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Sermon – August 15, 2010: Dazzling

Sermon for Sunday, August 15, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Dazzling

Exodus 34: 29-35; 2 Corinthians 3: 12- 4: 2; Luke 9: 28-47

We have a couple of scriptures today about persons so holy that they radiate light.

The first is Moses, whose being close to God on the mountain left him with a kind of residual

glow which was too much for his fellow Israelites to face. The other is Jesus, whose

becoming dazzlingly bright in a vision experienced by three of his disciples is celebrated

on the church calendar as the Transfiguration, which means “face changing.”

The Israelites didn’t know what to make of Moses’ radiance, and the disciples didn’t

know what to make of Jesus’ gleaming appearance. Paul uses the Moses story to

encourage the Corinthians that they are being transformed by focusing on Christ. That’s not

a bad message, and Paul is sure of the truth of what he’s telling the Corinthians, but he’s

stretching the scriptures a bit to support his point, because while it is true that the Israelites

couldn’t handle the splendor of God illuminating Moses’ skin, it isn’t true that James, John or

Peter got any apparent benefit from being dazzled by Jesus. They remain as dense

about Jesus’ teaching as ever, and they all, despite the wonder of the vision and the

confirming voice from heaven, all give up on Jesus at his arrest, Peter betraying his master

the most memorably.

What are we to make of these stories of persons so saturated with holiness that they

beam? These are weird incidents in the lives of Moses and Jesus, so odd that regular

people don’t know how to react to them. Peter, on the mountaintop, beholding the

suddenly luminous Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, offers to build booths for each

of them, which at least one of the evangelists recognizes as something he says because he

doesn’t know what he’s saying.

Uncanny and supernatural events in the life of religion are rare. They do not

correspond to ordinary reality or ordinary ways of understanding, and so persons who

experience them usually are at a loss to make sense of them. You would think that the

Israelites would understand that Moses’ glow resulted from being close to God and be

grateful of the confirmation that the Ten Commandments did, in fact, result from an interview

between God and Moses. Instead they are afraid. You would think that the disciples,

experiencing this vision of holiness and a heavenly confirmation of Jesus being God’s

beloved Son, would be more understanding, faithful and fearless from that point on. But

they aren’t. Their odd vision remains for them one of those puzzles which they can’t begin

to work out until after the Resurrection.

So what good does the Transfiguration do? What is its importance for us?

And I think I’ll work backwards, and uphill, through the gospel lesson to try to answer

that question.

We’ll start with our feet on the ground. Jesus pulls a child to his side and says

whoever receives such a child receives him, and whoever receives him–through receiving

such a child–receives The One Who sent him. In other words, your welcoming and

accepting the least important person around is the equivalent of your welcoming and

accepting Christ, and through him, God. This is the same thing Jesus teaches in Matthew

25, when he tells that story about Judgment Day and those who are condemned ask,

“When did we see you in need of care and neglect you?” and Jesus answers, “What you

failed to do for the least of these you failed to do for me.”

That’s not an easy lesson to practice– that God requires us to care about and love

our fellow human beings– but it’s an easy lesson to understand. Even if you dumb it down

to “Be nice to people,” it remains as difficult consistently to do as it is simple to say.

And Jesus really expects more of us than is said in the sappy-sounding, childish

phrase, “Be nice to people.” But that’s difficult enough, and so let’s begin thinking about

that. Being nice to those who have no connection with us, and from whom we can expect

to get nothing, doesn’t come as naturally to us as we might like to believe. I’m not talking

about those invisible victims of natural disasters to whom we are nice by writing out a check

to send them blankets and food. Nor is Jesus. Jesus finds somebody who is right there

with the disciples who means nothing to them, and tells them that the way for them to be

great is to welcome the person in their midst who seems insignificant.

