Transfiguration C Sermon (2004)

The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Texts: Luke 9:28-43a;
Ex. 34:29-35; 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2


A movie is making big news this week. It’s opening this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and it could be quite important for people of faith, too. I’m speaking, of course, of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. I’ve shared some preliminary comments in the newsletter you’ll get this week. And I have a feeling I’m going to be saying more about it, after everyone has a chance to see it, including myself.

But this morning I want to begin by talking about another movie, one that led me through one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had in seeing a movie. Half way through the movie I was totally confused and disoriented. I didn’t know what was real and what was hallucination. I’m talking about the movie A Beautiful Mind, winner of the Best Picture Academy Award in 2001. It’s based on a true story about John Nash, a mathematician who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994, and a person who also struggled much of his lifetime with mental illness, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Going into the movie, I knew that it involved mental illness. But that still didn’t prepare me for the way in which the movie pulled me into its world. I kept waiting for Nash to manifest signs of his mental illness. Then, all of a sudden he was being forcibly committed to a hospital. And you slowly begin to realize that you have been seeing the world through John Nash’s mind all along, so you didn’t realize that much of what you were seeing and hearing was a function of his madness. Whole characters and plots were totally figments of his hallucinatory mind. Through the latter part of the movie, then, you the theater-goer have to learn right along with Mr. Nash what has been real and what hasn’t. You find yourself questioning everything you see and hear. Is it real or not? How do you learn to tell the difference?

John Nash’s story is only one of so many people in this world who suffer from mental illness. I’ve had such folks ask me exactly that: How do you learn to tell the difference? They describe their visions and voices sometimes as demons, but also sometimes as angels. Not all the voices or all the visions are bad. How do they learn to tell the difference?

This morning’s Gospel Lesson gives the answer not only to those who suffer from mental illness but also to the rest of us. The disciples themselves are seeing visions and hearing voices. Jesus’ appearance changes before their eyes, and they see two figures who they assume to be Moses and Elijah, men who had lived hundreds of years before them. How did dead prophets come to be at the top of this mountain? And how did the disciples even recognize who they are? Sometimes, there’s a fine line between prophecy and madness. But just when Peter is trying to name something to do, a cloud overshadows them and they begin to hear voices. A voice says to them, ‘Listen to him! Listen to Jesus!’

This is the answer I’m talking about, of course, the answer to the healing of our minds from the visions and voices we see and hear. This is the answer to learning to tell the difference between angels and demons, true prophecy and madness. We need to listen to Jesus. He is the one who can heal the mentally ill, like the boy when they come down the mountain. Jesus chases away the demons. The disciples couldn’t yet. They hadn’t yet had their minds sufficiently healed, even though they’ve just heard a voice give them the answer, ‘Listen to Jesus!’

Now, you may be wondering how I went from talking about a person like John Nash, a person who suffers from mental illness, to talking about all of us as if we are mentally ill. At our first service we sang about it: “There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.” John Nash has the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenic. We all have the diagnosis of sin-sick soul.

And Moses and Elijah represent the incredible tradition that helped lead humanity into understanding that sin-sickness. They were the first to really begin to understand our problem with idolatry, that is, with seeing and hearing false gods who command us to foolish things. The sad truth is that we all are sin-sick to the extent that we have not been able to see and hear who God truly is. God does not appear to us in conventional ways. God the Creator is not himself a part of the creation, but since we are creatures we cannot see or hear God otherwise. We need to see and hear God through the creation. But the same is true of Satan and other unseen spirits. So we have had to try to learn to tell the difference. When we have had a vision or voice telling us what to do with our lives, can we be sure if it is Satan or God? Is it a demon or an angel? How do we know? If we see and listen to what we think is God and pass it on to others, is it a true prophecy or madness? Hasn’t there always been a fine line between prophecy and madness?

