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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Condemned by the Righteous (Mark 14:53-72)


They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled.

Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Today we are continuing in our series of messages that remains our focus throughout Lent. We are studying 24 Hours that Changed the World, looking together at the events of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion. My hope is that you will experience and understand the significance of Jesus’ suffering and death in a way you never have before as we share this heart-breaking and inspiring journey.

Last week, we spent time with Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We heard Jesus struggle as he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” We also spent some with Judas, who truly loved Jesus, Nevertheless, he still betrayed Jesus. The betrayal of Jesus was an inside job. Rarely is the ministry of Christ, whether in that time or in ours, torn apart by outsiders. We are always more of a threat to ourselves than any force or factor outside.

Today, our attention shifts to the next scene. Following his arrest in the garden, Jesus was taken to the house of the high priest for a rushed trial in the middle of the night, and that’s where we pick up the story. May we pray.

Early Friday Morning

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry is brought up on charges and brought to trial before the Ministry of Magic for practicing a certain kind of magic in the presence of a regular person. Alone, he is brought into a trial where no due process is followed, and it doesn’t look good. Professor Dumbledore, the headmaster of his school, shows up mid-trial and comes to Harry’s aid. The trial had been secretly moved several hours ahead of schedule, but Professor Dumbledore anticipated this breach of due process, and just happened to arrive at the ministry three hours early.

In some ways, it is a scene reminiscent of the trial of Jesus before the Jewish ruling council.

Sometime between 1am and 3am Friday morning, Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. The crowds who had greeted him with adulation on Sunday morning were now asleep in their beds. The disciples who had followed him for three years since hearing him call their names by the edge of the Galilean lake had all fled into the darkness. Bound hand and foot by the temple guards, as they made their way back into the city, Jesus had never been more alone.

Jesus was brought to the home of the high priest in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, and in that secrecy, the Jewish Sanhedrin, the high ruling council, was hastily assembled. The Sanhedrin were 71 men who ruled over the religious affairs of the people, some of the wisest and most pious men of the time. They had devoted themselves to God, and their high priest was the most important religious figure of their day.

Normally, the Sanhedrin met during the day in the temple courts, and never during religious feasts. Think about that for a minute. The temple was a very public place. People were constantly coming to make their sacrificial offerings. The rabbis would gather to teach and debate. The temple was not only where you went to worship; it was the center of community life for the Jewish people. Under normal circumstances, this was where the Sanhedrin conducted its business – in a very public, visible, well-traveled place where anybody and everybody could observe what happened.

However, for Jesus’ trial, this is not where they gathered. Roused from their beds, called into special session, away from the busyness of the temple and in the home of the high priest, not in broad daylight but in secret and shadow, during the biggest religious festival of the year. All these irregularities speak to the urgency and the secrecy the council felt necessary in dealing with Jesus.

Condemned by the Righteous in That Day

Don’t miss the irony of what happened. In Jesus, God walked in human flesh on this earth. So much did he want to know us and relate to us that he willingly gave up the splendor of heaven in order to be one of us. And while he was with us, he healed the sick, forgave sinners, showed compassion to the lost, and taught people what God was really like. And who had a problem with that? The most religious, godly, and pious people on the planet. They were charter members, Sunday School teachers, members of the Church Council, tithing members. They had served on the building committee, the scholarship committee, the finance committee, and the missions committee. They were pastors and professors, district superintendents and bishops, president of the United Methodist Women – they were good, honest, hard-working, godly people – entrusted with leadership in discerning the ongoing work of God in the world.

Ironic, that when God walked among us in the person of Jesus, it was the most religious, godly, and righteous people who condemned him. The God they claimed to serve walked among them in the flesh, but they could not see him. They were so blinded by their love of power and their fear of losing it that they missed him. The people you would most expect to recognize and hail Jesus instead arrested him in darkness and brought him to trial. They put God on trial for blasphemy. They convicted God-in-flesh of a crime worthy of the death penalty – blasphemy against himself!

The religious folks were so angry and hostile toward Jesus, failing to recognize that before them stood the answer to centuries of prayer. They mocked him, they blindfolded him, they spat on him. Can you imagine it – good, religious folks doing this to the very one God sent into their midst as an answer to their prayers?

