The Tomb is the Womb

Titian / Public domain

Synopsis: Humanity is currently undergoing a time of great change, which is generating a lot of fear because human beings in general do not like change. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration can give us courage and hope as we face our personal and collective trials.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon. Note: The live recording of this sermon ends at about 9:45 (my recording device’s batteries died). The remaining sermon audio was recorded in my home.

Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, has been quoted as saying “change is the only constant in life.” It’s strange that a statement containing two contradictory words, “constant” and “change,” can be so true.

What’s just as ironic – and true – is the fact that change is something we humans fear the most. Here we live in a world where the only constant thing is change, and we fear change. What a predicament!

And here we are in this time of great change in our world, and we can feel the fear in the air. I believe the story of the transfiguration of Jesus can help us to be less fearful of change – and maybe even learn to embrace it.

In the previous chapter, Jesus and his disciples entered the region of Caesarea Philippi, located about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. This area was ruled by Herod’s brother, Phillip the Tetrarch, who changed its name to Caesarea Philippi to honor the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and – of course – himself.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus was beginning to face opposition from religious leaders who kept asking him to produce a miraculous “sign in the sky.” Jesus had already performed many miracles, but they dismissed them as magic tricks, coincidence, or the use of some evil power.

Jesus knew that producing this sign would not convince them because they had already made up their minds about him. They believed that he was not of God, so they would once again explain away even a miraculous sign in the sky.

Juxtaposed to their doubts is Peter’s famous confession of faith. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

When Jesus asked them who they say he is, Peter declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praised him as blessed for having received this revelation from God.

After Peter professed his faith in Jesus, Jesus began talking to the disciples about what he was going to face in Jerusalem – that he would be turned over to the religious leaders, be killed, and on the third day, rise from the dead.

Peter believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but he didn’t understand why he had to suffer and die. So, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, “Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Jesus responded with a strong rebuke of his own, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter had six days to think about that before Jesus took them up that high mountain in our scripture reading for today.

Why did Jesus take them up there? Luke’s gospel says that he took them up there to pray, which is most likely true. In ancient times, people often used mountaintops or the wilderness to remove themselves from the world in order to pray or to receive spiritual revelations or transformations.

What’s interesting is that Jesus didn’t take all of his disciples up the mountain, only Peter, James, and John. Jesus was praying within eyeshot of these three when he was “transfigured.”

The main focus of this passage is on this one word: “transfigured.” The Greek term is meTA-mor-phoh-see, from where we get our word “metamorphosis.” The word describes a complete change in the form and substance of something. We read “his face shone like the sun” – as if light were coming out of the pores of his skin” – and his clothes became dazzling white.”

If that weren’t startling enough, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear. Moses wrote the Law and represents those who obeyed the Law. Elijah was to come to prepare people’s hearts for the coming of the Lord, so he represents those who had fallen away.

The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus emphasizes his link with the ongoing story of God’s journey with His People, Israel. Jesus is the main character in chapter three of Israel’s Redemption Story – a story that would be extended to the entire world.

We read that when Peter saw Elijah and Moses, he offered to build tents for them. What was that all about? Peter wasn’t being obstinate or irreverent. His offer directly relates to the Feast of Tabernacles. This is a yearly feast in the Jewish tradition commemorating the wilderness wanderings and finally settling in the promised land. The people would build little shelters (or booths) and live under them for a week until the last day – the great day of the feast – to celebrate the promises coming to fulfillment.

In the previous chapter, Peter heard Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, upon experiencing this glorious vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, probably thought, “This is it – Jubilee! Can I make the tents?”

We certainly can’t blame Peter if his mind was a bit blown by what he had just seen, but he also wasn’t totally off. The prophet Zachariah wrote that in the Kingdom of God people will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, or the fulfillment of all promises. Peter had the right idea – it just wasn’t the right time.

Peter’s offer was interrupted by a bright cloud overshadowing them, and a voice coming from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The Voice confirmed that Jesus embodied the Christ, so he was not merely a “son of God” like many people of royalty were called in those days, and he was not merely a “son of man,” like an ordinary human being.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God – the beloved and only begotten – and the Son of Man prophesized about in Daniel chapter 7: “I saw one like a human being (or a Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”

The Voice declared, “This is Jesus Christ, who sits at my right hand, to whom I have given authority over all things.” This is the claim Jesus will make at his trial in front of the Sanhedrin, the claim that will ultimately seal his fate.

