school in the middle of the day on Ash Wednesday and they would return with ashes on their foreheads. I was always jealous that I could not leave school and return with that special mark. I was even jealous when they would speak about what they were “giving up” for Lent. Somehow I knew that my Catholic Friends were having a more interesting experience.
My Southern Baptist church did not mention Lent, and we did not observe Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday. In my church, it was a straight shot from Christmas to Easter; all the high points without any of the low points. We celebrated the birth of Jesus, spent some weeks on his teachings, and then celebrated the resurrection; we skipped right over the suffering.
I am so grateful that here in our church we have the tradition of taking the scenic route to Easter. Today we begin the six week journey. It is not a straight shot. The road to Jerusalem that Jesus walked was steep and rocky and challenging. If we truly aim to follow along, then we will feel the strain and the pull; we will be required to put forth the effort to make the journey from where we are to where we become more…more than what we once were. I invite you to join me in this walk. I invite you to join me in living into this season of change. I invite you to join me in choosing some meaningful practice over the next 6 weeks, a practice that will bring about positive change on some level. A lenten practice does not need to be anything radical, but to experience the most meaning, a lenten practice should be at least an inconvenience.
One year I chose to not accept a bag from the grocery store. I vowed to bring my own and if I forgot, I was resolved to taking my groceries out in a cart, with no bags, loading the loose items into my car, and then dealing with the aftermath when I got home. I wish I could say that I learned quickly to remember my bags, but it took many times of forgetting until I got into a better habit…a habit that benefitted the earth, perhaps, most of all.
The main idea behind a lenten practice is to make an outward change that affects an inward change. This same idea is central in the story we are offered today from the Gospel of Matthew, the story of the Transfiguration. Each year we study this story on the Sunday before Lent. The story is recorded in all three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke and in the account we are offered today, the Transfiguration occurs six days after Jesus delivers devastating news to his disciples. In the previous chapter, Matthew 16, it is written, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Imagine the bewilderment of those disciples who had left so much behind to follow him. Imagine their confusion as to why someone who had the power to heal all manner of illnesses would not simply protect themselves from the fate of death. The disciples were full of questions and full of doubt. The disciples needed reassurance, and perhaps Jesus was in need of reassurance, too. This is the context for this miraculous story, the Transfiguration, literally interpreted as “change of form or appearance.” What they all experienced on that mountain top was a surprising change in the appearance of their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. We read, “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” What the disciples witnessed with their eyes served to open their hearts and minds for what was to come in the weeks and months ahead.
The disciples witness Jesus among the company of two great prophets, Moses and Elijah. This gives legitimacy to his standing which was still, in many circles, very much in question when the gospel of Matthew was written, around 80 A.D. The events of the Transfiguration mirror many of the events in the account we heard this morning of Moses receiving the ten commandments; it is a story very close to the heart of Jewish faith and tradition, a story that Jesus and his disciples would have heard time and again in their upbringing.
The story of the Transfiguration is important for us still, in my opinion, because it serves to open us up to the deep mystery that, for lack of any better name, we can only call “God.” The story of the Transfiguration reminds us that there are things we encounter in life that we can not rationalize. In considering the Transfiguration, we are invited to make space in our rational minds for mystery, and for the possibility that some things can not be explained.
If we take a step back and look at the narrative of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, there is a great deal that can not be explained. There are mysterious events surrounding his birth, his baptism, his transfiguration, and mysterious events surrounding his death and his appearances after death. The story of Jesus of Nazareth will leave us frustrated if we approach it intellectually. The story of Jesus of Nazareth is best approached with open minds and open hearts.
His story will break our hearts open, over and over again this time of year if we take pause and really consider how he knowingly faced arrest, persecution, and what would surely be a painful death. Here is where we find what may just be the point of closest intersection between our lives and the life of our Teacher. We, too, live with the reality of pain and our inevitable, inescapable death. In remembering what our Teacher endured, we find a Friend like no other. We find the following words in Hebrews 12: “Consider him who endured, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Today is the beginning of the seasonal walk to Jerusalem and we are not skipping over the difficult parts. We will remember this coming week, on Ash Wednesday, that our bodies come from the ash and dust of the earth and to the earth we shall all return but our spirits are of God, eternal and everlasting. We will have the 6 week season of Lententide to practice bringing about a visible change in our lives that will hopefully affect some positive change within. We will observe Maundy Thursday and the suffering our Teacher endured to prove that there is a force greater than death; that force is love. We are invited to walk this journey so that we have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the promise that Easter holds, that though life’s hardships shape us and teach us, we are ultimately defined by the love we give and receive.
In closing, I lift up this story of the Transfiguration, as a story of an astonishing outward change that opened the hearts and minds of the disciples that they might be able to better cope with what the future had in store. As we turn our attention now to the journey to Jerusalem, we do not go alone. We walk with a faith community around us, we have the example of Christ before us, and we have the promise of God’s love within us. So be it. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer God of sunlight and snow, we are here together with all our complexities…our mix of hope and fear, trust and worry, health and illness, acceptance and resistance. Help us, Lord, to bring the disparities of our emotions ever closer together, so that we may move through the joys and challenges of our lives with equanimity, balance, and serenity. We pray your healing presence be with us and with all those in need. May we be ever attune to the ways we can serve, with sensitivity and effectiveness and in the spirit of Christ, the giver of this prayer… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Benediction February is the month we especially celebrate Black History and our benedictions this month are words that have inspired all people in our long quest for justice and equal treatment under the law. Today’s quote comes from Nelson Mandela, reminding us of the responsibility that comes along with freedom: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s own chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” – Nelson Mandela.