God's Transforming Love
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “It’s Just Love”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
February 23, 2020
Matthew 17:1-9 NRSV
1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
If you could have all the glory for being rich and famous what would you want to be rich and famous for? There’s glory for a lot of different things these days. You could be J Lo or Shakira dancing on poles for the glorious glory of the Superest Bowl of all time, at least until next year. There are Christian pastors jetting around in jets and Prayer Breakfasts for politicians to show off their religious glory. In Jesus day there was Caesar and Herod and Caiaphas, the Chief Priest. The current Pope has chosen not to wear and live some of the glory of the robes and lifestyle of some of his predecessors.
Then there are the ways God shows us glory, glory of a sunrise, of a rose, of a bird in flight, of a mother breastfeeding her baby, of an old man and an old woman holding hands after 65 or 70 years of marriage. There’s the glory of a hard won Olympic medal or a great movie that teaches us something great to aspire to. See I don’t hate all the Hollywood and sports heroes, I just have a bit of a different definition of glory than what gets most of the attention.
The Transfiguration, the glorification of Jesus has a way different purpose than our versions of glory. It is driven by the transforming love of God. The Transfiguration is the visible expression of that love. God speaks that love. “This is my son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!” A Southern translation might go like, “Hey, ya’ll this is MY boy! I love him more than a bear loves honey and he makes me happier than a raccoon in a full garbage can. Ya’ll shut up and listen to this boy! He is speakin’ MY truth!”
Serious readers have problems with almost every line of this story. Hard to believe, hard to imagine, hard to know what we are supposed to do in response. We want to explain it, whittle it down to a manageable size – to our size, why? Is it because we are afraid to be transfigured, to be transformed? If this story is just a bit of imagination, an exaggeration then we don’t have to “LISTEN TO HIM!” do we?
To me this moment of glory actually qualifies all the other moments when people are glorified. Every other time God’s glory is revealed in Jesus when he bends down to wash the feet of his friends, when he touched a leper, when he ordered, ordered his followers to love others as he had loved them, which meant dying for them when he was crucified on a cross. The fourth Gospel continually references Jesus’ cross and suffering as “his glory.” But here we have a post-resurrection moment shown us pre-crucifixion. The shining light, the voice of God, the awe-filled moment when the hair stood up on the back of three disciple’s necks and they fell their knees in amazement, fear, worship, and unspeakable joy. It is an odd scene, one we hardly know what to make of, and that is probably the most honest answer to “what should we make of this?” Maybe like most cases of glory we need to look away from the bright shining light and ask, “what effect did it have on those who witnessed it?”
We can look at Peter, James, and John and see that they went from being common fishermen to men with a faith that changed the world. It literally overcame the Roman Empire, and has outlasted and overcame every tyrant that tortured its values and God’s purposes for the world. These common men, with no college degrees, no seminary instruction, no inherited wealth, or television produced glory invited people to discover an alternative to the kingdoms humans create. People of every color, every economic standing, every nationality, have become part of this transformation of the world.
There is still a lot of injustice and evil in the world. Our eyes can be so dazzled not only by the false glory of politicians, entertainers, and such that we do not see the invitation still waiting for us. It is in an invitation to be transformed by God’s glory and be part of working to transform the world. We have a God whose love can and will transform the world.
But here’s the kicker. Alan Brehm warns us reminding us what God’s transforming love does: “That’s where it gets complicated for us. When we do that, we have to change the way we actually live. But most of us resist change. As one contemporary prophet [Richard Rohr], puts it, ‘we try to engineer our own transformation by our own rules and by our own power. But when we try to become the masters of our own conversion, we tend to miss the ‘log’ in our own eyes, in all of our eyes, and obsess about the ‘speck’ in others’ eyes. And so we stroll blandly through our lives, never really ‘hearing’ what Jesus was saying at all. We’d much rather let it go in one ear and out the other so we can avoid the changes Jesus demanded of those who said they wanted to follow him.
