“Holding On to the Glory”
Luke 9:28-43, mostly
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our creator...
I don’t know how many of you watched the Super Bowl last week. I didn’t, not even the commercials, but I’ve been intrigued by a story I’ve heard since then. It’s a story about the team’s coach, Sean Payton, and about how he slept with the Vince Lombardi trophy next to him on Sunday night, after the victory. He said he rolled over it a couple of times, probably drooled on it. But that’s ok. “There’s nothing like it.” And who can blame him? The Saints had never even been to a Superbowl before, much less won one. Who can blame him for wanting to hold on to the trophy, hold on to the glory, for just a little while. I have friends who live in the New Orleans areas as well, and they were saying how much the victory meant to them, to this place which had experienced so much death and destruction. “It’s not just a football game,” they said. “It’s a sign – it’s a sign of the re-birth of our city.” And who can blame them for wanting to hold on to the glory, hold on to the glory for just a little while longer?
Who can blame him? That’s a question I ask about Peter, as well, Peter who is so taken with the sight of the glory of Jesus, standing there with Moses and Elijah. Who can blame him for wanting to build three dwellings for them? “There’s nothing like this,” he seems to be saying. “This is it! We’ve arrived! And it’s good for us to be here.” He just wanted to hold on to the glory of the moment, the moment when Jesus’ face shone, and when he was speaking to the great patriarchs of the faith– speaking about his upcoming journey to Jerusalem. He just wanted to hold on to the glory – and perhaps he was thinking (like the people of New Orleans) “This is a sign from God! This is a sign of victory! We are winners!” And who can blame him? After all, Peter is a poor fisherman, living as a Jew in the Roman Empire. Most of the time he does not feel glorious, or important at all. And he’s staking all of his hopes on Jesus, this carpenter, this healer, this preacher – and for a moment, there it is, the glorious truth. Jesus is the Messiah. And he wants to stay in this moment forever.
Who can blame us – on this day, if we just want to hold on to the glory? It’s true of all of us, isn’t it? Whether our glory days were just yesterday, or whether they were decades ago, we all want to hold on to the glory. We want to look at those pictures of us when we were young, and say, “That’s the real me, not the one that I look at in the mirror every morning – and I’m getting older.” We want to hold on to the images of the time we graduated with Honors, that contest we won, that speech that we gave, the award-winning chocolate cake we baked. We think back to the time when we were the biggest church in town, or when our denomination had a lot of clout. And who can blame us – if we want to hang on to the glory? Who can blame us? For it’s a sign – isn’t it – that we are winners, really, deep down inside, even if right now we can’t see it and right now we don’t feel like it. We’re winners. We want to hang on to the glory.
But what happens? What happens on the mountain there when Jesus shines and Peter wants to stay? It’s a moment of glory, but almost as soon as they figure it out, they are overwhelmed by a cloud, they hear God’s voice: (This is my son.... Listen to him!) (I think it’s so interesting that Jesus does NOT say “look at him” but “Listen to him”). And Jesus is alone. The three patriarchs are gone and Jesus is not shining any more.
And then what happens? They go back down the mountain, back down the mountain and the first thing that happens to them is LIFE. The first thing that happens to them is a child possessed by a spirit, and this seems to be a particularly difficult case. The disciples can’t cast it out, which makes Jesus sigh and wonder if people will ever ever get it. You can see why they wanted to stay on the mountain even more now, can’t you? They go down from the mountain where everything was clear and they KNEW Jesus was the Messiah, to a place where there were people who were hungry, people who were dying, people who were sick, people who needed good news, people who needed healing, people who needed to be set free from evil and sin and oppression. And they were responsible, and sometimes they failed. That’s what happened. And I’m sure when that happened they were more than tempted to wonder if the glory on the mountain was just a mirage, if they had been asleep and dreamed it.
But here’s also what happened down in the valley: The child was healed, despite the disciples’ failure, and “they were all astounded at the greatness of God.” Up on the mountain, with the shining – no one was saying that, because the only ones who saw the vision were Peter, James and John. Sure it was a vision, but it was a private vision, and no one else but them saw it. But after they came down, and met the awful reality of life, the brokenness, grief, fear – and Jesus healed it – ah! Then, there began transfiguration, there began the transformation – not just the transfiguration of Jesus, but the transformation the boy who was healed, and the transfiguration of the disciples – “from one degree of glory into another,” as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians. “And all were astounded by the greatness of God.”
Don’t get me wrong, the shining is true: it’s a glimpse of the victory of Jesus, the one who was crucified, but lives. It’s a glimpse of his life, his resurrected life, that they saw. It was a true sign, a sign of the truth; the one who was crucified lives. But when the disciples listened to the voice of Jesus, went down the mountain, tried to heal the boy but couldn’t, somehow in that mess, in that mess, which everyone saw, “all were astounded by the greatness of God.” They had to be willing to fail, and fail big, but in the process they were being transformed, bit by bit, degree by degree, into the image of Jesus, into people who also healed and spoke and set free captives, who brought hope and lifted hope and lifted others up.
Pastor Heidi Neumark served as the pastor of a church in the South Bronx, called – appropriately enough “Transfiguration Lutheran Church.” They were a mission congregation back in the 1920s, I believe, and had once flourished with immigrants from Puerto Rico. But those glory days were well behind them when pastor Neumark arrived. There were just a few people left in the congregation in those days, and they kept their doors closed and locked most of the time, fearful of the problems and pains of the community. But somehow, they listened to the voice of Jesus, and they began to open the doors and go out into the world, go out into the community, bearing nothing but Jesus’ love. And The church was transfigured, re-born, by this experience, “and all were astounded by the greatness of god.” It’s true. But let me tell you, this was not an instant happening. Pastor Neumark served as Transfiguration for 20 years. Loving and serving and showing Jesus to the community was hard work, and I’m sure they failed a lot. But in so doing they also showed forth the face of God in their community. They showed the heart of God to their community.
Who can blame us for wanting to hold on to the glory? But when we come down from the mountain, Jesus is still with us – his power, his healing, most of all his love. Jesus is still with us. We follow him, though his face no longer shines, and his clothes no longer dazzle. We follow him as he sets his face toward Jerusalem. He is determined to heal, to embrace, to love – the whole world.
And we can’t hold on to the glory, but the truth is that the glory holds on to us. Jesus in his suffering love, Jesus in his healing love, Jesus in his forgiving love holds on to us, surrounds us, and lifts us up. So we too are being transformed, one degree at a time, into his image. We are being transformed, so that, as we go out, and even in our failures, God is working through us, the glory of God is shining through us.... “and all were astounded by the greatness of God.”