The question we must ask is, “How could this happen?” How could 71 righteous men, dedicated to God, do what these men did? Why did they condemn an innocent man to death? And even if they thought he was a false messiah, why would pious men, pillars of the community, spit on him? Why would they mock him, blindfold him, and strike him?

Fear. They feared Jesus. Jesus was a threat to their way of life, their position, their standing, the very fabric of their social order. What I have noticed is that religious folks, over time, tend to get very protective. Sometimes the more religious we are, the longer we have considered ourselves religious, the greater the threat we sense from Jesus. And when anything comes along that threatens our power, our standing, our way of doing things, our institutions, even when that thing is directly from God, we lash out in fear.

It was those who were righteous who condemned Jesus. The sinners of Jesus’ day celebrated him. They flocked to Jesus and they wanted to hear what he had to say. Over and over again, Jesus reached directly into the lives of sinners and touched their hearts, and sinners found themselves transformed. I’m inclined to think that if Jesus walked among us today, you’d be hard-pressed to find him in a church. Through the Gospels, Jesus’ preference was always to hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners. When he did show up at the temple, he did stuff that pissed off the religious people, like turning over tables and teaching them things they didn’t want to hear. The more religious they were, the more pissed off they were at what Jesus did.

Condemned by the Righteous in Our Day

The great tragedy is when we consider ourselves so religious, so spiritual, so superior, so convinced of our own correctness, that we stop asking for forgiveness from God, that we stop admitting our own shortcomings, that we stop doing what is necessary to continue to grow in grace. Because, what I find is that the closer I draw to God, the more acutely I realize just how distant I am from God. The more I grow in God’s grace, the more I realize just how much growing I still have to do. I am leery of anyone who brags about what a good Christian they are; such bragging runs counter to the spirit of humility and submission to Christ that is fundamentally required for those who are growing in God’s grace. Those who claim to be godly but whose lives fail to evidence a growth in God’s grace are dangerous, indeed.

Perhaps that’s why more evil has been advanced in the name of God and religion through the centuries than any of us would care to admit. Sure, we could name the ways the Bible has been abused and misinterpreted to justify and glorify war, slavery, sexism, racism, and homophobia, but I wondered if there were some examples a little closer to home.

On facebook this week, I put this question out there: “When have you seen devout, faithful, religious people work against God or get in the way of what God was doing?” Randy Blanton said, “We have some ladies who are overly consumed with the state of our physical buildings. Their hearts are in the right place, but they are such sticklers for details that many people are afraid to use the buildings. Thus ministry is inhibited.”

Elise Kennedy said, “We have some folks who really have great gifts, but instead of use their gifts to bring people to God they use them for control and 'power.'”

And then, Jonathan Brake: “The men of the church did home repair for a needy family and invited them to church. They had been hurt by churches before but took a chance and found Christian love this time. Several months later the mother overheard someone's comment that ‘we don't want people LIKE THAT in OUR church.’ So much for Christian love.” These were all United Methodist churches right here in Western North Carolina.

It is possible to be a good, pious, godly, religious person, and yet remain blind to what God is actually doing. In each instance, the purpose of the Church – to be the physical presence of Christ in the world, to make disciples of Christ, to bridge the gulf of separation between God and ALL humanity, to transform the world one life and one heart at a time – was made subservient to some special interest – the building, control and power, and social class. In each instance, godly, righteous, pious church members missed the point entirely, they missed the forest for the trees, and anytime we put special interests ahead of our core purpose, we are like the righteous members of the Sanhedrin who condemned Jesus. Sinners didn’t push for Jesus’ death; righteous people did.

Say Something

At the same time, I think there were also at least a few of the 71 people on the Sanhedrin who questioned whether it was right to condemn Jesus to death. We don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet two or three people in the room were sitting there thinking, “I don’t believe that what we’re about to do is the right thing.” But, they remained silent. Perhaps not wanting to resist the will of the whole group, perhaps not wanting to appear foolish, perhaps not wanting to draw attention or condemnation to themselves, perhaps afraid and intimidated by those in power, but for whatever reason, they remained silent. Eighteenth-century British philosopher and politician, Edmund Burke, summed it up nicely when he said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

What would have happened if one or two or three of the members of the Sanhedrin had said, “This isn’t right, regardless of what we think of this man. It’s not in keeping with what God teaches us.”

