The Greatness of God

A sermon by Senior Minister John B. McCall, February 14, 2010

Luke 9:28-43

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a festival observed August 6th in the early Christian calendar, and now included as the final Sunday after Epiphany and before the beginning of Lent. With this event from the Gospels we close a season that has focused on the ways that both Jesus and we manifest the presence of God through the Holy Spirit.

The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story similarly. Peter just declared that Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah. Here’s the pivot of the Gospel story – the literal turning point. Jesus was near his home in the Galilee. He had felt the leading of the spirit to go to Jerusalem for the great Passover. He was different from the Savior foretold in the Hebrew scriptures; in Jerusalem he would suffer and die. Before he departed he went to the foothills near Mount Hermon, far in the north of the Golan Heights to fast and to pray. Peter, James and John, his closest disciples, went with him.

Late that evening Jesus was alone in prayer. The disciples were drifting in that twilight zone between wake and sleep. Suddenly they saw Jesus bathed in dazzling white light, his appearance changed – transfigured. They were stunned and even more so when they recognized the great law giver Moses and the mighty prophet Elijah appearing with him.

Peter, the first among the disciples, understood Jesus’ intention to go to Jerusalem and apparently thought this was a chance to persuade him to reconsider: “Jesus, it’s great we’re here. We’ll build three shrines right there where you and Elijah and Moses can stay.” A long pause, and then a cloud settled over Jesus and the voice of God said “this is my chosen son, listen to him.” Stunned silence! When the cloud lifted Jesus was alone. And the disciples vowed not to say a word to anyone.

It’s a dramatic story and open to numerous interpretations. In its simplest form it offers a benediction from the past in the appearances of Elijah and Moses, and lays the mantle of the Law and the prophets squarely on the shoulders of Jesus.

More than that, the voice of God spoke from the cloud the same phrase spoken at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he was baptized: “this is my beloved.” Then the blessing had authorized Jesus’ earthly ministry. Now it confirmed that the events that lay ahead were still in harmony with God’s purpose as revealed in the Law and the prophets.

Maybe the story ends right there, but we push on as Jesus went down from the mountain, back to the mundane and familiar. There, as always, the people clamored for Jesus to hear their needs and heal their afflictions. Specifically, Jesus encountered a loving father who begged him to exorcise the evil spirit that had control of his son. And Jesus did.

And, as Luke puts it, “all were astounded at the greatness of God.” I guess so! Quite honestly, I don’t know what to do with the clouds and the appearances and the divine voice and all the rest. They’re beyond description and beyond explanation. So instead I simply lift up three true statements that are embedded in this story.

The first self-evident assertion is that God is great. It’s written on every page and it constitutes the central theme. God created all things – the land and oceans, the day and night, the birds of the air and fish of the deep. Then God created us and placed us in paradise. Indeed, God is great and God is in charge.

A second self-evident statement is the corollary: “God is great… we are not.” The Original Sin – the sin of Adam and Eve was the arrogant idea that they didn’t need God. We think we know what’s Good and what’s Evil. We think we can predict how today’s choices will shape tomorrow’s reality. But we’re wrong. Only God can tell where creation is going, and how my decisions today will play out tomorrow and tomorrow.

So the first point: God is God; and the second: I’m not God and neither are you.

Then there’s a third self-evident statement in this account: while it’s clear you’re not God… don’t ever forget that you’re God’s beloved child and you’re of infinite worth. God pronounced Jesus as the chosen one… the beloved. And from that Jesus went down the mountain. A bold, loving father dared to approach Jesus and ask for healing. And Jesus answered with a miracle.

It’s easy for us to think too much of ourselves and it’s easy to think too little.

Our challenge is to keep those two insights in perspective. I sometimes think of pride as our central sin – hubris or arrogance we might call it. I’ve been reminded that there may well be a gender component that comes from our culture – that men may overestimate themselves while women may be taught to underestimate themselves.

I’ve long appreciated the old rabbinic tale that says simply that we have two pockets from which to draw, according to our need. In the first is the message: “I am but dust and ashes,” and in the second the message: “the world was created for me!”

We are at once terribly powerful and yet so vulnerable to the greater powers of creation. The tragedy of the earthquake in Haiti takes our breath away. And then there’s the more delicious irony this past week as the folks in the middle Atlantic and the South are digging out from record-breaking snow, while Olympics organizers in Vancouver are trucking it in by the ton. We’re everything and we’re nothing.

If you listen to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion on Public Radio, you’ve heard the skit about the Evelyn Lundberg Counseling Agency. The ELCA.

GK: If you’re trapped in a downward spiral of anger and depression and regular therapy is just too expensive, come to the Evelyn Lundberg Counseling Agency. She’ll tell you what to do in one session, and she’ll do it for 25 dollars.
EVELYN: Get over yourself, that’s what you should do. Think you can handle that? The sun is out, you’re healthy, you’re reasonably attractive – what are you doing here? Get out of my office! You know what your problem is? I’ll tell you. You’re turning yourself inside out with your selfish narcissistic fantasies. Including the fantasy that there’s something wrong with you. Well guess what? There’s not. You’re just like everybody else. Now get over yourself and go live your life. {Saturday, May 26, 2007}

As we gather on this Sabbath day to share in fellowship and offer praise, we remember the life-giving power of love. This love goes beyond the romance of St. Valentine, as sweet as the stories may be. Parenthetically, the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that approximately one billion valentines are sent each year worldwide, making the day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, behind Christmas. The association estimates that, in the US, men spend on average twice as much money as women. {Wikipedia}[Maybe that’s because we’ve done more that we need to be forgiven for!}

By and large, the love we see in scriptures isn’t soft or tender or romantic. It’s life-changing and world-reforming love, best summed up in the Gospel of John when Jesus said: “no one has greater love than this… than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And I have called you friends.”
• We’re not God.
• We don’t need to pretend we’re God.
• And if that’s what you’re doing, stop it right now! Evelyn Lundburg says so!

What we are is a channel for God’s enduring, sustaining, redeeming love… a love so profound that it has changed the course of human history… and it still does.
• That love is embodied in our worship and in our life together.
• That love is manifest in the sacrament of baptism as this morning we embrace five of our daughters and look them in the eye and remind them that they are beautiful and valued in God’s eyes.

As the editor of the journal Weavings wrote recently:

To see the world in the transfiguring light of God’s grace rather than [to see] God in the distorting prisms of the world is the turning for which we must pray daily. {John S. Mogabgab, Weavings, Volume XXV, pg. 2}

Our mission and our ministry is to stand up to the world’s false claims. We have not made ourselves and we can’t save ourselves.

Still, our one hope is to live in the life-changing light of God. Let us pray for that every day. God is great… we are not… but never forget you and I are God’s beloved.