Shiny Jesus, and His Shiny Happy Kingdom

Transfiguration Sunday, Year A
Matthew 17:1-9
Sunday, March 6, 2011

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

In preparation for today’s Transfiguration Sunday sermon
    I couldn’t help but think of the peppy 1991 song Shiny Happy People
    by the great alternative rock band of my generation, REM.
This song is quite peppy – nauseatingly so, perhaps – but as you watch the video,
    you can’t help but smile as you see smiling, happy people
    sing and dance and come together in a celebration of happiness.
Lead singer Michael Stipe sings the repeated refrain,
    “Shiny happy people holding hands, shiny happy people laughing”
    while dancing in circles with a silly hat on his head.
It is pure, unadulterated – and terribly cheesy – happiness.
And so I think of this song today, on Transfiguration Sunday,
    as we read of Jesus standing atop the mountain alongside Moses and Elijah,
    with his face shining bright like the sun.
Shiny happy people, shiny happy Jesus, right?

Well, no. Not exactly.
I think there’s something to the song,
    and to the image of joy and happiness that it presents,
    an image that resonates with the pictures that Scripture often paints for us
    of a great banquet, a great celebration, a great season of joy and love
        in the kingdom to come.
I can imagine in that coming Kingdom that there will be singing and dancing,
    and praise being given to God though the tenderness and love
    of a new human community formed in love by the Lord who will raise the dead
         and establish a new way of life in the world to come.
But … but atop that mountain in today’s Gospel text,
    Jesus might be shiny,
    but I’m not seeing much happiness or hand-holding or dancing.
No. Today’s Gospel text, if turned into a motion picture,
    wouldn’t have REM’s Shiny Happy People on the sound track.
Because the tone of today’s text isn’t happiness,
    but something rather ominous, foreboding,
    and definitely confusing for those disciples.

It all begins with Jesus taking his inner circle of disciples up the mountain,
    the same three he will later take with him to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane,
    before his crucifixion.
And up there atop the mountain his face is set aglow
    and his garments dazzle a brilliant white, reflecting the glory of God.
Not only that, but two long-gone pillars of the faith,
    Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah the prophet,
    also show up and stand alongside Jesus, talking with him.
Oddly enough,
    the disciples don’t seem overly impressed or awed or surprised by any of this.
Peter simply offers to make three dwellings, three tents,
    one each for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.
“It is good for us to be here,” Peter says.
While Peter is all gung-ho up about setting up camp so they can remain there for a while,
    the voice of God thunders from a cloud about them:
    “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
At this point the disciples fall to the ground and are overcome by fear,
    and begin to recognize that, oh my,
    something special and even fearful is going on here.

Now, our English translation doesn’t quite render the original Greek correctly –
    not only did the disciples fall to the ground in fear,
    but they fell with their faces to the ground,
    a traditional posture of worship,
        looking down, so as not to look upon the presence of the holy,
        for it was believed that no mortal could behold God’s glory and survive,
        so overwhelmed would they be by God’s holiness.
So our disciples fall to the ground, in fear, yes, but also in an act of worship.
And the heavenly voice repeats what was announced at Jesus baptism,
    about Jesus being God’s son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
But this time God adds another line, an imperative: listen to him.
    Listen to him, God commands. Listen to Jesus.

Why this addition?
    Perhaps because those disciples hadn’t been listening ….
Just a few verses earlier, but not in today’s Gospel selection,
    Jesus tells his disciples that he will undergo suffering,
    be killed, and on the third day be raised.
He predicts his Passion.
And to that startling, quite unhappy pronouncement,
    Peter responds by rebuking Jesus, saying,
    “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
To which Jesus famously responds,
    “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me,
    for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

So, to recap:
We have Jesus predicting his suffering and death.
We have Peter confronting Jesus, and Jesus confronting Peter right back,
    calling him Satan for getting in the way of divine things.
And we have fear atop the mountain.
    Yeah, Shiny Happy People this is not.

There’s lots of fear in our world and our society today.
In North Africa and the Middle East,
    popular uprisings are introducing a new uncertainty to an already volatile region.
And as excited as many of us are to see a new push for democracy and freedom
        in these parts,
    the violence that has occasioned the uprising in Libya
    and the long, uncertain road ahead for countries such as Tunisia and Egypt
    introduces fears of greater instability, both politically and economically,
        for this vital yet volatile region of the world.
And in our own land the economy continues to grow,
    albeit at a pace far too slow to dramatically change the anemic employment data,
    which reveal that nearly 9% of Americans are unemployed,
    not counting all those who are underemployed
        or who have given up looking for work altogether.
Given the current economic situation,
    and the significant shifts in the American economy and our nation’s demographics
        over the past several decades,
    more and more experts are predicting that mine might be the first generation to,
        as a whole,
    not fare as well as their parents’ generation did or, at the least,
        we will not improve our quality of life as much vis-à-vis our parents,
        as our parents did vis-à-vis their parents.
Few job opportunities exist, mounting debt overwhelms us,
    and few prospects that things will get better any time soon,
    translates to an atmosphere of fear that overshadows many younger people today.

