Sermon for 2 March 2014:
The Light of Christ
Oh God, whose son Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, show us the light of your countenance that we may walk in it by faith.
It’s been a hard couple of weeks – at least in terms of the lectionary. For the last several Sundays, we have been reading the parts of the Gospel of Matthew that none of us – including members of the clergy – particularly like. The sheepfinding, child-blessing, wine supplying Jesus that we love so much hasn’t shown up in our readings lately. He seems to have changed. The portion of Matthew’s gospel that we have been reading over the last few Sundays portrays a shorttempered, tough-talking, and dismissive Savior who delivers a series of pretty harsh sayings to his disciples – If your eye offends you, pluck it out; if your neighbor asks for your shirt, give him your cloak; if you even think about committing adultery, you’re already guilty of doing it – do not swear; be righteous; be perfect. It’s impossible.
We can’t even begin to live up to these standards – and neither could his disciples. Think how you’d feel if you were a first century Palestinian Jew, trying your best to follow the already stringent laws of your religion, and your Rabbi – your beloved teacher – told you that what you were doing wasn’t good enough – that it would never be good enough. Wouldn’t you feel like throwing in the towel? In fact – let’s be honest – don’t you, as a 21st century American Christian, sometimes feel the same way?
That’s why preachers have struggled with these passages for hundreds of years. Because we don’t like to talk about the bad news any more than you do. We can’t live up to these impossible standards any more than you can. And we want to get it right just as much as you do. As a result, I have heard a lot of sermons that talk about Jesus’ use of rhetoric – about how in these passages he is exaggerating to make a point. But I don’t think he is. I think he means exactly what he says: even if you can live up to the letter of the law, you can still never fulfill the spirit of the law. This idea had to have been shocking and horrifying to the religious leaders of his time. They were living up to the letter of the law. They thought they had everything figured out. They knew they had the key to salvation. But Jesus said quite the contrary. He told them they had the whole thing wrong. He told them that they could not possibly completely fulfill the law.
That’s the bad news. Luckily for us, we know the good news. The good news is that we don’t have to get it all right, because Jesus is himself the fulfillment of the law. There is a way to live up to God’s laws – but it’s not through our own willpower or strength of character. We can’t earn redemption, but our faith in Jesus allows us to share in his redemption of all people. It is through the mercy of God, given to us in the form of his only son, Jesus Christ, that salvation comes.
Which brings us to today. The gospel for this week is the story of the Transfiguration –one of the strangest tales in the synoptic gospels. In it Jesus, Peter, James, and John leave the rest of the disciples and climb up a “high mountain.” When they reach the top, Jesus is “transfigured” before them. According to the gospel writer, “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.” Jesus was changed. He was changed so that his disciples could see him for who he really was: God’s chosen servant whose coming had been anticipated by their prophets and forbearers. Jesus’ glorious appearance on that mountaintop did not leave them any doubt as to whom they were traveling with – and the writer of Matthew doesn’t want us to be in any doubt either.
The primary agenda of Matthew’s gospel is to present Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish law. It is no surprise then that Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah during his transfiguration. We can assume that Peter, James, and John – all devout Jews – recognized Moses as the father of the law and Elijah as the greatest of the prophets. That’s why Peter offers to build three “dwellings” (or booths) to commemorate the occasion. In Judaism, the festival of booths, called sukkot , is a harvest festival, which was associated with the cult of Yahweh, whose reign was to inaugurate a new age of Judaism. The joyful Feast of Sukkot occurs immediately after Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish festivals, providing an enormous and rapid transition in spirit. In that way it is similar to the movement from Good Friday to Easter in the Christian calendar. Sukkot celebrates the end of the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, and lived in temporary shelters. Peter’s desire to build the three dwellings signals the gospel writer’s belief that a new age in Judaism has been brought about by and in Jesus.
The circumstances of the Transfiguration vision would have been familiar to them as well. As we read in our Old Testament lesson today, a very similar thing happened to Moses. He too went up on a mountain with a select group of followers. He too was covered by a cloud – and he too came out changed. And Moses’ transformation was shared by his people – because the fruit of his interaction with the Lord was the establishment of the law. Peter, James, and John would also have known the story about Elijah –who, discouraged and begging for death, went up a mountain and into the presence of the Lord and emerged renewed in prophetic zeal.
Today’s reading ends with Jesus warning the disciples not to tell anyone about what has happened until “the Son of Man” has been raised from the dead. It is a strange request for the leader of a political movement to make, and it is probably troubling to his disciples. Even more disturbing though is what Jesus says three verses later: that he must suffer before dying and being raised from the dead. What were they to make of that? They have just seen their rabbi – the man they have come to accept as their Lord – shown to them as the son of God – as a divine presence – and then he tells them that he must suffer and die. It must have made no sense to them. They could not understand that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer in order to become our salvation. They did not know that unless he gave himself entirely and willingly to his persecutors, his sacrifice would not be enough to redeem us. They did not comprehend how important it was for Jesus to know the worst of human experiences so that he can be with us in all of our experiences. Jesus had to change in order to change us.
“This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” Follow his way. When you are in pain, remember the pain he suffered on your behalf. When you are afraid, recall that Jesus did not walk to his death without fear. When you cry out against injustice, don’t forget that he too asked that the cup be removed from his lips. Above all, recognize that any strength you have, any virtue, any gift, is completely dependent on the grace and mercy of God – the mercy that came in the form of his glorious son who suffered so ingloriously for our sins.
“You would do well,” the author of second Peter writes, “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.” Listen to Jesus; listen to him because he is the light in our dark places. He is the hope in our hopelessness. He is the mercy that shines in the night of injustice.
This is the last Sunday of Epiphany, the season of light. On Wednesday we will begin our Lenten journey with Jesus through the nightfall that precedes his death. We will be asked to fast, to pray, and to meditate on God’s words. It will be easy to find the darkness in this season – to focus on the temptations and fears that Jesus endured in his walk to the cross. It will be harder to concentrate on the brightness that can also be found in Lent. St. John of the Cross wrote about “The Long Dark Night of the Soul” – the journey we each take from the darkness in which our soul is separated from God toward the light which comes when we are in union with God. His poem speaks of a ladder of mystical love that leads us toward that Godly light. The vision of the Transfiguration tells us that Jesus is that light. During this Lenten season, I encourage you to aim for that light. Imagine yourself climbing toward the presence of God. Believe that by doing so you will be strengthened to bear your cross, and you will be changed – changed into the likeness of God, sharing with Jesus from glory to glory.
“I want to walk as a child of the light,” Kathleen Thomerson wrote, “I want to walk with Jesus. I want to see the brightness of God. I want to be with Jesus. In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” Amen.
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