Feb. 26, 2017 Transfiguration Sunday Matthew 17: 1-9
Prayer: Dear Lord, We welcome you into this service. Help the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
A Lamp for the Next Step
One day in a staff meeting at The Greenville News, my managing editor said something very rare indeed.
He told the staff: “I want you to work on your dream stories.”
We looked at him with cocked heads and puzzled expressions: What’s that? What’s a dream story?
“What I mean,” he went on, “is I want you to pretend you’re applying for a job at The New York Times. And I want you to do the story that you would like to take to their editors as your best clip.”
Well, I’m here to tell you, I’d worked for a newspaper for 25 years at that point, and had never, ever been invited to do such a thing. When you publish a newspaper every single day, 365 days a year, the daily grind, feeding the beast, gets the upper hand.
Now, I knew I wasn’t really going to apply to The New York Times. That wouldentail crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. That wasn’t going to happen.
But I was the religion reporter, and if anyone had the time to pull back and think about a story beyond daily deadlines, it was me. I loved the idea of identifying the most important story I could think of and having the freedom to research and write it.
And so I chose to write about the questions that happened to be haunting me at the time: How do we recognize God’s voice? How do we know God’s will for our lives?
I had already started seminary classes to help me report about religion more intelligently. And I was struggling with the question of whether God was calling me to the ministry.
So for the next year, as I talked to pastors about prayer in school or the lottery or dangerous roads in front of their buildings -- I would tack on interviews about call.
How did they hear God?
How did they know when God was at work in a situation?
How did they know the difference between God’s voice and their own desires?
Obviously, I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to bring their wisdom to bear on my own life, on my own struggle. I wanted to know if my own tangled feelings and confusion and questions could somehow be an authentic signpost of God’s call.
Because for most of us, the way we hear God is nowhere near as dynamic, nowhere near as dramatic, nowhere near as loud and clear as it is in our Bible stories.
For instance, today is Transfiguration Sunday, a day in which we mark a rare moment when Jesus was glorified before three of his disciples. It was a moment not unlike his baptism, when a voice from heaven verified his lordship. Pretty dramatic. Pretty loud and clear.
So as we start this conversation, please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 17: 1-9, and let’s read this story together.
17 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, we will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
I think we can go along with this. Peter, James and John, who were also there with Jesus in Gethsemane as pictured in our stained glass window, got to see Jesus transfigured on the mountain. I have no problem with this story.
But there are more than 7 billion people on earth today. And that’s not counting all those who have died between Peter, James and John’s time and ours.
The ones who got to see God’s hand in such an up-close-and-personal way are greatly outnumbered by those of us who haven’t.
If you’re in here today, you’re probably not so much doubting this gospel story as you are seeking its relevance to your life. That’s the key, isn’t it? What does Jesus’ transfiguration, his lordship, his glorification, matter on an unseasonable February morning 2000 years later in Greenville, SC?
What does it matter to a university student, or an insurance executive, or a day laborer, or a stay-at-home mom? What does it matter to someone who doesn’t know where he’s going to sleep tonight?
How can those of us who honestly believe that Jesus was God on earth, who honestly believe that God called him “my Son, the Beloved” on a mountaintop – how can we hear that same God in our own lives?
Well, I’m going to tell you what a faithful, committed Christian pastor told me when I did my dream story for The Greenville News. For that was when I met Tandy Taylor, our new associate pastor.
At the time Tandy was co-pastor with her husband David of Eastminster Presbyterian Church on Woodruff Road. And she told me about a time when she was 16, back home in Memphis, Tennessee. A woman pastor came to visit her home church.
Tandy looked at the woman and her first thought was, “Oh, I can be a minister after all.”
Her second thought was, “Where did that come from?”
Tandy had no conscious desire to become a minister. And yet that thought was so startlingly clear, that she thinks, in retrospect, it was God’s voice.
I can remember her talking about what a big decision it was to go to seminary at Princeton after college. But as soon as she got there, her question went from: “Am I supposed to be in ministry?” to “What will my ministry look like?”
Now I am remembering this conversation from 16 years ago. This, from a woman who can’t remember what she’s wearing under this robe. But that’s how much Tandy’s words impacted me.
Still, Tandy has learned not to expect things in ministry to be crystal clear. As most intelligent pastors do, she leaves plenty of room for mystery, for what humans cannot know.
She quoted Psalm 119 that day: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.
“It doesn’t say a floodlight,” she told me, “It’s a lamp for the next step. That’s how much God gives you.”
Tandy also goes by what some would call intuition. But it’s intuition honed by Bible study and paying attention to sermons and readings and opportunities. Whenever she has gotten a job opportunity, she told me, she spends time trying to envision herself in the new role. And if she can’t stop thinking of herself in the new role, she takes the job.
What she tries NOT to pay much attention to is self-fulfillment and satisfaction and gratification. (So we won’t provide any of that.)
“That is the tricky part of call,” she said. “Call is not just ‘What’s in it for me?’ ”
I’ve never forgotten Tandy’s words. They helped lead me to believe I just might be hearing God’s call as well. And they helped shape my belief that the Christian life is about taking up one’s cross -- not inner peace or health or wealth or anything else.
So you can imagine how humbled I am that she is now ministering among us. I hope you will take the opportunity to meet and talk to her and tell her anything you might like to learn or teach in the realm of Christian education.
In the church year, today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. As Scripture lays out the story, there’s the transfiguration of Jesus when he is proclaimed the holy God. Then there’s the journey to the cross, then his resurrection. Lent – or the journey to the cross -- is bookended between these two pictures of a glorified Savior.
Today’s passage in Matthew echoes a passage in Exodus when Moses went up to a mountaintop and was surrounded by God’s glorious presence. Throughout our theological history, the people who got to see God’s hand in such an up-close-and-personal way are greatly outnumbered by those of us who haven’t.
So we put great store by those eyewitness accounts of those who did. In fact, we stake our religious lives on them.
Later in his life, Peter, or someone writing a testament in his name, wrote about that mountaintop experience. Here it is in 2 Peter 1: 16-21. Let’s see how he remembered it.
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
We didn’t make this stuff up! That’s whatPeter was saying to people who were disputing the gospel, disputing the lordship of Jesus. We were eyewitnesses that day God conveyed his majesty upon Jesus. And it was like a lamp shining in a dark place.
Jesus was transfigured on a mountaintop near the end of his earthly ministry as a way of proclaiming his divinity. In the midst of it, his very human companions “fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ ”
As much as we might like to, chances are we are not going to see such a dramatic, blinding confirmation of the glory of God. We are more likely to receive a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. A lamp for the next step.
That’s what the psalmist promises. That’s what Peter promises.
Let us be watchful for its quiet glow.