Down the Mountain and to the Cross
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
We are standing on the threshold of Lent. We began Epiphany eight weeks ago following the magi to the manger. On Wednesday, we begin a 40-day Lenten journey with Jesus’ to the cross ending on Maundy Thursday.
Standing in this open doorway, we are called to consider trying something new, or to give up something we like, to aid the Holy Spirit’s work in us this Lent. Lent is an invitation to hush our routines and to listen for the rhythms of grace. (You have three more days to think about it.)
In today’s gospel we read, Jesus got up early. He invited Peter, James, and John, to go on a walk. It was a day like any other. It was a day just like today. Yet, what transpired sounds like a scene from a Hollywood movie. Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain, and while he was there his face changed, his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two heavenly figures, Moses and Elijah, stand there talking. They are discussing Jesus’ departure from Jerusalem when the disciples are overshadowed by a dense terrifying cloud from which they hear a heavenly voice saying, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9: 28-30; 34-35)
Perhaps Peter speaks for all of us when he says, ‘It is good, Lord, to be here.’ After all, this transfiguration moment seems like the perfect ending to Jesus’ story. Somehow, we imagine that growing in faith is a journey upwards –striving toward the mountaintop of glory, getting past the pearly gates, gaining entry into the kingdom of heaven, and shooting the breeze with Moses, Elijah, and all the other saints in light. Yet, God has other plans.
Our story does not end on the mountain of transfiguration. This magnificent scene is not the end but the beginning. Faith that follows Jesus leads down the mountain. It leads into the world. It steers us closer to those who are suffering. The God we worship is immanent and transcendent—incarnate and mysterious. For reasons that only love can explain, though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped but came down, was born of human flesh, and lived among us, full of grace and truth. (Philippians 2:6 & John 1:14).
Incarnation is the ultimate journey downward. We finally see who Christ is not on the mountain, but decisively revealed at Golgotha on the cross. The cross is where we learn that nothing, not even our most evil deeds, can break the bond with the indwelling and life-giving grace of God. Not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God has chosen what we would not. Thanks be to God.
This story is ongoing. It didn’t end all those years ago but continued. It is the never-ending story of God’s miraculous embrace which now includes our poor lives and the world around us. In the arms of God, we undergo our own transfiguration, as we journey downward with God and walk the way of Jesus’ cross. See, the veil between us and God is being lifted. St. Paul writes, ‘we are being transformed by the image of God we all carry within us, from one degree of glory to another by faith. (1 Corinthians 3:18). Our journey with Jesus, is an unveiling of the gospel, so that what is inmost and truest about who we are, may to some degree become manifest in us—not just upon our faces or in our eyes, but also so that it might be realized in our family, community, society and the world in which we live.
God has chosen what we would not. This is the news that is too good to be true: God has sought us and rescued us, not despite the world, but for the sake of the world. The prayer our Lord taught us is now our mission –that God’s name be made holy and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Of course, all this can be and often is, too much for us. The glare of God’s love burns too brightly. It asks too much so that we, like the children of Israel standing before the radiant face of Moses, want to veil the gospel. We become like Pinocchio lamenting that “He’s got no strings!” Over time, whether it is our culture, our religion, or simply we ourselves give in to the temptation to shroud what God has unveiled. We make choices God would not.
I’m embarrassed to think now how I might have thought a few years ago for examples of this veiling in third-world countries or unfamiliar situations that mostly involved other people—not us. If there is a silver lining to what we are experiencing today, it is that we know we are personally connected and unavoidably involved in this willful avoidance of the truth.
What a week it has been. (I feel like I say that to myself every week.) We could make a list. One you may not have noticed that deeply grieves many of us was the decision by our Methodist brothers and sisters to renew their centuries-old discrimination of LGBTQI people. We in the ELCA have been full communion partners with the United Methodist Church for ten years. We stand together in affirming the sacred worth of all God’s children of every orientation, gender identity, and/or biological make-up.
Following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, we quite obviously also extend this affirmation of human dignity and sacred worth to people of color. I don’t think there’s a person in this room who would deny that. But what is also manifestly obvious is that just saying it won’t make it true. The vestiges of the old racial animus remain intact and operating in our legal system, our educational system, our banking system, our political system, in our cultural institutions, and in our church. So-called ‘color blindness’ has become a convenient way for us to hide what we don’t wish to see. Systematic racism cannot be wished away but must be dismantled.
This Lent I invite you to journey down the mountain with Jesus and gaze deeply into the face of human sorrows reflecting together on the plague of systematic racism. You can join the conversation by signing up for one of the book discussion groups or attending one of the sessions planned at the forum. You can make it a focus in your prayer and fasting, and/or your giving. Let us do this to renew our church and to make it more welcoming as Jesus would have us do.
Debby Irving tells the story of her own journey in her book Waking Up White: Finding our Place in the Story of Race. Born into a wealthy, privileged white family of New Englanders that pridefully traces its roots all the way back to the Mayflower, Irving encourages us to begin our own journey by examining whiteness, not class, as a key to understanding racism. She humbly asserts that, if she can do it, anybody can.
This Lent let us choose what God has chosen. As living members of the body of Christ let us all become part of Christ’s glory so we, with unveiled faces, reflect the glory of the Lord Jesus, as we are being transformed into his likeness, walking with confidence following after him down the mountain bearing the light of Christ into a dark and weary world. Amen.