Sunday, March 8, 2009

"Is Anything Too Hard for God?"

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Sheepscott Community Church March 8, 2009

Genesis 17: 1-7; 15-16; 18: 1-15
Romans 4: 13-25
Mark 9: 2-9

“Is Anything Too Hard for God?”

As the gospel tells this morning’s story, “Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” And if you knew my mother’s perfectionism in all matters having to do with laundry––washing, starching, drying, sprinkling, rolling and ironing my father’s white shirts––you’d appreciate how white Jesus’s raiment must have been if it was whiter than that. “And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

Now that is an extraordinary event to be part of, to witness, as Peter, James and John did. And I can imagine that some of you might be thinking, If I ever saw something like that, then I could really believe. Then I’d have no doubts. If Jesus said, N., N., N., come with me. I am going to show you who I am. Now that would be a life-transforming experience, would it not?

Think again. This transfiguration of Jesus, coming cheek-by-jowl in the gospel of Mark with his first prediction of his death and resurrection, apparently happened not too long before that death, pointing the way toward what the apostles would later better understand Jesus was showing them in his transfigured self, at least part of what the resurrection meant. Why do I say think again about this being a life-transforming experience? It was––in that moment––but think about Peter especially. How long after that did he deny that he even knew this Jesus, this one he had been privileged to see transfigured?

Peter truly does stand in for us: one day up, the next day down, our faith solid as a rock one day, and the next day a pool of quicksand we flounder in. But this is good; it reminds us who we are, and who God is. It reminds us who is in charge, whom we need to turn in faith, with our empty hands and our not knowing.

I had an experience last week in this area of remembering who I am, and who I am not. We’re just over a week into Lent and I stumbled badly over my own personal work I had set myself for this season. In considering my shortcoming that night in prayer, ready to make yet another promise and declaration, I had a new and better thought: I’ll sleep on it and see how I feel in the morning.

In the morning I was full of peace and balance and was able to go into Sunday service remembering , as I say, who was finally in charge. Whose business is this anyway? We must make it our own, as God’s business in the world is our own, but we must cultivate perspective. Mistakes? Stumbles? Backsliding? Actually denying the Christ by denying what is the reality of our own sinful humanity that needs our cooperation in being re-redeemed as it were again and again? Sure, regrettably but understandably we do stumble often. Paradoxically it is that thorn-in-the-flesh that Paul speaks of, the habit we cannot seem to break, the sin itself that humbles us and moves us to call on God. Like Peter, forgetting the power of what he saw on the top of the Mount of Transfiguration and focused only on his fear of what might happen to him if he were indeed associated with Jesus in the eyes of Roman law or in the gossip of the neighborhood. Although we might be impressed permanently by the effect of seeing such a transfiguration, we are still fully human, and fear for our own well-being, or that of those we love in this world, might obscure the memory for a period of time.

Then I would ask, if Jesus is transfigured and we are one with him in the Body of Christ, then might not we too be transfigured, perhaps in a less dramatic way? I think this month of March is the wildest month of the year, predictable only for its unpredictability. Howling winds and snow like we had last Monday, and yesterday it was 53 degrees at noon. From 13 below on Wednesday morning to 53 at Saturday noon, a 66-degree span within a week in North Whitefield. Let’s hear it for the month of March.

The snow-covered landscape and the weather are an appropriate backdrop and metaphor for our own lives as we approach Easter. It’s a cliché that life is stirring under the ground even now in every crocus bulb, every tulip, every daffodil. We have faith that they will grow again in our fields and gardens because we’ve see it happen every year, but fulfillment of the bulbs’ destiny, from bulb to bloom to seed, and our expectation out of experience doesn’t diminish the sense of wonder and gratitude we feel in the face of this annual resurrection; it enhances it.

How much more our sense of wonder in the face of the resurrection of Jesus toward which we are inexorably moving in our liturgical celebrations? Jesus was transfigured atop the mount and it foreshadowed his later fuller resurrection. Can we, observing the natural landscape and believing in the resurrection insofar as we are able, can we expect to be transformed like plants? Like Jesus? Why not? We are not separate from the natural world or the supernatural world. We are part and parcel of the whole package. We have as much potential in us for change and transfiguration as any flowering bulb. We are budding with possibility even now in the form of good intentions. And although we fall down in trying to fulfill some of them, like the lilac bush where some of the buds are shriveled by late killing frost, still others come to full bud and blossom and beauty, and then go to seed to produce more beauty, more change, more participation in this landscape of life.

How can God work with a sinner like me, you might ask. Maybe you’re one of the apostles who didn’t get invited up the mountain with Peter, James and John. Sure, they’re the special ones Jesus is always singling out for attention and the special moments. But you? You’re still out on the Sea of Galilee fishing and trying to figure out how you’re going to get everything done today you’re supposed to do, including keeping your wife happy when she’s been complaining about all the time you’ve been spending with Jesus and the boys. And then you have to get done whatever it is Jesus needs you to do. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and so on. Discouragement, resentment out of jealousy... the track a person’s thoughts can take.

