Alexander the Great; Genghis Khan; Emperor Constantine. These three famous world leaders share something. Well, actually, they share a lot of things. They were all great military leaders, they were all emperors of the three largest kingdoms in history, and they were all very powerful politically and militarily. But beyond that, even though they lived in different times and places, they share something odd. That is this: they all died. Well, their dying isn’t the odd part. What’s odd is that, when they died, each of these men chose to split his kingdom among his sons.
This made sense to them, and maybe to us, too. See, it tends to be the case that, when only one son inherits a kingdom, the other sons fight amongst themselves. That’s not always true, but it does happen. So some fathers (and I use male language here because, let’s face it: it’s always been fathers and sons; maybe if it were mothers and daughters, things would be different) think they’re keeping the peace by splitting things up. But you know what happens to these empires, 100% of the time? They crumble without the strong, central leader they had.
David was a strong, central king for Israel. Even while he was alive, his sons fought for the right to inherit his throne. Solomon, the son of David’s third wife, Bathsheba (whom we heard about last week) is the one chosen to inherit. And it is, frankly, an inspired choice. Last week, I mentioned that David was “perhaps” the greatest king in Israel’s history. Well, if he wasn’t #1, Solomon is a good choice for that spot. Israel’s military was never stronger, its riches never greater, and its king was never wiser than when Solomon sat on the throne. He is the one who built the Temple in Jerusalem, a monument to God’s eternal presence. He is the one who helped keep peace with the much more powerful Egyptians. But he was truly known for his wisdom.
The Bible teaches us about how Solomon solved a dispute between two women, both claiming that a boy was theirs. Each one claimed to be the true mother of the child. Solomon, seeing that there was no way to solve the debate, ordered the baby cut in half. The first woman thought this was fine; it was better than letting that other woman have the baby. But second woman screamed at Solomon to let the other woman have the child, because that would be better than seeing him killed. Solomon gave the second woman the baby, reasoning that no true mother would ever let her child be sawn in half; a true mother would rather see her child raised by her enemy than watch that child die. It was a clever trick on Solomon’s part.
Anyway, Solomon the wise king got old and died, as everyone does, and there came a time to determine what was to happen to the kingdom. Now, there are two characters here with very similar names, so I’m going to change them for the purposes of retelling the story. Solomon’s son Rehoboam, I’m going to call “Rex.” The other important character is Solomon’s most trusted general, named Jeroboam, whom I’m going to call “Jerry.” Now, Rex, Solomon’s son, was the obvious successor, so he took over. But Jerry, the trusted general, had a little different perspective on things.
See Jerry grew up in the North. Jerusalem, the capital, is pretty far in the south. You know how people in South Dakota, particularly West River folks, complain when they perceive that too many things are in Sioux Falls? Picture that, only in a day when you couldn’t just drive somewhere. Long, long walking trips (like weeks) were needed to get to Jerusalem. Not to mention, it seemed like no matter how successful Israel was during Solomon’s reign, the farmers and laborers seemed to do most of the additional work, but the people in Jerusalem seemed to be the ones getting most of the benefits. So Jerry decides that he’s going to reason with Rex, the new king.
Jerry approaches him with an offer. He says, “We’re pretty fed up with the hard work. Ease up on us; don’t be so harsh like your father, and we’ll serve you forever.” Rex, wanting to be wise like his father, says to Jerry, “Come back in three days.” During those three days, Rex consults his advisors. He first talks to the older advisors, the ones who had worked with his father. They say to him that it’s in his interest to be a servant to his people for a little while; serve them a little now, and they’ll serve you forever.
Thing is, Rex doesn’t like this advice. He feels like his dad never got pushed around this way. So he asks some of his younger advisors – the ones who grew up with him. They end up, unsurprisingly, being the “yes” men, and they agree with Rex. They say, “Tell those fools up in the north that you’re even harsher than your father; if they thought they had it bad before, watch wait ‘til they see what you do!”
He takes the advice of the young men. Instead of being careful, measured, and wise like his father, he just does what makes him feel good. He tries to put Jerry in his place. Jerry goes back home to the northern part of Israel, where they decide something: obviously, Jerusalem doesn’t care about them, so they don’t care about Jerusalem. They decide to go on their own. They say, “We have no share in David.” In other words, “We’re obviously not considered a part of David’s house, so let’s go it alone.”
