Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The King: The Rule of the Unseen

Scripture readings: Psalm 27; Matthew 17:1-9

There is that song we sing in worship: “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” I like that song a lot. There is one funny thing about it though, and I was reminded of it while I was studying this week; and that is that Jesus never shines in any of the gospels, except for here; in what we call the transfiguration, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke repeat it in their gospels.

The gospels call Jesus light, but he only shines for the disciples (and for us) here; in the transfiguration. He didn’t shine during what the gospels tell us about his birth. He didn’t shine when he rose from the dead, on Easter Dawn. He didn’t shine when he rose into heaven.

And this is really just a long way of saying that what we read here is truly exceptional, even for Jesus. And this is just more evidence of how common the gospels are; how down to earth and unexcitable they are. The gospels are full of miracles, but they never go wild and crazy about them, and they are very reserved in the way they report them.

The gospels are calm and careful in the way they lead us to Jesus. And that is a lesson for us, in the way we come to Jesus, in our own lives, and in the way we bring others to him.

What we have here is a miracle; a miracle of seeing. We call it the transfiguration, and that is an awfully fancy word. The Greek word for what happened is the root of our word “metamorphosis”: another very fancy word.

Metamorphosis means big change. It means transformation. Metamorphosis is what happens when a caterpillar spins a cocoon around itself and changes into a butterfly. A caterpillar and a butterfly are the exact same creature, only at earlier and later stages of its development.

What the disciples saw on the mountain was not Jesus moving into a later stage of his development. For one thing he changed right back again into the normal Jesus, as his friends had always known him.

The voice from the cloud of light should tell us who this new Jesus is, but it doesn’t. The voice says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (17:5)

These are the exact same words that came from heaven the moment Jesus was baptized, at the beginning of his ministry. The Jesus who was shining bright as the sun was the same old Jesus his disciples had always known. In fact the Jesus who was bright as the sun was the same Jesus who was the baby in Bethlehem, and the boy asking questions in the Temple; and the same Jesus who would hang dying on the cross, and be buried in the tomb, and rise from the dead. And they were seeing the same Jesus who will return to earth when this universe is over and a new heaven and earth are made. And when the light faded from his face, the disciples saw the same Jesus as all of that.

The light they had never seen before drew attention to what was always right there before their eyes and right under their noses.

The voice from the cloud of light said a few more words, “Listen to him.” It said “listen to him” because sometimes they didn’t and they needed to know who it was that they were not listening to; someone whose face was really brighter than the sun, even when they didn’t see the light.

The miracle of seeing, which lasted no more than a few minutes (at the most), helped them know how to live in the presence of the unseen. The presence of the unseen is about faith. Paul says, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7) And the Letter to the Hebrews says (in the King James Version), “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
The New International Version says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Most modern translations have something similar to that; making faith a matter of inner assurance instead of something substantial and objective. But that is because modern people, who make the modern translations, have trouble with the concept of faith being more than an attitude or a way of thinking.

Faith is not an attitude. Faith is not a way of thinking or seeing things. Faith is a strange way of knowing something that you cannot properly do justice to in words. Faith is a form of belonging. Faith is being connected to a reality that is beyond you, a reality that you cannot see with your eyes. Faith is the rule of the unseen.

In the sixteenth Chapter of Matthew, Jesus asked the disciples to put his identity in their own words, and in their own voice. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-17) By “flesh and blood” Jesus meant that Peter’s understanding of who Jesus really was didn’t come from his own figuring it out. It didn’t even come from some place in Peter’s heart. It came from God. There is a leap of inspiration that is not our own leap.

We may talk about a leap of faith, but usually we are pushed. It is like being a child who is afraid of the water and who has a father or mother who will not accept your fear. They put you in the water, and they make you do things you are afraid to do because you don’t really believe that your body can float on top of the water. Swimming is something you simply have to do. At least you have to try.

Even though faith has to be a kind of decision we make and stick to; even though faith may be the hardest choice we make; even if we make it kicking and screaming; faith usually comes down to being a kind of necessity. Faith may be a choice; but real faith, in the end, turns out to be the only choice.