“It’s only when we actually let the challenging and sometimes incredibly difficult demands of Jesus really sink in, that we can begin to change. It’s only when we really hear his call to see that justice is done, that we can begin to experience the new life he offers us all. But that means that in order to really hear him, we have to have to start with ourselves first. We have to take the logs out of our own eyes. That’s where real justice begins--with a change in our own hearts that translates into a different way of living. That’s when we begin following Jesus’ call to see that God’s justice is done by doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
So Alan Brehm makes all this personal. Very uncomfortable. It asks the question of each of us, how have we been transformed, transfigured by God’s love? Are we living the “new life” now that God offers? Tova Sido tells a powerful story of how her personal grief was transformed. She says, “When I was a young child, the only thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a mom. When people would ask me, "How many children would you like?" I would look at them square and answer, "18!" I have no idea why 18 - but that's how serious I was about my dream. It's the only one I ever had.”
In 2000 she became pregnant, she was ecstatic. All her dreams were going to come true. But then over the next five years, instead of dreams they experienced unspeakable nightmares, one after another. They lost their first pregnancy “at nine months with the birth of a stillborn daughter. The next pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. The third pregnancy, she finally gave birth to a baby boy, Charlie. But Charlie died just eight short months later. She also lost his baby sister, Louisa, after eight months in the summer of 2005. They were both born with a rare metabolic disease - untreatable, incurable.
She said, “The summer of 2005 proved to be the darkest in all my life. I would wake up and often ponder how I could end my life. I had no purpose, no joy and no hope for a future without children. My dreams of becoming a mom had only ended in heartbreak … shattered forever. I was deeply depressed and unbelievable afraid. The tragedy I had experience made it very difficult for me to trust that life was worth living. I was not a deeply religious or spiritual person at the time, but something inside of me told me that the only way out of this was something much bigger than me. So, I decided to make an appointment with my pastor.
She shared with him in great detail how sad she was. “Lonely. Depressed. Afraid. I told him about all my loss. When I finished speaking through an ocean of tears, he just looked at me. And after a long pause he asked, “Are you done?” She said yes. Then he asked her, “What are you going to do now?”
She told him she “had no idea and that that was why [she] was there.
I probably wouldn’t have said what he said next, but “He looked at her and said, ‘Tova, the Lord did not put you on this earth to sit around and cry about your dead children. The scriptures say, this is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it!’ He then left the room and came back with the human resources director of the church and said, ‘Tova, you need a job. You need to get out of your home, and we need help at the church. I will see you at 9:00 a.m. on Monday.’ And he promptly left the room for the two of [them] to work out the details.”
“I honestly thought he had lost his mind. Never in a million years did I think that this was the workings of a loving heavenly Father who looks after and takes care of His children. Walking into the church that next Monday morning was so incredibly scary. I was so sad, broken – I felt worthless. Sometimes, it was just difficult to breathe. I had no idea what a leap of faith walking into that church was or what God would do in my life. But, it was truly transforming. … Soon the clouds began to lift a little - and some days I could even feel myself smile. In that church … I experienced God’s love and healing power in my life that still feels incredibly supernatural.” Over the next ten years she led several ministries and ultimately became pastor of the contemporary congregation. She said, “God’s healing power allowed me to become a disciple - a true follower of Jesus Christ who now has a very intimate relationship with my Creator.
I don’t know that God is calling everyone to be transformed by working in the church. But the real question we all ought to wrestle with is this: “If we listen to him where is he going to tell us to go? Who is he going to tell us to love? What is he going to tell us to do that will change us? If you are the same as you were a year ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago, you are already dead, no I take that back even the dead decompose so they change. But if you don’t know how you have changed – if you don’t think you have changed then maybe you aren’t listening for God to speak to you.
Jesus doesn’t leave us on mountaintops or in valleys of the darkness of death. He is still moving to bring the fullness of God’s reign to life in our world now. Isn’t it time for us to truly give our lives to that transforming love of God? AMEN.