In our own situations we must be able to say, with great humility and despite our fear, “You know, this just doesn’t feel right.” When you see something you know isn’t right – when you see the will of a group hijacked by someone with less than noble aims, when you witness oppression and injustice and abuse, say something. In that pivotal moment when two things are both pounding in your head, when you mind is torn between “Say something!” and “You dare not say anything,” always say something. The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

Don’t forget Peter

The last part of this episode took place in the courtyard of the high priest, a scene we all know well, as Peter denied his association with Jesus. When the other disciples fled, Peter didn’t run far. He hung back in the shadows, and stealthily followed Jesus and the guards all the way back into the city, right to the high priest’s house. And then, wanting to know what was going on, he stood straight, and walked into the courtyard and began to warm himself by the fire. Do you see the courage it took to do that? Knowing he could be put to death simply because of his association with Jesus, he still went into the courtyard of the high priest.

His courage only lasted to a point, however. I imagine he was trying to blend into the crowd around the fire, but something in his face and demeanor gave him away to one of the servant girls, and she began to give him away to the others, and Peter found himself denying that he had ever known Jesus.

The incident is one of the few that is mentioned in all four Gospels, so all four Gospel writers must have considered this fairly important. None of the other disciples were there, so how did they know this story? Because, Peter must have regularly told the awful truth of this story himself. I can hear him saying, “I know you’ve denied Jesus. I denied him myself. I denied him in a way that I am deeply ashamed of, and yet I have to tell you: I betrayed the Lord, but he gave me grace. He took me back. And if you’ve denied him, he’ll take you back too.”

Peter wanted to reassure others that, despite the fact that there are times when we deny the Lord, he will take us back and continue to use us to accomplish his work. That simple truth is central to every proclamation of the Gospel – none of us, nobody in here and nobody out there – has done anything so awful they can’t be welcomed into the arms of God’s mercy, transformed by God’s grace, and employed for God’s purposes in the world.

So what does it all mean? It was the religious people, the godly people, the righteous people, who let Jesus down. Judas, one of his closest friends, betrayed him. The priests and many members of the religious council actively pursued him. Other members of the council sat silently by, giving their tacit agreement to the sentence handed over. And Peter – headstrong, zealous, and a fierce defender of the faith – denied Jesus. It wasn’t the sinners who conspired against Jesus, it wasn’t the world or “those people out there” who did him in. No, the people working against Jesus and failing Jesus were the religious people.

You know, I hear a lot of religious people talking about the powers of darkness in the world, all that stuff that’s happening “out there” that we need to protect ourselves from and actively fight against.

But for each of us, the greatest danger is right here (in our hearts), not out there. Before we launch a full-scale assault on all the evil out there, maybe we should honestly confront the evil and darkness that lies within each of us. Even if, and perhaps especially if, we consider ourselves righteous and religious, it might simply be a good idea to deal with our own sin and open ourselves up for the Holy Spirit to transform our own hearts. After all, we’ve seen what righteous people are capable of.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-52)


They went to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign saying, “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

What a difference a day makes. This saying finds its truest expression in relation to the life of Jesus. No single event in human history has received more attention than the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is believed to have died at the age of 33, after a life of approximately 12,000 days. The Gospel writers devoted the vast majority of their work to just 1100 or so of those, the last three years of his life. And, the bulk of their writing focused on the last week of his life, and in particular, on one fateful day.

Today, we begin a worship series that examines that day. What a difference a day makes; 24 hours changed the world. We will look at the geographical and historical setting of the events of that fateful day; reflect theologically on Jesus’ death; and ultimately, look to see ourselves in the story, considering how we are like Pilate or Peter, Judas or John. My hope is that you will experience and understand the significance of Jesus’ suffering and death in a way you never have before. I invite your full attention as we embark together on this heart-breaking and inspiring journey.

Researching these events and working on these messages have deepened my own faith and my sense of love and gratitude for Jesus. I pray these messages over the next several weeks do the same for you. May we pray.

Thursday Evening – 11pm

Jesus and his disciples had just finished the Passover meal in the Upper Room; that meal we now know as the Last Supper. We’ll look at that meal in a few weeks. At the end of the meal, they sang a hymn that is still part of the Passover Seder today. Based on selected verses from Psalm 113 to Psalm 118, it is called the ‘Hallel,’ meaning praise, and it’s actually the root of the word from which we get another word – Hallelujah.

