glory

Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.

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The Glory of His Work

Sixth in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Hebrews 1:1-13 (NRSV)

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say,

“You are my Son;
   today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be his Father,
   and he will be my Son”?

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
   and his servants flames of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
   and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
   with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

And,

“In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
   and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
   they will all wear out like clothing;
like a cloak you will roll them up,
   and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
   and your years will never end.”

But to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
   until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?


God came down. That is the essence of the Christmas story—God came down among us from an infinite place and situation we can barely imagine to save his creation from sin.

It’s a beautiful story. Do you want to hear the Christmas story one more time this Christmas Day? It’s always worth hearing, even if you heard it last night, on Christmas Eve.

The author of our Hebrews text this morning evoked that Christmas story, and he wanted us to remember God came down in all his glory, despite God voluntarily reducing himself to be among us. By glory, we simply mean that his perfect holiness was shining through, even at moments when human beings dulled by sin could not always see the glory.

The Hebrews author reminds us that yes, this Jesus is God among us. Through him, all things were made, an assertion echoed in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Yes, this Jesus is eternal, and life is rooted in him.

Yes, this Jesus is worthy of worship. This expression of God as Son shares the throne in heaven with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, three in one. Even the angels in heaven bow down to the Christ, and when he was born to a human mother in this world, the angels came down, too, visible to shepherds as God’s divine messengers.

God’s glory shines all around us even today. We simply have to remember to look for it, to ask God to remove the scales from our sin-dulled eyes, and the glory is there.

There is the glory of creation. We like to cite creation as evidence of God’s presence here in Ten Mile, particularly when I ask during prayer time where we’ve seen God. There’s nothing wrong with pointing to nature, even though it often continues to be red in tooth and claw. We’re just echoing Romans 1:20:

“Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

We see God’s glory in each other, too. You hear people from other religions talk about the “divine spark” within humans. We have notions along those lines in Christianity, too. We know from the creation story that we were made in God’s image, although we quickly became cracked, distorted reflections because of sin.

Jesus came among us to be the perfect reflection, the exact imprint, and when we accept that truth and profess our belief in him as Savior, we begin to do a better job day by day of reflecting God’s glory to others. As Jesus rose from the dead, resurrected, we rise above our own dying each day and are transformed, knowing that we also will be resurrected in full.

In our worship services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Luminary UMC, we have had the joy of taking some of our brothers and sisters through baptisms, confirmations and reaffirmations of faith. We believe the “divine spark” was visible at those moments. As each formally accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, we believe the Holy Spirit began to work in the person in new ways.

Who knows what God will do through them? An act of re-creation, I am sure. These new Christians are being remade, just as the world is being remade, and as the church of believers grows, God’s glory should become more evident.

Let’s pause now and once again glorify God.

Like your angels, Lord, we bow our heads to you. We lift our hands and voices in praise. And yes, we even dare to look upon your beauty and majesty, our hearts filled with hope and joy, knowing you accept our praise and rejoin us to you despite our sin.

Inspire us this day with a new sense of your glory. Let us reflect your glory to others, that they may know the truth of who you are, and your kingdom may grow.

Thank you for the birth of Jesus Christ. Thank you for his life perfectly lived, and his perfectly obedient death. Thank you for the glory of the resurrection.

May the hope and glory of Christmas sustain us throughout the year.

Amen.


The featured image is “Glory of the Newborn Christ,” ceiling painting by Daniel Gran, 1694-1757.

Undeniably Holy

Exodus 24:12-182 Peter 1:16-21Matthew 17:1-9

The idea of the transfiguration, depicted in our Matthew text and attested to in our 2 Peter verses, can seem more complicated than it is. Let me begin with a couple of very simple principles that will help.

I first needed eyeglasses in my early twenties, and wore them all through my thirties, until my vision went the other direction and the eye doctor told me to stop wearing them. It was a light prescription; without glasses I could see across a room pretty well, but things would get blurry at about road sign distance.

I never got used to keeping track of my glasses. I suppose this was because I didn’t have them as a child, so I didn’t have my parents’ voices in my head threatening me with the end of the world if I lost or broke them. In fact, I was always putting them down somewhere I shouldn’t, and then I would have to hunt for them.

One morning, I was frantically trying to leave for work, but I could not find my glasses. I looked in the bedroom. I looked in the bathroom. I looked in the living room and the dining room. Finally, I made one of those “aaargh” sounds designed to attract my wife’s assistance. Connie walked into the room and said, “What’s wrong?”

I said, “I’ve got to go to work, and I cannot find my glasses!”

She found them very quickly. “They’re on your face,” she replied.

Principle 1: Sometimes you’re so close to something, it’s hard to see it.

