The Transfiguration of our Lord
Texts: Luke 9:28-43a;
Ex 34:29-35; 2 Cor 3:12-4:2
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/24Wm_UIUNIs
CALLED TO HELP CURE OUR WARRING MADNESS
Eighteen years ago I was Interim Pastor at the Grace Lutheran in Kenosha. Grace is a central city parish with an outreach center designed to help the folks in the neighborhood. Following the model of Reformation in Milwaukee, I started a Thursday morning Bible study on the Sunday readings for anyone who wanted to drop-in for some coffee, donuts, and conversation around the Word. Eighteen years ago we read this same Gospel Reading as this morning, and the conversation moved quickly to the boy Jesus healed of the troubled spirit. Quite a number of the participants in this study suffered from mental illness, and so they imagined that this boy might suffer in some of the ways which they do. The text says he suffered convulsions, but the part about exorcizing a “demon” called to mind the kind of things they endured, like hearing voices and seeing hallucinations — which actually resonates with the first part of today’s reading, the Transfiguration itself. Luke tells us that, coming down from the mountain, the disciples “kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Can you blame them? If they had told others, wouldn’t they get accused of seeing hallucinations and hearing voices?
So now can imagine how, eighteen years ago, some of the folks at the Bible study might find the juxtaposition of these two stories unsettling. The Transfiguration story relates how the disciples are in a situation that resembles a mental breakdown — hearing and seeing strange things — and then at the bottom of the mountain Jesus heals a boy who seemingly suffered from mental illness. One of the Bible study members finally asked me point-blank: ‘I hear voices all the time. I’m told it’s because I’m crazy. Yet Jesus’ own disciples hear a voice, and we’re told it’s God’s voice. What I want to know is what if sometimes I’m hearing God’s voice? When I hear voices, how do I know if it might be God’s voice?’
I was somewhat stunned. I don’t have the experience of hearing voices — at least not in the sense of it being more than thoughts in my head. How do I answer this man’s question? Then an answer suddenly came to me. Not in the sense of hearing voices, but more like a thought popping into my head. To be honest, I think there might be a very fine line between ‘hearing voices’ and having a thought pop into your head. Later, I even wondered a bit if my answer was from God. In any case, here’s how I answered his question. He asked, “How do I know when a voice I hear might be God’s voice?’ And I said, “If the voice asks you to harm yourself or anyone else, then it’s not God’s voice. God never wants harm for anyone. God wants you and everyone else to thrive . . . to have life abundantly.’
Brothers and Sisters, I propose to you that this is one of the most crucial questions for us to get right. How do we know when it’s God’s voice? I propose to you that we are called to nothing less in these crazy times than to learn to listen to God’s voice and to help steer humanity away from the madness. Don’t you feel like it’s hard to fight off mental illness right now due to the craziness all around us? Can you feel it in your own life these days? In my lifetime, I’ve never quite experienced anything quite like the last few years. I’ve always felt myself to be blessed with a stability emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. I’ve considered myself quite fortunate in that respect. Yet, in recent years, I feel it: the craziness all around us impinging in on my own mental health, causing stress.
To be able to hear God’s voice through the din of voices around us is not only crucial for our personal sanity, but it’s especially crucial for helping to cure the madness that seems to have gripped the whole human family. What does Jesus call it as he sees his disciples’ helplessness to cure the boy with a demon? “A faithless and perverse generation,” he says at a moment of frustration. I think Jesus is pointing to the madness that gripped the people of his time, a madness that would soon lead his own Jewish people into a war with Rome and be crushed. Healing this boy isn’t just about curing one person’s struggle with mental illness. It’s about curing humanity’s warring madness.
Sure enough, Vladimir Putin led his own people into a war with Ukraine this week, a war which threatens to pull all of us into. It feels dangerous. It almost makes sense ‘cause these are such crazy times, right? And to navigate these crazy times wouldn’t it be helpful to hear God’s voice guiding us in the right directions? Isn’t that a big reason why we come here to church? To hear God’s voice to speak to us? And when we are trying to listen for God’s voice, we don’t expect to hear it so directly as the disciples did on the mountaintop so long ago. We want to hear God’s voice ringing through Scripture, and especially Jesus, as a voice of authority for us human beings. That’s part of the gift of Jesus in-the-flesh, a human voice of authority for us to follow.
But we imagine God’s voice to at least come through authoritative human voices which might help to lead us. There are many of our fellow citizens who currently feel that about Donald Trump. They even call him the Chosen One, like the voice from heaven calls Jesus in today’s reading. For others of us, it might be different political leaders like Bernie Sanders, or whoever. In Russia right now, their citizens need to decide if Vladimir Putin has an authoritative voice for them, as he leads them into a war which most the rest of the world is condemning. Or we look for authoritative voices in the news shows we watch. Is Tucker Carlson an authoritative voice for us? Or Rachel Maddow? A big part of what makes these times crazy is the proliferation of voices on social media. When we follow social media streams down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, how is it that we may count these voices as authoritative at all? In many cases, aren’t many of the social media voices we follow simple the echo of our own thoughts, our own voice bouncing back to us? We need to more seriously ask ourselves, Who are the authoritative voices for us that we look to, to guide us through these crazy times? And, perhaps even more importantly, why have they become authoritative for us? We do we invest authority to Donald Trump, or Joe Biden, or anyone else? Isn’t the craziness of this time amplified by the proliferation of voices who are not God? And we’ve seemed to quit asking how we might identify God’s voice amidst the din of voices. We’ve given up on trying to find the authoritative voice to cut through the madness. And so we end up actually picking out our own voice echoing back to us through someone else’s voice. We live in our echo chambers of Us-vs-Them. And now we are once again a world on the brink of all-encompassing war.
