Sermon — Awe, Wonder & Terror

Here’s a sermon I wrote for Sunday. I didn’t give it — I wrote it for a friend, who used bits and pieces of it when he preached. Oh well.

Transfiguration Sunday

  • 2 Kings 2:1-12
  • Psalm 50:1-6
  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
  • Mark 9:2-9

* Awe. Wonder. Terror. How else do you describe the fiery ascent of Elijah as the army of the the Lord — the chariots and horsemen of Israel — in heat and flame stampede through the very place where Elisha stands as he watches his master rise to heaven in a whirlwind?

* How else do you describe this “transfiguration” of Jesus, when he becomes unearthly, something not of this world, something bigger than merely human, something approaching divine. When he becomes, again, the Beloved Son with whom God is pleased and to whom we should listen?

* Awe. Wonder. Terror. That’s what Elijah feels, I’m fairly certain, as he stands there in the midst of all he sees, hears, and feels. This army, these horses and charioteers are the Hosts of the Lord, the God-of-the-Angel Armies as Eugene Peterson puts it in his Bible translation The Message. In any era, an advancing is a terrifying thing. It’s supposed to be. How can Elisha not feel terror?

* This is also clearly what Peter, James and John feel. Mark says so when reports Peter’s babbling statement, let’s build tents for everyone here! “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

* Babbling idiots. That’s what the true presence of God, the stunning work of the Lord, produces here. People who, touched by God, can say or do nothing reasonable. Because there is nothing reasonable to say.

* Awe. Wonder. Terror. This is the right response to the presence of God.

* There was God at Sinai, who descended upon the mountain like a fire, a devouring fire, whose presence shook the very earth to its foundations and threatened to break the mountain. God speaks in thunder from the mountains, and only Moses can approach the mountain, the presence of God in their midst. This is an overwhelming presence, and a terrifying one that threatens to destroy the very people of God.

* It’s not easy to be the people of God.

* Moses comes down from that mountain having talked with God for forty days and night with his face shining white. So white, so bright, that everyone in Israel is afraid to get anywhere near him. And this transfiguration happens to Moses every time he speaks to God.

* The prophet Elijah is no stranger to commanding fire. At times, he can summon devouring flames from heaven to destroy Jezebel’s priests of Baal, and the soldiers sent to summon him by the idolatrous King Ahaziah. But it doesn’t stop him from fearing for his life, and from fearing the presence of God. Even as God speaks to him in a whisper, that whisper comes after a shattering wind, a mighty earthquake, and a consuming fire.

* Awe. Wonder. Terror. That’s the proper response to the presence of God.

* Do we feel that here? When we come to worship, do we really understand what’s going on here? Do we really know what we are part of? That we are summoning God to be in our midst? That we are calling down fire, that we are witnessing a transfiguration, an ascent to heaven of the living, that the very armies of God are overrunning us as we praise and pray?

* My guess is we don’t feel much awe or wonder. Certainly not much terror. We come here to feel the familiar and the comfortable. We come here to belong, and to know that we belong. However much the world might change around us, we come here knowing this place doesn’t change. We come here to practice the gentle, reassuring rituals of a faith that is ours because our fathers gave it to us. As their fathers did. And their fathers as well.

* And there is value to that. It’s important to have a place of belonging, a place of comfort and rest. Because those are the promises Christ makes to us. His burden is light, and his yoke is easy.

* His cross, however …

* But that familiarity, that comfort, make it easy to ignore what’s really going on here. We are proclaiming the presence of God, a presence so overwhelming as to threaten our annihilation. We are summoning the incarnate and risen Lord of all creation, the very Word through which all was breathed into being, into our midst. We may not see the dark cloud around the mountain, the fire threatening to devour, the bright shining faces of those who meet God face-to-face, or the armies of God advancing through us, but they are there. They are all there.

* It’s easy to think with our rituals that we have domesticated God, put God in a nice little box, which can summon and control at our will. We treat a little like a pilot light on a gas stove, something we can turn on and off at will. But that’s our conceit. Fire is a dangerous thing, and we play with fire every time we gather to worship. And that fire, that fire plays with us.

* So I challenge you, in the words of gathering, in the hymns we sing, in our praising and our praying, try to see something more than the comforting and the familiar. Know that Christ is here, in flesh and blood. As are his disciples. And that is no small thing. Every Christian whoever broke bread and passed a cup “in memory of me” is with us right now. In this place, time and space no longer exist, and we are one huge church assembled across eternity, breaking and blessing and drinking and remembering. Whose we are. Who has gathered us.

* And I also challenge you. Look around. Feel the heat. See the light. Sense the presence. Behold in in awe, wonder, and terror, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen.

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