I wonder if, on that night, Jesus drew comfort from the words: “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me? . . . I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord . . . I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (Psalm 118:5-6,17,13-14).

They left the Upper Room in Jerusalem for the 25-minute walk to the garden. Out to the east and down into the Kidron Valley, they walked north through that valley, to the base of the Mount of Olives, into a small garden. It is this garden where Jesus has come to pray all week, since riding into Jerusalem on what we have come to know as Palm Sunday, Jesus has been alternating between teaching in the temple and retreating to this garden to pray.

Fully Divine, Fully Human

This garden was named “Gethsemane.” The word means “olive oil press,” and here Jesus himself will be pressed – tried and tested to the limit of both his humanity and his divinity. From the very beginning, the Church has taught that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. This is one of the great mysteries of our faith – how God became human in the person of Jesus, how Jesus could be both God and human. It’s not that he’s 50% human and 50% divine, it’s not that sometimes he acts out of his humanity and other times out of his divinity – Jesus is fully human and fully divine all the time. This is one of the central tenets of our Christian faith.

The Catholic campus ministry at Wake Forest has t-shirts saying “Catholics: Keeping it Real Since 33 AD.” Holding the full divinity and the full of humanity of Jesus is the basis of keeping it real, something we’ve done since the very beginning – or at least, since 33 AD.

As Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, never before has he been more human, and never before has he been more divine. He tells Peter, James, and John to watch and pray because he is, “distressed, agitated, and grieved.” These are very human emotions! Jesus went a little further, threw himself down on the ground and began to pray. You need to understand how significant this is. The usual posture for prayer in that day was to stand with your feet apart, look up, and stretch out your hands, either to the side or upward, as you prayed. The posture we assume for prayer – heads bowed, eyes closed, hands folded (the fetal prayer curl) – developed a few hundred years later.

Jesus’ anguish

But here, Jesus’ cup is empty. He knows what is ahead, and here his humanity comes shining through. He is wracked with grief, he can see his whole mission in splinters as he will be nailed to the cross. If he dies, most people would not see him as the Messiah. They would not understand that God wanted them to invite everyone to God’s banquet, to offer reconciliation of relationship to everyone, to leave the comfort zone of life with the 99 in order to risk sharing God’s love with the one outside the fold. People might continue with the presumption of judgment so cherished by the Pharisees, instead of cling to the presumption of grace Jesus preached over and over. It might all be lost, and the suffering ahead of Jesus is certainly nothing he wants to experience.

Some Christians have been uncomfortable with how raw, vulnerable, and exposed Jesus seems in this prayer. Personally, I take great comfort in seeing Jesus make this prayer in the garden. Because, he knows what it is to go through difficulty. He is no stranger to suffering. He knows sorrow, and grief, and fear, and pain. Whenever I face some trial or difficulty, my trust and my faith is in Jesus who prayed, “Take this cup from me.” When I am at the end of my rope, when I feel anguished and grieved, Jesus knows what that feels like. He’s been there.

Whenever we face any of life’s difficulties, it is better to go through it with someone else who has been there. When my mom was battling cancer, one of the people who helped her walk through that was Karen, a friend going through the same thing – the same non-textbook reactions to medications and treatments, the same ambiguity, the same fatal prognosis. Karen joined the Church Triumphant in November, and when I called her husband, Bill, he said: “I can’t imagine your Mom or my Karen walking through this without the other. I can only imagine that when Karen arrived in heaven, your dear sweet Julie was among those who greeted her at the door.”

We need others who can walk through the difficult places with us. We need those who can shine the sunshine of God’s presence into the dark places in our lives. We all need that. It is pure foolishness to think that any of us are so strong or so independent that we don’t need that support. We can get it from others who have been there. And most certainly, we get that support from Jesus, because he knows what it’s like. He’s been there.

Aiming our Prayers (and our Lives)

In this prayer offered by Jesus, there are lessons for our own prayers. Too often, we come to God with our shopping list and ask God to check off the items on it – “God, I want this,” “God, give me that,” “God, make this happen,” “God, keep that from happening.” How many times have you been facing some trial or hardship and said, “Lord, take it away because I can’t bear the thought of going through that.”