They set up with Jerry as king. It makes sense; he’s an experienced ruler, he’s been their political champion, and he’s sort of the rallying person for their movement. And when he becomes king, he realizes something: there’s still just the one Temple to make sacrifices to God in, and it’s still in Jerusalem. In other words, to properly worship, his people in the north are still going to have to go down to their rivals’ territory. And when they do, Jerry fears that they might find themselves aligning with David’s ancestor again, and forgetting all about him.
Therefore, Jerry sets up a couple of idols, one in a city called Dan and another in a city called Bethel. At each site, he made golden calves (most of you will, I’m sure, recognize that symbol), and told the people to worship them instead of God. Since the people were sick of being mistreated and their new worship sites were closer to home, many of them went along with it. And this new, official Northern Kingdom ruled by Jerry became known as Israel. The older Southern Kingdom became known as Judah; and with that, God’s people were divided, a wound that would not be healed for hundreds of years.
This is a little story in the Bible, in one of the Bible’s most difficult-to-read (aka “boring”) books, particularly if you don’t already know what’s going on. Many people, even those who have gone to church for many years, don’t know much (or even anything) about Israel being two separate kingdoms; yet, that is actually the status quo for nearly half of the written works preserved in the Old Testament.
To me, this is a passage about a lot of things. For one, it’s a passage about what it means to be a good ruler. We can see both of the rulers here caring more about themselves and their own status than they do about their people, and that’s a problem. But related to that, but even more generally, this is a story about pride.
Pride is defined as “a deep feeling of pleasure or satisfaction at one’s accomplishments, possessions, or friends.” Basically, we are proud when we do something good. But the problem is, pride is often unhealthy; it’s not usually about having a good or proportionate amount of good feeling at what we’ve done; it’s about going overboard. Pride is, so often, the thing that gets in the way of doing what’s right. Pride is what causes rifts in families and rifts in communities. Pride disrupts the kingship of both of these men, and it is so pernicious that it’s just as likely to hurt the one who’s expressing the pride as it is to hurt the one to whom they’re expressing it.
In this case, we see pride get in the way of God’s purposes. You see, God wanted there to be a Davidic King in Jerusalem for all time. In fact, God promised to deliver that. But the people who were supposed to be serving God actively rebelled. Solomon rebelled when he worked the northerners too hard; the northerners rebelled when they left Rex’s service; Rex rebelled when he cared more about his status relative to his father than he did about the good of his people; Jerry rebelled when he’s rather turn his back on God than risk losing power. All these men were too prideful to just put aside their own feelings for one second and consider the greater good.
This often plagues churches; in our worst moments, we get self-righteous about our beliefs, and we don’t care whom we hurt in the process. We don’t even care if we stop acting like Christians. We don’t care if we stop emulating Christ. What becomes most important for us is proving that we’re right, that everyone else is wrong, and that becomes more important to us than our commitment to Christ. It’s often our first reaction to respond to criticism with defensiveness, because our pride doesn’t allow us to see the legitimacy of someone else’s complaint against us.
And it’s not just church life that’s like this. How many of us react like Rex did, that when you’re criticized, you end up being worse, and actually making the other person’s complaints about you come true? How many of us have, like Jerry, cared so much about “protecting” what we perceive as being “ours” that we don’t stop to think of the consequences? These are nearly universal experiences, I think.
We heard a brief passage from the Gospel of Mark today, before we got into all this Old Testament tomfoolery with the hard-to-remember names. In it, Jesus said, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” You see, Jesus’ example for us is not one of pride, but of selfless giving. If anyone in human history had a right to be prideful, it was Jesus. Yet, he was the opposite.
Jesus could’ve lorded it over everyone, given his divine power, his eloquence with words, and his many followers. Yet, Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus spent his life as a servant. He served God by being among people. Even when he didn’t want to die, praying to God to be released from the responsibility of the cross, he was obedient and went to pain and death. He served people; he washed the feet of the disciples, he listened to children who were treated like dirt, he spoke with women whom others considered non-human property. Jesus made it his life’s work to live humbly, even as God on earth.
