Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign--Luke 9:28-36
It’s impossible to know how future historians will characterize the era in which we live—the way we now talk about the Stone Age and the Iron Age and the Bronze Age and the Industrial Age. I’ve heard Information Age kicked around, but who knows whether that will stick. I’m kind of a geezer, on the back end of the technology learning curve. But even I have reached the point where if I have a question about most anything—even trying to find, say, a chapter and verse citation for a scriptural phrase that sticks in my mind—I will sooner type my question into an internet search engine than walk across the room and pull a book off the shelf. I usually get better information and get it in less time.
You might not immediately think this, but the Information Age has some very concrete religious implications. Religion, generically speaking, is about ultimate worth, ultimate value, ultimate meaning. Whatever or whomever commands our ultimate attention and ultimate loyalty—that thing or person becomes “God” for us. Now it used to be that if you were born in, say, Japan, your notion of “God” would be along the lines of Shintoism or Buddhism. If you were born in the Arabian Peninsula, your “object of ultimate loyalty” would be the God of Islam—Allah. And if you were born in Europe or North America, most likely you would grow up accepting the notion of God as it is taught by Christianity.
But the Information Age has changed all that. It has expanded the marketplace and increased competition between the various candidates for “God.” The culture into which we are born doesn’t automatically just carry us along anymore. Scout around the internet long enough and you can find lots of stories of blond, blue-eyed Americans and Europeans converting to Islam. And in the heart of Buddhist territory, you can find thriving communities of Christians across Asia. This is the era of options, choices, alternatives. And it isn’t just traditional religion that can command our ultimate commitment anymore. There is an array of “non-religious gods” we can pick from, ranging from wealth to health and fitness to sports to civic and political involvement to whatever our job is to family ties to…just about anything. It’s all rather overwhelming.
In the midst of information overload, then, sometimes we need a clarifying experience, something to cut through all the “noise.” This is what Jesus thought would be helpful to the inner core of the inner core of his disciples—Peter, James, and John. He says to them one day, “Guys, take a walk with me,” and then leads them up a mountain. When they get to the top, Jesus starts to glow. His face, his hands, his clothes, everything about him became…luminescent. And then he had company; Moses and Elijah, two of the arch-heroes of Israel’s past, were with him carrying on a conversation about what was going to happen to Jesus later, when he got to Jerusalem. Then they were all enveloped in a cloud, and the disciples heard the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Then, when the cloud was gone, so were Moses and Elijah, and it was just the four of them once again, and Jesus was looking like his old self.
This event has something to say, I think, about our Information Age menu of potential gods. But before we can make that connection, we’ve got to understand the symbolic significance of Moses and Elijah for Peter and James and John, who were, of course, devout, observant Jews. Jewish religion is based on two pillars: First, there’s the Torah, Law. The Torah was given to the people of Israel by God at the time they escaped from Egypt. It was meant to regulate their life when they settled in the Promised Land. Then there are the Prophets—a long line of individuals whom God raised up to speak his word to Israel at various times in their history. Now the Law, of course, came through Moses. And Elijah is considered the greatest of the Prophets. So when the three disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, they were mightily moved. They wanted to immediately erect three monuments to this occasion. To think that Jesus, their everyday friend and traveling companion, would be worthy to share a stage with Moses and Elijah—wow, that was big! Really big!
But wait. They’re not seeing the whole picture. It’s actually even bigger than they imagined. It’s Jesus who’s doing the shining. Moses and Elijah are all lit up, to be sure, but it’s light that is reflected from Jesus. He’s not sharing a stage with them; they’re sharing a stage with him. They’re glowing, but it’s his light they’re glowing with. And just in case there’s any doubt, the voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” And then Jesus is found alone. Anyone want to buy a clue?
Peter and James and John needed to learn the utter uniqueness of Jesus. They needed to learn that what was going to happen to him a few weeks later in Jerusalem was the culmination of and transcended anything that Moses and Elijah stood for. Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the unique Son of God and Savior of the world.
Now this is quite a scandal, actually. Speaking of competing gods, one of the hallmarks of the time we live in is that the whole idea of objective truth is under attack. So if you make a claim about Ultimate Reality and say “This is what I believe,” that’s fine, but if you say, “This is what is, true for everybody whether they believe it or not,” that’s considered rude and inconsiderate. You’re “forcing” your beliefs on somebody else. So when Christians say that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the unique Son of God and Savior of the world, many people consider that an offensive statement. Yet, that is what we say.
But it’s also a truth we need to learn and make our own as well. For the three disciples on the mountaintop, Moses and Elijah represented the twin pillars of their religious convictions, the lens through which they viewed the world. So…who are “Moses” and “Elijah” to us? What or who potentially distracts us from seeing that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the one from who the light shines, the one who alone commands our ultimate attention, affection, and loyalty? Certainly the false gods that we have named might qualify for these roles—wealth, ambition, amusement, sexual fulfillment, and so on. But, ironically, even the tepid, lukewarm, half-hearted Christianity that many baptized Christians practice can compete with the genuine article—Christian faith itself, if it’s watered down, can become a false god—because, let’s face it, it’s not very demanding and doesn’t require very much of us. But Christianity that is just “one more thing” rather than “the very thing” inoculates us against the kind of faith that actually makes a difference in our lives. If we don’t end up looking at “Jesus only,” with Moses and Elijah faded from the scene, we’re on the path to nowhere.
Even nearly six years after the fact, I’m still slightly in mourning over the cancellation of the TV show The West Wing. It fed my inner political junkie that never has been fully unleashed. In the final season, Donna, one of the established characters since the first season, applies to work on the campaign of a presidential nominee. The problem is, she recently worked for one of that nominee’s rivals in the same party, and in that capacity said some uncomplimentary things about the man whose campaign she now wants to work in. Even though she also used to work for Josh, who’s now the campaign manger, he doesn’t want to hire her, because he still holds a grudge. Donna pleads, “He was the front-runner. I was just doing my job.” But the fact is, she bet on the wrong horse, and now there was a price to be paid for that.
There are lots of good and attractive horses in the race competing for our ultimate affection, our ultimate loyalty. But hedging our bets will prove to be a losing strategy, as there is only one winner. The time to decide is now. What God do we worship? Do we worship the god of success and wealth? The god of good looks and high fashion? The God of friends and family? The god of academic respectability? The god of fitting in and getting along? Do we worship several gods? Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the unique Son of God and Savior of the world. Transfiguration Sunday is a chance to acknowledge and own that scandalous truth. Alleluia and Amen.