Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sermon for February 18, Transfiguration Sunday

Seeing Jesus
Luke 9:28-36

Have you ever heard of United States Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas? I suppose you could call him a “Mr. Nobody.” No law bears his name. Not a single list of Senate “greats” mentions his service. Yet when Ross entered the Senate in 1866, he was considered the man to watch. He seemed destined to surpass his colleagues, but he tossed it all away by one courageous act of conscience. Let’s set the stage. Conflict was dividing our government in the wake of the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson was determined to follow Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation toward the defeated South. Congress, however, wanted to rule the downtrodden Confederate states with an iron hand. Congress decided to strike first. The Senate introduced impeachment proceedings against the hated President. The radicals calculated that they needed thirty-six votes, and smiled as they concluded that the thirty-sixth was none other than Ross. The new senator listened to the vigilante talk. But to the surprise of many, he declared that the president “deserved as fair a trial as any accused man has ever had on earth.” The word immediately went out that his vote was “shaky.” Ross received an avalanche of anti-Johnson telegrams from every section of the country. Radical senators badgered him to “come to his senses.” The fateful day of the vote arrived. The courtroom galleries were packed. Tickets for admission were at an enormous premium. As a deathlike stillness fell over the Senate chamber, the vote began. By the time they reached Ross, twenty-four “guilties” had been announced. Eleven more were certain. Only Ross’ vote was needed to impeach the President. Unable to conceal his emotion, the Chief Justice asked in a trembling voice, “Mr. Senator Ross, how vote you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty as charged?” Ross later explained, at that moment, “I looked into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, and everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.” Then, the answer came -- unhesitating, unmistakable: “Not guilty!” With that, the trial was over. Ross had given his very best. And what was he left with? Ross’ political career was in ruins. I can just imagine Ross in a private moment . . . tired, emotionally drained, slumped in a chair with hands cupped over his weary face. Ross was banished by his constituents. Physical attack awaited his family upon their return home. One gloomy day Ross turned to his faithful wife and said, “Millions cursing me today will bless me tomorrow...though not but God can know the struggle it has cost me.”

Author Max Lucado tells relates the following scene: Four people snake up a mountain. The trip has been long. The hour is late. A level place on a hillside is reached, and they sit down. They’re tired. Their muscles hurt. The greyness of twilight settles over them like soft cloth. The quartet of pilgrims longs to sleep, but only three do. The fourth sits in the shadows, legs crossed. Face skyward. The stars wink at their Maker. Winds waft over the shoulders of their Designer, cooling his neck. He slips off his sandals and rubs his sore feet and reflects on the wildness of it all. A God with sore legs? Holiness with hunger? Divinity with thirst? A World-maker made weary by his world?

His thoughts drift homeward. Nazareth. How good it would be to be home again. The memories surface so easily. A sawdust-covered work bench. Friends stopping to talk. Dinner-table laughter. Wrestling with his brothers. But Nazareth would never be home again. They tried to kill him last time he was there. The people who watched him grow up squeezed stones intended for his body. Even his brothers and sisters considered him insane. They were ashamed to be known as his family. No, Nazareth would never be home again.
What about Galilee? The crowds listened in Galilee. There the people followed... as long as he said what they wanted to hear. He remembered the crowds as they turned away. He heard their jeering. He felt their rejection.

He thinks of Jerusalem. She offers no comfort. He knows what is waiting for him there. A foreboding pain stabs his wrists. He winces at the slicing of his brow. He sees the world around him growing darker. He shakes his head and breathes a staggered breath. His thoughts return to the present. He plucks a shoot of grass, puts it into his mouth, and sits in the shadow of his fear. He looks at his followers, as asleep as they are naive. They have no idea. He speaks of suffering; they think of conquering. He speaks of sacrifice; they think of celebration. They think they hear. They think they see. But they don’t. Part of him knew it would be like this. And part of him never knew it would be so bad. Part of him wonders, Would it be so bad to give up? He has given his best and what does he have? A ragged band of good-hearted followers who are destined to fall flat on promises they can’t keep. He puts his face into his cupped hands and prays. It’s all he knows to do.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it seeker? Was it so long ago that you were on a quest for the truth–like Columbus in search of a new world? But the ocean of questions was deep. The coastlines of perplexities were difficult to navigate. It was easier to say nothing than to ask why. So you stopped.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, dreamer? You wanted to badly change the world. Sure the mountain was high, but you were brave. Then winds came. Sharp rocks of reality cut your feet, breaking your stride . . . breaking your heart. And you found the role of the cynic was less costly than the role of the dreamer. So you sat down.