Mentioning my wife reminds me of another story. Connie and I have known each other a very long time, since we were 14.

I still remember the first day she walked into my homeroom class. After the school year had already begun, she was transferred from one homeroom to another. Mostly, I remember how terrified she looked when the teacher led her in and introduced her.

There stood this very tall, awkward girl. Remember, at 14, the girls are often taller than the boys, and she was one of the tall girls. She clutched her books tightly and ran to an empty seat in the back of the room as fast as she could.

“Poor kid,” I thought. And I guess I was right—she did eventually marry a guy who didn’t know whether his glasses were on his face. Love and marriage were to come much later, however.

I also suspect we crossed paths a lot earlier than middle school. We were comparing notes on childhood experiences, and we realized we had a common one. Our stay-at-home mothers both shopped regularly at the Johnson City Publix from the time we were babies. She’s just 41 days older than me, and you know how babies and toddlers notice each other.

How many times did we see each other from our shopping cart perches? Did we wave or smile, not realizing God intended us for each other?

And there we have principle 2: Seeing, even for a long period of time, is not always knowing and understanding.

Now, on to the transfiguration. Jesus took three very close disciples up a mountain. They had been with him from the start of his earthly ministry. They thought they knew him.

He seemed to them like a holy man already; that is, he seemed to reflect the same holy light Moses had brought down from the mountain thousands of years earlier after encountering God. But come to find out, Jesus was the light, the source rather than the mirror.

There even was testimony direct from heaven, the same kind of testimony some had heard at Jesus’ baptism. On the mountain, Jesus’ status was made clear: As Son of God, this man was God among us, holiness amid brokenness and sin.

They wanted to dwell in that light—Peter surely did—but they had to come down from the mountain so Jesus could do his work on the cross. And through that work, even we are made holy.

We may not always see that holiness in each other, even when it’s right in front of us. But it’s there. And it’s powerful.

A Crucial Question

Luke 24:1-12

If two angels ask a question, it is a question worth pondering.

The question comes as part of the angelic announcement that Jesus is risen from the dead, his body remade to be indestructible, a state of eternal living we describe as “resurrected.” It is a truth we celebrate whenever we gather as Christians to worship, and it is a truth celebrated in particular on Easter Sunday.

The question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead,” almost sounds rhetorical. I don’t think God intends us to read it that way, however. The question is as valid today as it was in the middle of a Jewish cemetery nearly 2,000 years ago. For those of us who acknowledge the truth of the resurrection, the question challenges our view of the world, our very approach to life.

Sometimes we can see people literally looking for life in the midst of death. A few years ago, at the last church I pastored, our community had problems for a few weeks with a group of what were either older teens or young adults. They had became enamored with the rural community cemetery next to our church building.

Dressed in black, they lounged against the headstones at twilight like they were on living room couches. Sometimes they took pictures of each other draped across the tombstones. I heard some of the photos were on a web site. It was weird.

I feel certain this was more than mischief, however. As misguided as they were, like all human beings, they were seeking some kind of deeper truth, some sort of connection with each other and to a larger purpose. But you cannot find life in the midst of death. We as a church wanted to reach them, but it was like trying to approach a conspiracy of ravens—their instinct was to fly away.

Other than paying our occasional respects to a loved one, most of us are not going to be found lingering in cemeteries. There are other similarly wrong ways to pursue truth, however, and we can inadvertently find ourselves hovering in the world of the dead. When we find ourselves in these situations, it’s good to ask ourselves why we seek Christ where Christ is not.

So many people seek truth through anger these days. But anger is something of the cemetery. Anger is rooted in woundedness and bitterness over slights and losses, real or perceived. How are we to find the living, resurrected Christ where there is anger?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Those were Jesus’ words after nails had been driven through his flesh, pinning him to the wood to bleed and dangle until death.

Other people seek truth through what is temporary, and the world is full of temporary distractions. The distraction can be as noble sounding as deep commitment to work or sports or as deadly as drugs, but if it is not of God, then it obviously is not where you will find the risen savior.

Here’s a test for whether we’re searching where there is life. Remember the story of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus? We know when we’re in the presence of the living Christ. What we are doing creates a holy burning within us.

When we sense the presence of the living Christ, everything begins to change. In the midst of a broken world we can feel the joy of eternity. Life, we realize, has boundless potential, simply because the resurrection tells us there are no more boundaries.

We also begin to live into the truth that even the cemetery one day will no longer contain death. In Christ, there ultimately is no death, no pain, no fear. Like Christ, we shall rise, remade holy and indestructible, ready to live forever in the presence of our creator.

Why would we look for anything else?