The Lord’s transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah were not meant to frighten the disciples. It certainly made it clear to them that Jesus is what Peter declared him to be, not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.

I’m sure those three disciples were at least awe-struck and from that point on and listened more intently what Jesus had to say.

After Jesus’ transfiguration, they came down the mountain. As much as it might have been tempting to remain there basking in all that glory, Jesus was ready to begin the final stages of his work as Savior.

He warned his disciples not to tell anyone about who he is until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” We can assume he didn’t want them to share this experience even with the other disciples. We don’t know why, but Jesus must have foreseen that sharing this with others before the right time would somehow interfere with his mission.

Now, how can this story help us deal with our fear of change in this time of great change?

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope for the future of humanity. God made us, and we are magnificent creatures. Just as Jesus’ transfiguration blew the minds of his disciples, we human beings all have the same mind-blowing potential in union with Christ, and Jesus came to prove it.

In 1 Corinthians 15:50-52, the apostle Paul wrote, “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

On the Mount of Transfiguration, God gave us a glimpse of that mysterious change. He revealed His Glory within Jesus. That glory is also within you as the Christ. That glory is within you. Do you believe that? Do you believe that you can morph into something entirely different?

When we think of the word metamorphosis, we often think of a butterfly. If I were to show you a caterpillar and a butterfly, would you ever believe in a million years that that little worm crawling around in the dirt would transform into a creature of such exquisite beauty and power, floating around in the sky with effortless grace and total freedom, if you hadn’t seen it for yourself?

Behold the power of God within His Creations! We take it for granted, but isn’t that magnificent?

And here we all are, with the same exquisite beauty and power within us that the disciples witnessed in Jesus. It’s hard for us to believe that we are not really this little worm, this physical body, this personal self, crawling around in the dirt of this world. We are really something else – something of unbelievable beauty and power – something that can soar with effortless grace and total freedom.

But the only way that we will ever believe it is to see it for ourselves. Herein lies the problem. We choose to wait in darkness for the “proof” that only our own light will deliver. The caterpillar is driven by its God-given instincts. When it is time, it begins to make its cocoon. The caterpillar’s tomb will become the butterfly’s womb.

We have free will, so we can choose to delay our transformation as long as we want, but not forever. Unlike the caterpillar, we are afraid of change. We’re a bit attached to who we think we are. We think we’re perfectly happy as a little worm. We don’t want God to show us the butterfly we really are.

We can be like the religious leaders who had already made up their minds about Jesus. We have already made up our minds about who we think we are, and the ego doesn’t like to be proven wrong. It also fears the unknown – at least it knows what to expect as a little worm.

But there’s only one way to become the butterfly we really are: We have to let the little worm go. Most people experience this “letting go” upon the death of their physical body, but we can experience this psychologically – without dying.

The timing is up to God, but we can allow God to give us this glimpse of who we really are in His Time by being willing to let go of all the ideas we have about ourselves – to let go of our beliefs, our desires, our likes, our dislikes, our past, our future, and all the other psychological “stuff” that separates us out and makes us “someone.”

I know that sounds strange, but it is believing all this “stuff” that has us convinced that we are the little worm – separate selves with separate lives – when we are really so much more. There is a purpose for this illusion. It’s how God experiences life as a human being – by temporarily “getting lost” in the human experience just like we get temporarily lost in a story by becoming identified with the characters.

We love getting sucked into a good story, don’t we? That’s because we never lose who we really are. God intends for Life to be fun that way – to be a joy – but when forget who we are, we become afraid, and then it isn’t fun anymore. Trials help us remember who we are. They encourage us to enter our cocoon – so that the tomb of our “character” may become the womb of Christ.

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope in times of trial. Peter tried to keep the Lord out of the tomb. During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan also tried to keep Jesus out of the tomb – to seek personal worldly glory, not Christ’s eternal glory.

But then Jesus would have remained Jesus of Nazareth and would never have become Jesus Christ. And we would not have his path to follow and the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us.

Can you think of a time when you went through a very difficult trial? At the time, you might have thought, “Why are you doing this to me God? What have I done to deserve this?”

But there’s nothing like a difficult trial to destroy the false ideas we have about ourselves – especially the limiting ones. We often don’t know the strength within us until our personal self finally acknowledges complete loss of control and throws up its hands in surrender.