Brothers and sisters, we spend most of our lives as Jerrys and as Rexes. We spend more of our time worried about what’s best for us than we do worried about what God is asking us to do. It’s hard to put aside our pride and attend to God’s commands. But what we see here is people putting themselves first.
Always, God’s people will divide against one another; it’s human nature. We’re never going to be perfect. Yet, this story shows us what happens when no one gives in, when everyone cares only about themselves. When we do that, we actively struggle against what God is trying to do. God intends for good kingdoms to last forever, and we let our selfish pride tear down God’s good things. Our lives, you see, are best when we embrace what God is doing. So let us check our pride at the door. Let us be less concerned about being right, and more concerned about doing right. Let’s worry less about whether or not we’re on top, and more about whether we’re in right relationship with the true top, our Lord and Savior Jesus. Let us grow more like him every day. Amen.
See the bottom of this post for Daniel Patrick’s sermon from last week (8/13).
Languages are really hard to understand. This is especially true when we are little kids. We don’t always hear things correctly, so sometimes we develop really odd thoughts in our minds about what words mean. I have a friend who misheard the word “Amen,” in church as “All men,” like as if at the end of the prayer, people were supposed to say that this should be true for “all men.” I’ve sat in church with her since, in college; here she was, a woman in her early-20s, who said “all men” at the end of prayers. Oh sure, she knew it was wrong, but she couldn’t help it.
I, for one, liked to come up with imaginary reasons that certain words existed. I have like a million of these, but I’ll give you my favorites. For example, I assumed the word “basement” was a combination of “base” and “cement.” You know, it’s the “cement base” at the bottom of your house. It’s clever, but it’s wrong. The “ment” has nothing to do with cement – which makes sense, if you think about it, because basements have been around a lot longer than cement has.
I also used to think that the word “sandals” was a shortened version of the words “sand holes.” You know – there are all those pictures of Jesus walking around in sandals; there’s sand around, there are holes in them. You wear them at the beach and your toes get sandy – from all the holes in the shoes. It just made sense; they’re like shoes, only they have “sand holes.”
Today in church, we will talk about manna – the substance that the Israelites ate in the wilderness when there was nothing else around to eat. There are many possible derivations for the word “manna.” One suggestion is that it comes from the question, “man hu?” which is Hebrew for, “What is it?” Another is that it’s related to the Arabic phrase, “man hu,” which means, “this is plant lice.” Or maybe it’s related to the Egyptian “mennu,” which means “food.”
Whatever the origin of the word – one of these, a combination, or something else entirely – manna is very instructive in our understanding of how God interacts with us.
As you may remember, we’re slowly working our way through the Old Testament. We’ve already covered Creation, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph… and now we’re on to Moses, whom we’ve talked about a couple of times already. The first Sunday we discussed him, we talked about his remarkable early life: being saved from the purge of Hebrew children and raised in the house of Pharaoh; his disgrace and fleeing the country; his calling from God to return to Egypt and free his people. Then, we talked about the actual act of the Exodus – the removal of the people from Egypt. This week, we find ourselves on their wanderings.
Of course, one of the things that happens on a journey is hunger. I’ve made a lot of long drives in my life, and it’s hard not to get hungry when you travel. I read something a couple of years ago that said that the average American gains 8 pounds PER WEEK while on vacation – that’s over a pound a day. But of course, car ride snacks, eating out too much, grilling if you’re outside… all of those things cause us to take in a few more calories than we normally would if we were at home.
The Hebrews found themselves in a very different situation in Moses’ time, though. They weren’t leaving home and going on a fun trip; they were headed out to start a new life, and this wasn’t going to be easy. Particularly difficult, of course, was food. They were limited to what they could carry, and there was only so much food to go around. You can’t exactly expect your livestock to stay well-fed as you traipse across the desert. So they needed food. That’s when the grumbling began.
Perhaps you’ve heard that ol’ chestnut that the Israelites spend most of the Old Testament complaining. It’s not true; but it is true that a lot of the Moses story is spent with complaints.
In fact, we already saw some of that in my last sermon two weeks ago. We read about the Israelites seeing the Egyptian army pursuing them, and then their getting mad that Moses had dragged them away from their homes, when they could just as easily have died in Egypt, in the comfort of their homes. Here’s the second instance, when the people start complaining that they don’t have enough to eat.
