Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Get up, and do not be afraid.

Brad Sullivan

Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday, March 6th, 2011
Emmanuel, Houston
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

I’ve been meeting with a Rabbi for the last five months or so; we’ve been learning from each other about our two faiths, and one thing of which I’ve been reminded through our meetings is how vast and incomprehensible God is. God is beyond all our attempts at understanding, beyond our descriptions and conceptions. This is not to say God is unknowable; it is simply to say God is greater than we can conceive. We’ve been given glimpses of God through the Law, through the prophets, through Jesus.

As a vast oversimplification, we could say that a way of life was given whereby we can learn something of God and potentially live out something of the divine life here on earth. Depending on our approach, we could also simply be following a set of rules with little of God’s life entering in. So, as a vast oversimplification, we have the prophets calling us to remember not only the law but the purpose of the law and how by faith to live faithfully to God. Then, again as an oversimplification, we have Jesus as the embodiment of the law and the prophets, living out the life called for by both, and we have Jesus as God, that to which the law and the prophets were directing us.

Is anyone else confused yet? I’m guessing that’s how Peter, James, and John felt up on the mountain, largely very confused. It was probably very nice to see Moses and Elijah up on the mountain with Jesus. They were maybe a little star struck, but I’m guessing they were also quite confused, wondering what in the world was going on.

We have some of this confusion illustrated by Peter wanting to build three dwellings, one for Moses, one for Jesus, and one for Elijah. What Peter was actually wanting to build was three tabernacles, places for the three of them to dwell with God. There are two challenges here. One, God really wants us to build tabernacles in our hearts for him to dwell, and two by building three separate dwellings for Moses, Jesus, and Elijah, however, Peter was separating Jesus from the Law and the prophets when they really belong together. Jesus fulfilled the law and the Prophets. Jesus was God, to whom the law and the prophets direct us, and Jesus followed the law and the prophets in his own life. Doing so was how he, as a human being, maintained the tabernacle in his own heart for God to dwell. I realize there is an inherent contradiction in saying “Jesus is God” and saying “Jesus made a place in his heart for God to dwell.” I’m ok with that contradiction.

As Rabbi Annie would say, “that’s where the dog is buried.” It’s a Yiddish expression meaning “there’s the rub,” or “there’s the contradiction inherent in this situation.” Our whole faith is full of contradictions. Jesus is a human being. Jesus is God.

Jesus is both revelation and example. If Jesus was only a revelation of God, then we would be lacking a human example of living a life of faithfulness to God. If Jesus were only an example for us to follow, then we would be missing something of the revelation of God. So, we say “Jesus is God” and “Jesus made a place in his heart for God to dwell.” Jesus is both revelation of God and example of human life.

By listening to Jesus, we too can make places in our hearts for God to dwell. That was God’s response to Peter wanting to make tabernacles for Moses, Jesus, and Elijah. God interrupts Peter, tells him who Jesus is, God’s beloved son, and tells them to listen to him. Perhaps the parenthetical, unspoken portion of God’s message was, “No, Peter, you’re missing the point. You needn’t build tabernacles for the three of them so that they may dwell with me. Rather, build a tabernacle in your heart so that you may dwell with me.” Instead, God simply said, “this is my beloved Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

So we have in the transfiguration, a revelation of who Jesus is as God with God’s glory shining through him, and we have a revelation of who Jesus is as a human being, so familiar with the law and the prophets that he could have a conversation with Moses and Elijah just as easily as we could talk with one another right now.

So, we have this dual revelation on the last Sunday of the Epiphany, three days before we begin our Lenten journey. I find this rather helpful because Lent is a time when, more than any other time of the year, we are intentional about building tabernacles in our hearts for God to dwell. “Nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee, oh how I long to be nearer to thee.” The words of the old gospel hymn ring true at all times and especially during Lent, the purpose not being self abasement or really even self denial. The purpose of Lent is to draw nearer to God. The sacrifices we make or fasts we observe during Lent are simply ways of helping us clear out spaces in our hearts for God to dwell, that God may tabernacle in our hearts.

Clearing those places out is only one step, however, the other step being to listen to Jesus. Let’s start with the first words he said to Peter, James, and John after the transfiguration. “Get up and do not be afraid.” Those would be nice words possibly to paint on our ceilings above our beds so that we might see those words every morning when we wake. Get up and do not be afraid. We’re going to look at some other words of Jesus as well and see how they might help us build tabernacles in our hearts.

Jesus told a story, a parable of the prodigal son. The story was about a young man who basically told his father, “I wish you were dead, but since you aren’t quite dead yet, I want my inheritance now so give me my money.” The father does so, the son wastes all of the money and returns to his father to apologize and ask to be a servant in his house, but before the son even got there, the father ran out to him and threw his arms around him. The father didn’t chastise the son or seek vengeance for the hurt the son caused. Rather, he welcomed his son back with joy and love. God always loves us, even when we turn away from him, even when we hurt ourselves and others. God is always ready to welcome us back, to run towards us and wrap his arms around us. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, rather than seeking vengeance. We would hopefully seek justice in our world, but rather than seek vengeance, he teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who wrong us. God is merciful and just, and sometimes we’re going to need to depend on God’s justice rather than seeking vengeance on our own. Such is the love God wants us to experience and have in the world that we might increase and add more love to the world rather than add more hurt and hate to the world. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

Jesus tells us that he loves us and will be with us always even to the end of the ages, and although he seemingly left us by ascending into heaven, Jesus gives us an assurance that he is and will be with us always by sending us the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the Advocate to be with us, to strengthen us, to guide us, to dwell within our hearts. When everyone else seems against us, the Holy Spirit can be for us, always drawing us nearer to God. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

Just before Jesus’ transfiguration and shortly after his transfiguration, Jesus told his disciples that he was going to suffer and die, and we see in that a reminder that as Jesus suffered and died, so must we all suffer and die. We hope not to have an overabundance of suffering when we die, but all of us, one day will eventually suffer and die. These lives will end, and yet we look not only to Jesus’ crucifixion and death but to his resurrection, showing us that life does not end with our deaths, but that the resurrection of the dead is real. Life continues on with God even after our physical lives here on earth have ended. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

We are taught to live with faith in Jesus, with faith in Jesus in this dual revelation of Jesus in the transfiguration, to have faith in Jesus as God, as the one through whom God’s glory shown in the transfiguration, and we’re also taught to have the faithfulness of Jesus, living out lives of law and prophet as Jesus did, living out the way he lived, faith in him as God and the faithfulness of him as a human being. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

We also remember that God is beyond our comprehension, beyond anything we can possibly imagine, greater and vaster than we can begin to conceive, and yet this same God who is beyond our imagining is the same God who desires and promises to dwell in our hearts, and we’re invited to make places within our hearts for this vast incomprehensible God to dwell. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”  Amen.

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