Unfortunately, to get it to that point usually requires a lot of pain. Arthur Burt once said, “Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.”

The good news is that we’re not left there in ruins. That’s when the Christ within takes over and takes care of what needs to be done effortlessly. That’s when God’s love and grace and mercy become most apparent. That’s when we realize that trials are not meant to destroy us; they are meant to make us stronger. They are meant to wake us up.

We not only experience trials individually, but also collectively. Humanity is in a lot of pain right now. Can you feel it? Are you shuddering to think how bad the pain might have to get before humanity’s collective ego finally throws up its hands in surrender?

Me too, but at the same time, I trust that we will not be abandoned.

Jesus’ transfiguration confirms our faith. While we don’t know specifically what was said between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, we can assume that they were discussing his upcoming trial in Jerusalem. Jesus was not abandoned as he approached the most difficult part of his mission.

We can be sure that somehow his experience of being transfigured and his speaking with Moses and Elijah gave him the strength to face it.

Our faith is that strength. From the perspective of the world, Jesus’ march to the tomb was insane. That is why Jesus told his disciples in the previous chapter, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must forget about himself. He must take up his cross and follow Me. If anyone wants to keep his life safe, he will lose it. If anyone gives up his life because of me, he will save it. For what does a man have if he gets all the world and loses his own soul? What can a man give to buy back his soul?”

I’m quoting the NIV version of this verse because I believe this version makes it clearer what Jesus is talking about. The soul is the one consciousness that animates all living things. This one consciousness is Christ. Christ is the content within every living vessel.

Jesus was saying to his disciples, what have you gained if you protect this vessel but lose its contents? You become like a book with no words written within it. You not only become an empty book, but you lose your connection to everything. You lose the Word which is the very content of the Book of Life.

But the Truth about our loving God is that we can’t get lost; we can only experience ourselves lost temporarily. So, no matter what happens in our personal or collective lives, we should never lose hope, but abound in compassion for the pain within ourselves and all humanity as we struggle to wake up and become all God created us to be.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to enter the tomb of our personal selves that it may become the womb of Christ. Shine in us, around us, and through us, that the world may see your glory in the faces of your people – faces transfigured by the light of your love. Amen.

Resources

Ross, Allen. “25. The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).” Bible.org 31 Mar. 2006, https://bible.org/seriespage/25-transfiguration-matthew-171-13

Changing the World for the Better

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch, 1877 (Wikimedia Commons)

Synopsis: Changing the world for the better is a very complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective. From a spiritual perspective, however, it’s far less complicated. Jesus taught us how we can easily change the world for the better by being salt and light.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with your from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

On Tuesday, President Trump delivered the annual State of the Union address. Despite all the negative drama going on over the past four years, it’s been a long time since there has been so much interest in what the government is doing. That’s a positive thing.

People’s reactions to the President’s address demonstrated that some believe he is taking the country in a positive direction while others do not. It’s clear that everyone wants our country to be better; it’s just that not everyone agrees about how that can best be accomplished.

Changing a country for the better – indeed changing the world for the better– is an extremely complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective – with political parties often opposing each other tooth-and-nail.

Fortunately, when viewed from a spiritual perspective, it’s far less complicated. Jesus teaches us how we can easily change the world for the better in our Gospel reading for today.

In the previous chapter, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum to begin his ministry. He called his first disciples: two sets of brothers – Peter and Andrew and James and John. He began preaching in the synagogues and healing the sick throughout Galilee. Matthew reports that his ministry in Galilee was very successful: large crowds of people began following him.

Chapter five opens with the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes we all know and love. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He spoke about the blessings received by those who know they live in darkness and actually mourn over it.

Their sincere sorrow inspires them to earnestly seek righteousness, and as they seek righteousness, they naturally become more merciful, pure in heart, and peaceful. Unfortunately, these qualities are not ones the world values, so those who possess them will be persecuted. But even that is a blessing because it’s a sign that they are “not of this world.”

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus taught that if we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, then we are like the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We can boil down what he is trying to say to one word: influence. If we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, we can influence the world in a more positive direction. We can change the world for the better.

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “salt of the earth?” If Jesus said this today, we might think he is referring to salt as a type of “spice” to flavor things. I like salt. Salt makes a lot of things taste better. Is that what Jesus meant? That we help make life more palatable for people?