Let’s consider for a moment the two examples lifted up for us in the transfiguration story itself, Elijah and Moses. Only several verses after our story this morning, we read the turning point to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples have been spreading the Good News in Galilee, but Jesus now knows that it is time to head to Jerusalem. That’s what he was talking about to Elijah and Moses, that they “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Now was the time of Jesus departure. They had been ready to enter a Samaritan town, having sent several messengers ahead of them, but Jesus changes his mind and “sets his face to Jerusalem.” His disciples assume that Jesus changed his mind because it’s a Samaritan town. Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along, so we read:

When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, as Elijah did?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:54-55)

James and John. That’s two of the disciples who had just seen Elijah atop the mountain of transfiguration and heard the voice say, ‘Listen to Jesus!’ But James and John know the story of how Elijah once called fire down from heaven to destroy some Samaritans (2 Kings 1), their enemies, and so they think they are listening to Elijah’s voice of old. Prophecy or madness? Jesus rebukes them, just as surely as he had rebuked the demon possessing the boy. James and John were possessed by the voice of a demon.

Later on, in Luke’s story of the early church in the Book of Acts, there is a man named Saul, an outstanding lawyer in the law of Moses. Saul thinks that he is listening to Moses when he persecutes early Christians. He listens to Moses and thinks he hears a voice of accusation, a voice of righteous indignation, a voice even commanding him to kill in the name of God. One day, on his way to Damascus, Saul, who is about to become the apostle Paul, has his own transfiguration experience. He’s knocked off his horse by a transfigured Jesus Christ, so bright that he is literally blinded for a few days, and a voice says to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Do you see and hear now the crucial difference between prophecy and madness? When the vision or voice commands us to hurt someone else or ourselves, then it is a demon’s voice, from Satan. But, in Jesus Christ and his going to the cross, we are instead confronted with our own violence and the false voices we listen to that tell us to hurt and kill. We put Jesus on the cross every time that we listen to the voices of accusation, the voices of righteous indignation, the voices commanding us to kill. Like Paul, we are in need of a vision of the Crucified and Risen Jesus to ask us, “Why do you persecute me?” And the truly amazing grace is that the same voice then also forgives us. It releases us from those demon’s voices that tell us to hurt ourselves and others, so that we can finally hear the healing voice of forgiveness and grace.

Are we cured yet? The furor caused by Mel Gibson’s forthcoming movie is perhaps a good clue that we aren’t yet cured. Not completely. As I’ve listened to our Jewish brothers and sisters talk about this upcoming movie, I hear them careful to say that Mel Gibson himself may not be anti-Semitic. The Gospel story itself isn’t anti-Semitic, nor this Hollywood enactment of it. No, they are rightly frightened by the lengthy past history of Christians being sparked to anti-Semitic persecution after seeing powerful Passion Plays like this upcoming movie. For many centuries, Christians have put on the story of the passion like the famous one in Oberammergau, Germany. But instead of seeing and hearing the true God through the Passion, a vision of God in Jesus Christ subjecting himself to our violence in order to expose it and then forgive it, so many Christians have heard the age-old voice of Satan, a voice of accusation — “Christ killers!” we cry — a voice of righteous indignation, a voice that commands us to avenge Jesus death by killing some Jews. Let us pray that this time around Mr. Gibson’s powerful portrayal of our Lord’s passion will bring the vision and voice that can heal us and free us from such persecution.

I need to lift up one more example to show how difficult this is, how fine the line is between prophecy and madness. We recognize the madness easily enough when it comes to terrorism. When men fly hi-jacked planes into buildings and strap bombs onto themselves in order to kill others, they think their God is commanding them to do so. We can easily see that they have fallen prey to those same age-old voices of demons. But what about our response to such terrorism? When we listen to the voice of our President — and almost all our elected leaders, really — telling us that we need to strike back and kill our enemies, is this the voice of true prophecy? Or is it once again the age-old voice of Satan, a voice of accusation, of righteous indignation, commanding us to kill in the name of all that’s sacred to us? Do you see how difficult this is to discern the fine line between prophecy and madness? Do you see how sin-sick our souls are?

Our Lord shines before us again this morning, transfigured in bread and wine, and he invites us to join him in God’s reign of forgiveness and grace. He offers us healing food and drink, that we might be released from the demons’ voices which still plague us by asking us to hurt ourselves or others. And as we come to the table we pass by the font, and can hear again the voice of our baptisms calling to us, “You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son. Listen to Jesus!” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, February 22, 2004

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