Let’s keep in mind that, while that first complaint about being killed by Pharaoh at home seems a little snotty or mean, this second one is a very legitimate complaint. Thousands of people, not enough food; that’s a big deal. So Moses prays about it, and God answers his prayers. The Israelites get two meals a day. First, and you may not have caught this, quails come to the camp in the evening. Presumably, they are dead and ready to be cooked. Then, in the morning, manna is found on the ground.
Our passage describes manna as being like coriander – small, round, and white. It covers the ground, and there’s plenty for everyone. It’s said to taste, if you read on in chapter 16, “like wafers made with honey.” Sounds pretty good, honestly: gamey bird for supper and a sweet, sugary breakfast and/or lunch each day.
The Israelites are instructed to collect how much they need for a day, every day of the week… except on the Sabbath. They are to gather two times as much on Friday morning, so they will have enough for Saturday and so they don’t have to do the work of gathering, so they can rest. Moses specifically tells them – don’t take more than you need, because you can’t save it for tomorrow, as it will rot. And, with the exception of the Sabbath day, when God seems to protect the manna from going bad, that’s exactly what happens. Some people, (perhaps understandably) greedy and hungry on that first day, try to take more than they need, just in case God does come through for them tomorrow.
And what happens? Their manna rots, gets infested by worms, all that fun stuff. So the people who gathered extra, have nothing extra. Shooting for more than they needed didn’t actually buy them anything in the long run. And that’s where I’d like to take our message this morning, because I think it’s really relevant in our culture today. There are three big themes I think we need to pull out from this text that relate to each and every one of us, not just in helping us echo the story of our ancestors in the faith, but in how we live our lives.
The first thing I think this text teaches us is that we need to know what “enough” is. We live in a culture that is constantly telling us that we need the latest thing – the newest car, the fanciest computer, the best phone, the most beautiful house. Our culture tells us we need more because that’s what is best for the economy, and the economy governs us more than any of us would probably like to admit.
The reality, though, is that we often have more than we need, and even more than we want. I know that Carissa and I did a little de-cluttering this year. Carissa has a friend who posted on Facebook to have people rid themselves of items during May. One item on the first, two on the second, three on the third, all the way up to 31 items on the 31st. That ends up being 496 items by the end of the month. If that sounds like a lot, just know that we did it easily. So easily, in fact, that we started over again in June. Of course, things got busy and we gave up around the 20-somethingth of the month. That still ends up being around 750 things we got rid of… and we don’t miss any of them. In fact, I’d never name half the stuff we got rid of, and I’d be lucky to name a quarter of it. Of course, the truth is, we’ve acquired more things since then, too. We’re trying to be better, but it’s hard when you keep feeling this pressure to acquire.
God asks us, though, to fight against that. We’re supposed to realize that God is enough. As Americans in 2017, we’re hardly going hungry. There are people in other parts of the world with the problems the Israelites have at the beginning of the story – not enough. However, more often than not, we’re the Israelites in the next part – too much. We need to recognize that.
The second lesson in this text is honoring the Sabbath. Now, that’s going to look different for all of us. I don’t find myself being a strict person who believes that there’s only one right way to honor the Sabbath. I don’t think a specific set of rules is what’s going to make us honor God by resting. But I do think it’s something we need to do.
South Dakotans are hard workers. I told you all after our youth mission trip to Denver that, when we were sorting donated items, we were asked to get through one large box; we got through three-and-a-half. The folks there were very impressed. But the dark side to that work is that we make an idol of it. We believe that we’re better people if we work more, if we work harder, if every second of our lives is devoted to being “productive.” We believe laziness to be the cardinal sin. Yet, there is a balance between laziness and busy-ness. We have to find a way to rest. That’s how we honor God by taking God’s commandments seriously, it’s how we honor the people around us by ensuring that we’re taking care of our needs, and it’s how we honor ourselves as created beings, remembering that our worth cannot be measured in dollars or productivity, but that we are valuable by virtue of existing. We have worth because we are made in the image of God.