We can earnestly desire all sorts of things we don’t need, and we can pray for God to make them happen. But, I think Garth Brooks was right. Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. I remember praying fervently for this one or that one to fall in love with me, and it just broke my little teenage heart when that didn’t happen. Anyone else ever do that, or was I the only one? But then, a few years later, you run into some of these old flames, and they have changed over the years, and you think, “Wow, thanks, God. Really glad that one didn’t work out!”

Rather than asking God to conform to our desires, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a better idea for us to conform our hearts to the desires of God’s heart. The goal of the Christian life is transformation – more and more into God’s image. We need to embrace change as part of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus constantly asks us to change, to grow more like him, to restore more and more of the image of God marked indelibly on our souls – the God in whose image every man, woman, and child was made.

There’s a facebook group – “Life is better when you have God in it!” I don’t want to belittle anyone’s honest attempts at faith, but that statement is just completely theologically wrong. We don’t invite God into our life – God has invited us to life with God long before we ever reached toward God. That’s part of our identity as Methodists – we celebrate the grace of God that reaches out toward us before we ever have our first thought about God! To say that life is better when you have God in it makes it sound like God is simply one among many ingredients that can be placed in the recipe of your life, or that God is one the parts of a well-balanced breakfast. The language of inviting God into our life or inviting Jesus into our heart suggests that we are still largely in control of things. We may play the gracious host, but it’s our party, our life, our heart, thank you very much, and God is a guest there. Rather than saying “Life is better when you have God in it,” we would be better-served to say, “Life is better when it’s in God.”

“Not my will, but yours”

Placing our life into the center of God’s life brings us back to the prayer Jesus offered in the Garden of Gethsemane. Because, after he asked for the hour to pass from him, after he asked for the cup to be removed from him, he added one very important phrase: “Yet, not my will, but yours be done.” Each of us knows what it is like to sense that God wants us to do something we do not want to do, but praying this prayer with Jesus calls us to search deep within and place our complete and total trust in God.

That sentiment is the root of a prayer from our own Methodist heritage – the Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition. I’ll leave copies of it out on the table in the narthex for everyone. The prayer begins with these words: “I am no longer my own, but thine.” I wish I could say I pray this prayer every day, but there are days I forget. But I will tell you, when I do pray this prayer, it is a powerful reminder of who my life belongs to. I encourage you to pray that prayer daily from now until Easter, and see if it doesn’t transform your heart, your attitude, your desires, and your passions. In fact, you’ll probably want to continue praying it well beyond Easter. You can’t pray that every day and NOT find your heart turned toward God. Even Jesus prayed twice more, using the same words. Even Jesus has to continue to submit his human desires to God’s divine will.

Betrayed with a kiss

Jesus struggled with that for several hours, praying through the night, telling the disciples to watch and pray, coming back and finding them asleep. The final part of the episode occurred somewhere between 1am and 3am. Judas, one of Jesus’ twelve closest followers, arrived in the Garden, leading those sent by the religious authorities to arrest Jesus.

Judas is such a tragic figure; even now, 2000 years later, the name “Judas” is synonymous with “traitor.” Further, each of us has been a Judas, both to Jesus and to others. The sign he chose by which he would betray Jesus was a kiss. The Greek word for kiss is philein, a word used to describe true affection for another. Judas loved Jesus, but he still betrayed him. The very kiss itself may be a sign of the conflict that raged within him – of a love for Jesus and yet a desire to be rid of him, a love for God’s kingdom and the desire for the riches of the kingdoms of this world. One thing I want you to remember about the betrayal of Jesus: it was an inside job. Very seldom is the ministry of Christ – whether in that day or in ours – torn apart by outsiders. We are more a threat to our future, we are more a threat to ourselves, than any factor outside. Judas was an insider.

When Leonardo daVinci was working on “The Last Supper,” he needed 13 men to pose for the figures in the painting. The legend is told that while sitting in mass one day, he looked in the choir and there saw a young man whose face beamed with love, compassion, and kindness, and this young man to sat for the face of Jesus. Ten years later, still finding models for the disciples, he saw a man in the prison whose face wore all the qualities of Judas for which he had been searching. A few days into their work, the man began to weep. He said, “Maestro, don’t you remember me? I sat in this studio ten years ago, and then, I sat for Christ.”

