Last Epiphany A March 2, 2014
In the name of Jesus, who shines in glory and yet suffers as one of us. Amen.
You’ve heard it before. There are so many products and ideas out there that are called (blank)-in-a-box. Just Google “in a box” and you pull up lots of them. There is Shell in a Box. Wave in a Box. Art in a Box. Biology in a Box. Man in a Box. Birthday in a Box. Internet in a Box. Star in a Box. And Garden in a Box.
And, yes, you can even find lots of hits when you Google “God in a Box.” I want to talk about “God in a Box” today as we hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the Mountain Peak.
Each year the story of the Transfiguration ends the season after Epiphany. Someone once called this story the Epiphany of Epiphanies—the ultimate revelation of Jesus’ dual nature: Divine and Human. This year we hear Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration.
Matthew tells us that Jesus took three of his disciples—Peter, James, and John, up to a mountain peak with him. There he was transfigured—his face shone like the sun and his clothing shone dazzling white. Now at this point of the story the astute hearer whom Matthew was addressing would be thinking about the similarities of this story with the story of Moses encountering God on the top of Mt. Sinai. And of course part of that story is what we have today in our first reading. Moses received the Law from God on the mountain. His face shone so brightly after his encounter with God that he needed to veil it so as not to freak out the Israelites who waited for him below on the plain.
Moses and Elijah show up to talk with Jesus on the mountain. That is incredibly significant as Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents all the OT prophets. We interpret their presence to mean that Jesus is equal to and even above them; Jesus is the fulfillment—even the apotheosis—of the Law and the Prophets. He is God’s anointed one for all time. He IS God.
And so we see that Peter is beside himself. He blurts out to Jesus that he’d like to make 3 dwellings—3 houses—for them there: one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus.
But no longer does he get out the words than we hear the voice of God the Father booming out from the clouds, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” Now, up to this point the disciples were holding their own, but that Voice—that Voice—made them fall down in fear. This of course is the standard reaction of anyone in Scripture who encounters God—a response of fear, and maybe even of falling down. Think of Paul on the Damascus Road. Think of Moses and the Burning Bush. Think of Moses and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. And so the disciples’ reaction signals to the savvy first-century hearer of the Word that this was what is called a theophany—an unveiling of God before humans.
But Jesus dispels their fear and even touches them to let them know it’s all right. “Get up and do not be afraid,” he tells them.
And this curious story ends with the return of Jesus and the three disciples, back to their ordinary lives, pointed toward Jerusalem and Jesus’ time of suffering and death.
Scholars think that the Transfiguration was necessary for the disciples so that they could face the suffering humanity of Jesus some months later. Perhaps it is necessary for us, too, as we enter into the Passage of Lent, walking with Jesus toward suffering—but also toward resurrection. It’s a psychological booster shot that helps us through the darkness ahead.
We know that Jesus is divine. We know there will be a good outcome after all the suffering he chooses to endure.
All right—so what does any of this have to do with “God in a Box”? I’d like to use that little phrase for the suggestion that Peter made to Jesus. Remember that he wanted to build dwellings for Jesus and Moses and Elijah there.
It would be a place where Peter could go to find Jesus with his divinity on display. A place that Peter could also leave any time he wanted to, and leave Jesus behind.
That’s what I’m calling “God in a Box”. A place to close up God, to house God, to tame God and keep God within so that God doesn’t penetrate the other places in a life where he may not be very welcome.
I wonder—is our lovely chapel-like sanctuary here a Box for God? Yes, we come here to worship, because within community we worship spectacularly well. But do we leave God behind on Sundays at noon?
And that raises the deeper question: What is a church for, anyway?
How important are the buildings—the physical facilities in a church? Are they the Church? What IS the church? And why do we fuss so much about the buildings of the parish if God transcends them all?
These are interesting questions, I think. It’s good to wrestle with the expenses of the parish and why we choose to pay for electricity and floor polish and staff salaries. Why we need to repaint and replace gutters and flooring. Why we pour so much energy into these things.
What is the proper balance between God’s mission and the incidentals of running a parish? What IS the church supposed to be?
Here’s an interesting question for us to consider: If this sanctuary were to burn down tonight (please, please God that it does NOT!), would there still be a church left? What IS the church? A place to come and meet friends? A place to worship God and to educate kids of all ages? A social club? An outreach hub? What? What is a church, really? What should be its purpose?
I submit to us that the church should be a group of rather like-minded folks who come together to participate in God’s mission in the world. And what IS God’s mission?
God’s mission is to bring reconciliation and restoration to all people—beginning right here and moving outward. That can happen on a small or a huge scale—it doesn’t matter. And God’s mission gets played out as we nurture new believers, educate kids and adults, and reach out to help people nearby and far away, for the love of God. God’s mission includes working so that there is justice and respect FOR all peoples FROM all peoples.
I hope you’ll agree that the Church—the parish, even—is not called to keep God in a Box. We are to be a dynamic living body, working and helping, worshiping and educating, walking with Jesus through episodes of wonder and amazement, as well as walking with him in poverty and diminishment, in suffering and death. We are called to take God out of the Box and into the nooks and crannies of our lives. Into the world.
So how are we doing?
Have we put God in a Box here? Or not?