Third and finally, this text reminds us that God will provide. We have a great deal of need. Sometimes, we can’t even see exactly what it is we need. The Israelites spend this passage (and later ones) complaining, usually because they don’t understand. They told Moses they would rather have died at home; instead, God gave them freedom. They complained to Moses that they would die of starvation; instead, God gave them manna from the wilderness. Later, they will complain that God has abandoned them; God will bring them Ten Commandments to order their society. They will complain about the food they do have; yet God keeps them strong and healthy.
How often do we doubt God? How often do we assume that we know what’s best, instead of following what God has in store for us? How often do we complain about today, not realizing that God has already prepared us for tomorrow?
Like the Israelites in this story, we are thick-headed, stubborn, and try to survive on our own. But at the end of the day, just like the Israelites, we need to remember that God is here for us. We need to remember that God is already enough, and we don’t need more, no matter how much our society tells us we do; we need rest to honor God, no matter how much we think we need to work; we need to remember that God is looking out for us, no matter how much we think we’ve got it all figured out. So let us remember the stories of our ancestors, not just as tales about where we’ve come from, but as living, breathing stories that help teach us to serve God better. Amen.
Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” It’s a common enough phrase. Probably so common that we think of it without its original context. Probably so common that we don’t really think about what it means at all. It’s one of those phrases that has lost its meaning over time because of how common it has come to be for Christians to hear these words.
But what does it mean to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life? I think of it like going on a trip. When you go on a trip, you need to have a road, a mode of transportation, and a destination. You need all three, or the trip doesn’t work. To see that, I think we need to look at each of these three things – the Way, the Truth, and the Life – individually.
First is the Way. Maybe you know this, but before Christianity was called “Christianity,” the followers simply called our faith, “The Way.” There’s something really neat in that simple name – this is our way – the way – to live, to seek after God. And Jesus says, “I am the Way.”
When I hear “the way,” I think of back in the olden days of , I don’t know, ten years ago, when you went on a trip, and you got out an actual map. When you had to have an atlas in your car, not as a backup, but because it was the only thing you could have to help find your way if you got lost. The very last time my parents and I went on a long road trip, we went to Canada, and that’s how we planned the trip. That was nine years ago (that’s right, Mom and Dad – it doesn’t seem so long, does it?), but even then it was kind of an “old fashioned” way of doing things. Today, with GPS built into cars and on phones, we have maps walking around with us almost all the time. But once upon a time, you really had to decide on the path you were going to take, even before you set out on the journey.
When I hear Jesus say, “I am the Way,” he is telling us that he is the path, he is the road we follow. We’re supposed to live our lives in him and like him. We’re supposed to bring healing to those in need of it, we’re supposed to help those in need, we’re supposed to sacrifice out of what we have to provide for others. That’s what it means to follow along the Way that Christ gives. And just like making a map and following it, we are meant to follow this path. Getting to our destination is really, really hard. Without a map, we aren’t going to get there. Luckily for us, Jesus provides us with the Way. And when we stray from it, he’s there to guide us right back onto that highway again.
The second thing Jesus says is, “I am the truth.” Somehow, in an era when you can’t turn on the television without hearing about “fake news,” hearing someone talk about “the Truth” has a special resonance to us. We certainly live in a time in which people make their own truth. And you know, that’s not all bad. If Thomas Edison hadn’t believed in his own truth, we probably wouldn’t have electric lights, so I’m not one to complain. On the other hand, we often delude ourselves into thinking that we alone are the ones responsible for everything. I have a friend who was considering leaving a position in the church, but he was afraid. He was afraid of leaving because he thought that everything he had worked on would come crumbling down. I told him, “The church is not yours; it’s God’s. It’s not all up to you!”
Our own truths can be helpful, and can be necessary. They can sustain us when the world around us is living a lie. But sometimes our own truths can fool us into forgetting bigger, more important things than ourselves. So when Jesus tells us, “I am the truth,” he’s telling us that, whatever we may believe to be true about ourselves, our neighbors, our nation, our world, the most important truth is Jesus himself. He is the one we can trust, even when we’re not sure what else to trust in the world around us.