Some ministers might interpret it this way, but I think that’s missing the mark. We followers of the Lord do at times make life more pleasant with our compassionate words and deeds, but we also at times make people uncomfortable by challenging them to think and behave differently through our example.

To properly interpret what Jesus meant, we must consider what he said from the perspective of his time and culture. In his time, many households used salt as a preservative for fish and meat since there was no refrigeration. Jesus was most likely referring to salt’s function as a preservative. Those of us who follow Jesus’ example help to preserve righteousness and prevent moral decay.

Most people want to become better people. God created us that way; it’s part of our inherent goodness. Now, there are people in the world who are so lost that they are not in touch with their basic goodness. It’s not God’s Will for anyone to remain lost forever, so we can never give up hope for them. All we can do is pray for them, the main prayer being, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

But they are the exception. Most people want to become better people – to become more rational and considerate human beings. They just don’t know what that looks like because they haven’t had good role models. They need people to influence them in that direction; they need us to be “salty.” 

We need to behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave. We may not realize how much our words and deeds make a deep impression on others, but people do take notice.

I recently read a story about a sixteen-year-old from Nebraska who lost control of his car on icy roads and took out his neighbor’s mailbox. What do you think he did? What do you think a typical teenager would do in that situation?

This young man walked up to the neighbor’s front door and rang the doorbell. When she answered the door, he explained that he accidently hit her mailbox when his car slid on the icy roads. Then he opened his wallet and offered her all of the cash in it. When she told him it was OK and to keep his money, he was so grateful that he returned three days later with a plateful of homemade cookies for her.

The neighbor was so impressed by this young man’s noble behavior that she posted his picture from her front door security camera on social media, wanting to know who his parents were so that she could tell them what an outstanding young man they raised.

When we behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave, people not only take notice, but they also do a quick inventory of their own morality. They can’t help but ask themselves, “Would I do that?” Virtuous acts throw up a mirror, forcing people to look at themselves and challenging them to “go and do likewise.”

This young man, though his words and actions, proved that it is possible for human beings to act with a high level of virtue. He raised the bar for all of us. It would have been so easy for him to just get back in his car and drive away. Most teenagers, even most people, probably would have done that. But if he had done that, he would have lost his “saltiness,” and I would not be sharing his inspiring story with all of you today.

Jesus taught that if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It becomes worthless. Think about it. It’s impossible for salt not to be salty. There is no such thing as saltless salt. If it’s not salty, it’s not salt, and if it’s not salt, then it can’t be used to preserve anything, and that’s its main purpose. If it can’t fulfill its purpose, it is worthless.

It’s our main purpose to preserve righteousness in this world. If we’re going to continue to be salt – to be the kind of influence that makes the world a better place – we can’t lose our saltiness. We can’t do what’s easy. We can’t “sell out” and behave like everyone else.

The Rev. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “light of the world?” Jesus is essentially making the same point twice, using two different analogies. The world is not only in a state of moral decay, but it is also in state of darkness. As salt, we preserve righteousness. As light, we drive away the darkness.

If we are blessed with the spiritual qualities Jesus spoke about in the Beatitudes, we will drive away unrighteousness wherever we go just as the light drives away the darkness.

How do you know if you are the light? You know you are the light if you walk into a room and people automatically stop gossiping – or cussing – or arguing. Suddenly, people start behaving themselves; they start acting like better people. That’s when you know you are the light.

Dwight L. Moody once said, “A holy life will make the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns, they just shine.” We don’t even have to say a word; the most powerful statement is to simply refuse to participate in or tolerate bad behavior by leaving the room.

We should never fail to take advantage of opportunities to influence people in a positive direction.

In Joyce Myer’s book “The Confident Woman Devotional,” she tells the story of Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker minister in Europe in the early 1800s. Ms. Fry was invited to do social work in England’s Newgate prison. She said she found “half naked women, struggling together … with the most boisterous violence … I felt as if I were going into a den of wild beasts.”

All she did was suggest a few things – that women and men be held in separate areas, that the more violent offenders be separated from the less violent, and that the prisoners be employed in some useful work – and she became one of the greatest prison reformers of all time. Her influence spread throughout France and the British colonies, and today we can’t imagine prisons without her reforms.

Joyce Meyer writes, “If you will do what you can do, God will do what you cannot do. You will also inspire others to do what they can do, and even though each person can only do a little, together we can make a big difference.”

