Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Honesty

Sermon preached at Wood Green Mennonite Church
Sunday 15th February 2015, 3pm.

Reverend Smith was shaking people’s hands at the door.
            One by one the members of the congregation filed past
            “Thank you so much…”
            “Lovely sermon today…”
            “very uplifting…”
            “Oh, you were so helpful today…”

Reverend Smith resisted the urge to reply
            “in what way?
            “how was it helpful?
            “what area of your life did it challenge?
            “how did God speak to you?

This really wasn’t the time or place
            Not with another hundred or so hands to shake
            Another hundred or so smiles
            Another hundred or so brief pastoral encounters

“Pastor, thank you so much for the worship”
            said one elderly lady with grey hair
            “you were really in touch with the Lord this morning.”

As she said this, Reverend Smith thought to himself “if only you knew”
            His mind was already on how he was going to try
            And sort out the argument he had had
            With his whole family
just before leaving home to come to church

He looked past her to his wife and children
            All smiling happily
            Keeping up the image of Happy families

And so the members of the congregation
            Smiled their way out of worship
            With the rousing tune of the final chorus
            Still ringing in their ears

They got into their cars,
            And set off back to their lives
            Back to the trials, stresses, strains,
            And problems which they had been able to happily forget about
            For the last couple of hours

Reverend Smith sat down,
            after another half an hour on the door,
And looked round at the small groups
            Still hovering in the corners

He thought back over the service
            Yes, it had gone well
                        The worship had been uplifting
            The music very professional
                        The sermon was one of his better ones
            Very challenging, and assuring people
                        Of God’s love for them

And suddenly it dawned on him

That through the whole time
            Not one person in the entire church
had demonstrated the slightest degree of honesty.

He had been operating out of a fa├žade himself
            Forcing the pastoral smile
            While wanting to curl up and die inside
                        out of guilt at the things he had said
            only a few hours earlier

The congregation had, to a person,
            Not been honest with him or each other

If the answers to his often repeated “how are you today?”
            Were to be believed
            One hundred people were fine, not grumbling, and doing okay
            thank you for asking

Actually no, 99 were doing okay.
            John had indicated that he had a problem
            But there had been so many people queuing behind him
            That there had been no time to talk or pray with him.
            Or even to find out what the nature of his problem was

They had all rousingly sung the songs
            The volume of the singing
had been quite up to its usual standard
            if not slightly louder!

The Amens to the prayers had been resounding
            And the Hallelujah’s during the sermon
            Had been very inspiring
                        ………(Oh, nevermind!)

Well, thought Reverend Smith
            Is it likely that all those people
                        Were really able to worship happily today?
            Is it likely that they were able
                        To sing the happy songs
                        The songs which told God how much they loved him
            Is it likely that they managed to mean every word

Somehow Reverend Smith thought it unlikely

After all, if he was in pieces inside,
            And he was a Reverend
            Why should he expect more from the congregation

What if the truth was more depressing

What if two hundred people
            Had come together to meet with each other and with God

And had spent the whole time deceiving
            Each other
            God
            Themselves!

Surely this couldn’t be the case could it?

But what if it was?

What if the way the church was structured,
            the way they always did things

Forced people into behaving a certain way
            Smiling a certain smile
            Singing certain songs
            Praying certain prayers

When actually most of them could not
            In all integrity
            Mean a word of it!

What would it take for the worship of his church
            To allow people the space
                        to be honest about
            where they were before God

What view of God would be necessary
            For people to be able to own their hurt,
            Their anger, and their frustrations
            before God

What about those people who were angry with God
            For the way their lives had gone?

Was it really realistic to expect them to sit there
            and pray happy prayers, and sing happy songs?

And so Reverend Smith wondered…

What does the Bible say to people
            Who have had it up to here with happy songs?

Who feel that they never want to sing another happy song again?

And Reverend Smith’s thoughts turned to Psalm 137…
            That well-known psalm
            with the little-known ending

And it was especially to the last verse that Reverend Smith’s mind went

Psalm 137:1-9
    By the rivers of Babylon--
        there we sat down and there we wept
        when we remembered Zion.
    [2] On the willows there
        we hung up our harps.
    [3] For there our captors
        asked us for songs,
    and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
        "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

    [4] How could we sing the Lord's song
        in a foreign land?
    [5] If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand wither!
    [6] Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
        if I do not remember you,
    if I do not set Jerusalem
        above my highest joy.