The real difference between Jesus and Judas lay in what they both prayed on that night. Judas said, “God, not your will, but MINE be done.” “Time for action.” “We’re doing it my way.” Judas refused to surrender and submit his self-interest to God’s, but charged blindly ahead with HIS plan, which turned out to be a great act of cowardice.

Jesus also put his own interests out there – “let this hour pass from me, take this cup from me.” Three times, he begged God to take it all away. But then, he submitted his own human life to God’s divine will. He said, “Not my will, but yours be done.” He surrendered, he submitted, which turned out to be a great act of courage.

We can be like Judas, and pray as the world has taught us: “Not your will, but MINE be done.” Or, we can be like Jesus, who taught us to pray, “Not my will, but YOURS be done.” Say it with me – “Not my will, but YOURS be done.”

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Eyewitnesses to the Glory (Matthew 17:1-9)


Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then 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.” 5While 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!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As 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.”

Have you ever stuck your foot in your mouth? When I moved from New York to North Carolina, ready to begin my graduate studies at Duke, I found I was a bit of a cultural fascination to my new friends from various parts of the south. For whatever reason, I seemed to hold the greatest fascination for those from South Carolina and Mississippi. One day over lunch, we were talking about the ways people will stereotype us simply based on where we grew up. Looking at my friend Rebekah, whom I had known for about three days at that point, I said, “For example, since you’re from South Carolina and I’m a Yankee, I might assume that you’re some sort of redneck girl and jokingly ask, ‘So what sorta pickup truck do you drive?’” She responded, “I drive a Ford F-150 extended cab, and yes, I also know how to use a firearm.”

Open mouth, insert foot. Something I am only too familiar with! Please pass the salt, because if my mouth is open, it’s likely that my foot is already in it, or soon will be.

You ever stick your foot in your mouth, get called on it, and then want to dive down a manhole or under a parked truck or somewhere out of sight? We all know what that feeling is like. And in today’s text, so did Peter. Today, at this great event, on this Feast Day of the Transfiguration, Peter’s comments stand out like a single blot on a day and an experience of glory. Peter opens his mouth, says, “It is good for us to see this thing, so why don’t I build some temples up here to commemorate the occasion?” And no sooner than he says it, and the cloud comes down, and a voice of heavenly rebuke says, “Not so fast, Peter.”

Where has Peter gone wrong in this text? What’s so wrong with wanting to hang onto a little piece of God’s divine, radiant glory? I want to suggest an unusual answer to that question, but before I do, I want us all to spend some time looking at this strange Biblical event called The Transfiguration. May we pray.

Today’s Bible passage takes place on top of a mountain. Mountains, you may well know, in Greek, Hebrew, Roman, and Asian religious literature, were always places humans could touch the divine, so the stage is set for us to encounter the divine in some way. Jesus has taken Peter, James, and John with him up to the top of the mountain, and when they get up there, Jesus begins to glow, reflecting the full radiance of God’s divine glory. So, as we use this technical word – Transfiguration – we are simply talking about that divine glow that Jesus exhibited in today’s text.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and Epiphany is all about light, illumination, and revelation. Across the Sundays of Epiphany, between the joy of Christmas and the solemn penitential preparations of Lent, we discover the significance of the Jesus whose birth we just celebrated. We learn about how the babe born at Bethlehem is the light of the world and how we as his followers are also called to be light in the world.

Transfiguration Sunday serves as a bookend on this Epiphany season of light and discovery. It started with Baptism of the Lord Sunday in January, in which we were reminded that as Jesus came out of the water at his own baptism, the voice of God the Father called down from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!” Every Sunday since, the Biblical texts and our own reflection continue to beg the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Who is Jesus in our lives? Today, at the Transfiguration, we conclude Epiphany, the season of light, as Jesus glows with the full radiance of God’s glory – clothed in dazzling white.

Peter, James, and John are with Jesus on the mountain, and Jesus begins to glow. We’re talking Las Vegas, show-stopping, sequins and rhinestone bleachbright, white. In his moment of divine sparkle and shimmer, Jesus isn’t alone. It says he was seen talking with Moses and Elijah. I’ve always wondered what they were talking about. Were they catching up? Like, “Jesus, we haven’t seen you since the Incarnation, how’s everything going down here?” And Jesus is like, “Well, pretty good. I’m not gonna say there aren’t some problems, but overall, not too bad.”