You need to know something. Jesus sat down, too.

Sure, there were moments that he stood tall. There were hours of splendor. The days came when the sick leaped for joy and the dead came to life. But the peaks of popularity were gorged by canyons of isolation.

And on this day, the crevasse is deep. His strength has reached a low point.
So he sits down and puts his bleary face into cupped hands and prays. It’s all he can do. And when his Father sees him, it’s all his Father can take.

Luke writes, “And as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Jesus bursts inward with glory. For just a moment he is transfigured; a roaring radiance pours from him. For one brief, shining moment the burden of humanity is lifted. He is home again. Familiar sounds surround him. Those who understand welcome him. And the Father holds him. The One who felt weary is soon reminded: the weariness will soon pass. Now, on the mountain, preparing himself for the work of death, Moses and Elijah draw near: Moses the lawgiver whose grave no one knew; Elijah the prophet who side-stepped death in a fiery chariot. The One who faces death is reminded: the grave is powerless.

And then the Voice thunders. God inhabits a cloud that consumes the shadows. It transforms the mountain into a shining monument. And from the belly of the clouds the Father speaks: This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him. The One who had despaired is now affirmed. It’s as if God shouts, “It doesn’t matter what people think. What I think does. And I am proud.” By now Jesus is standing. By now the apostles are awake. For Peter, James, and John, the scene is bizarre: dazzling white clouds, a voice from the sky, living images from the past. But for Jesus, it is a view of home. A view into yesterday. A glimpse into tomorrow. And he heads down the mountain. You see, there is a boy who needs to be healed. There are disciples who need to understand. There is a cross waiting in Jerusalem.

If we look hard enough, we can see Jesus in faces all around us.

He is seen in a Senator who commits professional suicide for the sake of conscience.

He is in the couple seeking to pick up the pieces of the fractured relationship, looking for the strength to go on.

He is in cancer victim or the Alzheimer patient who feels the future is hopeless.

He is in a grieving widower asking why and looking for answers.

He is in the teen who thinks nobody understands or even cares who she really is.

If you look hard enough, he is even there in your own lonely, spots where no one else is invited to sit with you.

There are people all around us who are tired. Weary. Suffering other’s irrational reactions to their principles. Tempted to give up and looking for anything to help them just endure. Jesus was there, too.

This morning I invite all of us to travel up the mountain top with a weary Christ. If you do, a wonderful thing will happen. You will see Jesus for who he really is. And when we see Jesus for who he is, we are also able to see ourselves for who we really are. Jesus pulls each person from behind the masks we wear. The pure, transfiguring light of God exposes all. It revealed Jesus as God’s beloved Son. God’s light reveals your own need to be loved, your disappointment with yourself, your shame and frustration, your deepest fears, your isolation and emptiness. In the transfiguring light of God, there is nowhere to hide. All the masks are torn away. We stand stripped and vulnerable before our Lord and are told, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” And we are asked to respond–to rub the sleep from our eyes and understand that this God, this man Jesus wants to fill us with His glory when we are lost and weary.

What an affirmation of God’s love for us! It is so easy and yet so hard to accept. God loves you. God loves you! He understands your weariness. He has felt your emptiness. Yes, God, in the person of Jesus Christ was tempted to give up. And from eternity the voice of God calls out to us. Are you listening?

He says:
Come, you who are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

He says:
Give all your worries and cares to me, for I care about what happens to you.

The voice of God says:
This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to Him.

God loves you. Jesus calls you. The Spirit is ready to fill you. Are you listening?

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