    [7] Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
        the day of Jerusalem's fall,
    how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down!
        Down to its foundations!"
    [8] O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
        Happy shall they be who pay you back
        what you have done to us!
    [9] Happy shall they be who take your little ones
        and dash them against the rock!

The people of Israel in ancient times were a people of Song
            They had rhythm in the blood;
            and their whirling dancing,
            their praises to the one true God,
            everything about the way they were
                        shouted praises to the one true God

They were famous for their praise songs
            throughout the known world

Other nations looked at Israel’s worship tradition
            with awe

But the people of Israel were now in Exile

The Babylonians had conquered them
            And exported them to a foreign land

And so they sat beside the rivers in Babylon
            Looking wistfully at the horizon
            Remembering their beautiful land
            Their beautiful temple

Knowing that it was all in ruins

Their places of worship destroyed
Their homes burned
They knew they were never going back.

So what were they to sing now?
            How did their happy, renowned worship songs help them now?

And all the while the Babylonians tormented them
            “Come on… sing us a song
            “What about your famous worship?
            “What about your joyful dancing?
            “Come on… Give us a number!”

And the Israelites looked at one another in despair
            And there by the river, they wept

They wept with grief as they remembered their homes
            Their temple, their places of worship

They wept that all that had been so good
had been taken from them

They wept that God seemed to have abandoned them…
            How could they cope?
            What were they to do?

They cried out before God of
Their disappointment
            Their sense of bereavement
            Their loss

They asked how God could have allowed this to happen?…

And the Babylonians wanted them to sing a happy song of the Lord?…

So they hung their harps on the trees
            and said to one another

“how can we sing the songs of the Lord
            whilst in a foreign land”

They refused to sing their happy songs,
            because those songs were not the right songs to sing.
Not now, not here.

Singing happy songs now would be lying
            It would be mocking God
            It would be refusing to face up
            To what had happened to them

But they still sang…

They sang of their sadness
They sang of their anger
They sang of their disappointment

They were honest about their feelings

Not for them some effort to push their anger
            Deep down inside
            Where it would fester for years
            Before coming out to haunt them

Not for them some necessity to pretend everything was fine
            When actually everything was awful

They knew that God could take whatever they needed to throw at him

They knew that he could absorb their anger
            They knew that he could cope with their bitterness
            Meet them in their hurts

So they were honest before God, and with one another

And they sang before God
            “happy is the one who grabs the babies of the Babylonians
            and smashes their heads on the rocks”

---------

Well, you don’t get much more honest than that, do you?!

These people knew God well enough to know
            That he wasn’t about to disown them
Simply because they were honest with him about their feelings

Their relationship with God
            Was such that it could withstand
            The brutal honesty of emotions like this

And I wonder if we could usefully ask ourselves the question of whether,
if we hated somebody enough to want their children dead…
we would be prepared to admit it
            even to ourselves,
            let alone to others
            or to God?

Or would we still come along on a Sunday
            To meet with our brothers and sisters in Christ
            To meet with the living God
And behave like the congregation in Reverend Smith’s church?
            All smiles and happiness
            Fooling ourselves, others, and God.

What would it take for us to have a church
            Which modelled the example of the Israelites?

Where we could praise, and sing happy songs
            when we had things to praise and be happy about;
but where there was also the space
            To be honest and open about our darker emotions.

What would it be like to have a church
            where the voices from the dark underside of our humanity,
            could be heard from time to time?

What would it be like to have a church
            where honesty and integrity was more important than anything else?