It could just be to impress Peter, James, and John – it’s not just that Moses and Elijah show up for a photo opp with Jesus, Jesus actually knows them. Jesus is saying to Moses, “Are they looking? OK, pretend you’re talking to me like we’re old pals and I just said something really funny.” And Moses and Elijah go “Ha, ha, ha!” and slap Jesus on the back and give him a playful punch on the shoulder.

Maybe they’re complimenting him. “Jesus, your clothes sure are bright, brighter than anyone on earth could bleach them – what is your laundry secret? Or, realistically, maybe we just don’t have a clue what they were talking about.

Nevertheless, what is more significant than what they talked about is the simple fact that Jesus appears with these two, for Moses and Elijah are considered the saviors of Israel. Moses is the first savior – he saved the people from Pharoah, from captivity in Egypt, and he brought the law. Elijah is supposed to be the last savior of Israel; it is written that he will come at the end of time to save the people and put everything in right order.

So as Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah, this is some talk among the saviors. Matthew places this story in the Gospel to make sure that we know who Jesus is – that he is a savior (and as the story goes on, we’ll find out that he is the Savior), and that the full brightness and glory of divinity is within him.

And that sets the stage for what happens next, and for Peter putting his foot in his mouth. Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah, the two great figures from Israel’s history there, together, representing the whole of the Law and the Prophets, they appear out of nowhere and are talking with Jesus and then Peter interrupts them. Are you kidding me? Where does he get that kind of nerve, and what in the world was he thinking?

As Jesus is consumed in the full brightness of God’s glory, Peter offers to build three three booths, three shelters, three shrines, three temples. Why? Because Peter realized that he was an eyewitness to the wonderful, awesome work of God. Peter wanted to make the moment last. Peter wants to keep them right where they are. He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here” (v. 4). It’s a great moment for Peter and the others. They are eyewitnesses to the glory of God! They are in the presence of greatness!

The best that Peter can offer is to keep what he encounters for himself and his closest friends. Things are good here in this place, so let’s just keep them as they are. Let’s not change anything, the rest of the world can go to hell for all we care, but we’re comfortable and happy right here and now, so let’s keep everything just like it is right at this exact moment. Peter wanted to stay on the mountain and just bask in the radiance of God’s glory, Peter wanted to stay safe and protected and isolated inside a temple of his own construction, Peter just wanted to sing kum-ba-yah with James and John and Jesus and Moses and Elijah for the rest of eternity and never considered that wasn’t God’s intent for them. The possibilities outside the walls of that particular shrine on that particular mountaintop on that particular day were simply not evident to Peter.

I wonder, sometimes, if the same is true of us. If we, like Peter, are unable to see the possibilities beyond the walls of our own temple, or spend so much time wrapped up in our own mountaintop moments that we fail to share the glory of God with those who are going through life’s valleys and dark places.

Now, why do I say that Peter has his foot lodged in his own mouth? Because as soon as he offers to build those shrines, those temples, those holy markers, a mysterious voice comes down from heaven with the same message we heard at Jesus’ baptism when his public ministry began: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!” The voice is a rebuke of Peter’s offer. It’s God’s way of saying, “No, no, no! This is NOT what I want! Thanks for the offer, Peter, but I’ve got something else entirely in mind!” Peter had gotten so wrapped up in the moment and in the good feeling he had in that religious experience that he nearly missed the point entirely. Peter needed a reminder, as do we, that as good as worshiping Jesus and having great religious experiences and having our spiritual needs met – as great as those things are – just as important is listening to what Jesus says.

We sense in this story a real struggle, an undercurrent, and a tension that seems to run underneath our own faith tradition even today. It is the struggle between piety and really following Jesus, a struggle between religion for real and religion for show. Peter opted for piety. In order that there would be a building we could go back to and say, “Once upon a time God was here,” Peter opted, in your name and mine, for religion for show. “This is good enough, Jesus. Let’s settle down here and build something.”