One of my favorite hymns is “God of Grace and God of glory.” We’ll sing it in just a few minutes. Let me remind you briefly of how it goes:
God of grace and God of glory,
On your people pour your pow’r; . . .
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
For the facing of this hour.
Cure your children’s warring madness;
Bend our pride to your control; . . .
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss your kingdom’s goal.
That’s what I think is the significance of today’s Gospel reading: catching a glimpse of God’s true glory in Jesus Christ so that we might gain the wisdom and courage we need for facing this kind of hour. On the mountain of the Transfiguration, two other very authoritative Jewish voices appear with Jesus. Moses and Elijah. Moses brought them the Torah, the Law. Elijah was one of the first of the prophetic voices to stand in challenge to their kings and political leaders. Neither of those things represented by Moses and Elijah, as great as they are, were yet enough to guide the Jewish people away from humanity’s warring madness. Peter, James, and John hear a voice from heaven that singles out the new Jewish voice of Jesus, the Messiah. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This is the voice to bring the Jewish journey, the human journey, to fulfillment as a voice to lead God’s children out of the warring madness. It’s the voice our world desperately needs to hear right now. You and are called to listen to that voice and pass it on to the rest of God’s children. The world needs us to answer our calling.
We also need to be clear-eyed about the enormity of the task ahead of us. In our Second Reading Paul is talking to his fellow Jews, that when they try to listen to God through Moses, they have a veil. They don’t quite hear what they’re supposed to hear. I want to propose to you that that has happened to us Christians, too, in our history. I think that for the first several centuries followers of Jesus were more faithful in their listening to Jesus’ voice above all others, precisely as a voice speaking out against empires like the Roman empire. They were inspired to live in nonviolent resistance to empire — the way Jesus gave them to faithfully live in opposition to empire in their time.
So much so that the Emperor Constantine finally gave in and made Christianity the imperial religion — which, if you understand what Jesus is trying to telling us, is an oxymoron. “Imperial” and “religion” don’t go together. So over the centuries the veil began descended for us, too. Like Jesus’ own Jewish people listening to the voices of Moses and Elijah, without understanding them fully through what Jesus came to tell us — “Listen to him!” — we have come to listen way too much to the voices of emperors and popes and kings and politicians above the voice of Jesus. The first task is to see where the veil has fallen and to listen to Jesus anew in order to get back on track. In recent centuries, this has meant living kind of a split life as a Christian: you listen to the voice of Jesus for getting to the kingdom of heaven when you die, but then also listen to the voices of politicians for living in this world’s kingdoms. It’s not that we can never benefit from listening to the prominent human voices in our time. Just as Jesus wasn’t saying to his people that they can’t benefit from listening to voices of Moses and Elijah. But we need to hear and understand in this long journey that God is taking us on, that peaks with Jesus (like on that mountain of Transfiguration!), that God is leading us away from our warring madness into the way of true peace.
The first task is to stop living that schizophrenic way of listening to too many voices. The point of the Transfiguration story is that Jesus’ voice not only must remain above all the other voices for us, but it also must be the measure by which we gauge the authority of other voices we might listen to. Donald Trump’s or Joe Biden’s voices cannot be authoritative for us to the extent that we fail to listen to God’s answer for us to cure our warring madness.
That answer, I believe, begins with the answer I gave to that Bible study participant eighteen years ago. How do we know when it’s God’s voice speaking to us? God never asks us to harm ourselves or anyone else. It can be that simple. It also can become more complicated by events in this world like Vladimir Putin being possessed by the demon of warring madness that leads to the destruction of so many innocent lives. We might still choose in such cases to pick up the instruments of war to protect the innocent. But even that should not get in the way of the overall path that simply seeks to do no harm to anyone. The main path must be nonviolence. We’re called to have the imagination to address our warring madness with the most peaceable means possible.
And even beyond no harm: God wants each of God’s children to thrive, to experience life in abundance. Instead of ever doing harm to one another, God wants us to desire flourishing for one another. God wants us to help each other into a life of everyone flourishing, beginning with the least in God’s family, those most vulnerable to not flourishing. That’s our mission. That’s our calling. And it’s nothing less than to help God save this crazy world bent on destroying itself with war. As your pastor, it will be very important always to see my role of helping us to listen to God’s voice in Jesus, and to lead us into a life of prayer patterned after the kind of song we’re going to sing right now. . . . [“God of Grace and God of Glory”]
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, February 27, 2022
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/24Wm_UIUNIs