How can we learn to be honest in worship?
            Honest with ourselves
            Honest with one another
            Honest with God

The first battle to be won here
            is probably learning to be honest with ourselves

A phrase from my days as a student at ministerial training college
            still sometimes returns to haunt me:
            “never underestimate our capacity to deceive ourselves”

It is all too easy to kid ourselves that we are doing fine
            to convince ourselves that we are coping,
            that our relationships are going well,
            and that other people can’t hurt us…

The reality for many of us is that when things get tough,
we don’t like facing up to the truth of what has happened to us
            or is happening to us
It’s much more comfortable to pretend
            that nothing is going wrong,
            not admitting even to ourselves the feelings we have

Possibly because they make us feel guilty…

If I wanted to smash someone else’s child’s head against the rock
            I think I’d feel pretty guilty about that emotion

Much more comfortable to ignore it, and
            Deceive myself into believing
            That I am doing fine.

Rather than admitting it to myself
            Facing the guilt
            And beginning the path towards healing

Of course, being honest with ourselves is only the first step

We may know deep down inside that things are far from right

But that doesn’t do anything about the public face.
            The happy smile
            And the twinkly eyes
            That belie the pain underneath

The problem with being honest with one another
            Is that we can’t be honest with one another all the time

We would never cope!

We don’t really want to hear everybody else’s problems
We are too damaged ourselves
            To be able to cope with everyone else’s honesty

But one thing that is worth thinking about here
            Is that one of the main criticisms of Christians
            By people outside the church
            Is that we are a bunch of hypocritical, self righteous whatsits

And if we go round giving the impression that we are eternally sorted
            Always having a happy smile
            with all our problems in the past
Who can blame people for finding that off-putting?

A bit of honesty from time to time
            Would go a long way towards rectifying this

If we could be honest about he fact that
            All we are is a bunch of sinners
            Who just happen to be forgiven

Maybe others wouldn’t find God so intimidating

Jesus, after all, didn’t hang around with the religious, sorted, people.

He said that they didn’t need him

Jesus hung round with prostitutes & foul-mouthed fishermen
                        He took drinks with adulterers
He spent time with people
whose sinfulness was so obvious
            that it offended the church-going types of his day.

And I fear that sometimes we are so dishonest with each other,
            in our attempts to appear holy and happy,
            that we alienate those who Jesus died for?

And my worry is that if this is so,
            we might find Jesus not wanting to spend much time with us
                        Leaving us to our singing
            Whilst he is off spending time with those who need him

But the truth, of course
            Is that we need Jesus just as much as anybody else
                        We still sin
                        We still hate people
                        We still have broken relationships

If only we could find a way of being honest about it

For some of us that place of honesty
            will be found through involvement in a small group of Christians who meet regularly,
a place where we can build the kind of close relationships
            where honesty becomes possible
and where we can find the support from our sisters and brothers
            That will help us through the tough times

Some of us will find the place of honesty as we meet with another Christian for prayer
            Being honest together about what we hear God saying to us

My own journey has found great honesty in the wise counsel of my spiritual director…
            a companion on the journey…
            who has helped me to learn to be honest with God
            and so to grow in my relationship with him

At a simple level, we can find honesty in the opportunities for prayer
that are on offer at church week by week.
            If only we learn not to leave, pausing only to pick up at the door
            our coat and the burden we put down when we walked in

            If life is awful, be honest with someone.
            Get some help, ask for some prayer.

Maybe in these and other ways
            We can be able to learn how to be honest with one another.

And a word of caution.
If someone trusts us enough to be honest with us
            We must treat them sensitively
            Because there but for the grace of God we go

But finally, let us seek to be honest with God.
            And in many ways this is the hardest thing

Being honest with ourselves is tough, and with others is difficult

But admitting our darkest feelings before God
            is a terrifying prospect

How is God going to react
            If I tell him I want to kill my enemy’s baby?

Well, the Israelites told him
            And he didn’t disown them!

Let us look at how we relate to God
            And consider what the opportunities
for honesty and dishonesty are…

What about our prays?

How we pray, and whether we pray,
            may tell us a lot about our relationship with God.

Do we always seem to be saying the same stuff to God
            or finding ourselves not bothering to pray any more,
            or only praying in the same old ways?

Maybe we might start to pay attention
to what it is that we are not saying to God

We may find that we are not being honest with God
            About some area of our lives
Maybe the time is upon us to own up to who we are before him
            And to receive his forgiveness and healing

Again, I have often found that talking to others can help here
            as we seek to understand how we are relating to God

And what about in our Sunday worship
            How do we do there?…

What are the opportunities for honesty or dishonesty
that Sunday presents us with?