To return to the analogy of the road trip: on the road, you can have all the maps you want, but if you don’t have a good, reliable vehicle to take you where you’re going, you’re in trouble. Just last week, I talked about walking to Parker. That is a far walk. It would take you most of a day to do it. Imagine if you had no vehicle at all, ever again. Your world would basically be confined to the five miles surrounding your house, and that’s a big estimate. And yet, unconfined as we are, we drive to Sioux Falls like it’s nothing. My family is here, and they came driving 400-some-odd miles in a day. Jesus never traveled 400 miles in his life. But you don’t make that journey without a reliable vehicle – something you can trust to deliver you safely, something to fall back on when nothing else around you makes sense. That’s why Jesus is the Truth – he’s our vehicle to help us get from where we are, to where we’re going.
Finally, we arrive at “the Life.” How do we describe what life is? I don’t mean in a medical sense – although even that is increasingly hard to pin down. Rather, I’m curious what the word “life” means in the context of what it means to have a life. I think we can all agree that to really make it worth living, it has to have purpose, direction. We have to be aiming for something. Jesus is the thing we’re aiming for. When Jesus says, “I am the Life,” he’s telling us that he’s the goal of this little “road trip” we’ve been talking about. And the Life we receive in Christ is twofold.
First of all, there’s obviously our lives now. The goal of our lives is to be a reflection of Jesus’ life; to live as he did. I don’t mean wearing sandals all the time – that would be a pretty huge mistake in South Dakota. Rather, I mean that we’re supposed to live a Christ-like life. But of course, it’s not just our lives today that Jesus is talking about. It’s also the eternal nature of the life we have from God. After we are gone, we continue to live, as Christ showed us by resurrecting from the dead. Even our deaths are not the end of our story, nor of God’s.
So we see in this passage that, if we think of life as a road trip, Jesus is the road we travel, the vehicle we ride in, and the goal of the journey. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That’s a pretty good way of putting things. But even after Jesus tells the disciples that, Philip says to him, “Show us the Father.” Maybe it’s because Philip doesn’t get it; maybe it’s because he’s unsatisfied with Jesus’ description of himself. We’re not told. But either way, Philip is still discontented. So Jesus spells it out even more: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me. The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” Jesus tells us that he is God, and that we can trust in him, because he is the very one on whom we rely for everything.
And if the passage cut off there, it would be a nice and easy sermon. But I realize that we run into the problem of unanswered prayer at the end of this passage, and even though it doesn’t really jive with the rest of what I’m saying, I don’t want to belittle that or omit it.
“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it,” says Jesus. Obviously, we’ve all had situations in our lives when we haven’t had prayers answered. So what do we do with that? I don’t think there’s an easy answer here. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “Have more faith;” I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “You don’t deserve it.” Instead, I think the best answer I can give is this: life is still complicated. And when all else fails, when prayers remain unanswered, we continue to follow the Way, seek the Truth, and live the Life. While we may not get exactly what we wanted, we move closer to Christ. And when we move closer to Christ, we receive the greatest reward of all. The best way I think I can explain how we should understand this portion of the passage is to continue the analogy of the road trip that I’ve been using throughout this sermon, as I think it gives us a little insight into what Jesus is perhaps saying at the end of today’s reading.
Like any road trip, our journey of faith is going to be fraught with problems. There will be weather delays, road construction, bad traffic; there will be changes to the itinerary along the way. There are always things that ensure that our trip doesn’t go exactly as we envisioned it, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But when we choose a Christian life, when we decide to follow Jesus, we have made a decision to follow the Way, trust in the Truth, and live the Life. Even when things let us down, we lean on Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Even when our prayers go unanswered, even when what we want is not what we get, we can still trust in the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Because without the road to follow, the vehicle to carry us, and the destination we’re shooting for, we’re simply lost, alone, and wandering.
So even when things are hard, even when we don’t get what we wanted or prayed for, let us keep faith. Let us continue to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life, because although he may not deliver exactly what we want, he won’t ever let us down. Amen.
Read the Palm Sunday story here. No sermon today; we had our kids’ Easter program instead. Watch it below:
Psalm 99 678OT
Exodus 24:12-18 87OT
Who doesn’t love Optimus Prime? He’s just the greatest, isn’t he? And I’m sure no one loves Megatron, because he’s just awful. Your mileage may vary on Bumblebee, or Jazz, or Starscream.
