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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

February 10, 2013

 Seeing Jesus Rightly

Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36

             Thomas Jefferson took a sharp blade to his New Testament, cutting out every miracle and every account that was an offense to his own enlightenment values of reason and rationality.  He decided, in effect, that he knew Jesus and the events of His life more accurately than those people who lived almost two thousand years closer to Jesus’ actual life.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all made the judgment that you cannot tell the story of Jesus accurately without including an account of whatever transpired on top of that mountain, in an event the Church has come to call The Transfiguration.  (This is the word Mark uses in his Gospel to describe what happened to Jesus.)  Jefferson cut this whole mysterious, strange account out of his New Testament completely. 

             But then, I am not so sure Thomas Jefferson would have believed in Gutzon Berglum.  Gutzon Berglum was born in 1867 in St. Charles, Idaho, and I suppose he is best known for his work in sculpting Mount Rushmore, which he worked on from 1927 until his death in 1941, creating most of what we see today of the sixty-feet tall busts of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.  Actually, the original idea for this monument came from a South Dakotan historian named Doane Robinson, who wanted to create some historical monument to mark our nation’s 150th birthday with a work that would bring tourists to the Black Hills of South Dakota.  I have never seen Mount Rushmore in person, though I want to someday.  But three million tourists a year visit the shrine.  Gutzon Berglum originally conceived of four figures pictured from the waist up, but he did not live long enough to complete his originally intended project.  Robinson and his group had in mind a different mountain range for the work, but it was Berglum who insisted on Mount Rushmore, preferring the strength of the stone and the southeast exposure to the light, which everyone who understands art says is the key to the magic and power that these sixty-feet tall images have held for over seventy years.

             I feel fairly certain that Thomas Jefferson would have never thought it possible that his likeness would be cast and carved on the side of a mountain along with Washington’s, not to speak of Lincoln’s and Roosevelt’s, and that three million people a year would travel across this nation to see these unlikely, gigantic public sculptures!  Mind you, given his vanity, Jefferson would have loved the idea!  I just don’t think he ever would have believed it possible.  He placed way too much stock in human reason, and there is very little that is reasonable about Mount Rushmore.  It is real, mind you, but what is reasonable would never have given us such a national treasure.

             I believe the same about this account of The Transfiguration.  What it offers to us is real; it holds for us great truth.  But it clearly was not an event or an account whose telling was driven by what is reasonable.  And it is surely one of those events that requires of us more than a strict rationality to comprehend.  Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as if everything is.”  If I had to choose between Jefferson and Einstein, I would go with Einstein on this every time!  I am reading a book now by Eben Alexander call Proof of Heaven about a near death experience this academic neuro-surgeon had that altered his convictions about reality itself.  His experience made a believer out of him, and changed completely his notions of God and life.  He discovered a whole dimension to reality he previously thought impossible.

             Well, something happened on that mountaintop with Jesus, Peter, James and John that left all three gospel writers reaching for language to describe it.  And I suspect all three would acknowledge that what they were reporting was a profoundly mysterious event.

             What I would leave you with today are three large Biblical truths that this account offers.  The first one has to do with the glory of God.  Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other.”  Well it is God’s glory that shines on the face of Jesus, and God’s glory which makes His raiment “dazzling white.”  Just as it was God’s glory that shined upon Moses’ face even long after he had encountered Yahweh on the mountain.

             God’s glory is strange and mysterious in both these passages, but the glory of God is everywhere to be seen.  For both Moses and Jesus, their close encounters with God leave them physically altered, aglow with the glory of the Lord.  Both reveal to us something of what it means to be close to God.

             Of course, eyes of faith can behold God’s glory in many places.  I have seen God’s glory in a sunrise as I sat atop Mount Kenya in 2004, just as I see it in sunsets sitting on our family’s dock in the summer at Old Hickory Lake.  I see the glory of the Lord in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, which interestingly flatter him not at all.  Rembrandt understood how human beings bear both the image of God and the marks of sinfulness and falleness upon their faces, and he offered a vision of truth in his self-portraits that reveal unmistakably something of God’s glory.

             Toward the end of his long life, theologian Karl Barth would preach on Sunday in Basel’s prisons.  The book of these sermons is called Deliverance to the Captives.  In preaching on this passage one Sunday, Barth said, “Jesus Christ is the one who makes us radiant.  We ourselves cannot put on radiant faces.  But neither can we prevent them from shining.  Looking up to Him, our faces shine.”  If we looked to Jesus more often, our lives would be more radiant.

             The second great truth this mysterious encounter offers us is Jesus’ relationship to Israel.  Jesus appears in dazzling white apparel talking with Moses and Elijah about His departure.  The Greek word for departure is the word exodus!  The scene is kind of like the end of the Star Wars trilogy when Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi and the redeemed Death Vader, all Jedi warriors who have died nobly, appear together in holographic imagery, waving reassuringly at us.  (I think Lucas stole the idea from the Bible!)

             For the Gospel writers, the meaning of this mysterious encounter is clear.  God has torn back the curtain of time to give Peter, James and John a glimpse into eternity.  And Jesus has come as the fulfillment of all the Law and the prophesy of Israel.  “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight,” says the Christmas carol.  Well, here the hopes and fears of all the years of Israel are met in Jesus, the fulfillment of Israel’s great hope to be a light to the nations.  Jesus is that light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall never overcome it.

             Finally, one last large Biblical truth, this one an echo from Jesus’ baptism.  From the cloud came a voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!”  God’s voice offers the definitive word about Jesus’ identity.  And Jesus stands alone as the only Son of the Father.  This is the Triune God who is revealed on the mount, more crucial to hear from than even Moses and Elijah, who also encountered Yahweh atop mountains.

             “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!”  I cannot think of a more important word to offer to you today.  Listen to Him!  “Be wise as serpents; be harmless as doves.”  Listen!  “Come into me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  Listen to Him!  “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.  Not as the world gives do I give unto you.  Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.”  Listen to Him!  “In this world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”  Is there a more important voice for us to heed, and can we ever listen enough to Jesus?  “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

                                                                                     Amen.

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