“In Times of Confusion”
A message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church – UCC
based on the theme: Where Your Journey Meets Jesus
March 13, 2022
Luke 9:28-36 NRSV
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
If you are feeling some confusion these days, don’t feel too bad. There are a lot of reasons to feel confused. How does “Daylight Savings Time” work? I mean what time is it, even? Is it really 10:30 or 9:30? And how do you save daylight anyway? In relationships I have often felt confused about what the best thing to do is. In faith I have often been confused about what God wants, where God is, what direction to go. If you have ever felt this way or are feeling this way for any of these reasons or for your own very personal reasons, welcome to Peter’s world.
Peter is confused. He has traveled up a mountain with Jesus and two of the other top disciples on Jesus’ team, brothers James and John. Doesn’t say whether Peter knew why or where they were going. But something extraordinary happens. They suddenly experience a vision. Jesus is chatting with Moses and Elijah, the two greatest prophets of their faith. Remember they were Jewish. Then Jesus suddenly begins to glow brighter than the sun as he is talking as an equal with these two great men of faith. Then as the light dims and Moses and Elijah begin to fade from view Peter speaks up, wanting to hold on to the moment, or wanting to honor these men asks Jesus if he should build a shelter for them all to stay in. He is confused by the vision, confused by the presence of these heroes of faith and the holy glow from Jesus. But then the voice from heaven, the voice of God, puts an exclamation point on this scene: “This is my son, my Chosen, listen to him!” And the scene wraps.
I have to admit I am confused when I hear what a lot of people claim they hear from Jesus. To me it sounds like a lot of hate and exclusion and judgment. That’s not what I hear when I listen to his words in Scripture. I suspect that there are a whole lot of people who think they are doing “God’s will,” yet in fact are hindering the good news of God’s love in significant ways. And at the same time I am well aware there are many of my brother and sister Christians who think I am as wrong about Jesus as I can be. So do we have to climb mountains to listen to Jesus? Are we required to go to some holy place or know some holy person to hear the Chosen One?
In the Bible, mountains are often the setting where people encounter God. Moses met God on a mountaintop. Elijah had a silent communion with God on a mountain top. Abraham took Isaac up to a mountain to make a sacrifice for God. Now, we have Jesus being transfigured on a mountain. But this isn’t really about topography or geography. The Bible uses these places figuratively, metaphorically, dramatically – to make a point. When it comes down to it, the point of this passage are the words from God: “this is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.”
The writers of the Gospels, who first told the story of Jesus to those who had never heard the whole story of Jesus, had to overcome a lot of confusion about who Jesus was. It was public knowledge that Jesus had been crucified, executed by the Romans. Some people had claimed Jesus was a King, and Caesar didn’t let any such nonsense go unpunished for long. Others suggested Jesus was a religious sinner, rejected by God. Don’t we often assume anyone in trouble with the authorities is probably guilty before proven innocent? That’s what makes our American legal system so unique. We say a person charged is innocent until proven guilty. But I think most of us tend to assume someone accused of a crime is guilty in some way and has to prove their innocence. That’s just human nature, I guess.
So for the Gospel writers the challenge was to change the perception of Jesus as a sinner, as an insurrectionist, as someone far from God. Many of the moments in the Gospels speak to this. Jesus’ baptism includes almost these same words about Jesus. In John’s Gospel the woman at the well, a foreigner, a woman who had been with several partners, first thought Jesus was a teacher, then listening to his words she suddenly realized – and told others – he was the Messiah! She saw him in a totally different way.
I have never had a vision of Jesus, glorified or otherwise. I cannot remember a time when I “heard” Jesus speak to me directly. What I have experienced are times when someone said something to me that was spiritually powerful and later, as I reflected on it, I came to believe that person was speaking “Christ-words” to me. I mean, they said something so true, so spiritually powerful, or offered guidance in a way that it seemed it must have been “God-sent.” God said to Peter, James and John: listen to him. If you have ever had someone say something to you or do something that suddenly reveals a new reality, a new truth, a new sense of God’s presence I believe that is one way we can “listen to him.”
Many years ago a pastor I know was going through a tough time. He had been called to a church that was a leading church in his Conference. It was a prestigious pulpit whose pastor of 30 some years had retired, and the new pastor was called, partly because the retired pastor thought of him as a “worthy” replacement. But things didn’t go so well. Nothing the new pastor could do was good enough. He didn’t make enough pastoral calls. He didn’t stand behind the pulpit to preach. He wasn’t this and he wasn’t that. Mostly he wasn’t the previous pastor. It was hard. It was even harder on his wife. She took the criticism, both the things she heard, and the things unsaid but implied, to heart.
That pastor and his wife were pretty miserable. There was a pastor of another church up the road from that church that the pastor had become friends with. They played some golf together, talked about pastoral challenges together. That pastor, we’ll call him Gary, heard and understood what the pastor was going through. One of the significant things he said, to them was, “this is just the way these people in this area are. It isn’t you. It’s about them.” At one point he was standing in the kitchen of the parsonage with the pastor and his wife and he shared a quote from the Sermon on the Mount, but from a different version. It was from The Message Version, written by Eugene Peterson.
It said, 10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
These words were a great encouragement to the pastor’s wife and the pastor. It strengthened them in a time when they were downhearted. There was a ring of truth and power to them that went beyond simply making them feel better. It showed them that the conflict wasn’t judgment on them or punishment from God, it was human beings acting like human beings, and not particularly spiritually-directed human beings. They were acting out of their own difficulty dealing with change.
So one of the key ways to discern the voice of Jesus – whether it is in a private vision or dream, or mediated through someone else’s voice, is to test its truth. This isn’t always easy to discern either. Sometimes we do hear things that help us feel better, encourage us, help us. Other times what we hear may be true, but it may not be what we want to hear. It may not simply bless what we want to do. This is one of the keys to spiritual growth and to maturity in our faith. It requires us to assess our personal priorities and our private desires. Are we truly seeking to do what is right and good in God’s eyes, or are we doing what we want and asking God to bless it, right or wrong?
Peter struggled with this. The Gospels remind us that even after this encounter Peter still often put his own desires and his own ego first. We have a remarkably human picture of this first disciple. When Jesus announced that he would have to suffer and be killed, Peter scolded Jesus: “never, Lord!” he said to him. When he was at risk of being arrested and executed just like Jesus, Peter denied he even knew Jesus. After the first reports of Jesus’ resurrection Peter didn’t immediately drop to his knees in belief and in faith. The Book of Acts tells us that well after the resurrection Peter did not believe it when Jesus urged him to accept non-Jews into this new belief in Jesus as the Risen Christ. In Acts it tells of Peter having another vision – this time of a blanket coming down from heaven with all kinds of “unclean” or “non-Kosher” foods and a heavenly voice urging him to eat. Yet, Peter refused, saying he had never touched such “unclean” things before. The heavenly voice said to Peter, “don’t call unclean what God has called clean.”
Some of our brothers and sisters today need to listen to what a revolutionary and shocking demand this was to those who first followed Jesus. In a day and age where many Christians focus on who to exclude and who doesn’t fit and who isn’t worthy, they may need to check the voices they are listening to. And we all at times need to evaluate what voices we trust and believe in these confusing times.
Let us also, always be careful and open to the voice of Christ speaking to us a new truth, a new reality, a new way. Christ is still with us on our journey. May we always be open to Christ’s words shaping and being our vision for our lives. AMEN.