There is an old story about a church school teacher who asked a young girl in her class why her little brother wasn’t coming to church school any longer. The girl replied, “Well, to tell the truth, he just can’t stand Jesus!” Her brother had more of Jesus than he wanted.
There is something about this that hits home for me. Perhaps for you too? Are there not times when Jesus is too hot to handle? There are two sides to this question. One side is suggested by our New Testament reading, the other by our Old Testament reading.
Let me begin with the Old Testament lesson. It presents one side of the problem.
God calls Moses to the mountain to give him the tablets of the commandments. Moses stays on the mountain for forty days and nights. During this time God’s glory is revealed as a “devouring fire” displayed to all the people at the foot of the mountain. We suspect that Moses and the people got more of God than they really wanted. We can imagine that they preferred a more comfortable God. In fact one that did not require, as penitence for their creating an idol while Moses was up there talking to the big G, Moses commanded that the ones who were with him would be the ones who slayed their brother, their friend, their neighbor. The text reports that three thousand people fell on that day.
Is God really a devouring fire? Even understanding that language metaphorically does not help. There are some things about God that need to be literal or straightforward.
At Thursday night’s confirmation class, I showed clips from the 2003 film “Luther” in order to present a dramatic view of the events leading up to the Protestant reformation, and more significantly to get them to ask this question — what of God must be taken literally?
The film begins by introducing us to the monk Luther. He spills the wine at his ordination. That night in his monk’s cell, we see him wrestling with God. He is angry. He blames himself. He blames God. His confessor comes to visit him. He asks him what it is that he wants. Luther replies: “I seek a merciful God and a God I can love and a God who loves me.”
Luther understood, eventually, that he was not alone in seeking a God who literally loved and could be loved. His parishioners had never heard this gospel preached before, and since they were barred from reading the bible (too complex for their simple minds) they had obviously not read it either. And yet, because he and they alike longed for this God of love, Luther began to understand that his was not simply the ego of a scholar desiring fame. His was the gospel’s position. The church’s position, on the diametrical other hand, was the position of the execrable anti-christ. Luther was credible, even though he was condemned. The church, though incredible, held considerable power over the powerless, and held to the line that it was Luther’s responsibility to believe what was unbelievable.
It is a pipe-dream to suppose that Luther put an end to non-credible church doctrine. The enemies of Luther were legion. Today, an idea of a credible gospel still has opponents, both in thought and in deed. While the Supreme Court was surely correct in their defense of the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket funerals, that does not make the church’s deeds laudable, or even defensible, from any point of view. Can we not preach, both in word and in deed, about a God who loves us, no matter who we were born to be or who we have become, and a God we can love, no matter what we may do against our better judgment?
A pivotal moment in my development as a Christian came when I realized, like Luther, that any claim about God has to meet this test. Everything we say, and everything we do, whether explicitly about God or not, must, if we wish others to trust us, be credible. In other words, it needs to be worthy of being believed where to believe it means not only not having to give up what it means to be fully human, but of having the quality to lead you to fullness of life.
Sometimes Jesus is too hot to handle because to believe him means to deny our basic confidence in the possibility of a sustaining meaning to life.
Sometimes, though, Jesus is too hot to handle simply because to embrace this possibility of real life overwhelms and frightens.
It can do this, because the nature of this gospel is not so much about finding comfort in one’s own private troubles, but because its call stems from grasping for oneself its conviction that no one single life is apart from the community of life enlivened by the love we call God. Stated in different, non-religious language, what this means is that the good which forms the basic possibility of all that is right in my conduct is not my own good, but the good of all concerned.
I always find it interesting that this final Sunday in Epiphany catapults us from the conversations we have been having about Jesus’ birth and what that manifestation into the world of God’s love in the form of a human means for us, to the end of his ministry some thirty odd years later. I find it so interesting because there is a seamlessness to the presentation despite the timeline hiccup. Jesus’ life and ministry which he described borrowing the prophet’s call, is to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and visit the imprisoned. He was born on the margins of the life of the rich and powerful, he called his first disciples from that margin, and he brought into a circle of love and care those who had been cast out. It is impossible to understand today’s so-called transfiguration story without seeing that this activity stirred up a hornet’s nest of activity against him.
Here are a few snippets from the previous chapters, selectively chosen as the stick whacking that hornet’s nest.
From the days of John the baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. –Matthew 11:12
Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if [God’s] deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre or Sidon, (gentile towns) they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. — Matthew 11:21-22
Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, no city or house divided against itself will stand. — Matthew 12:25
Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things when you are evil? — Matthew 12:33-34
The some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. . . . — Matthew 12:38-39
The the Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, and why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? . . . For the sake of tradition, you make void the words of God. You hypocrites! — Matthew 15:1-2, 6-7
In the verses immediately preceding our reading of transfiguration, and just following these incendiary comments on the ruling authorities, civil and ecclesiastical, the gospel writers makes plain what has been hinted at — the hornets are out — Jesus is too hot to handle:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes and be killed. . . –Matthew 16:21
Do you get a little sick of Jesus? Perhaps it is because Jesus as you hear him preached, or Jesus as you see him revered, or Jesus as you read about him in today’s literature or news outlets is incredible. Perhaps it is because in order to accept the Jesus about which you have learned you have to swallow your dignity or put aside your intelligence or bury your pain. This week, we begin a 5 week walk together toward Easter. Will that walk make you sick of Jesus because it is so full of depression? Will Easter attract only because of the flowers and the music?
Traditionally, Lent is a downer. We have said, against our better judgement about God and Jesus, that God intended Jesus to die “for us” so that the journey of Lent is a journey with a “dead man walking.” It is hard to believe how that can be a journey very many people want to take. For people who have experienced the violence this image evokes, Jesus is just too hot to handle.
To be fed up with Jesus for this reason is unfortunate and not a little sad. It does not have to be this way.
On this last Sunday before Lent — I wonder if the story of the transfiguration of Jesus is meant to free us from such a sad way of thinking. Granted the story has its fair share of the supernatural. But as is always the case — we are reading a story written by people for whom the supernatural functioned as scientific explanation does today.
In modern language we may say that Peter, James and John, saw, as though for the first time, this whole arc of Jesus life. They saw him as Moses, the liberator of a captive people, they saw him as Elijah, the bearer of God’s love to the enemy in Samaria, they saw him as a young man baptised by John who proclaimed Jesus his mission to cry out the story of God’s love to all, even those cast out into the wilderness. Today we use the image of a light bulb turning on. For Peter and James and John, this light bulb turning on brought them to their knees in joy, and not a little fear. For the call to serve those whom Moses, Elijah and Jesus serve is not light responsibility, but it is the way to pure, transfiguring joy.
Get up and do not be afraid.