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Sermon for February 11, 2018: Transfiguration (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

Recently, one of our parishioners asked me why God is always changing people’s names in the Bible. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel; Simon becomes Peter; and Saul becomes Paul. The short answer is that the change in these people’s names represents change in them. For Abraham, it signaled a move from being the father of a covenant to being the father of multitudes. In Simon’s case, it meant assuming a leadership role in a fledgling religious movement that the poor fisherman probably could never have imagined. And, in Saul’s case, one letter took him from being a persecutor of Christians to their chief evangelist. Each of these individuals met God and was transformed. The message is clear throughout both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures: meeting God changes us in some fundamental way.

For some of us, this may be an exciting and inspiring idea. Certainly, as any look at the internet will tell you, people seek out the divine in any number of ways. I have mentioned previously that I subscribe to a blog called “The Daily OM.” The blogger sends out affirmative advice like, “Be your own voice of reason,” and try to find inner peace when you are frustrated. What is interesting to me about her counsel is that in almost all cases, the suggestions she gives for finding “your true ideal self” or “that spark of the divine in all of us” is that they are inherently Christian. When I read her new “inspirations,” they are as familiar to me as an old shoe; the only difference is that while I as a Christian talk about God’s love, God’s peace, and God’s transformative power, she talks about our own “inner” power. As if they are the same. This is a fundamental difference between new age spiritualists who focus on the divine in us, and Christians, who recognize the need for the divine who created us. If human beings were able to transform ourselves, much less the world, why have we failed to do so over and over throughout again history? I don’t care how motivated or enlightened you are, no one is able to truly transform themselves. We need God.

That is what the primary characters in each of today’s scripture readings have in common: each recognizes their need for the power of God, and just how life-changing that power is. Elisha has served and witnessed the acts of the mighty prophet Elijah for (we think) many years. Although he knows that Elijah will soon be taken from him, he refuses to leave him, understanding that even at the end of Elijah’s life, Elisha will have the opportunity to experience God’s might – and he is not disappointed.

Paul is in a different position. Having witnessed God’s transformative power himself, he is struggling to communicate it to others. Like many of his letters to the people of Corinth, today’s passage demonstrates Paul’s struggle to keep his fledgling community on the straight and narrow. You see, Paul’s theology centered around his belief that Jesus’s life and death demonstrate God’s movement in our world, which will end in a new world. “However, ‘superapostles’ came to Corinth after Paul and preached another interpretation of the gospel. They held that Pauls’ gospel was ‘veiled,’ that is, that the apostle had misunderstood God’s purposes. The superapostles (according to some scholars) taught a gospel of glory without suffering.”[1] You can see how much more appealing their message was. “The theological difference between Paul and the superapostles [is that] Paul advocated what might be called a ‘holy discomfort’ with the present status of the world. Paul’s gospel calls for people to be discontent with brokenness, injustice, scarcity, exploitation, violence, and death, and to believe that God seeks to increase community, wholeness, justice, abundance, peace, love, and life. On the contrary, the superapostles believed that God’s purpose was to create a religious experience that allowed one to feel good within oneself…without seeing the need for social change. The gospel of the superapostles provided an escape from the present social setting, whereas Paul’s gospel envisioned the transformation of the world.”[2] Sound familiar?

Paul’s theology presumes that truly encountering God transforms us in a very specific way – by equipping us to do God’s work in the world. This is also the message of the psalmist, who speaks in the voice of God, asking us to listen to his call. This call is to loyal followers who have sacrificed for God. But “who are these ‘faithful ones’ and what has been their ‘sacrifice’? God’s ‘faithful ones’ are all who enter God’s love through faith and who make the sacrifice of being merciful to others.”[3] And who will decide who these people are? Only God.

Luckily, God gives us every opportunity to ready ourselves for this judgement- to transform. The first step is to recognize that we need to. Just as many self-actualization plans suggest that we are our own pathway to the divine, many Christians suggest that Jesus’s divinity is “a possession on the basis of which we can claim spiritual status and institutional or personal power, as if to make little gods of ourselves by ruling the world in his name as many have sought to do.”[4] But that is not what the story of Jesus’s own transfiguration tells us – because Jesus’s transfiguration was not about him changing. It was about his disciples seeing him for who he really was – and how that changed them.

It’s hard to imagine the scene. Although they have been so influenced by Jesus’s message and his ability to preach and heal that they had left their homes, Peter, James, and John could still not have been prepared for what happened when they climbed that mountain with Jesus. “He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white…And there appeared to them [with him the greatest prophets known to them]” and they did not know what to say, for they were terrified. “Jesus’s outclassing glory rends the veil of their horizontal world from top to bottom, exposing it as neither permanent nor foundational.”[5] What they witnessed- what Elisha testified to, what Paul experienced and tried to explain to the Corinthians, what the psalmist proclaimed to the Israelites, changed them. It caused them to question everything their culture has told them is true - and they didn’t know what to do. So they came up with ideas designed to demonstrate Jesus’s power and authority to those who weren’t there; they suggested they align with already famous people, build a memorial, and shout out the news.

But that is not what God wants – and not what Jesus tells them to do. “Listen” says God. “Be silent,” Jesus tells them. On Wednesday, we will enter the season of Lent, a solemn time of silence and darkness. But we need not fear that darkness, because there is no darkness that can veil the transfiguring power of God in Jesus Christ, no silence that can mislead us if we are listening for the voice of God. As we leave the season of light and move into the solemnity of Lent, I urge you to embrace that silence and, in it, seek the presence of God so that we, like those who have come before us, might to be transformed. Amen.

[1]Ronald J. Allen, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 448.

[2]Ibid, 450.

[3]Charles Quaintance, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 444.

[4]Rodney J. Hunter, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 456.

[5]Marilyn McCord Adams, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 456.

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