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Only Jesus

Of all the advertising in the recent Super Bowl, I thought the Tide detergent ads were the most creative. They not only got their point across in their own ads, but, at least in my mind, any time someone showed up in gleaming white.  Lutheran pastor James Wetzstein, the artist down at Agnusday.org, must have been thinking the same thing when he drew this week’s comic… 

Have you ever found a bleach that works as well on your clothes s it does on television? The trouble is that often, in order to get your clothes as white as they come on the TV ads, you have to practically destroy the fabric. It seems to me that dinginess would be preferable to the expense of new clothes, when your old ones are destroyed by the things you mean to clean them with.

Is bleach what you think about when you hear this gospel lesson read? I always get stuck on  this phrase, “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). So today I’d like to explore it for a few moments.

When Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain, it was so he could meet with Moses and Elijah, two of the great people in the history of the Jews. During that meeting, something happened to Jesus. His clothes started to shine, such that the disciples could hardly look at him.  

Once, long before this time, Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to meet with God. He had the same experience with a very bright light that
came from God (Exodus 33-34). Moses had requested to see God, but God told him the sight would kill him. He did prepare a way for Moses to get a glimpse, however. He put Moses behind a rock, shielded him with his hand and while passing by, allowed Moses to glimpse his back. When Moses came down from the mountain, his face shone so brightly from his meeting with God that the people couldn’t look at him, and had him wear a veil over his face when he spoke to them.

Think about it. First, Moses saw this brightness when he met with God. Then Peter, James, and John saw the same brightness when they met with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. The parallel is unmistakable. What else are we supposed to think but that Jesus shares God’s glory because Jesus comes from God? And the Bible goes beyond that to say Jesus is the same as God, that he IS God.  “In the beginning was the Word, and word was with God and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) with an obvious nod to Genesis’ creation story.

Clearly a connection is being made between this shekinah light that comes over Jesus and the light reflected from Moses after his visits with God on Mt. Sinai. Beyond that, however there is a difference in the telling, for in Moses’ case the glowing was the result of exposure to the source of the power, his proximity to God, to be exact. In Jesus’ case, it is no borrowed or reflected brightness, but one emanating from him personally, and which he allows to show only this one time, as we have it reported.

As with our discussion on authority from a couple weeks back, on the 4th Sunday in Epiphany, where all marveled as Jesus taught with authority, we once again find ourselves confronting the difference between borrowed and innate power. And that, dear friends, is what our season of Epiphany has been all about. An epiphany is an appearance of God to people: a time when God breaks through into human history in a very real and undeniable way. We’ve seen that in Jesus’ teaching, in his control over evil spirits, sickness, and disease, and in the way certain of his contemporaries rearranged their entire lives just because he said to them, “Follow me.”

Today, we are asked to believe that his entire appearance changed as he spoke, in full view of his disciples, with two of Israel’s greatest heroes in attendance. But why should we not believe it? 

I am intrigued at the thought of some Christians who have trouble accepting the minor miracles of Jesus, like healing the sick and raising the dead, and walking on water, but claim to believe the most amazing things about him: that he is God incarnate, that he died for our sins and that he rose victorious from the grave. Anyone about whom those last three things are true can do anything else he wants! Yet some of our co-religionists strain at gnats while swallowing these camels whole!

Certainly Peter, James, and John believed their eyes – they believed and were terrified! And then Jesus did something he so often did during his earthly ministry. He told them not to share their experience with others. “Keep this to yourself. Full disclosure of who I am would mess up the plan,” Jesus is saying, or words to that effect.

And so they kept the secret – the secret of the dazzling white garments, the secret of the historical visitors, the secret of the Father’s voice – but they didn’t keep it forever. As Jesus offered, after his resurrection, one of them, at least, made sure we’d know about it this day. He remembered the details of it, and he related it to the gospel writers, so that it is recorded in each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36) as well as Peter’s own eyewitness testimony in his 2nd letter: 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. 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.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18).

Why? So that hearing, we might believe. And believing, we might have life – life that is in the only Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. This morning, for the Sunday of the Transfiguration, we have, not one, but three marvelous texts on which to focus our thoughts. In the past week I’ve puzzled over them a great deal, wondering just what it is they are trying to tell us. They really are among the most spectacular texts in all of the scriptures.

First we have the Old Testament lesson, from 2 Kings, chapter 2. In it we find Elisha following along after Elijah, waiting for him to be taken up to heaven, bodily, by a great whirlwind. Along the way, three times Elijah tries to convince Elisha to stay behind. And in each case Elisha responds, “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” (2 Kings 2:2,4,6) And Elisha’s stubbornness eventually pays off. Elijah grants to Elisha his request of seeing him ascend to heaven, and the cloak of prophecy passed from one to another.

Elijah represents the old prophets in a time when God led the nation Israel by its prophets. Faithful to his call to the end, Elijah is taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. It is one of the magnificent stories in all of the scriptures.