Okay, show of hands – who has no idea what I’m talking about?
So, if you don’t know, I’m talking about the hottest toys of the 1980s – the Transformers. Yes, the starred in a run of very successful comic books, and yes they starred in a very popular Saturday morning cartoon show, and yes, they’re still starring in a very popular movie franchise, with four movies in the franchise so far and a fifth one coming this summer. But it all started with a line of toys. Nowadays, I think most people expect that the toys would come after the story’s been told, but that’s not how it was for the Transformers.
So… how did they become so popular that they continue to be in the public imagination and on the minds of millions of people the world over more than 30 years after they debuted as toys? It’s simple: they’re cool. For those of you who don’t know, Transformers were the remarkably simple idea of cars that transformed into robots. You could move the toys back and forth between one state and the other – and they were awesome.
But what was so cool about them? Well, I think it was just, for kids, the idea of imagination. I mean, cars kind of look like they have eyes, and here was a toy saying, “Yeah… and what if they were eyes?!” Kids imaginations run wild when something that seems ordinary turns out to be wonderful. But the truth is, it’s not just kids who feel that way – it’s adults, too. That’s why adults continue to pay to see magic shows. We like to imagine and be amazed.
So we have to see the Transfiguration with a little bit of wonder. No, it’s not a passage about Jesus turning into a car or a cool robot. Instead, it’s about a transformation in Jesus, and one that we can see occurring both in his life, and our own.
To recap, Jesus takes three disciples – Peter, James, and John – up the mountain with him. While he is up there, his clothes are transformed into the whitest white. And then, right next to him, Moses and Elijah appear. Peter offers to build dwelling places for all three (Jesus, Moses, and Elijah). But before Jesus can answer, a voice booms from heaven, echoing the famous words spoken at Jesus’ baptism – “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased,” and then there’s a “Listen to him,” thrown in at the end.
There’s a little tag after that, but I want to focus on what I’ve recapped so far – this miraculous bit involving Jesus’ change of clothes and the arrival of these two great figures in Judaism.
First, we have the clothes change. This is a time when I think our popular artistic depictions of Jesus do us a disservice. Most of the time, Jesus is depicted wearing white. But remember, Jesus was walking all day on dirt roads wherever he went. Many of the places he walked were desert. There’s no such thing as white clothes in that environment. Yet here, at the top of the mountain, Jesus clothes are miraculously changed.
But perhaps of more interest are Jesus’ companions on the top of the mountain. After Jesus is transfigured but before we hear God speak, Jesus is joined at the mountaintop by Moses and Elijah. Now, those two great prophets of Judaism don’t get as much time in our sermons as they should, but they are integral to the Old Testament, and would’ve been the two most revered people to Jesus and his followers – at least until Jesus came along, that is. But this moment for the disciples would’ve been seeing the two greatest people they knew of legitimizing Jesus.
In case you’re not terribly familiar with them, Moses was the person who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and was given the Ten Commandments by God. He was the first great leader of the Jewish people after their slavery. And although he was directionally challenged (well, I assume he was, since it took him forty years to travel a few hundred miles from Egypt to Israel), he was (and is) a figure of the most importance in the Jewish faith. And keep in mind, Jesus wouldn’t’ve considered himself a Christian, and either would his disciples – they were Jews. They didn’t have a New Testament, and there was no such thing as the Church. They just were Jews who happened to follow Jesus. Anyway, besides the Ten Commandments, Moses is probably most famous for almost leading the people into the Promised Land – but alas, he died on the mountaintop overlooking the land, and would never have the chance to enter it himself in his lifetime.
But before we lose track of where we’re headed, we should talk about Elijah, too. Elijah was a prophet from the time of Kings. After King David and King Solomon, when what we know of as Israel today was split into two separate kingdoms (Israel in the north with Samaria as its capital and Judah in the south with its capital in Jerusalem). Elijah was a prophet in Israel, the northern kingdom. He performed many signs and miracles, and was a steadfast believer in God in a time when idol worship seemed to have become more popular as Israel was infiltrated by neighboring people who brought their religions. Elijah was most famous for being taken straight to heaven without even having to die, when his time came.
