Who is God?
God-in-Man: The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
We come now in our on-going biography of God to a singular event. Even among the tremendous events we’ve looked at so far, it stands out as special, but unless you understand the overall trajectory of Jesus’s public “career,” you might miss it. You see, we tend to look at the sayings and doings of Jesus between his baptism and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem as, well, a bunch of stuff: episodes; speeches; miracles; just stuff. We don’t immediately get the timing of things, upon which so much hangs.
Jesus burst upon the scene shortly after his baptism, and he attracted tremendous interest. People came from all over to hear him, touch him, ask for a miracle of healing. Crowds gathered – and grew in number. Some people followed Jesus from town to town. It was all a bit like Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. Jesus had become a celebrity – a cultural pheenom. And still his crowds grew – to the disgust of the Jewish leaders.
But even a cultural pheenom can only go so far with the same shtick. You may rise like a rocket, but at some point, you will reach your peak, and then inexorably begin to decline in popularity. At that point, unless you come up with something new, your crowds will grow smaller, and while you may continue on for many years following the sawdust trail, so to speak, you won’t attract many new fans. You risk becoming passé – yesterday’s fashion. There’s a trajectory to these things.
Our story catches Jesus right at the very peak of his trajectory. For two years now, he has gathered larger and ever-more-devoted crowds, but now, he has to do something. If he doesn’t, then he’ll slide backwards and something else will take over as “the latest thing.” To continue to rise, he’s got to do one of two things. He’s got to ask people to do something more than just “come out.” He’s got to ask them to make a major decision that will change the way they live their lives – which will certainly inconvenience them, maybe endanger them. And what’s the likelihood that he can bring them along?
Then, too, if he’s going to do something more than the road show, the preaching tour, then he’s got to someday go to Jerusalem and face the opposition that’s brewing there. All this time, he’s stayed in the hills up north or over ‘cross Jordan – but he can’t stay there and accomplish what he needs to do.
When he comes down from the mountain on this occasion, he does both. He starts asking people to make a deeper commitment – with the result that the crowds start thinning out – and he “sets his face to go to Jerusalem,” with all that that entails.
Now, none of that is apparent to his disciples at this moment, for whom everything is getter bigger and better. Peter, James, and John – the inner circle of Jesus’s friends – are about to experience a revelation heretofore vouchsafed to no one else: a truly “mountaintop experience.” And then, Jesus leads them down the mountain – back to the toil and the danger, to doubt & discouragement.
What they see at the summit where Jesus prays is a shining light coming from Jesus. That’s important: coming from Jesus, not merely shining on Jesus. Remember when we talked about the burning bush, and I said that the uncreated light is one of the signs of God being present in his own proper person? Well, there he is. There’s God. Himself. And his name is Jesus of Nazareth.
They see Moses and Elijah talking with him. One wonders how they could know who these figures were. I don’t suppose they were wearing nametags saying, “Hello. My Name is ELIJAH.” But then, in the vision state, the appearance of a thing is its meaning, so it is enough to say, they recognize these two for who they were: the great Lawgiver and the great Prophet, talking with their Master; which is as much to say that the both the Law and the Prophets testify to who this Man is. They are awestruck, and Peter starts talking silly stuff. He offers to build a little shrine for each of the three great figures. And then the bright cloud overshadows them – another indication of the personal presence of God - and a voice says to them, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I well pleased. Listen to him.” With that, they fall on their faces and dare not look up, until Jesus tells them to rise. The vision is gone, it’s time to go back down to the others.
This is not just a miracle story. This is a demonstration of the central truth of Christianity. Who is God? God is the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And Jesus is God, too – the only Son of the Father, begotten not made, of one being with the Father, now appearing in human flesh for the salvation of human beings.