Then we have Paul’s account of Moses’ visits with God on Mount Sinai. Having been with God on the mountaintop, Moses bore the evidence of those visits on his countenance, as his face glowed from the presence of the Lord, a reflection of God’s glory. But the people of Israel could not bear to see even this fading, reflected glory of God on Moses’ face, and so Moses wore a veil over his face to block the light. Paul tells us that veil represents Israel’s inability to hear and understand God’s message of salvation, as even their minds are veiled when Christ is revealed to them.

Moses represents the law of God and God’s intention of bringing the people to an understanding of their sins that required them to turn only and entirely to God for forgiveness. Even to this day among the Jews, and frankly, all the other world religions, an attempt is made to make oneself “right” with God, and the veil of self-righteousness still blocks the truth, that only Jesus can save. It is the difference between “do” and “done.”

H. A. Ironside was occasionally interrupted during his sermons with the objection that there were hundreds of religions, and that no one could determine which was the right way. Ironside would answer by indicating that he knew of only two religions. “One,” he would say, “covers all who expect salvation by doing; the other, all who have been saved by something done. The whole question is very simple,” he said. “Can you save yourself, or must you be saved by another?”

Paul summarizes: “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

 And then we have this fantastic text from the gospel for today. Jesus takes only the inner circle of the disciples, just the three closest to him, Peter, James, and John,
up to the mountaintop, to share in a truly remarkable experience. These disciples had been travelling with Jesus for nearly three years at this point, and they have seen incredible sights already, marvelous healings, powerful deliverance, and they have heard teaching with authority unparalleled. But, in reality, none of that could have prepared them for the truly incredible occurrence on the mountaintop this day. Jesus was “transfigured” before them, so that his clothing becomes dazzling in appearance. Whiter than white, our bleach ads might claim, but nothing on earth comes close to this. As if that weren’t enough, suddenly and unmistakably Moses and Elijah, those two Old Testament heroes of Israel, who carry so much meaning along with them, appear, standing beside Jesus, to speak words that we never hear, nor can we imagine. Finally, and these words the disciples do hear and record, the voice of the Father himself gives meaning to the moment as he says, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7) almost as if these disciples, who had left everything to follow Jesus, had not been listening to him all along! Of course the difficulty of listening to him is going to increase many fold, as he begins to tell them about how and why he is going up to Jerusalem, to be arrested, tortured and killed. It makes one wonder if they stopped hearing Jesus prediction before he gets to the part about rising from the dead…

In the Gospel, Moses, representing the law, Elijah, representing the prophets, God the Father, and Jesus’ own visible glory all give witness that he is the Christ of God, Jesus only. Though there are many competing views of Jesus, both within and outside the church, there is only one view that takes into account all the experiences of him reported by the writers of the gospels. This Jesus is not just a great teacher. He isn’t merely an excellent example. He is, in fact, a person of unusual power, not limited by the boundaries of this life. But more, this Jesus is the Son of God. After God reveals this to these three disciples, suddenly all returns to normal; the day becomes calm again, at least around them, if not in their hearts and minds! And just as suddenly as the events of the Transfiguration took place, they are complete.  And “they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus” (Mark 9:8). And as we come to the end of the story we discover, after all, that is the message of the Transfiguration.

Only Jesusoffers a relationship with the Living God. Only Jesus fulfills the law that we are not able to fulfill, and he does it for us. Only Jesus offers grace and forgiveness, a clean slate, and a place for us in eternity with the Father. No other world religion offers such a thing. There are great philosophies to live by; there are good ways to order life; there are good rules to follow; there are excellent practices to emulate. But there is only one Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life; only Jesus offers us the way into God’s Holy of Holies, where we may abide in and with the One, Holy God.

We celebrate today the climax of the Epiphany season, in the Sunday of the Transfiguration. The word
epiphany, besides its feast day description of the revealing of Jesus to the world in the Magi, is defined as “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” Having seen Christ revealed in the power and preaching of his ministry, a few of his disciples were given a glimpse of his glory as he was transfigured, changed in appearance before them.  And when Jesus was transfigured, Peter, James, and John didn’t know what to say or do. The appearance of the complete “otherness” of Jesus, of his glory, tended to paralyze them, and perhaps the thought of it tends to paralyze us too. Yet the same Jesus whose clothes became “whiter than white” also took little children in his arms and blessed them. Our creator and judge is also our Savior and Lord. And that can only be good news for us! For we, too, will see Christ’s glory in person. Until that day we live for these moments when Jesus fills our hearts with the brightness of his presence. We see his glory with the eye of faith, through his word, and through the praises and love offered by our Christian brothers and sisters. And we speak our alleluias one last time before Easter Sunday, when we will shout them again, to the glory of God our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen 

Pastor Pat Fitzgerald