And as difficult as it is for us to smile and say “welcome!”, really to receive another

person is more difficult still, because reception will involve us in putting ourselves out a bit

for that person. That’s why offices have receptionists– it’s a full-time job to meet

newcomers with courtesy and look to their needs. And the receptionist, understanding her

job, will look after even the most humble of visitors who comes through the door.

Being a receptionist is a very important job, and when it is done well, it does the

business and everybody a lot of good. But it is not a high-paying job, nor is it a high-status

job. When the receptionist has to be polite and solicitous about the needs of an arrival who

is someone he or she might not choose to deal with outside of work, the receptionist has to

assume a kind of professional humility. It’s kind of like that old rule in merchandising, that “the

customer is always right.” The person who comes through the door always deserves

respect and attention.

That is supposed to be the rule of the church. Churches don’t always do it very well.

They didn’t in Biblical times, as we know from the second chapter of the Letter of James.

But we have it on Jesus’ authority that to be ready to give a kind reception to the least of

those who come into the orbit of the church is to be ready to serve, and in some sense

welcome, God.

Now why was Jesus giving a lesson on being good to people? Because the

disciples had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. They were concerned

about their own status, which was better than the others. Jesus tells them that in humbling

themselves by treating those with little or no importance as equally important with

themselves, they’d be great. Not by seeking greatness, but by seeking to serve God by

serving others.

Why had they been arguing about who was the greatest? They were insecure.

Nine of them had remained in the valley while Jesus took three of them up the mountain.

The nine down below had been called upon to do the kind of healing which Jesus’ disciples

were expected to be able to perform, and they couldn’t do it. This exasperated the man

who sought the cure for his son, and it exasperated Jesus. So that’s why they were

insecure.

And maybe the disciples who got to go up and see this great vision, though they

said nothing about it, either were identified by the nine as favored, causing the controversy

over who really mattered– or maybe they let on that they thought Jesus regarded them as

more special. Whether it was resentment on the part of the nine that by accompanying

Jesus they had avoided blame for failing to heal the boy, or whether they themselves put

on some kind of airs, the resulting concern over who was the biggest big shot among them

is something Jesus has to correct. Jesus didn’t come, evidently, to make people feel like

they were better than anyone else.

Which backs us up to the mountaintop experience itself. In the vision there was no

practical teaching about living in the world. There was no object lesson about love. It was

more seen and sensed than understood, the whole event. Brilliance and a cloud and words

through the cloud saying listen to Jesus because Jesus is special was the whole thing.

What’s important in that for us is this. We may like Jesus, regard him sympathetically

because he seems to have a generous spirit and because he does good things. We may

regard him as wise. But for us to undertake to become a certain kind of people we need

more than regard for a teacher and more, even, than admiration for a wonderworker. No

matter how wonderful and brave and good a life Jesus led, we are going to have a hard

time following his example if we think of him as the best of men who lived two thousand

years ago.

But if we join James and John and Peter on the mountaintop, and have this blazing

and blurry experience, and find ourselves blinking and stunned and stupid and wrapped up

in fog, and seem to forget the importance of the Voice in the Cloud saying “This is my

Beloved Son, Listen to him!”, still we’ve had that experience. We know why we follow

Jesus, it’s something more than fits into our ordinary ways of thinking and speaking. It’s

because Jesus is specially God’s messenger for us. Jesus is the Christ, the One sent by

God to rescue us from all the pain and the peril of being people, sent to save us from the

miscues and mischance of life, sent to help us become the children of God we are meant to

be. To listen to God’s Beloved Son, and so learn to be God’s Beloved children, that’s the

basis of our faith and our life. It’s above us, and it’s visionary– it’s not solid, it’s not tangible,

it’s odd and incredible– so it’s an odd kind of foundation, it’s a strange thing on which to

build. But that’s the thing upon which we rest, not our attitudes nor our actions, but on the

reality of God, and God’s glorious presence just beyond the sense of our ordinary sight. It

is the uncanny encounter with holiness which makes Jesus more than one more kind-hearted

and fairminded person hoping to make the world better.