We may not be quite up to Reverend Smith’s congregation’s standards
            But I wonder if we often we come close!

Many Christians have a tendency
            to expect victorious, joyous, Christian living
Which is fine - until their lives fall apart.

So sometimes we need to get real ourselves
            and ask just why we think we’re here on a Sunday.

Is it get an emotional lift out of the service
            that will see us through until at least Monday lunchtime?

Or is it to meet in honesty
            with ourselves,
            with others,
and with God
Who loves us, and longs to forgive us
            to heal us
            to renew us
            to refresh us
            And to comfort us

And to teach us to worship him
            in Spirit and in truth.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Transfiguration

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Transfiguration Sunday, 15 February 2015, 11.00am

You can listen to this sermon here

Mark 9:2-10
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,  3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  5 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."  6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"  8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  9 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.  10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; 10.4-7
9As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire.  10 A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
4 On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river (that is, the Tigris),  5 I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist.  6 His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.  7 I, Daniel, alone saw the vision; the people who were with me did not see the vision, though a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled and hid themselves.


Exodus 24.15-18; 34.29-30
15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.  16 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.  17 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.  18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.

1 Kings 19.11-12

[The word of the Lord] said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;  12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Today is transfiguration Sunday,
and the tradition behind Mark’s gospel’s story
          of the transfiguration of Jesus,
          goes back a very long way...

Back before Daniel’s apocalyptic vision of the Ancient One,
                   coming with the clouds of heaven
                   to the oppressed Jews of the second century BC;[1]
          Back before Elijah’s mountain-top experience
                   of the presence of the Lord in the still small voice
                   heard through earthquake, wind and fire;[2]
          Back before even Moses’ face shining with the reflected glory
                   of the one he met on mount Sinai.[3]

In fact, the belief that one can encounter the divine spirit
                   in the ‘high and holy’ places
          has probably been part of the human experience of numinous awe
                    since the dawn of human consciousness.

The cosmology of the ancient world pictured typically pictured the spiritual realm
          as being high up in the air, somewhere above the clouds.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped the night-goddess Nut,
          stretching her star-spangled body across the darkness of the sky.
In fact, we still speak of the starry sky as ‘the heavens’
          even though I’m not aware of any religious person
          who actually believes we could jump in a space ship
          and travel to the realm where God lives.

But the ancients did have such a perspective,
          and they believed that going up to the high places
          brought a person closer to the divine presence…
The almost universal construction of worship sites on hilltops and mountains
          gives testimony to the power which was believed to reside there.

But the encounters with God experienced by Moses, Elijah and Daniel,
                   and by Peter, James and John
          are something very different:
These are not simply mystical experiences
          evoking a sense of awe and wonder
Rather, they are powerful statements of the holiness and majesty
          of the one enthroned on high.

Moses received the tablets of the covenant
          and came down from the mountain
                   with a commission to challenge idolatry
          and so transform the way in which
                   the people of Israel related to their God.
Elijah received a prophetic commission
          and came down from the mountain to challenge idolatry
                   and transform the way in which
                             the people of Israel worshipped their God.

While Daniel’s vision of the Ancient One on the heavenly throne
          presents a direct challenge
                   to all idolatrous claims to earthly power.

And so, when Peter, James and John
          follow Jesus up onto the mountain
and see him transfigured before them
          in the presence of Moses and Elijah
There is something far more significant going on
          than simply a supernatural experience
                   of the presence of the divine.

Ched Myers has described the transfiguration as
          ‘a salvation history summit conference’
And what he means by this is that in the transfiguration
          we have the coming together
                   of the law, the prophets and the cross
          as Moses, Elijah and Jesus talk together

In the transfiguration, we see God’s plan for the salvation of the world
          moving towards its ultimate and definitive concluding act
          as the old covenant, based upon the Law and the prophets,
                   gives way to the new covenant,
          one which is to be inaugurated
          by the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

This is why we celebrate transfiguration Sunday at this point in the year, of course,
          because we are about to enter the period of Lent,
          the season of preparation for the journey to the cross.
It’s not just pancakes on Tuesday and giving up chocolate for a few weeks,
          rather, it’s about setting our faces to the cross,
          it’s about counting the cost of our discipleship,
          and it’s about learning to see the world through the lens of the crucifixion.

