Undeniably Holy

Exodus 24:12-182 Peter 1:16-21Matthew 17:1-9

The idea of the transfiguration, depicted in our Matthew text and attested to in our 2 Peter verses, can seem more complicated than it is. Let me begin with a couple of very simple principles that will help.

I first needed eyeglasses in my early twenties, and wore them all through my thirties, until my vision went the other direction and the eye doctor told me to stop wearing them. It was a light prescription; without glasses I could see across a room pretty well, but things would get blurry at about road sign distance.

I never got used to keeping track of my glasses. I suppose this was because I didn’t have them as a child, so I didn’t have my parents’ voices in my head threatening me with the end of the world if I lost or broke them. In fact, I was always putting them down somewhere I shouldn’t, and then I would have to hunt for them.

One morning, I was frantically trying to leave for work, but I could not find my glasses. I looked in the bedroom. I looked in the bathroom. I looked in the living room and the dining room. Finally, I made one of those “aaargh” sounds designed to attract my wife’s assistance. Connie walked into the room and said, “What’s wrong?”

I said, “I’ve got to go to work, and I cannot find my glasses!”

She found them very quickly. “They’re on your face,” she replied.

Principle 1: Sometimes you’re so close to something, it’s hard to see it.

Mentioning my wife reminds me of another story. Connie and I have known each other a very long time, since we were 14.

I still remember the first day she walked into my homeroom class. After the school year had already begun, she was transferred from one homeroom to another. Mostly, I remember how terrified she looked when the teacher led her in and introduced her.

There stood this very tall, awkward girl. Remember, at 14, the girls are often taller than the boys, and she was one of the tall girls. She clutched her books tightly and ran to an empty seat in the back of the room as fast as she could.

“Poor kid,” I thought. And I guess I was right—she did eventually marry a guy who didn’t know whether his glasses were on his face. Love and marriage were to come much later, however.

I also suspect we crossed paths a lot earlier than middle school. We were comparing notes on childhood experiences, and we realized we had a common one. Our stay-at-home mothers both shopped regularly at the Johnson City Publix from the time we were babies. She’s just 41 days older than me, and you know how babies and toddlers notice each other.

How many times did we see each other from our shopping cart perches? Did we wave or smile, not realizing God intended us for each other?

And there we have principle 2: Seeing, even for a long period of time, is not always knowing and understanding.

Now, on to the transfiguration. Jesus took three very close disciples up a mountain. They had been with him from the start of his earthly ministry. They thought they knew him.

He seemed to them like a holy man already; that is, he seemed to reflect the same holy light Moses had brought down from the mountain thousands of years earlier after encountering God. But come to find out, Jesus was the light, the source rather than the mirror.

There even was testimony direct from heaven, the same kind of testimony some had heard at Jesus’ baptism. On the mountain, Jesus’ status was made clear: As Son of God, this man was God among us, holiness amid brokenness and sin.

They wanted to dwell in that light—Peter surely did—but they had to come down from the mountain so Jesus could do his work on the cross. And through that work, even we are made holy.

We may not always see that holiness in each other, even when it’s right in front of us. But it’s there. And it’s powerful.

Show and Tell

It’s the end of the Pentecost story that intrigues me. Any preacher would like to see 3,000 give their lives to Christ following a sermon.

What led to that astonishing response remains instructive for us today. In the events of Pentecost, I see a model for evangelism so simple a kindergartener should be able to grasp it.

God led the way, of course, and God still leads the way today. Pentecost began with Jesus’ followers waiting and praying, just as Jesus had told them to do before he ascended into heaven. God arrived as the Holy Spirit in wind and something that looked like flame, and the earliest church members received a power they did not have before. Specifically, they were able to declare Jesus as Lord and Savior and be understood regardless of the audience’s language.

As followers of Christ today, we know Christ told us to tell others that salvation is available. We also believe the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Logically, we should speak, knowing God’s work will be done in those who hear us.

Practically, however, most Christians seldom witness to others about their faith. I believe it is largely our fears that prevent the Holy Spirit from going to work through us—fear of not knowing what to say, fear of looking foolish, fear of making someone angry, fear of seeming different.

Maybe, just maybe, this Pentecost model I think I see is simple enough to undo some of that fear.

The model in the Pentecost story is as simple as show and tell. You remember how show and tell works. You find something that excites you, you take it to class, and you show it off. Your friends are intrigued. They want to know more. You tell them more.