Faith always comes from some action, or from the memories of some action, like of the time your father or mother taught you to swim. (Or maybe it was the nice life guards at the town pool.) Faith is being connected to something or someone beyond you.

One way or another, for better or for worse, that connection shaped part of your life. It shaped, and may continue to shape, the person you are. It is the work of the connection, the work of the unseen.

Another example of being ruled by the unseen is one that I know nothing about, personally. It is how a mother-to-be is ruled and shaped by the unseen life within her. When things are the way they should be, a personal relationship begins with that baby within. It is not entirely unseen, of course, but it is a relationship that goes far beyond what you can see. I imagine that faith, hope, and love go into it. I imagine that a woman’s emotions and personality adapt to accept this coming new person before that person becomes visible.

Love itself is an unseen thing. You have to choose to make love seen, and visible, and felt, and heard. But love in many ways is an unseen thing that changes your priorities, and your direction in life. It changes who you are, even though it goes unseen. It is the rule under which you live your life. It’s true that love, like faith, is also a leap, but it is also a push.

The transfiguration only lasted for a few moments, and that is all that was needed. But it was needed. It was given to them because it was desperately needed. It was needed because the friends of Jesus would need the experience of a shining Jesus to hold them together when they began to experience terrible things.

Jesus had begun to show disturbing changes in his thought. Jesus had begun to hammer his disciples with the thought that they were going to Jerusalem where he would be arrested, and mistreated, and killed, and rise from the dead. Because they loved Jesus, and had such strong hopes for him and for themselves, they couldn’t listen to this. They couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t accept it.

Essentially they were beginning to be afraid. And then this moment or two of Jesus (as they had never seen him before) made a strange statement to their fear. For a brief moment they saw that Jesus was someone who could talk about dying and rising from the dead. This moment quickly passed, but the memory of seeing the un-seeable glory of Jesus did not leave them.

It stayed with them all their lives. But it was also part of the wonder of seeing Jesus again, when he had risen from the dead with the wounds of the nails in his hands and feet.

They saw their wounded and miraculously living and victorious friend coming to them out of an empty grave. As they held Jesus in their arms, they also saw, in their memory, the glory that had been able to achieve this. They saw how everything that Jesus promised was able to come true. They saw how Jesus was the one who could meet the evil, and violence, and injustice of this world and overcome it and offer them a new world, a new life.

The transfiguration was a gift both to help Jesus on his way to the cross, and to help his friends through the way to the cross, and to the risen Jesus, and beyond. The transfiguration was the gift of what we sometimes call a “mountaintop experience”. The friends of Jesus saw something that is normally unseen, and for the rest of their lives they were ruled by it.

We have to know that being a Christian, being a follower of Jesus, means living under the rule and influence of the unseen. We do some funny things here. We talk to someone with our eyes closed, and with our hands folded or raised. We sing odd songs together.

But it is all related to a reality that we have experienced; or we are supposed to have experienced it. All our strange words and actions are related to a reality that we cannot make others see, but we are called to make that reality known, with the help of the unseen.

We know the Jesus who shines. We are the work projects of the Holy Spirit, who has no real shape to be seen, but is the power, and presence, and love of God the Father, and God the Son, meeting and embracing and working together.

There is some mountain top in our lives where we have met this Jesus and received this Spirit and heard the voice of this Father telling us to listen. And we take the road down from the mountaintop, into the ordinary world of everything that we can see and touch. But we go down this road under the rule of having seen the un-seeable.

There are doubts on this road. There are fears. There is injustice and evil. There is hard work. There are crosses to carry. There is fellowship and partnership with others. There is communion, and there are wonders. There is singing and joy. There is fun and play. There is hope and life. There is love. And there is heaven and the resurrection. And Jesus will take us there.

Faith is not truly blind. The transfiguration tells us about the power and rule of the unseen. It tells us about a reality that is hard to put into words, but it is a reality that we can experience for ourselves, a reality that changes us, and that connects us to the living God in Christ.

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