And that leads me to the heart of my message this morning. This text, the Transfiguration, leads us to an important turning point in the life of Jesus. This is the point at which we turn from Jesus ministry to the long, slow march to his death on the cross and eventual Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
As I thought about this text this week, I was struck by a few things. Jesus is, in many ways, the culmination of the work started by Moses and Elijah. This has been noticed many times by scholars, pointing out that Moses represents the Law and Elijah the Prophets, and that Jesus is the culmination of both. But I think it goes deeper yet.
Moses and Elijah have perhaps the two most interesting deaths in the Old Testament. Moses’ death comes at a time of near fulfillment – he has led the people to the land God promised them, but he never gets to enter. He dies just short of the goal, in a very human way. Elijah, on the other hand, never dies a death at all. He is taken up to heaven in a complete act of divine love. There is a sense to me in which I see the human frailty of Moses’ death and the divine love of Elijah’s avoidance of death, and I see that this combination of the human and divine is met perfectly in Jesus.
As we head into Lent next Sunday, we will enter a series looking at the texts leading up to (and including) Jesus’ Crucifixion in church. We will be looking at the circumstances that lead to Jesus’ death, and the events surrounding it. These are important things to know, to set ourselves up for what is to come. This text, in which we remember these men with rare, incredible deaths, set us up for the most significant death of all – Jesus’ death. And while we see divine favor in Elijah’s death by the avoidance of it, we’re reminded that Jesus was also a human who died a natural death, just like the rest of us, and like Moses. But like Elijah, Jesus is also able to enter Paradise – he just has more work to do first!
We are reminded of both Jesus’ humanity and divinity in this moment. Jesus is not somehow beyond human – he still dies, as all of us do. He doesn’t avoid that fate, as Elijah did. Elijah was not divine, but avoided the fate of mortals through God’s grace. But God’s grace, in Jesus case, reminds us that God shares in our lives, whether joyful or painful.
If Jesus, like Elijah, avoided the pain of a human end, perhaps it would more clearly mark him as divine. But, at the same time, it would allow us to forget Jesus’ humanity. Instead, we remember that Christ died a human death, like Moses. But his Resurrection, which will also come in clothing undefiled, is presaged here by Elijah’s presence. We’re reminded that Jesus is at once one of us, and also God incarnate.
There is one other point, though, that I think it’s important to think of. When Moses ascends a mountain to speak with God, he receives the Ten Commandments. Now, Moses had a right-hand man named Joshua, yet Moses ascends alone. Elijah, when he ascends up to heaven, does so in sight of his right-hand man, Elisha. Both of them have someone at their sides, yet have to ascend alone.
Jesus, in this passage, though, brings disciples up the mountain with him. To me, this is a reminder of the difference between Jesus and the rest of us. While his human death was in many ways ordinary, we are reminded by this simple act of sharing that Jesus was unlike us. We can’t, any of us, save humanity. We can’t save humanity in this lifetime, and we can’t save humanity in the hereafter. We can’t bring anyone else up the mountain. Only God is able to bring people into that divine presence; only God saves.
Yet, at this moment, Jesus does bring people with him. Yes, his death was human – but his life was also divine. We see that Jesus is able to bring people with. Jesus, as God on earth, is able to save us. We’re not responsible even for saving ourselves, because it’s Jesus’ job to do that. We are merely being taken along on his incredible journey.
And while we’re on it, Jesus doesn’t ask us to build some special place for him. Instead, he asks that we worship and share his story. That’s what he tells Peter, James, and John, and that’s what we’re tasked with doing, too.
The Transfiguration is, in many ways, an awfully boring story. So, Jesus gets some white clothes, right? But we see when we look at the text that it’s much deeper than that. It’s a tale about our relationship to God, and our relationships to one another. Jesus doesn’t only bring only one person up the mountain with him – he brings more. That’s because we’re all invited into his Kingdom.
Let us remember that we, too, can be transfigured. We will not be transfigured as Jesus was, with spiffy, new, white outfits. Instead, our hearts and minds can be made over to be more loving to God, and more loving to our neighbors. So go forth from this place praying for your own transformation, for the transformation of the world, and for the love, grace, and peace of Jesus Christ, our Savior who invites us up the mountain. Amen.