First, God showed the early church in tangible ways the Holy Spirit was with them. Wind and fire. Supernatural gifts. How could they doubt?

In their excitement, they showed others what they could do; they demonstrated the changes in their lives.

That should be easy enough for us to do today. Our faith should make us different in ways people can spot. We should show more love, grace and forgiveness than we would without Christ in our lives. There should be a core of joy that remains with us regardless of our circumstances. People should sit up and say, “I want what that person has.”

If we don’t have much to show—if we’re not different than before our conversion—we need to re-examine our relationship with God. Maybe ideas like love, forgiveness and grace really haven’t sunk in.

Get the show right, and the tell becomes easy. People probably won’t be converted by your actions, but many in this searching, jaded world at least will want to hear what you have to say. Peter began his sermon in answer to a question: “What does this mean?”

Yes, some sneered at what they saw; some will always sneer. Peter just used their sneering as an opening to further capture the attention of the intrigued.

The sermon was straightforward. Peter was, after all, a simple man. He connected the Jewish audience to prophecy being fulfilled that day and in recent days prior. He declared Jesus to be their Messiah. He confronted them with the sin of not recognizing their Savior, of killing him. The 3,000 were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized.

The tell is always the story of Jesus. God among us, Jesus taught love and forgiveness. He died on the cross to break the power of sin. He is risen. Each piece may need explaining, but the story is simple.
Show and tell. Try it. You might be surprised who watches and listens.

You Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape

Proverbs 1:20-33

Our verses in Proverbs today depict wisdom in a way you might not expect, as a woman wandering the streets, calling out warnings of doom to those who ignore her.

“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” she asks. “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

Some read these lines as a warning to the young. And there’s probably some validity to that idea. Most of us do recognize that basic wisdom—an understanding of how life works, and how we should navigate that life—develops with age.

It’s the kind of wisdom you’ll find in a Jim Croce song: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with Jim.”

We’re talking about wisdom that keeps you alive, the kind of wisdom we often call common sense. It’s good to have.

There’s more going on in the Proverbs text than just a call to earthly survival, however. Wisdom points her audience to the source of her existence, the knowledge and fear of the Lord. And that’s not necessarily the kind of wisdom where age has to be a factor. We all know some very young people who seem to have knowledge and fear of the Lord, and some very old people who don’t.

There also is the issue of which understanding of God is wise and which is unwise. All this week in the Middle East, people have been debating this topic with fire bombs and bullets.

As a Christian pastor, all I can do is remind us once again of what it means to define God through the lens of Jesus as Christ, Son of God, God Among Us in Flesh. Our version of godly wisdom makes us different from all other versions.

Let’s pause a minute and look at another text, Mark 8:27-38. It’s one of those places in the New Testament where it becomes abundantly clear who Jesus claimed to be and what it means to accept his claim. There are four parts to this text.

First, there’s the debate about Jesus’ identity. Peter made a startling assertion: Jesus is the Messiah, the savior promised by God.

Second, there is Jesus’ explanation of how the Messiah would go about doing his saving work. He had to suffer, die and rise from the dead. At this point, Peter didn’t do so well because Jesus’ explanation of the Messiah’s work didn’t match Peter’s worldly expectations for a warrior king. Peter rebuked Jesus for all that suffering and death talk.

“Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Tough words from Jesus, but he was right, of course. Satan does like to keep our minds on our immediate, earthly concerns. He knows that if we glimpse the divine, he’ll lose his unholy grip on us.

Third, there is the demand made on us if we are to follow Christ. We are to deny ourselves. We are to burden ourselves with the cross, the symbol of the story of sacrifice we are to tell and incorporate into our own lives. We are to give up earthly wants and earthly ways to pursue strange, divine activities that don’t fit into this world.

The only reason that Jesus is able to say in Matthew 11:30 that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” is that he knows his true followers will receive special power from the Holy Spirit to do what they are called to do.

Fourth, there are repercussions if we do not take up that cross, if we act like we’re ashamed of its startling message. They are essentially the same repercussions Lady Wisdom speaks of in Proverbs, a separation from God that has the potential to last for eternity.

And yes, Jesus is speaking to people who call themselves Christians, who say “I’m with you Jesus” in baptism and church membership but then fail to follow through. You have to own something to be ashamed of it.

It is here I get a little uncomfortable—I’m happier speaking of God’s infinite grace and love, and God’s willingness to save us through simple belief. But both our texts today speak of responsibilities and repercussions, and if I’m going to be true to the text, I have to point the repercussions out to you, too.

