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Recognizing Jesus

First preached on Transfiguration Sunday, February 23, 2020, at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Logan Square

Relevant lectionary texts here.

ted neeley

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with it, but I grew up on the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  My mom introduced it to me and my siblings when we were pretty young and we watched the movie version on VHS, like with Ted Neeley and everything.  Like I was really into it, I had all the lyrics memorized and some of the dancing too. I sang Mary Magdalene’s solo at a talent show. I went to see the play a few times when it was touring, saw Ted Neeley’s retirement tour of the musical and everything.  Half the time when we are reading the Bible at church I’m like, singing the scene that goes along with it as the background music in my brain. Jesus Christ Superstar was a huge part of my formation.  

Honestly that movie is probably the reason I went to seminary, seriously.

My mom tells this story of when I was little and first watching the movie and I kept saying, “That doesn’t look like Jesus!”  And it wasn’t because Ted Neeley is white and Jesus, like we were reminded in our children’s message last week, looks more like Aiden.  I hadn’t actually learned that yet. There was something else, something about Ted Neeley that I couldn’t put my finger on, couldn’t quite articulate.  He didn’t look like the Jesus I imagined.

But there is this moment in the movie, after Jesus is beaten and cast down into a pit, where this moment of transformation or transfiguration happens. The orchestra is swelling, playing the title track in the background dramatically like [* singing * dun dun dun!] and Jesus changes. In this moment, his wounds are healed, his face is washed, his robe is super white, and his hair goes from being kind of stringy to being neatly brushed and wavy and shiny and lucious.  I turned to my mom and said, “Now THAT looks like Jesus.”

This week we celebrate the Festival of the Transfiguration. And although Jesus Christ Superstar was often pretty Biblically accurate, Jesus’ transfiguration didn’t actually happen in a pit after being beaten by soldiers in Jerusalem. It happened during his ministry, during the time he was preaching and teaching and healing, around the time he started predicting his death to the disciples. Jesus was feeling the escalating tension that the gaining visibility of the movement he was building was causing, and he knew that instead of backing away from the conflict he was headed right towards it. Only a few chapters later is the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  So it is in the midst of Jesus’ ministry that he takes three of his disciples up to the top of a high mountain where Jesus is transfigured. Together they encounter their ancestors – Moses and the Prophet Elijah, and as a cloud overshadowed them, they hear a voice from Heaven echoing the words from Jesus’ baptism, saying, “This is my beloved, the begotten one,” and instructing the disciples, “Listen to him.”

It is of note that the season of Lent is bookended by these two experiences of Jesus on a mountaintop.  Today in both of our readings we experience the mountaintops full of God’s glory. The author of Matthew uses words like “dazzling” to describe what was surely an ineffable thing to behold. Jesus is accompanied by Moses, who brought down the Law from mount Sinai, and the prophet Elijah who experienced God on the side of the mountain in the stillness.  There is a heavenly voice proclaiming Jesus’ role as God’s begotten one. It is the stuff of movies. Little Elle definitely would have seen something like this and thought, “NOW he looks like Jesus!”

But as we begin this week on the mountaintop and look ahead to our journey through the wilderness of Lent, we are driving towards the Jesus on top of another mountain, Golgotha, the place of the Skull. There, Jesus isn’t surrounded by holy ancient witnesses but is abandoned by many who care for him.  On this mountain, there is no sparkling white robe, but naked flesh striped red with bloody wounds. On the mountain of Golgotha, there is no reassuring loving voice from Heaven. God feels far away, even to Jesus, who cries out, “My God why have you forsaken me?”

The mountain experience of the cross is not the mountain top moment of glory like before.  It is a mountain top moment of state terror, lynching, public execution.

It is the valley between these two mountain moments, one of transfigured glory, one of suffering that Lent is situated. 

As we travel through the season of Lent, many of us are taking on practices that we hope might help us experience God in a new way.  We are setting this time apart, intentionally stripping down the excess or disrupting our own status quo in order to encounter God afresh. On this journey through the wilderness, as we are seeking God, remember that God does not often come to us in the ways that we might expect or recognize. Little Elle probably would have looked at the dirty, bloodied Brown man on Golgotha and said, “That doesn’t look like Jesus.”  And yet that Jesus, that moment was the truest expression of who Jesus is. Not every holy moment is set aside with booming, cinematic voices from Heaven that point out for us, “This! This is where God dwells.”

Sometimes God is present in glory.  But the clearest picture we have of the divine is the one hung up high on the cross.  God is most clearly in the crucified ones here in our midst:

God is being profiled.

God is being stopped and frisked.

God is freezing on a park bench.

God is in prison because he can’t make bail.

God is separated from her children at the border.

God is rationing her insulin because she can’t afford insurance.

God is crouched behind their desk in their third grade classroom practicing active shooter drills.

The people we crucify and cast aside as disposable and try to forget?  That’s where God is.

So if you want to be sure to see God this Lent, make sure that you recognize Her.  Make sure that you know what to seek, what to look for, so you don’t miss it.

Because the story of God’s glory on the mountain today that we read isn’t the pinnacle of the story.

The cross is.

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