Sunday Night Informal Worship – 2/18/07 – Transfiguration Sunday

Thanks to UVA PhD candidate, Brantley Craig (cbc4f), who offered our sermon tonight!

“The Jesus Reality Show”
(Transfiguration Sunday: Feb.18, 2007; Wesley Foundation UVA)

Luke 9:28-43

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Because surely he would have had one, if TV had existed in his day. If any one had a reality show in ancient Judea, surely it would have been Jesus of Nazareth. After all, he obviously had the charisma, with those crowds following him everywhere. He had a ready-made supporting cast, given the wacky antics of his 12 best friends. He even had catch phrases. And while “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” and “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” may not be quite as punchy as Emeril’s “Let’s kick it up a notch!” or the “Survivor” motto of “Outwit, Outlast, Outplay,” they could still fit on a well-made t-shirt. Plus, he had opinions about everything, all the hot-button issues: church and state, taxes, marriage, wars and rumors of wars. And he gave most people the benefit of the doubt. Wouldn’t he have been perfect on the panel of judges for Jerusalem Idol, playing the affable Randy Jackson part to John the Baptist’s critical Simon Cowell?

And my, oh my! If only the cameras could have been there to catch this moment, the moment we read about in Luke, where Jesus took just a couple of his closest pals up to the top of a mountain. There, far from the maddening crowds, he is transfigured. In the middle of an ordinary moment of prayer (if there is such a thing), his face changes into radiance, and his clothes, dusty from travel, burn shining white. Suddenly it is not just him and his disciples, but Moses is there and Elijah, also shining like the sun, debating the deep matters of the universe with Jesus the carpenter’s son. And that voice—of course, that voice—from above the sky and below the mountain proclaiming, “This is my Son, my Chosen, my Beloved; listen to him!”

Now that’s good TV! And it’s the perfect reality show moment. Because reality shows—from the first season of “The Real World” (which I actually remember) all the way down to our current crop of “Dancing with the Stars who want to be the Top Chef in Grease on the Runway” talent shows—all trade on the idea that they are showing us what people are really like. They’re all about the Big Secret, the so-called Real Deal. They push for those moments when we learn that Mr. X is gay, or that Miss Y is a racist, or that Mr. A and Miss B have really been sleeping together all this time or that tough-acting Mr. D has really only ever wanted—since he was very young—to sing Barry Manilow songs to an audience of millions. And so this moment seems to be, this thing we call, with capital letters, The Transfiguration. Here Peter, James, and John (and we the hearers of their stories) learn what Jesus is really like. Here is a Big Secret to end all Big Secrets. Now they know better. Now they can take the abuse. Can’t you just see it, the next time some stuck-up scribes and Pharisees go on about how Jesus is only “some workman from the country,” James and John elbowing each other and pulling faces? “Ho, ho—if only they knew!! We’ve seen who he really is!” He is the Son of God, the Chosen, the Beloved, to whom those who would follow the God of Israel are called to listen.

Which is great as far as revealing Bible (and reality TV) moments go, but, as this is, after all, Sunday, and is, after all, a Christian worship service, I’m guessing that few if any of us here are really very surprised by any of this. Nor am I suspecting that James, Peter, and John, who had, let’s remember, found Jesus compelling enough to leave all they had and follow him, were really all that surprised, or that even Luke, who liked Jesus enough to write two books about him and his teachings, didn’t somehow see this coming back at the part with the angels and shepherds. Which makes this rather an odd story to fixate upon. The story itself warns against it. Peter, for example, thinks this is such a neat occurrence that it needs to be made permanent. “Wow, Lord,” he says. “It’s good we’re here; we can make booths for you and Moses and Elijah.” I have no idea what exactly Peter had in mind. I’ve always pictured the booths like those little stands Lucy would set up in Peanuts comics: rectangular boxes with signs on top offering “Revelations” and a friendly sign below saying “The Divine Messenger is in.” Silly Peter. Luke tells us he didn’t know what he was saying. Whatever the Transfiguration is meant to be, a tourist attraction is not it. Jesus himself, Luke tells us, warns his companions not to say a word about this to anybody.

And yet here we are, on “Transfiguration Sunday,” having given the story its own special day, and having grown up in churches where booths are few, but stained-glass pictures of this scene are many. And why? Why make such a big deal out of a secret that is not such a secret? Why get excited about a scene that shows us something about Jesus that we already know?