Can that person, can you, can I be transformed, transfigured as Jesus was? As Peter, James and John saw happen? I remind you that the title of this message is right out of Genesis, “Is anything too hard for God?” One of the three visitors whom Abraham addresses as Lord––and who is understood to be Lord––asks that rhetorically of Abraham. The answer is understood to be, No, nothing is too hard for the Lord. In this case it is conception taking place in the womb of a woman who is menopausal with a man who is no longer fertile. Here there would be no question that the product of such a conception would be God’s person, God’s doing. That’s the point. He would be named yishaq, Isaac, which means “he laughed,” which is just what Abraham did when the Lord told him about the son of the promise. He fell on his face and laughed. Sarah laughed as well, at the seeming impossibility of it. The difference with Sarah was that when she was accused of laughing, she dissembled and denied it. How foolish we are to think that anything we think, plan, act on or laugh at is hidden from God. Back to the question, “Is anything too hard for God?”

Let’s appropriate that question for ourselves. We have a situation in our lives that has been draining us for years, whether it’s a habit, a difficult child, a burdensome relative whose care we have, depression, chronic pain, unrelieved sadness, sheer orneriness that we wish we didn’t have but don’t know how to come out from under. “Is anything too hard for God?” Think of Sarah’s barren womb; think of Abraham’s infertility. Think of Jesus actually buried inside a cave, as dead as dead can be.

There’s a wonderful line in this morning’s reading from Romans, characterizing God as the One “...who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”
And God credits Abraham with righteousness because “he was fully persuaded that God had the power to do what he had promised,” indeed to call things that are not as though they were, and so into being. The fact of Isaac as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, and the fact of Jesus’s resurrection argue for a negative answer to the question: “Is anything too hard for God?” No. Nothing is too hard for God. We and our problems are a piece of cake next to these earthshaking situations, which brings me back to the transfiguration, a kind of shaking of the earth before the dreadful last week of Jesus’s life.

Another feature of that event is God speaking to those assembled––Peter, James and John––from a cloud. He is confirming the rightness of Jesus’s choices and life here at the near-end of his earthly life in some of the same words used in Matthew’s gospel at the baptism by John, at the beginning of Jesus’s public life, and which I quoted last week: “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The difference in today’s gospel of Mark is that the voice exhorts those present to, “Listen to him.”

In Jewish thought the presence of God is regularly connected with the cloud. It was in the cloud that Moses met God. Listen to Exodus 19: 9: “The Lord also told [Moses], ‘I am coming to you in a dense cloud, so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they may always have faith in you also.’” It was the cloud which filled the Temple when it was dedicated after Solomon had built it. 1 Kings 8: 10: “When the priests left the holy place, the cloud filled the Temple of the Lord, so that the priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the Lord’s glory had filled the Temple of the Lord.” And the Jews believed that when the Messiah came, the cloud of God’s presence would return to the Temple. Elijah, the prophet of prophets, and Moses the lawgiver appeared with Jesus in his transfigured state and thereby at the very least represented the fulfillment of the messianic tradition and the expectations of the people Israel. Here we have these three good Jews atop Mount Hermon hearing the voice of God speaking to them from a cloud, and the figure would have been very familiar to them and identifiable as associated with the Messiah.

It is not so familiar to us, except as we read about it in scripture. However, it’s a very useful figure and one I would like to appropriate to finish up on these thoughts about transfiguration. It is out of the cloud that God speaks and once again identifies Jesus as his Son with the new directive: Listen to him.

In our lives, it is much more likely that we will learn the lessons of those lives from the dark clouds that inevitably come into them. We are merry and bright and ready to party on sunny days, and we are grateful for them. Those days teach their lessons of the joys of life. But it is on those cloudy days, those days the weatherman in March has not necessarily predicted, when anything can happen, it is on those days that we need to remember the voice of God speaking to our apostolic stand-ins, Peter, James and John, reminding us that Jesus is the one with the answers and that we would do well to listen to him.

If Jesus could say yes, and he did, to what was before him, trusting the Father and the experience he had on Mount Hermon, especially including the validating and vindicating voice of God again, he can enable us to say yes to whatever the circumstances of our lives are, especially in those areas where we are trying to be better people. He can help us by his Spirit to be more responsive to God directly and more responsive to those around us in whom God lives.

We are all on pilgrimage up that holy mountain and we have our glimpses of God along the way, whether in nature by ourselves, in communion with others in this church, in the workplace where we see the best and worst in people, in random encounters on the street. We meet God, and we are transfigured by those encounters in small ways. What we don’t register fully with the mind is impressed on the spirit, where we listen with an acuity of hearing our bodily ears cannot even dream of.

In these remaining weeks of Lent may we recognize the transfigured and transfiguring Christ in one another and in our circumstances, where God is always at work sharpening his tools so that his purposes can be better accomplished, so that the work of art that is the unfolding of universes may be truer and more beautiful for our having lived. Amen.

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