The Transfiguration of Our Lord
- Transfiguration.22 “What We Talk About When We Talk About Glory” Luke 9:28-36
So, I was talking with our former Vicar Ethan Stoppenhagen as I often do. I do this out of a deep commitment to my duties as a vicarage supervisor (and because I really do enjoy talking with them, especially Ethan, and since he will be President of the Synod someday, as the prophets have foretold, it’s not a bad idea to keep in the good graces of a future leader of our church, lest he send you, in your old age, to Ketchikan Alaska or some such place, like Jude Law’s Young Pope, who did rather turn on his mentor, Michael. “Young Pope” is a terrible HBO show (a documentary?) and you should not watch it. I only watched it as work-related research and I did not inhale ;-).
Anyway, I have found that, after a year of smoothing out a young vicar’s rough edges, teaching him how to preach and think, censing over the stink of scholasticism which they often show up with, the seminary, in the following year (they all have to go back for a final year of classes) can undo all of my labors in the Lord if I don’t keep up with them. Stay postliberal my friends!
So, it was a week ago Friday that I was (uncharacteristically) confessing to Ethan a venial sin I’d committed, for which I am hardly sorry. I told him how I just couldn’t face writing my 88th and 89th sermons for Epiphany 6 and 7 on the beatitudes. I simply couldn’t do it. I ran out of things to say somewhere between my 18th and 19th sermons on the Beatitudes (they come up, sometimes, 3 times a year!) and somewhere around sermon 57 or so on the Beatitudes, I developed a positive dislike for the text, even though they are good and sound words of our Lord and we believe them, certainly (“it’s not you; it’s me. You’re great.”). Then I noticed Epiphany 6, 7 in Lectionary Year B (we’re supposed to be on Year C) had Jesus healing lepers and paralytics, which did more for me, spiritually, you know; so I switched the lectionary books and you didn’t even notice! (You’re welcome 😉
Ethan said he had to preach on the beatitudes last Sunday (kinda affirming yet not accepting of my choice). It was only his 3rd time on the beatitudes and he said he was already tired of them as well and had written a standard dead-orthodox “middle-Missouri” sermon that he wasn’t very happy with. He’s never happy with his sermons, but I always rather like them and I know you did too. But he never likes them which is probably why he’s such a good preacher. (I like all of mine, especially this one, even though it’s not finished yet 🙂
So, I said, “Oh, I bet yours is actually good. What’s it about? What’s your take on the Beatitudes?” And Ethan said “Well, I think the Beatitudes are about death; but that’s so obvious, right? Everybody’s heard that.”
Now, those of you who didn’t have the joy of hearing Vicar Stoppenhagen preach need to know that Ethan—a cheerful, lively, charming young man—thought every Gospel text is about death. The miraculous catch of fish with Peter? That’s about death. Healing the paralytic? Death! Sending out the 70 to preach? Also about death! Feeding the 5,000? Yep, death, again! Even the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus? What does he think that’s about? You’re going to say life, right? Nope. Survey says… death! And it sounds like these would be very gloomy sermons, but they’re not. They’re bright, lively, funny, and strangely life-affirming. Ethan took to heart what St. Paul said he was resolved to preach, just one thing: Christ and Him crucified. Ethan’s onto something. Christianity really focuses on death because Jesus has made his death the way to life everlasting for us. Paradoxical, but cool, right?
So I didn’t even have to ask him when we texted last Friday what the Transfiguration was about. Care to guess? Now, I feel like you’re probably going to say, “C’mon! The Transfiguration is plainly about Jesus’ glory! He was transfigured, he shines like the sun! For Christ’s sake!—it’s glorious! Moses and Elijah do him homage! The bright cloud, the Father’s acclamation of his Beloved Son?! It’s glory, glory, and more glory! He’s just a vicar anyway. You shouldn’t be so swayed by a mere vicar!” (Even if he’s a future Synod President? Hmm, you see a vicar. I look eschatologically and see a future Synod President. Because, I watch more sci-fi than you 😉
Anyway, it’s not because Ethan says it. It’s because Scriptures all say this, as Martin Luther, perhaps the keenest student of Holy Scriptures since St. Paul recognized (“in the midst of death we are in life”). Hannah, in her lovely prayer giving away her only son Samuel to Eli says, “The LORD kills to make alive; he brings down to Sheol to raise up.” Isaiah says the same (“by his wounds we are healed”). Jesus says so, too: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life (for Christ’s sake!) will ever surely find it.” St. Paul says we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” C.S. Lewis says the death of Jesus is the good infection which produces the antibodies against sin, death, and hell—the very medicine of immortality.
And our Gospel this morning is plainly about death. Luke says so! Jesus has just told them that bit about having to take up the cross daily, lose their lives for his sake in order to save them, and that they won’t taste death till they see the kingdom of God.
So then: seeing the kingdom is tasting death?! And 8 days later, when his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white like the sun at noon, and Moses and Elijah appeared in glory, what did they talk about in that glorious light? They spoke of his Exodus, Jesus’ death!, his departure! And the glory of the scene, the bright cloud they entered, the glory of Moses and Elijah the two great OT prophets, scared Peter, James, and John to death!
God’s glory is always terrifying and death-dealing to sinners who glimpse it head-on. Moses on Mt. Sinai, Isaiah in the temple, Peter, James, John on the mountain. God told Moses that sinful humans “cannot see my glory and live”. We can only see the backside of God, in human form, crucified for us on Golgotha. That’s as direct a view of his glory as we get, now…
Moses and Elijah had lots of stuff to talk about, an eternity to think on it. But this is all they wish to discuss: his Exodus!—Jesus’ cross and death! Peter says in his epistle this is what the angels in heaven long to look into, because even they don’t get it. It is too glorious, too grand!
It’s why this is the last Gospel before Lent—before we plunge into the darkness of the cross, we are enveloped in the bright cloud, so that, when the darkness of Golgotha descends at noon on Good Friday, we will see this is God killing to make alive, damning to hell in order to save, doing his proper work through its most alien opposite.
Camus said “Here I understand what is meant by glory: the right to love without limits.” Here’s the love beyond all telling that led God to embrace, in love, all loves excelling, our lost and fallen race. This is what we talk about when we talk about glory—the death of Jesus that is life, peace, surpassing all understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.