This is the Light

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | February 19, 2023

Matthew 17:1-9

Where have you seen God lately? Someone once asked that question and I think about it every now and then. The bible says that no one has ever seen God. Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”

There was the time Lindsay and I were in Nashville for her father’s funeral. Friends had an apartment over the garage that they let us use. Another friend loaned us a car. Every day we drove from our friend’s place to Lindsay’s mother’s house, and back. It was an easy drive, straight through the middle of the city.

One place along the way was a resource center for homeless people. People were often lined up outside, waiting for a meal or other services. At a stop sign was a man selling a newspaper. He had to peddle his newspapers within strict guidelines. He couldn’t be aggressive or pushy. He tried to make eye contact with the people in the cars, at least the ones who were willing to look him in the eye. Otherwise, he just stood there on the corner,  holding up his newspaper as a way of asking you to buy it.

One day Lindsay rolled down the window on her side of the car and bought a paper off the guy. It cost a dollar. There’s not much that you can get for just a dollar these days.

Where is God in any of that? I thought about the question and wonder if maybe God is in the transaction. Not of giving the guy a dollar for his newspaper. But something else – the eye contact. In that moment of eye contact there is a bit of recognition. We realize that we live worlds apart, but we’re not so different. We’re brothers and sisters whether we admit to it or not. We’re God’s children whether we’re driving the car with the worries of the world on our shoulders or standing on the sidewalk with all our worldly goods strapped to our back.  

Seeing God in anything maybe just means taking a closer look.

The story we read in Matthew’s portrait of Jesus today comes around every year at this time. The Sunday before we begin the journey through Lent to Easter. It’s one of those stories that defy rational explanation. Like other imaginative stories in the bible we can get lost in trying to figure out “how” it happened.

Another way to relate to this story is to ask how we might relate to it. What does the story tell us about Jesus, about God and even about ourselves?

Jesus and three of his friends went hill walking. Along the way Jesus changed. It was as if he was filled with light from the inside out. Was it gradual or sudden? As the story goes it just was.

And it wasn’t just Jesus but the whole world seemed to change because there he was talking with Moses and Elijah. When did we notice that they joined the group? But there they were.

If that weren’t enough a cloud overshadowed them all and the voice God spoke out of the cloud. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Perhaps they were reminded of what Jesus told them about what happened when he was baptized. Maybe they thought, “This proves it!”

Peter was in there for the tendency of human nature to want to capture the moment. He had said, “Let’s build a shrine to this moment!” That way we can institutionalize it. We can make a religion out of it. We can capture it and relive the moment any time we please.

But God had said, “Listen to him.”

When they made their way back home that day Jesus told them not to tell anyone about what had happened. Sometimes an experience needs to sit for a while. Listen to it; remember it; let the meaning emerge; don’t try to wrap it into a neat package and someday it will speak for itself.

Some of the basic truths I take away from this story are –

  • God is a transforming presence in the lives of people.
  • We create programs, but we can’t program how God works.
  • Sometimes we go through an experience that changes us, but we might not understand it fully at the time.
  • Sometimes we see people with a new clarity, and we see them for who they really are.
  • Some stories need time to grow on us before they are ready to be shared.

One way that I relate to this story of Jesus shining brightly like the sun is to think of how we ourselves are “transfigured.” Probably the biggest transformation we go through is from being a child to becoming an adult.

I tried to remember what it was like to be a teenager. To think back to that time in life. It was such an intense formative time. By comparison to the years that followed, everything about it was as if it was magnified.

Emotions were epic during that time. Love, hate, drama, fear, anxiety, whatever the emotion was that was coursing through my life on any given day or at any particular moment, it was intense.

Falling in love was like an appointment with doomsday. I knew it was impossible. I knew it would end badly. Friendships were like bonds forged in steel. My friends were everything to me.

It was as if adults lived in a foreign country. They just didn’t understand. They didn’t speak my language. They talked down to me and my kind; but they didn’t know, what could they possibly know about life, about my life, in my time and place when compared to the dim, dull experience from which they came. How could I possibly relate to them what my life was like. Or so it seemed.

Coming down from the mountain Jesus told his friends to give the experience some time to sink in before they told anyone about. As if to say, someday you will see more clearly what it all means.

If anyone should ask in reaction to the story, “What should we do?!” The answer is in the story: Listen to him.

Sometimes I will look back on an interaction with people and I think, “I could have done a better job of listening.” We know that sense when someone is just not hearing what we are saying.

Listen to him when he tells you that you also are God’s beloved child.

Listen to him when he tells you that God is love.

Listen to him when tells you what God is like through story and illustration.

Listen to his wisdom and humor.

Listen to his welcome and affirmation.

Listen and don’t worry about thinking you have to say anything in response; maybe other than, “I hear you.”

When Jesus took his followers up to the mountain top and they saw him shining from within, maybe what he was trying to show them was, “This is how God sees me. When I came up out of the water that day I was baptized and I heard the voice of God say, ‘you are my beloved child in whom I pleasure.’ this inner light I showed you is the light I recognized in myself. This is who I am.”

My friend Rex Hunt says of this story –

“The important bit for me, I think, is that God is to be ‘experienced’ as a creative transforming presence in ordinary people’s lives. Not by coercion and power over, but rather by lure and suggestion and imagination. As Jesus was transfigured or ‘changed’ before Peter, James, and John, God’s so-called ‘will’ (to use tradition language) is to transform us in the everyday moments of our lives.

How might this be?  In very personal-sounding language one colleague suggests:  If your deepest experience is loneliness, it is the will of God to transform you from loneliness to human connectedness. If your deepest feeling is fear and anxiety, then God wishes to move you creatively past that,
to love and to trust.

That is, he is suggesting, God wants to move us beyond the meaninglessness of life to the intensity of living, characterized by joy and by vitality. To a new level of depth in our existence that will provide joy and zest and empowerment.”

We see the light in us when we act in ways that enlarge the realms of love and justice; when we share another’s pain or offer comfort to a friend in need; when we treat our neighbors with respect; when we try to overcome differences with understanding and solve conflict with peaceful means; when we look for the good in other people and in ourselves; when we do not stay quiet in the face of prejudice, but speak our minds with firm conviction; when we fight despair and side with hope; when we use our powers justly and in the service of love for humanity; this is the light that Jesus revealed to his friends. As God’s children, one and all, this is who we are. Amen.

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