Well, look at what Luke does next. When Jesus, James, John, and Peter come back down, they find a scene of confusion. A man had brought his son, afflicted by an “unclean spirit,” to the remaining disciples, to get them to cast it out. The results were, shall we say, less than spectacular. This one, it turns out, takes the touch of the Master himself. “Ugh,” Jesus says. “You faithless and messed-up bunch of folks…I don’t think I can take you people much longer. But never mind, bring him here.” And the man does. And the bad spirit convulses the boy. And Jesus rebukes the spirit, and it leaves the boy, who goes back to his dad safe and sound. And then Luke notes something curious. “And all,” he writes, “were astounded at the greatness of God.”

“All were astounded at the greatness of God.” This sounds like something we just read. Wasn’t it just yesterday in Luke’s telling of it that Peter, James and John were astounded at the greatness of God revealed on top of that mountain? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of the Transfiguration. All three follow it up with a healing story. But leave it to Luke, the one called “the Beloved Physician,” to connect the two. There, right in a row, are two instances where people are astounded at the greatness of God revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And don’t you go thinking that’s just a coincidence. Why is it that Jesus can cast out this evil spirit that his disciples cannot? Exactly because he is the one the voice proclaimed him to be: the Son of God, the Chosen, the Beloved—the Christ. Which is not just a matter of having clean clothes and a shiny face. It is a matter of being the One who reveals the greatness of God, and who does so by healing the world. What Peter, James, and John saw in that glorious, glowing mountaintop vision, the crowd below saw in the touch of a caring hand and in a boy standing, peaceful and whole again, with his family. What they all saw was something they thought they recognized—a man, a touch, a child—transfigured, and made to shine with the glory of God. What they saw was reality.

For if the story of the Transfiguration is just a story that shows us what Jesus is really like, in a sort of backstage, reality TV way, then it seems, at best, redundant—especially by the time we get to Easter and that empty tomb. But what if the story shows us something else? What if the story doesn’t show us some reality about Jesus himself, but shows us that Jesus himself shows us reality? For haven’t you noticed that the “reality” revealed by reality TV is usually pretty unsavory? Simon’s rude remarks, the backbiting on “The Apprentice,” the skeletons in politicians’ or athletes’ closets, the revolving bedroom doors of this or that set of MTV housemates—these are what are supposed to be real. When these shows promise to show us what people are “really like,” that usually means, the ways in which they are faithless, perverse, and generally possessed of unclean mouths and unclean spirits. But Luke’s Transfiguration story tells us something different. His story tells us that a faithless and perverse generation—whether it be James and John’s generation or my generation or yours—will not have the last word. Christ will have the last word, for what is real is God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Creation is not founded on doubt and pain and dirty little secrets; creation is founded on the power and the love of God, the light that shines in the darkness, the touch that brings peace and reconciliation and healing. “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen,” said C. S. Lewis, “not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Luke’s Transfiguration story invites us to believe in Christ in just that way: not just as the most wonderful thing we see, but as that by which we see that everything else is, in reality, wonderful.

This “everything,” of course, also contains us—and that brings me to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Because it sounds like Paul is himself up to some reality-show-style nastiness here, claiming that his brothers and sisters of the people of Israel have a veil over their hearts and minds. But while the letter of his message may lack some tact (not surprising for Paul), the spirit of it is right in line with Luke: by Christ, Christians see things that other people do not. Paul really doesn’t care that much about what it is that his former people do not see. What matters is what he and others who see in the light of Christ do see: the glory of the Lord, the greatness of God. But here’s the amazing thing: Christians, Paul claims, don’t just see this light and this glory, they reflect it. In other words, it is not only Jesus who is transfigured. We, too, are being transformed into the image of God, “from one degree of glory to another.” God does not intend for Jesus to be the only real person, with a bunch of faithless, messed-up folk trailing in his wake. God wants reality to break through to each of us—all of us, as Paul says, with the veil lifted off our faces, seeing, knowing, and living what is real.

We are called, that is, to be a part of the reality that Jesus shows. We are. We, gathered here, the people who sing these songs and pray these prayers and eat this bread and drink this cup—we are invited to feel and to share the transfiguring touch of the Lord. For our calling is not just to be nice. Anyone can be nice. Not is our calling to point out just how faithless and perverse a generation we are surrounded by. Believe me when I say that’s rather obvious on its own. Nor is our calling to build safe little booths for our divine messengers to relax in. Believe me again when I say that they have far comfier quarters waiting back where they came from. No, our calling is quite simply to live as people astounded at the greatness of God in Jesus Christ, to live as people astounded by that greatness because we have felt it, and have known it, and have been changed by it. Our calling is to be ordinary people transfigured, to do what we can, each in our own small way, to direct attention to the Beloved Son by which we see everything else, and in whose light we know that all of it, even ourselves, is, as was said by Someone long ago, back at the beginning, very good.

(c) 2007 by Brantley Craig