The audio for today’s sermon for Last Epiphany is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
In the fall of 2013, we held a series of community conversations here at Saint Paul’s. In groups of ten to twenty, we gathered around a meal and discussed our life together. We talked about what brought us to Saint Paul’s and what kept us here. We imagined what the ideal church might look like, and we peered into our crystal ball to dream about how we could improve our parish to better accomplish our mission of reaching up in worship, reaching in to serve, and reaching out in love to the glory of Jesus Christ. Inevitably, at each of those gatherings, we ended up talking about change. At one of the dinners, I heard the old adage that the only person that likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. At the time, Lainey was about six months old and going through a phase where every time we tried to change her diaper, she would engage the alligator death roll technique, flipping again and again in an effort to avoid being changed. It seems nobody, not even a baby with a wet diaper likes change. That’s a real bummer for me as a preacher because God’s call to change our lives is what the Transfiguration is all about.
Our story begins with a plot note that we are six days later. This begs the question, six days after what? Six days after two monumental events. Jesus and his disciples had made their way to Caesarea Philippi, a town built by Phillip the Second, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, and named after the Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus. It was a distinctly Roman city with a distinctly pagan past, built atop the ruins of the Temple of Pan, the Greek god of desolate places. As they made their way to this town that served as a gateway to Gentile territory, Jesus began to ask his disciples some questions. “Who do people say that I am?” he asked. “John the Baptist,” said some. Some thought maybe he was Elijah. Others wondered if he was one of the prophets promised in the lineage of Moses. “That’s well and good,” Jesus replied, “but who do you say that I am?” Peter stepped forward and with conviction declared, “You are the Messiah, the anointed one of God.” Right there, on the edge of a town built to proclaim Roman authority, Jesus was declared the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.
The disciples had figured out who he was, but Jesus wanted to be sure they knew what it meant to be the Messiah. He began to teach them that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, that he’d be rejected by the leadership of Israel, the Chief Priests, and the scribes, and be killed, but that the story would not end there. Three days later, he would be raised from the dead! Peter was not in the mood for change. He had his idea of what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah, and it meant that they would enter Jerusalem with power and might and overthrow the Romans and the Chief Priests, and the Scribes. Death, even with the promise of resurrection was not on his agenda, and so he stood up and again with conviction spoke to Jesus. “That’s not going to happen, Jesus, we won’t let it.” Jesus rebuked Peter quickly and strongly, saying, “Get behind me Satan!”
Six days go by. Six long and awkward days until Jesus comes to Peter and invites him to join James and John for a private talk, up the mountain, by themselves. While they were up there, something amazing happened. The event was so spectacular that Mark knew he needed to tell us about it, but seems to have difficulty putting it into words. Jesus was transfigured: metamorphosized, transformed, changed entirely. Even his clothes were different; they became a dazzling white, so bright that no human being could have bleached them so. Mark tries to describe the amazing event by telling us that Jesus’ tunic was “whiter than white, more dazzling than dazzling, like nothing you’ve ever seen.” In an instant, everything about Jesus changed right before their very eyes.
As if that wasn’t enough, two of the three characters mentioned in the conversation six days ago appeared alongside Jesus. Elijah, the one whose coming would bring about the end of the world, is standing next to the shining Jesus. Moses, the Prophet, the first savior of Israel, is standing next to the shining Jesus. Peter realized that things were changing, that his expectations weren’t going to be met, and so, for a third time he speaks, this time with less conviction and more terror in his voice, “Master it’s good that we’re here. Let’s build three booths, one for each of you.” Booths, the ancient symbol of God’s salvation, built once a year as a reminder that God sustained his people in the wilderness and one day will come to restore all things. Peter thinks the change that is coming is the end of the world and he wants to build booths to be ready for it.
Poor Peter still doesn’t quite have it right. A voice from heaven cuts him off and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” Listen to his words. All of them. Don’t stop listening when he says “I’m going to be killed,” but hear the good news when he says, “and on the third day rise again.” Be ready to be changed. Jesus is going to defy your expectations. He’s going to challenge your assumptions. He’s going to ask you to give up your life so that he can save it. Just as Jesus was changed before Peter’s eyes, the whole world is going to be changed through Jesus.
It is true that nobody, not even a baby with a wet diaper, likes change. Sir Isaac Newton knew that nothing in the universe was capable of changing by itself. His First Law of Motion states that an object at rest will remain at rest until acted on by an outside force. Likewise, an object in motion will stay in motion at a constant speed and direction until acted on by an outside force. We are hard wired to not just change for the sake of change. An outside force, for example, God, has to be at work. Unfortunately, most of us are a lot like Peter. We are so averse to change that even when acted upon by God himself, we’ll resist it. Refusing to follow the will of God in order to do your own thing has a name my friends, it is called sin.
The story of the Transfiguration offers us a perfect transition from the Season of Epiphany to the Season of Lent. We’ve spent the last six weeks getting to know Jesus and what he was about. We listened in as he was being baptized and heard the voice of his Father say, “You are my Son whom I love.” We’ve heard Jesus preach about repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God. We’ve seen him invite fishermen to become fishers of men. We’ve been told of crowds who were amazed at his authority, and witnessed him heal the sick, the blind, the lame, and cast out demons with power and might. Like Peter, we think we know Jesus, but God is about to invite us into a deeper relationship. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, we’ll be invited to change our lives through the repentance of sins, by turning toward the will of God. We’ll be given the opportunity to take some extra time, either by adding a spiritual discipline or by shedding a distraction, to listen to God’s call in our lives. We’ll have the chance to recognize God’s action, pushing us out of our comfortable, sinful patterns and into his kingdom. No one likes change, but God is all about it. God is calling each us to be transformed and transfigured through repentance and renewal. Will you be like Peter and balk at God’s call? Or will you open your ears and your heart to listen for God and be changed? Which will it be? Amen.