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. And you definitely, definitely don’t thumb your nose at God’s call on your life, a call to sacrifice and ministry. It could very well be a matter of eternal survival.

As I bring all this up, are you a little uncomfortable, too? Who’s winning in your life, the one who is of this world, or God? As a believer, are you making a difference that matters in a divine way?

Your church, your local gathering of Christians, is the best place to start if you want to live the life divine.

Confusion and Clarity

It’s nice to understand why events have occurred a certain way, and what is to come because of those events.

I’ve certainly craved such clarity in my life, and judging from what I’ve read and heard, that desire is common to much of humanity. Different religions attempt to provide such clarity in varying ways; the Easter event takes us to the core of how Christians view God and the very nature of the universe from beginning to end.

In other words, Easter is about celebrating the unveiling of The Really Big Picture.

The specific Easter story I’m focusing on this year, John 20:1-18, can be read as a movement from confusion to clarity. (If you want to see this text dramatized, it is part of a video clip found here.) As we experience the story, we can watch Mary Magdalene, Peter and another disciple, simply called the disciple whom Jesus loved, move from panic to a dawning awareness of what has happened.

The story begins with Mary Magdalene, who clearly adored Jesus with a deep, tender love. She discovers the stone covering his tomb has been rolled away and immediately runs for help. When she announces what she has discovered, she triggers a footrace between the two male disciples back to the tomb.

After they see Jesus’ burial linens and leave, Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb, weeping.

Confusion clearly has a grip on Jesus’ followers early in the story. It’s a confusion brought on not by the Easter events, but by the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. They are horrified at what they’ve seen. They’re also mortified at their own cowardice and betrayal, and they fear the Jewish leaders and the Romans are preparing similar crosses for them.

Our individual circumstances are all different in the details, but I feel certain most people will recognize the general pattern Christ’s followers go through in this story. Somewhere there is a moment where life doesn’t make sense. What came before, good or bad, seems like part of an arbitrary universe; where you are headed can seem meaningless.

Oddly enough, it’s a feeling we can experience in the midst of worldly success or failure. Such confusion seems to walk hand-in-hand with youth. And often, old age can trigger a common question: “Is this all there is?”

At first, an empty tomb only magnifies the confusion of Jesus’ followers. It is interesting to me, though, how evidence of the resurrection almost immediately begins moving these disciples toward a clarity of thought that changes everything.

The open tomb and its unwrapped linens offer an answer: “There is something more.” The unnamed disciple in the story seems to at first hear the answer more clearly than Peter.

“Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in,” we are told in verses 8 and 9, “and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Belief, even when not fully formed, is much better than despair.

Mary Magdalene receives an even greater revelation—she is the first to see with her own eyes why the tomb is empty. Her mind cannot process the answer at first. Even after a vision of angels, she believes the man before her must be the gardener. But at the sound of Jesus’ voice calling her name, she cries out with recognition.

She then runs and preaches what is for all practical purposes the first Christian sermon: “I have seen the Lord!”

If you call yourselves Christians, I’m sure you remember that first burst of clarity in your life, too. God does provide us with answers. God has imbued a wandering, sin-filled world with meaning and healing, and that gift to the universe becomes a gift offered to each one of us.

Death has no power. Why? Because God walked among us as Jesus Christ, experienced death, overcame it, and then told us not to fear it. Even if we pass through death before Christ returns, the void on the other side has been filled by his loving arms.

Sin has no power, not even in this life, not once we turn our lives over to the risen Savior. Why? Because when God crushed death, he also smashed and subjugated its cause, the evil that has run loose in this world for a time.

When we sin as Christians, it is only because we have forgotten who is on our side. Christ trumps Satan whenever we call on Christ’s strength to sustain us. The one who will be destroyed cannot stand against the one who is eternal.

It should help us to remember that the disciples did not achieve complete clarity of mind all at once. The Really Big Picture came into focus gradually, as if through a lens slowly twisted. The resurrected Jesus had to spend time among his followers, strengthening the weaker ones with signs, reassuring them that even in their failures they were loved. Ultimately, they needed the Holy Spirit working within them to achieve perfect clarity and strength.

Clarity did come, however. Great works in the name of Jesus Christ happened and continue to happen despite the human fragility of those who follow Christ.

And best of all, we know what we move toward—the full and complete restoration of all Creation. He is risen, and that truth changes everything.


I’ll spend the rest of the Easter season relating some of Jesus’ other post-resurrection appearances.