“Words cannot contain…” – Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, 2023

(Had the opportunity to lead worship and preach at Zion Lutheran Church in York, PA this weekend. Here’s the sermon that I preach in response to the reading from Matthew 17, the story about the Transfiguration of Jesus)

Have you ever had those times in your life where there just aren’t the words to express the moment properly, where even the image captured doesn’t do it justice?  

I brought along a couple of items with me today that try to capture that for me.  The first is a picture book of images from our vacation this past summer.  We took a trip out west.  One of our stops was to Banff, in Alberta, Canada, in the Canadian Rockies.  It’s been a bucket list trip for me.  And we went to Moraine Lake, which has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to in my life, and that’s not an exaggeration.  Words are hard to express the absolute stunning beauty that one encounters at Moraine Lake.  And even the pictures don’t do it justice.  

I also brought along a half marathon finishing medal.  I’ve done numerous marathons and half marathons over my life.  And each one is special and has taught me lessons.  The medals all bring back memories and stories.  I brought this one because of its unique story.  It’s from the Philadelphia Half-Marathon, so it has a representation of the Liberty Bell and the bell actually rings.  And when I hear the bell, I am reminded of something really special – that this was the half marathon that two of my kids ran with me.  There are no words to describe what that means to me.  There are no images that contain the experience.  The sound brings me back to the whole experience of the race and them running with me.  

If you have your smart phone or you carry pictures with you in some other form, I want you to pull them out.  Find just one image that captures a moment of great emotion or great love – where words just don’t do it justice if you had to describe it.  Where the picture/image can’t even really describe the love.  It could be of a person, a place, a thing, a memory or an event.  Whatever it is that speaks to you and has great meaning to you.   

I want you to live there for just a moment.  Feel that?  Because that’s what I think is a transfiguration moment.  An unveiling and encounter of love that goes beyond words.  

Transfiguration is of course this brilliant mystical change of Jesus that the disciples witness on the mountaintop – the showing of radiant Jesus in all his Glory, surrounded in a cloud of the Spirit, in the bright light and holiness of God.  

It’s the Epiphany in which Jesus is announced as the Son of God definitively.  Often, we think of the Transfiguration as just a Jesus event.  But it’s more than that.  It’s an encounter with the entire Trinity.  There are no words to contain that.  

How do you contain the Trinity?  You can’t.  You can’t put a boundary on something that can’t be contained.  You can only encounter and be transformed by the Trinity, by God.  Because that’s the very nature of who God is – That’s what Transfiguration is all about.  It’s love so moving that it touches the very core of us so that we can’t help but feel, be moved, and respond.  It’s love so deep that it cannot be contained. It requires a response.  It is contagious.  It bursts forth.  

But notice our natural human inclination – whether we are talking about us individually, or as an institution, or in other ways.  We want to contain God.  We want to put boundaries around God.  We want to put God in a tent, like Peter – to capture to moment.  Because, I think, we’re afraid we’re not ever going to get another transfiguration moment again.  We think we have to hold onto these moments because we won’t ever get another one. 

That’s our human limitation.  That’s our fear speaking that Jesus will abandon us and not keep showing up.  That’s the fear that the mountaintop experience is just far too special and rare that we’ll never be able to climb the mountain again.  We forget that it’s not about us going to find Jesus and to find God as if they are lost and we have to find them.  The Trinity has never been lost.  

At the beginning of the Gospel it says Jesus took Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  It’s never been about us going and finding God, us going and finding Jesus.  It’s always been about God coming to the world, to humanity, and manifesting Godself, and showing Godself for who God really is.  

It’s about Jesus taking on flesh, coming to us, taking us by the hand, inviting us on the journey and leading us directly to himself and the rest of the Trinity.  And humanity has always had a really difficult time believing this is the way of God, that this is the character of God, that this is who God is.  

The whole of Scripture is the story of God coming to creation, showing Godself to creation and to humanity in inexpressible ways that cannot be contained and in ways that humanity has a hard time grasping.  Over and over and over again.  

By now I’m sure you’ve heard of or seen the ads that were shown during the Super Bowl that have been called “Jesus gets us.”  There’s been lots of talk about these ads.  People taking sides about them.  Arguments about whether it was a good use of a whole lot of money or not.  Arguments about who is funding the campaign and what their agenda or goal was depending on who’s point of view you ask.  Arguments about whether this was a great evangelism effort or just a PR campaign for the church that has lots of internal work to do.  Lots of arguments.  