Peter is trying to leave his own mark so that future generations will come back to the spot and remember that it was Peter who built the temples. Peter, much like us, wants others to think highly of him. Peter, like us, toots his own horn so others will give him some credit. So people will think, “Wow, look at all they do. Wow, look at how busy they are. I don’t know how they do it!” Something within each of us likes others to notice our work, and that can be a real motivation for why we do the work for God we do.

We’re a lot like Peter. Religion for show is more comfortable than religion for real. Peter was opting for a religion of temples, institutions, and shrines, a religion that is decent and respectable, polite, manageable, and in good order. And he offered to build a nice building – an institution – to contain it all and keep it all right there. But the Scripture tells us that before he could even finish speaking, God interrupted and said, “Listen.”

And when we listen to Jesus in this story, what does he say? “All right, that’s enough of that. It’s time to go back down the mountain.” They do, and immediately head into a village and encounter a boy possessed by demons. Down in the valley were people who needed God’s light.

Scottish theologian Henry Drummond says, “It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We don’t tarry there. The streams begin in the uplands, but descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.”

Jesus heads from the glory of the mountaintop quickly into the valley below, but what has taken place up there – the vision of God’s glory – goes with him. When all else fades, and indeed, soon enough all will become very dark, yet Jesus remains, reaching out in help & healing. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, he will gather with his disciples atop another mountain to promise that he will be with them until the end of the age.

In a nutshell, the story of the Transfiguration reaches back and forth through the major chapters of Jesus’ life – the mountaintop highs and the valley lows are all wrapped up in this story. The bright spots and the dark spots, the highs and the lows, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – it’s all there.

We have all had mountaintop experiences and can testify to their importance in our lives. And we have all had to return from those mountaintops to the valley. In today’s text, we are reminded that whether things in our life are great or things could be better, whether we find ourselves on the mountaintop basking in the radiance of divine glory or feel that we’re in the deepest darkest valley where no hope could possibly find us – in all those places and everywhere inbetween, Jesus is the there – on the mountain and in the valley – reaching out to raise us all to new life again. Who knows, maybe that’s what Diana Ross had in mind when she sang ‘cause baby, there ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from getting to you, babe. And if it’s not exactly what she meant, I thank her anyway, because that sentiment perfectly captures the message from today’s text.

The Transfiguration also leans unmistakably into the season of Lent, which will begin this Wednesday. Jesus will come down from the mountain and into the darkness of the valley as he begins his journey toward Jerusalem and the death that awaits him there – the very death of which he speaks on his descent from on high. The instruction to “listen to him” will become poignant and even painful as the story progresses as Jesus’ followers regularly fail to do just that. Likewise, as Jesus’ followers today, we are each confronted by the numerous ways we have failed to listen to Jesus. Many times, our own piety and acts of religious devotion keep us from listening, and still other times it is our own rationalism and practical side that keeps us from being able to put our faith in Jesus – to lean into his life with our own, and to trust him as we should.

That is what the Transfiguration means for us – trusting that the Jesus who was revealed in dazzling splendor on the mountaintop is the same Jesus who walks with us through darkness, pain, and fear of the valley.

We need to be open to sensing God’s presence and God’s glory everywhere, even and perhaps especially in the places we least expect it. It’s easy to find Jesus on top of the mountain, in the holy places, and in those deeply-moving religious experiences. But while we’re up there, basking in the radiance and lost in wonder, love, and praise, we need to pay attention to what God tells us. God says, “Listen to Jesus.” And what does Jesus say? “Come on, let’s get off this mountain and take God’s glory down into the valley.”

I’ll be honest – I don’t know where you are today. Maybe you’re on top of the world, maybe everything is bright and clear, maybe God’s glory couldn’t be shining any brighter around you. Or, maybe you’re down in a deep, dark place somewhere, where it seems no light could possibly reach you and there’s no way out.

Wherever you are, I simply want you to know that God is already there. Whether God is easy to see or nearly impossible to see, God is already there. And so, if you find yourself on top of the mountain today with the radiance of God’s glory clearly in view, I want you to listen to what Jesus says to do – to go down into the valley and share that light with someone else. And if you’re down in the valley and it seems all is dark, hang on! Someone with light is on their way. And what we’ll all realize is there are still many more mountains out there just waiting to be climbed.

No matter where we are, God’s glory is all around, and God will stop at nothing to get to us. There ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep God from getting to you. Thanks be to God!