In Mark’s gospel, the glory of the transfiguration vision of Jesus
          marks the turning point in the story,
as it becomes clear that the glory of Jesus can only be understood
          through the lens of the cross.

And so the Law the Prophets give way to the cross,
          as the old covenant gives way to the new.

However, at this point, we’re reminded of the presence
          of the three disciples who had accompanied Jesus
                   up onto the mountain:

True-to-form, Peter completely fails to understand what’s happening
          and makes his stunningly stupid offer
                   of building three little huts:
                   one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah…

I mean, really! Has he no idea at all???

He seems to think that the mountain-top experience
                   can be made to last forever;
          as if the transfigured one might be persuaded
                   to take up residence on the mountain
          and make himself available for regular visiting
                   like some Greek oracle or hermit.

And as for James and John, well, they’re really no better
          stuck dumb with fear and incapable of response!

But I wonder, would we actually fare any better…

Would we, like Peter, succumb to the temptation
                   of trying to perpetuate the glorious moment?
          Would we want to put Jesus in a little hut,
                   always available at our convenience?
Or perhaps, like James and John
          we would simply lose any capacity for appropriate response
                   through fear of the unknown?

I suggest that we meet both these responses amongst Christians…
          maybe we even meet them in ourselves…

Some of us seem to continually crave the mountaintop experience,
          the moment of emotional high, of entering the presence of God,
          of meeting Jesus in the high and holy place…
And having met Jesus there once,
          our desire becomes to perpetuate that meeting,
and so we try to create little huts of our own devising,
          as we seek to keep Jesus always available for us -
                   always in the same place
                   always encountered in the same way…

Whether it’s the exuberant joy of communal worship,
          or the quiet mysticism of the contemplative moment,
we need to guard against trying to put Jesus
                   into a little hut of our own making,
          as if we can pop up the mountain whenever we desire
                    and repeat the ecstatic moment at our convenience.

But then, some of us go to the other extreme,
                   and mirror James and John,
          so when the unexpected happens,
                   and the Lord himself invites us
                   into the supernatural moment,
          when he chooses to reveal himself to us
                   in his awesomeness and majesty,
we fall inactive through fear, finding ourselves incapable of response.

Both these responses – control and fear –
          sap the significance of the moment of transfiguration;
because they misunderstand the nature
          of Jesus’ revelation to his followers on the mountaintop.

The transfiguration is not about
          making the spiritual high available on-demand,
                   like some prescription narcotic,
                   to be dispensed by a sanctioned and sanctified practitioner.

And neither is it about creating a crippling fear of an almighty God
          who keeps us cowed in terror
          by tactics of divine shock and awe.

Rather, the transfiguration, the experience of Jesus on the mountaintop,
          is about commissioning for ministry…

We have already seen how Moses and Elijah
          came down from their own mountaintop experiences
                   of the divine
          charged with commissions to change the world

Well, the same is true of Peter, James and John.

This becomes clear when the divine voice from heaven
          speaks to them, saying
                   ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;
                   listen to him!’

In a direct echo of the divine words
          spoken at the commissioning of Jesus’ own ministry
          at his Baptism in the wilderness (Mk 1:11),
the divine voice now speaks on the mountaintop
          and commissions the three disciples
          for a life lived in obedience to the words of Jesus.

In Daniel’s vision, the Ancient One is seen
          to be giving dominion and glory and kingship
                    to the one like a son of man
          who appeared in the clouds of heaven, clothed in white linen.

In Peter, James and John’s experience on the mountaintop
          the Son of Man is once again confirmed
                   as the beloved son of God
and they, as his followers, are charged with listening to his voice.

This mountaintop experience may turn out
          to have been a once-in-a-lifetime moment for them,
but the task of hearing the voice of the Lord
          becomes their everyday commission.

Elijah and Moses duly disappear at this point,
          and the disciples are once again left alone with Jesus.

The experience of transfiguration is over,
          and so they walk back down the mountain
          in the company of their friend.