And what the arguments really tell me is that while Jesus get us, humanity once again has proven that we don’t get him very well or what he’s about.  We’re too busy fighting over who’s right, rather than doing what the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  Humanity has had a difficult time with that whole listening to Jesus part since very the beginning.  

So, let’s listen for a moment – especially to this Gospel reading.  Listen to who the Trinity really is and how the Trinity is expressing itself.  Listen to what Jesus is saying today in this Transfiguration moment.  Where all three persons of the Trinity shows up.  Where God shows us and tells us who Jesus is.  And listen to what God is calling us to do in response.  

In the book, “The Holy No: Worship as a Subversive Act” by Adam Hearlson, there’s this beautiful quote that I think fits perfectly into this whole idea of what Transfiguration is all about and what the call of the church is in response to Transfiguration.  

Hearlson writes, “the church is most itself when it mirrors the persons of God and fosters relationships with people who look, act, sound, and believe differently.  The relational church is called to follow the relational God who fosters relationships among unlike people.  To follow in the way of Jesus is to follow the spirit of Christ into strange places where relationships are being formed despite the cultural pull to sameness.  

The church is being led to places where the Spirit is uniting unlike people in peace, freeing people to pursue relationships of equality and mutual care and inviting people to be in loving relationship.  The church is called to follow the Spirit of God who is always and forever enabling relationships that reflect the relationship of the triune God.” (pg. 25). 

In the Transfiguration we encounter all three persons of the Trinity.  It is the Spirit who is in the cloud.  The cloud creates an environment that envelopes the community gathered, surrounds it in holiness, a sort of sacred communal mystery. Where is the Spirit enveloping us in such community today?  Where is the Spirit deciding to make holy ground for God’s mission?  Where is the Spirit sending the church, and you and I, to as Hearlson says, to mirror the persons of God and foster relationships with people who look, act, sound, and believe differently?  Where is the Spirit sending us to strange places where relationships are being formed despite the cultural pull to sameness?

In the Transfiguration, we hear the voice from heaven boldly declare “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  This is the Father proclaiming who the Son is.  It is our call to listen, to discipleship, to follow.  And to be proclaimers of this same message.  How is God calling us to proclaim the message of Jesus as God’s Son to a world that desperately needs hope, love, and more?  How is God calling us to proclaim the message in word, but even beyond that, especially when words can’t contain or even express Jesus, his way, his message, and his love.  How is God calling each of us to proclaim together Jesus’ saving and life-giving message to a world that needs hope in very practical ways?  How is God inviting us to listen to Jesus and to follow him?

And lastly, in the Transfiguration, we see the disciples gripped in fear.  And it is Jesus who comes and touches them and tells them “get up and do not be afraid.” Wow.  Such a simple act, but so very powerful.  The world is full of people who are living in great fear.  Fear grips so many people in so many ways.  Fear of loss, fear of death, fear of being out of control, fear of the future, fear of rejection, fear of relationships, fear of the other, fear of debt, fear of not having enough, fear of brokenness, fear of not being right, fear of enemies, fear of pain, fear of living, fear of so very much.  

The beauty of Jesus’ action in this moment is that, God who took on human flesh, literally touches people who are overcome with fear, gripped in it, held captive by it, and he sets them free, liberates them from it.  This is what Jesus does.  And this is what he invites us to as well.  How is Jesus calling us to be a healing and freeing presence and touch and word to others?  Do you know how very powerful that is?  Who are those people?  Who needs to be set free?  From what fears?  Can they be named?  The opportunities for this are endless.  

Today we heard the story of Transfiguration on the mountaintop.  To take some liberty with the words of Peter – It is good for us to be here and to hear it.  The question is this – Is Transfiguration something that happened once and that’s it?  Do we just try to capture?  Or is the essence of what Transfiguration is about – the encounter with who the Trinity is, the revealing of the glory of Jesus and what he is all about – still going on? 

Because if it, there’s nothing that is going to contain that kind of love and hope and that’s a beautiful thing – everywhere becomes a holy place where the Spirit is at work.  There’s nothing that’s going to be able to really express the fullness of what it means to encounter God – and that means there are endless possibilities of how that proclamation happens.  And there’s nothing that going to stop Jesus from touching lives and freeing people from the crippling fear in this world.  Transfiguration continues by the world, our communities, the church, and our lives, being transformed by Jesus.  That’s Good News that cannot be contained.  Thanks be to God!

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