February 14, 2021, Will the Real God Please Stand Up, Mark 9:2-8 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000236
Like a lot of you, I think, Carroll and I are not cradle Episcopalians. We met in a Presbyterian mission church in inner-city St. Louis. When we moved to the North Country, we briefly attended a Wesleyan Church, and then we spent almost two decades in a non-denominational evangelical church, before God brought us to Trinity Church in Potsdam, where we fell in love with the Anglican/Episcopal form of worship and community and spirituality. We loved it, but it was a huge change from any of the churches we had attended for the first thirty years of our married life. The architecture itself was awe-inspiring, and the liturgy was glorious: solemn and beautiful and holy.
I was also more than a little in awe of Fr. Christopher, the Rector of Trinity. Tall and serious, overwhelmingly intelligent, robed in ornate liturgical vestments with brocaded fabrics and gold threads, Fr. Christopher had all the gravitas necessary to preside in such a solemn space, and then some. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I found him a bit intimidating at first. Being newcomers, we chose a pew near the back of the church when we first came, and we found ourselves sitting behind a woman with her two little children, a girl and her younger brother, who kept themselves busy, and us entertained, with their quiet but lively interactions throughout the Mass.
When the organ filled the sanctuary with the music of the recessional hymn, the choir came down the center aisle in their red robes, and marched solemnly past us, singing in harmony, and then the deacon followed, and the torch bearers, all white-robed, and finally the priest in his vestments. It was all very strange and grand and kind of exotic to us, who were used to ministers in suits and ties, and plain, unadorned worship spaces.
But then, when Fr. Christopher was about to walk by, the little boy in front of us hopped down from his pew, and ran up to him, and Christopher swung him up into his arms and carried him the rest of the way down the aisle – because this was his daddy, and Nathaniel didn’t have a moment’s hesitation in claiming his place in his daddy’s arms. And somehow, seeing him as a dad as well as a priest made Fr. Christopher a lot less scary to me.
Having known a wide variety of Christians, and attended a wide variety of churches, I’ve found that people tend to gravitate to one of two basic views of God. I admit that this is quite an over-simplification, but I think it’s one useful way of thinking about people’s perception of God. And the two views are these: that God is a God of righteousness and holiness and perfection, or that God is a God of love and mercy and forgiveness. It often breaks down in people’s minds as the God of the Old Testament versus the God of the New Testament.
Team Old Testament holds up the Ten Commandments as the central principles for a godly life. Godliness means, above all else, the keeping of one’s life pure and unstained from the world. At the extreme end of Team OT are those who avoid anything and everything that smacks of worldly behavior, things like smoking and drinking, but also going to certain movies or reading certain books, as well as things like dancing and going to parties, and anything and everything to do with sex other than sex within the marriage relationship. Team OT tends to be suspicious of Team NT because they seem to be altogether too fuzzy on matters of right and wrong. They find the core principle of Love to be a little bit too squishy and touchy-feely for their comfort. And the whole idea of grace – well, grace seems an awful lot like an excuse for lawlessness.
Team New Testament, on the other hand, suspects that the God of the Old Testament wasn’t quite up to snuff. It’s a choice between the OT God of thunder and lightning and judgment and fear, and the NT God of love and compassion and forgiveness and sacrifice, or so it seems to them, and they infinitely prefer the God of the NT. The God of the OT accompanied his people into battle and sent plagues of frogs and gnats and hail and darkness. He sent his destroying angel to kill the first-born of every family in Egypt. Jesus – well, he would never. The OT God was primitive and vengeful and cruel. Jesus is love. It all boils down to that.
Until we see the Father and the Son together on the mountaintop. Then there is no longer any way for us to try to set up one God against another. There we can no longer draw a dividing line between Old Testament and New Testament. Jesus brings Peter and James and John up onto a high mountain. And lo and behold, there’s Moses, and there’s Elijah, the great prophet, chatting it up with Jesus, discussing the events that are about to take place, his passion and death and resurrection, just as if those events were a part of the same history as the Exodus from Egypt and the wandering in the wilderness and the founding of the nation of Israel. Which they are. A cloud envelops them, like the cloud that crowned Mt. Sinai at the giving of the Law, and the voice of God, the God of Creation, the God of Israel, the One True God, speaks to them in their panic: “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.”
It might be most important to point out, first and foremost, what was not happening at that moment. Jesus was not revealing his “true self” to these special disciples of his, if we mean by that that his human form had all along been nothing more than a kind of mask, or disguise. But he was revealing to his friends more of who he really was, more of who he had been all along. Jesus was a Middle-eastern Jew, son of the carpenter Joseph and his wife, Mary. He was the eldest brother in his family, a wise and powerful teacher, a healer and worker of miracles, but still, a man of flesh and blood who had eaten and drunk with them, who got tired at the end of a long day, who was sometimes sad or angry. They knew what his laugh sounded like. But suddenly, on the mountaintop, it was revealed to them that Jesus was much more than the man they knew: that he also existed in glory and light beyond the world they knew.
John, who was there that day, later wrote about Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Mark describes the clothing of the transfigured Jesus as the down-to-earth Peter must have described it to him – a white more blindingly bright than anyone on earth could bleach them. Later Peter wrote: “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” There was Jesus, the Jesus they knew, in conversation with Moses and Elijah, revered figures out of Israel’s distant past, all of them somehow glowing like the sun, existing somehow outside of time, present in some way altogether outside of the human realm. But when the vision faded, Jesus was with them still, and he reached out to touch them, to take away their fear.
There is a prayer that is central to the Jewish tradition, and it belongs to our tradition as well, from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter six. It’s called the Shema – Shema yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echod. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The mystery of our God lies in that one-ness, which is beyond our human comprehension. God is transcendent deity and God is finite human. God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and he is lowly and humble in heart. God is perfectly righteous and holy, and he is merciful and forgiving. God is the God of the crucifix, naked and bleeding, and God is the Christus Rex, crowned and robed in victory. God is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and God is the servant of all. He is the life of all men, and he gave his life into the hands of the men who killed him. He is the God of the Old Testament and he is the God of the New Testament. And he revealed himself to Peter and James and John on the mountaintop.
Our God is mystery. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” We can’t explain God. We can’t prove that he exists. If you find a spiritual teacher who claims that he can, beware. We can’t define or classify or categorize God. But we can know him, because he loves us and he reveals himself to us, and more than that, he makes his home with us. And the way Jesus taught us to pray was to say, “Our Father”.
Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Our God is a God of mystery. He is beyond our human comprehension in so many ways. But if we listen to him, we can know him. And we can know this: that when we run to him in need or in fear or in love, he will always take us into his arms. Because he is our daddy, and we always have a place in our daddy’s arms.