And so the disciples are there on the ground,
    their faces down, their bodies trembling with fear before the presence of God,
    and Jesus bends down, reaches out, and with a touch says,
    “Get up and do not be afraid.”
The Greek word that we translate “get up,”
    is actually the word that Matthew later uses for the resurrection.
It’s as if Jesus is commanding his disciples to resurrect from the death of their fears,
    rise from fear and not be afraid.
And so the disciples rise up, and they see Jesus – ordinary Jesus.
No blazing face, no brilliant garments. Moses and Elijah are gone.
    The divine display of God’s glory is over, for now.
What’s left is Jesus, who with a touch and a word of resurrection hope,
    bids them to rise up and
be free of their fear.

We know, however, that the disciples will continue to live in fear.
They will continue to be unable to accept Jesus’ passion,
    and in fear they will deny Jesus rather than face his same fate on the cross.
And so, Jesus’ words here to get up and not be afraid seem to be a command
    that the disciples cannot follow …
And yet, perhaps these words – get up and do not be afraid –
    perhaps they are also words of promise looking ahead not only to his resurrection,
    but to the resurrection of all the dead that Jesus will inaugurate
        in the life of the world to come,
    when he comes again in glory to set the world to rights,
        and rule the world with justice, mercy, and peace.
That is, here, atop this mountain, surrounded by the glory of God,
    these disciples die in fear, and Jesus raises them with a healing and hopeful touch,
    and he speaks guiding words of living without fear,
    prefiguring the resurrection that will come when Jesus returns in glory.

We will continue to live in fear – to fear, like the disciples atop that mountain,
    the almighty, overwhelming presence of God
    that causes us to cower and fall to our knees.
And like the disciples,
we will continue to fear and reject the presence of God in suffering and pain and death,
    wanting only the God of the resurrection and glory,
    forgetting about the God who suffers on the cross.
We will continue to fear geopolitical shifts halfway across the world,
    and economic shifts right here in our own land.
We’ll be afraid about the future of our country and of our church,
    afraid about our children and our own health,
    afraid about our safety and our livelihood,
    afraid about the environment and our own moral standing …
We all bear fears …
And while I wish we could simply heed Jesus’ command to not be afraid,
    that ain’t going to happen.
Jesus himself didn’t calm the fears of his own disciples,
    despite the raw display of his glory atop the mountain.
Yet his command to get up and not be afraid is also a promise,
    a promise that our Lord will come again in glory – shiny face or not –
    to raise us up, not in fear but in hope,
    and make all things new.
Our fears will continue … but our hope is nourished, too, at this table and in this fellowship,
    by the promise of Jesus to come alongside us when we’re fallen down in fear,
    and to raise us up, just as he was raised in glory on the third day.
Afraid and hopeful, doubtful and faithful … that’s what we are, all at the same time.
So while not putting all fear aside, for this is something that we just cannot do,
    may we look honestly at our fears and accept them for what they are,
    and strive to look hopefully at our Lord’s promise
        to stand by our side, to reach down to us, and to say,
    “Get up, resurrect. Do not be afraid.”

On that great day of his coming, then,
    we just might find ourselves singing and dancing along to that song by REM,
    Shiny Happy People.
Or not. Perhaps you’re more of a Louis Armstrong, What a Wonderful World, kind of person.
But no matter the soundtrack, I imagine that it will be a day where God’s glory shines,
    God’s people revel in happiness,
    and the whole stinkin' creation dances in the joy and love of the resurrection life.
This is God’s promise, this is our hope.
May this promise and hope guide us as we enter into Lent,
    and as we acknowledge the everyday fears of our lives and of our world.
This promise and home may not alleviate or cast our fear away,
    but it gives us confidence that what God promises to do in and through and for us
    is more powerful than those forces of sin and evil
        within and beyond us that seek to keep us down.
For we are not destined to stay huddled down on – or buried in – the ground forever,
    but instead we are destined, at our Lord’s call and touch, to rise up with him in new life.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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