(A sermon based on Luke 9:28-36 & 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 for Transfiguration Sunday)
Anne Lamott has written a book about prayer that we all should read; it’s called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. In a blog post, Lamott noted with appreciation that her book was #9 on last Sunday’s New York Times Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous Best-Sellers List. She further observed that numbers 1-8 were diet books, number 10 was a recipe book, and numbers 11-15 were also diet books. That’s right—thirteen of the top fifteen books were diet books! Lamott went on to say that she should retitle her book Hips Thighs Waist: Three Essential Diet Tips for Emaciation and Wealth.
It says something about our culture’s obsession with personal transformation, doesn’t it? If we could only change something about ourselves—our weight or our shape, for examples—then we would at least feel better about ourselves and—who knows?—we might even become a better version of ourselves.
There is a fine line, though, between a healthy awareness of imperfection and an unhealthy attitude of self-loathing.
I’m fascinated by the 13-1 diet books to prayer book ratio on the bestsellers list; I wonder if even we Christians give thirteen times more attention to trying to change ourselves than we do to letting God work God’s work of transformation in us?
The Apostle Paul said that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Listen to how The Message puts it: “Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
But it’s only about us insofar as we are connected with Christ. It takes time. It’s not easy. It’s not magic. It’s not pie in the sky by and by. It’s real change in real life.
One day Jesus was with his disciples when he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They shared what they had heard. Then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “The Messiah of God.” Jesus told them not to tell anyone who he was and then he set about telling them what it meant to be who he was. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:18-22).
He then proceeded to tell his followers what it meant to be connected to a Messiah like that. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).
The next story in Luke’s narrative, set eight days later, is the story of the Transfiguration. Perhaps the only honest way to explain the Transfiguration is to say that we can’t explain it. What is clear is that it was an awe-inspiring event in which Jesus underwent a transformation, perhaps into a state similar to his coming resurrection state, and in that state he was visited by Elijah and Moses, representatives of the prophets and the law, who talked with him about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus in his glory and saw the other two men, also.
While Peter spat out something about building some booths to memorialize and concretize the experience, a cloud—biblically speaking, a cloud indicated the presence of God—came over them and a voice from the cloud—the voice of God—said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” “Listen to him say what?” we might well ask. We should listen to anything that the Messiah has to say. But taken in context, we should understand that they were and we are to listen to what Jesus has to say about what kind of Messiah he was and what kind of followers of his they were and we are to be.
What kind of Messiah was he? The kind that loved. The kind that gave. The kind that served. The kind that sacrificed. The kind that died.
What kind of followers are we to be? The kind that love. The kind that give. The kind that serve. The kind that sacrifice. The kind that die.
Seventy years ago this past week, on February 3, 1943, the transport ship Dorchester was sailing in the North Atlantic carrying some 900 men who were to serve in the European Theater in World War II. In the middle of the night, a German submarine torpedoed the ship and as it sank, men rushed in the bedlam to find lifeboats and life jackets. Over 600 of them would die but around 230 were rescued. Encouraging and helping the man were four chaplains: Father John Washington, who was Catholic; the Rev. Clark Poling, who was ordained in the Reformed Church in America; Rabbi Alexander Goode, who was Jewish; and the Rev. George Fox, who was Methodist. When it became clear that there were not enough life jackets to go around, the four chaplains gave theirs to other men. The last thing some of the survivors saw was those four chaplains, their arms linked as they prayed together as the ship went down.
You don’t get that way overnight. It takes a lifetime of being open to what the Spirit of the crucified and resurrected Christ is doing in your life.
I know that we get frustrated. I know that we take three steps forward and two steps back. I know that we try and fail. I know that we are human. Those are facts. But the greater facts are that God is transforming us into who we are supposed to be, that God is moving us one step at a time “from glory to glory,” and that God is moving us toward reclaiming the image of God.
Jesus is the Messiah and his way is our way. The Spirit of God is working in us to form us into the image of God. We can make a little progress every day. As we grow in grace and love we will grow in serving and giving and sacrificing.
Let’s be grateful for all the ways in which that is happening in us. Let’s be grateful for how it is going to continue to happen…