Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: Listening for Who We Are

Matthew 17:1-9
Listening for Who We Are
James Sledge                                       February 26, 2017 – Transfiguration Sunday

When you watch a movie or read a novel, do you ever relate to one of the characters? How about a story or fable with a clear moral or lesson like some of Jesus’ parables?
Consider the parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd leaves the 99 in search of the one. It is endearing partly because we realize that we may get lost now and then. But if we don’t identify with the lost sheep, if we think of ourselves as good little sheep who would never stray, the parable may be less appealing.
The parable of the prodigal is similar. It’s beloved because many like the notion that God welcomes us back and celebrates our return no matter how badly we’ve strayed. But if we only identify with the elder brother, the good, well-behaved, dutiful son whom Dad never celebrated or rewarded, we may not like the parable so much.
Today’s scripture is not a parable so this whole discussion may seem pointless. But Matthew expects us, as the Church, to identify with some of the characters in the story.
We modern folks struggle to use the gospels as originally intended. For ancient people, history and myth were not necessarily at odds, and truth was not primarily about facts. Our modern notions of truth lead us to read the gospels as accounts of what happened. Even those who don’t take these accounts literally still tend to hear them as reports of events.
An online joke shows a Sunday School picture of Jesus teaching the disciples. He says, “Okay everyone, now listen carefully. I don’t want to end up with four different versions of this.” It is funny, but it also misunderstands why we ended up with four gospels.

Matthew, as well as Luke, uses Mark’s gospel as the basis of the one he writes for his Jewish congregation. He expects them already to know Mark’s story, to know about Jesus and the disciples and the cross and Easter, as well as the Transfiguration we read about today.
Matthew doesn’t think his congregation has somehow heard the story wrong. He isn't trying to correct Mark’s gospel. He writes to help his community understand the significance of the story for them. In this, Matthew and all the other gospel writers are closer to preachers than they are to biographers or historians.
In this preacher role, Matthew makes the disciples more sympathetic characters than they are in Mark. They’re still very human; they still make lots of mistakes, but they have “little faith” instead of “no faith.” And at the Transfiguration, Matthew doesn’t criticize Peter’s suggestion to construct three dwellings or booths on the mountaintop.
Matthew wants his readers to relate to the disciples, to place themselves in the stories and hear Jesus address them. Matthew has Jesus give long, extended teachings, the Sermon on the Mount being the best known, where Jesus speaks past the disciples to Matthew’s congregation, to the Church.
 Because Matthew’s congregation is Jewish, he gives the Transfiguration more obvious connections to the Old Testament story of Moses at Mt. Sinai. Jesus’ face shines like Moses’ did, and the bright cloud recalls God’s presence with Israel during the Exodus.
The voice from this cloud says of Jesus, “Listen to him!” pointing to Jesus as the one Moses foretold when he said, “The Lord your God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall listen to such a prophet.” But Jesus is more. The heavenly voice also repeats the words from Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” The hoped for prophet is also the heavenly king.
Matthew invites his congregation, invites the Church, to be there with the new Moses at a new Sinai. And Matthew’s Jewish congregation would surely have felt the same need as Peter, James and John to fall to the ground in fear when that voice spoke from the cloud. As good Jews they knew that this is what one does when God shows up. Fear of the Lord is a good thing in the Bible.
Then, in an instant, the encounter with God on the mountaintop is over. Jesus touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Humans don’t get to say that by the way, at least not with regards to the fear of the Lord. God sometimes says it, angels, too, but not people. Jesus can, though. God’s awesome presence now appears in one who can, with a gentle touch, help his followers up and accompany them as they make their way from the mystical, mountaintop experience down into the valley of their daily lives.
This one who gently touches Peter, James, John, and all others who seek to become followers, journeys with them down into the valley. But there is a strange admonition. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The way of Jesus, this presence of God that goes with us in our daily lives, can only be fully understood in light of the cross and Easter.
Just prior to heading up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, Jesus said to the disciples, said to the Church, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
What absolute foolishness! Who on earth would embrace such a thing… unless God’s presence went with us, unless God’s presence had already walked this path ahead of us.
“This is my Son, the Beloved… listen to him!” To whom do you listen? Whose voice do you heed? These questions have political currency. Barely a month into his presidency, when there is still uncertainty about what Donald Trump’s priorities will be, what initiatives will take center stage, pundits and commentators speculate on who has the president’s ear. If you know what voice Donald Trump – or any other president – listens to above all others, you will have a very good idea how he will act.
No doubt many voices clamor for the attention of any president. And many voices clamor for your and my attention. The ones we listen to, the ones that tell us what is good and important and meaningful and valuable, are what shape, guide, and direct our lives.
In a lot of people’s minds, Christian faith is about believing in Jesus so you get into heaven. But when you listen to Jesus, he sounds much more interested in teaching us how to live out the ways of heaven now. Yes, God’s love is stronger even than death, but Jesus expects that to give us courage to live without fear, to walk with him as he shows us the way.
Jesus says that to follow the way he shows us is to find one’s life. We know intuitively that this is important. People speak of trying to find themselves. We struggle to find authentic identities that truly fit us, but too often, we end up living out identities someone talked us into or some circumstance trapped us in. But Jesus, the living presence of God, reaches out, touches us, and says, “Come with me. I know who you truly are.”
As we enter into the season of Lent this week, perhaps it would be a good time for me to try and set aside those other voices, and really listen to Jesus. Perhaps you’d like to join me.

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