Working out the implications of that vision will take the followers of Jesus over four hundred years. The solutions that finally came – you can find them in the creeds – are awesome and elegant, but that doesn’t mean that everybody finds them easy to believe or that everybody is attracted to them. In fact, I would go to so far to say that the arguments between the various factions who contend with each other for the leadership of the Church – The UMC and the other Churches alike – are not primarily about morality or social vision (What should we be for or against?) but between those who are trying to articulate this central truth about the incarnate God and those who’ve decided that this is a fairy tale and Jesus isn’t really God in human flesh.
That has all sorts of consequences. To take but one: Our society today is obsessed with the body, and what we do with our bodies. And all the arguments over the use of our bodies boil down to one of two sub-Christian doctrines. The first says that the sins of the flesh are worse than the sins of the spirit. The followers of this heresy assume that if they “color within the lines” with their behavior, then they are to be accounted righteous, no matter what is going on in their minds. The second doctrine says that what you do with your body doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t affect what you do with your mind – so drop your hang-ups at the door and do what feels good.
The one doctrine yields Puritanism, the other Bacchanale – but both deny the unity of the soul and body that is the Christian doctrine of Man, and neither have any use for the statement in the Athanasian Creed that says, “that our Lord JC, the Son of God, is God and Man: Perfect God and Perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.” We have divorced soul from body, and we lurch from the ascetic worship of respectability to a Manichean wallowing in sins that we are assured won’t count against us – and it has driven us crazy.
Who can make us whole again? Only Jesus. Only the perfect Man can repair our corrupted humanity. And he can only do it by joining our humanity to his divinity, and raising us to a new state of being, like unto his own. We are to be re-united with God, and our bodies raised in a new creation, and all our contradictions reconciled, our sins forgiven, our sanity restored. To do this, Jesus is prepared to go to Jerusalem and challenge the powers that be, and submit to the worst they can do, to redeem all the lost children of God. And after him trail the disciples: Peter, James, & John, who have seen something tremendous, but don’t really understand it; the rest of the twelve and the friends and followers along the way, who haven’t seen what these three have seen, but who believe in Jesus, and set their hopes on whatever kind of deliverance he can give them.
And how will all this make anything different for you or me this week? Well, over the course of my life there have been several times when I have stood in the presence of God, when I saw – or believed I saw – the reality of God at work in my life and in the world around me: when I gave my heart to Jesus; when God called me to preach; when I took that team to Africa in 2001; when it has been my privilege to see young people (and some not so young people) receive Christ. And time and again, God has re-confirmed his reality and my call and all the rest to me.
I remember one time, needing a part-time job to finish my doctorate I wound up working at Taco Bell. I hadn’t told anyone I was a minister, just a grad student – but I stood there on one of my first nights, up to my elbows in greasy dishwater while one fellow worker after another came back and told me their whole life story, nor did they understand why they did it. And I went home to Deanne and pointed to my neck where the imaginary clerical collar was and said, “y’know, you can’t take the collar off – people will sense it there and react to it, even if you don’t tell them.”
Oh, yes, the story is true, and God renews our faith again and again. But in between those times -- and you can’t know when a fresh vision will come – in between those times, it can get awfully tough. You wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing, and what difference it all makes. Why should you try to so hard? Why not just go along and get along and not worry about trying to teach the ignorant or defend yourself against the barbarians or gather the flock when they’ll only wander off again? Not only that, but when you don’t feel whole, or saved, or renewed, or forgiven – what about that? Isn’t this supposed to be a great triumphal march all the way up to the gates of heaven?
No. Jesus went back down the mountain and back into the tumult and the trouble, to tell people about the kingdom of God – and to lay down his life as a ransom for many. It’s not all crumpets & glory – to mangle a phrase. But it’s real. And it makes all the difference in the end. Our God has taken up into himself our life – in order to share with us his life.
And every now and then, a gleam shines through, to remind us that we are not lost – for he has found us – and he will get us all the way home, every one of us. And he will resolve the contradictions in our lives that drive us crazy; he will heal the divisions in us between soul and body, and between God and Man, and between ourselves. All we have to do is just keep going, just keep doing his work, telling his story, living his life.