And that brings us to the Law Jesus said that he came fulfill. What was he referring to? Was he referring to the entire Torah Law, both oral and written? Didn’t Jesus have an issue with Torah Law?

Jesus did not have an issue with Torah Law. He had an issue with those who didn’t practice what they preached. Many of the “Teachers of the Law” (i.e. Pharisees and Scribes) taught the people Torah Law but didn’t follow it themselves.

In addition to not following Torah Law, they also didn’t follow “the traditions of the elders” that they insisted others follow. Because they kept people so busy with the outward demonstrations of the Law, people’s hearts weren’t being changed by the Spirit of the Law.

Friday is Valentine’s Day, guys. Imagine bringing flowers to your sweetheart, and your sweetheart says, “Oh sweetie, these are lovely. Why did you do this?” And you respond, “Oh, I don’t know … I’m just doing what they tell me I’m supposed to do. I have no idea why. Seems like just another money-making scam holiday to me.”

Wrong answer.

The right answer would be something like: “How could I not, love of my life? I think of you always; I delight in you! I delight in doing this. What else would I rather do; where else would I rather be than be with you, showering you with my gifts of love?”

The same action coming from two very different places. That’s why Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Many of them understood the Spirit of God’s Law as much as that “wrong answer” illustrated an understanding of the Spirit of Valentines’ Day.

And what about the Prophets? Was Jesus saying that he fulfilled all that was written in the books of the prophets, such as the books of Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel? I believe he was saying that he is the fulfillment of all that was written in those prophetic books – the Son of God who is to come to fulfill God’s Law. In other words, he is the Law of God in the flesh. He is the living, breathing Law of God.

That seems complicated, but Jesus simplifies what he means by the Law and the Prophets in Matthew chapter 20: 34-40. We read, “… One of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

God’s Law is Love: Loving God and loving one another. Following the Law of Love is about more than just going through the motions; it’s about letting it change our hearts and thus our behavior. The way to change the world for the better is to influence people to become better people.

That’s our job; surely, we can’t expect politicians to do it.

The problem with our world is not complicated – not enough love. How do we know that? Because there are people in this country and in the world who are suffering because of inadequate food, water, shelter, education, employment, or healthcare. If God’s Law of Love has entered into the hearts of enough people, this would not be happening. It wouldn’t be tolerated.

The solution is just as uncomplicated – more love. We need to love people more – enough to take advantage of any and all opportunities to be good to people – enough to speak out and insist that our national and world leaders find reasonable ways to ensure people’s basic needs are met.

That is – after all – the hallmark of an enlightened society. When everyone’s basic needs are met, then we can justifiably say a country or our world is “great.”

How can we love people more? We – as a people – need to get rid of the “us” vs. “them” mentality that so clearly dominates the political scene, often causing governments to be practically non-functioning. A society also can’t function well with this mentality. We can’t count on our governments to change, so we must change.

Everyone wants to live – and to live well would really nice. If God put someone on this earth, he or she is here for a purpose and therefore deserves to have his or her basic needs met and to be treated with the utmost respect.

They are not separate from us: They are one with us in Christ – and if they are not too busy struggling to survive, they have the potential, just like us, to become another glorious in-the-flesh expression of God’s living, breathing, Law of Love. Imagine a world where everyone is just that.

There is a wonderful story that I love to share that illustrates this concept. An anthropologist proposed a game to children of an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the kids that the first one to reach the fruit would win them all. When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hand and ran together, then sat down together enjoying the fruits.

When asked why they ran like that, as one could have taken all the fruit for oneself, they said, “Ubantu, how can one of us be happy when all the others are sad?” Ubantu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as “I am because we are.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, it is our desire to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. May the Law of God’s Love fully enter into our hearts and become manifest in our flesh as it did in Yours so that we may powerfully and positively influence the world as you did. Amen.

Resources

Anderson, David. “Lesson 10: Salt, Light, And Law (Matthew 5:13-20).” Bible.org, 23 July 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-10-salt-light-and-law-matthew-513-20.

Meyer, Joyce. The Confident Woman Devotional (p. 43). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

“Teen Praised for His Honesty After Heartfelt Apology (and Cookies) for Stranger Following Icy Road Incident.” GoodNewsNetwork.org, 29 Jan. 2020, www.goodnewsnetwork.org/teen-praised-for-honesty-after-hitting-mailbox/