Monday, March 2, 2015

A New Kingdom - Making the Invisible Visible

Preached on Sunday, March 1, 2015
Scripture readings: Psalm 27; Matthew 17:1-13
Today we sang “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” I like that song a lot. There is one funny thing about it though. That is the fact 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.
Saddle Mountain
North of Desert Aire/Mattawa WA: February 2015
The gospels call Jesus light, but he only shines for the disciples (and for us) right 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.
(There are times, after that, when Jesus shines, but that is another story.)
I’ve just taken the long way around of saying that what we read here is truly exceptional, even for Jesus. And this is simply 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. 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. It’s important to be calm and careful.
We do have a miracle here: a miracle of seeing or a miracle of showing. 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”. That is another very fancy word.
Metamorphosis means transformation. Metamorphosis is what happens when a caterpillar spins a cocoon around itself and changes into a butterfly. It’s the normal thing to say that the caterpillar and the butterfly are stages of development. Yet it may be a more wonderful thing to say that the caterpillar and the butterfly are really the same. Maybe the butterfly lives in the caterpillar and the caterpillar lives in the butterfly.
What the disciples saw on the mountain was not Jesus moving into a later and more advanced 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 if this is a new Jesus, but it doesn’t. The voice says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (17:5)
These are basically the same words that came from heaven the moment Jesus was baptized, at the beginning of his ministry. (Matthew 3:17) 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. The shining Jesus was the same Jesus who hung dying on the cross, and was buried in the tomb, and rose from the dead. They were seeing the same Jesus who will return to earth when this universe is finished and a new heaven and a new earth are made. 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 in front of them, all the time.
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. 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, 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 and confidence instead of something substantial and objective. This is because modern people, who make the modern translations, have trouble with the concept of faith being more than an attitude and more than a way of thinking.
Faith is not an attitude. Faith is not a way of thinking or even of seeing things. Faith is a strange way of knowing something even when you cannot properly do justice to it in words. Peter and the other two disciples saw Jesus clearly and either they didn’t know what to say or else (in Peter’s case) they could only think of very silly things to say.
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. When you trust Jesus, what you say and do (and even what you think) changes, because the invisible rules you. The world around you doesn’t see Jesus, but they see and experience, through you, the Jesus to whom you are connected. When faith is at work in you, it produces the substance and the evidence of Jesus.
The voice from the cloud said, “Listen to him.” When you listen to Jesus you make the invisible visible.
The church is a group of people who are learning to make their connection with Jesus visible. They do this by learning to change the way they connect with others.
We practice this connection on each other (like mutual guinea pigs) because we trust that we all understand that we are involved in the same experiment. We trust that we are all committed to that experiment. We need other people in order to practice our connection with Jesus. So the church makes perfect sense, even when the church is sinful and foolish.
In the sixteenth Chapter of Matthew, Jesus asked the disciples to describe 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. Faith is being connected to something or someone beside yourself.
One way or another, for better or for worse, that connection has shaped you. It shaped, and may continue to shape, the person you are. It is the work of the connection, the work of the unseen. The connection has transfigured you, and made the caterpillar into a butterfly. The connection has made the invisible visible.
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.
The first funeral I ever performed was for a premature, stillborn baby. I could see the depth of the loss of an invisible but real connection. I could see that the mother, the father, the brother, and the sister didn’t know how to understand their loss or put it into words, because that relationship had been mostly invisible.
Love itself is an unseen thing. You have to choose to make love seen, and visible, and felt, and heard. 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. 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 the disciples because they would need the experience of a shining Jesus to hold them steady and hold them together when they began to experience terrible things.
Jesus had begun to show disturbing changes in what he told them about his mission. 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.
The disciples 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 truly someone who could talk about being crucified, and dying, and rising from the dead. The moment quickly passed, but the memory of seeing the un-seeable glory of Jesus did not leave them.
The memory of this stayed with them all their lives. It was 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. As they held Jesus in their arms, they also saw, in their memory, the glory of who Jesus is.
Of course he had been able to rise from the dead. Of course he was able to die as a ransom for their sins. 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. He could offer them a new world and a new life.
The transfiguration was a gift to help his friends through their own way to the cross, and to the risen Jesus, and beyond. The transfiguration was the gift of what we sometimes call a “mountaintop experience”. (I do believe that this is where the phrase comes from.) 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.
Sometimes it makes us do things that seem silly to everyone else. We do some funny things together in this place. We talk to someone with our eyes closed, and with our hands folded or raised. We sing odd songs together.
We do even sillier things. We stop what we are doing to help other people. We forgive those who do us wrong. We are patient, and hopeful, and surprisingly peaceful.
Aren’t we? Aren’t we Christians famous for not judging others? Aren’t we famous for praying for all people, even in the government?
All of this is 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. Our prayer is to make the invisible into something visible to others.
We know the Jesus who shines. We are the work projects of the Holy Spirit of God.
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; where there is so much confusion, and anger, and guilt, and doubt. 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 weakness, and pain, and loss, and grief. There are people who need us, and they need to know Jesus through us. There is hard work to do. There are crosses to carry.
There is fellowship and partnership with others. There is oneness, 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. It’s a reality that changes us. It connects us to the living God in Christ. Faith teaches us to live for the purpose of making the invisible visible to the world.

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