But this is no return back to the world as it was
          before they went up the mountain…
Now they have a new commission
          – received direct from the voice of God
                   in the presence of Moses and Elijah

No longer are they to follow the words of the Law
          or the words of the prophets.
Rather, they have been charged
          with following the words of Jesus,
          with becoming his disciples.

Their view of the world has been radically transformed
          by their vision of the transfigured one,
and it has been revealed to them
          that Jesus Christ stands at the pinnacle of salvation,
          supreme over the Law, the prophets,
                   and all other claims to human allegiance.

And what is the first thing Jesus says to them
          once the experience is over?
He tells them to tell no-one about what they have seen
          until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.

Now, I don’t know about you,
          but if I’d just been through what they’d been through
I’d probably be bursting to tell people!

I’d be wanting to shout it from the rooftops
          that God had spoken,
                   and that Jesus has been revealed as the glorified one,
                   as heir of the Law and the prophets!

But that is not the commission.

The words of Jesus, to which they have been instructed to listen,
          are mysterious and confusing.

They are not a call to proclaim victory;
          they are not a call to eschatological triumphalism.

Rather, they are a call to try and understand the message of the cross;
          and the problem is that the message of the cross
          is not a message that the disciples want to hear.

After such a powerful revelation of the divine power of their Lord,
          it would only be natural for the disciples
          to want to proclaim the victory of Christ;
but they are asked to ponder defeat,
          they are asked to turn their faces to the cross,
          they are asked to go straight from Transfiguration to Lent.

They want to proclaim their Lord transfigured,
          but they are asked to keep silent.
And what they need to recognise,
          what we all need to recognise,
is that true victory is only found through the defeat of the cross.

The message which the disciples will eventually proclaim
          is not a message of triumphant victory,
          it’s not even a message of spiritual ecstasy on the mountaintop.
Rather, it’s the message of the cross,
          the message of the Son of Man meeting his death
          on a small hill outside Jerusalem.

Because it is only through the defeat of the cross
          that the true victory of resurrection from the dead can be achieved.

And there is a profound lesson for us to learn here
          as we ponder the significance of the transfiguration.

The mountaintop experience of spiritual ecstasy
          certainly may form part of our calling,
          but it is not the message we are called to proclaim.

Too often the Christian church has reduced the Christian gospel
          to the proclamation of triumphant victory or spiritual ecstasy.

But we do not call people to follow Christ
          so that they too can ascend the mountain
          and experience the vision of the transfigured Christ.
That invitation is the preserve of the mystery religions
          who promise ecstatic experiences on demand
          in exchange for certain ritual practices.

And we do not call people to follow Christ
          so that they can claim for themselves some triumphant conquest
          of the principalities, powers and territories of this world.

No, the message we are called to proclaim
          is the message of apparent defeat – it is the message of the cross.

We are commissioned to be those who follow the words of Jesus,
          and these are words that lead us to the cross, to death,
          and through death, to resurrection.

We are commissioned to follow the words of the one
          who encourages us to take up our own cross,
                    to live lives of sacrifice,
          to tread the path of suffering and defeat.

And yet, all too often, we resist this path;
          desiring to return to the mountaintop again and again,
          because what we really want is another fix
                   of the victorious vision of the transfigured Christ.

Turn with me if you will, to the book of Revelation,

Revelation 7.9-17   
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"  11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,  12 singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."  13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?"  14 I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;  17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Those who are clothed in shining white clothes
          are those who have come out of the great ordeal
they are those whose robes have been washed bright white
          by the blood of the slain-yet-living Lamb.

If we want our own experience of transfiguration,
          if we desire to be washed clean
                   of all that mars the image of God in us,
          if we long to be those who stand blameless
                   before the throne of God,
then the path we must tread is the path of the cross,
          it is the path of sacrifice.

The commissioning of the transfiguration
          is to a life of subversive Christian living,
focused not on victory but on the defeat of the cross
          because ultimately, it is only through the cross and resurrection
          that eternal victory is to be found.




[1] Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; 10.4-7
[2] 1 Kings 19.9-12
[3] Exodus 24.15-18; 34.29-30