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Main Features And Coming Attractions

Sermon
God in Flesh Made Manifest
Cycle A Gospel Lesson Sermons For Advent, Christmas, And Epiphany
You go into the movie theatre, find a seat that's suitable, clamber over some poor innocent slumbering in the aisle seat, taking pains not to step on toes or lose your balance. You find a place for your coat, sit down, and get ready to watch the movie. The house lights dim; the speakers crackle as the dust and scratches on the soundtrack are translated into static, and an image appears on the screen. It is not the film you came to see. It is the preview of coming attractions, a brief glimpse of the highlights of a film opening soon. The moviemakers and theater owners hope the preview will pique your interest enough to make you want to come back and see the whole film.

On the Mount of the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John, the inner circle of Jesus' disciples, were given a preview of coming attractions. And today, on the Festival of the Transfiguration, so, too, are we -- a splendid preview of Jesus radiant in divine glory, his mortal nature brilliantly though only momentarily transfigured; a dazzling preview of his divinity, unalloyed and perfectly pure, shining in glory like the very sun. A sneak preview, in other words, of Easter, the triumphant climax of the epic love story between God and humankind.

But like the preview in the movie theater, this is not the film that is showing today. It hasn't opened yet; it can't be seen in its entirety. Only a glimpse to arouse interest and stimulate curiosity. Those whose interest is piqued will have to wait, will have to come back.

Peter, for one, thinks that's a punk deal. This is the big picture he's been waiting to see. He's viewed enough of the melodramatic healings and documentaries featuring Jesus the teacher. Peter's recent confrontation with Jesus over the rabbi's depressing talk about rejection and suffering and dying is still fresh on his mind. His soul still stings from his master's words, "Get behind me, Satan, for you are not on the side of God but of mortals." Peter wants no more of that kind of talk, no more of that kind of picture. He wants action, big, bold, spectacular. This vision on the mountain, with Jesus, Moses and Elijah in celestial conversation, this is more like it. No: not like it; this is it! This is what he had hoped for ever since he dropped his fisherman's nets and hitched his wagon to the rabbi's rising star.

"Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory" will soon become "Mine is the kingdom and the power and the glory" if only these giants of the faith will let him hang out with them. So naturally he offers to build three booths, three dwellings -- it's a way to prolong the moment, to forget the main feature about to be played out and jump ahead to the coming attraction he and the others are here previewing.

Once, in a conversation with a colleague, I observed that this story suggests an appropriate name for some churches. "You know," my friend replied in agreement, "now that you mention it, I don't think I know of any Transfiguration Lutheran Churches."

"I wasn't thinking of Transfiguration Lutheran Church," I said. "What I had in mind was 'Three Booths Lutheran Church.' "

For how often does the church seek not to seize the moment, but freeze the moment? Typically it is some moment of glory in the congregation's life, some fond memory of a person, a practice, a program.

A clerical acquaintance tells this story: "When I came to my last congregation as Associate Pastor, I collected some bruises as a result of running headlong into a few booths that had been erected along the way. One I remember especially well. It had to do with a particularly cohesive group of young people who had just graduated from high school, thus concluding their involvement in the congregation's youth group. This was a special group: they were blessed and they were a blessing. People recalled their energy, their enthusiasm and their commitment with obvious and appropriate fondness. And then some would go on to say, 'There will never be another youth group as good as that one.' Wham! Peter couldn't have built a better booth himself!" We know a moment of glory when we see one, and when we see one, we want to seize one; and when we seize it we want to freeze it.

It's a real no-brainer to figure out the effect that particular booth had on the youth who were left behind, struggling to become a group themselves. That booth may as well have had the shape of a coffin, because it effectively killed youth ministry in that congregation for about a year or so. Nobody meant to do that. It's just that our instincts, like those of Peter, make us go for the glory and revel in it and hope it will go on forever, and be disappointed when it passes -- as inevitably it must -- to make way for God's new thing.

It is a perpetual temptation for the church to become a religious museum, for its leaders to become curators and caretakers, with energies diverted and devoted to the institutionalization of the past, especially moments of glory past. But God has so designed the universe that time marches on. Moments of glory fade. Exciting previews of coming attractions end and the real story we came to see unfolds.

God has done this, I think, not only out of divine necessity, but out of divine mercy and compassion as well. Constant ecstatic stimulation, like constant conflict, can and does lead to emotional burnout. As with Jesus, Peter, James and John on the mountaintop, what goes up must come down. And that's a mercy. A cause for thanksgiving and not lament.

All of which brings us back to those six men on the mountain, and the voice from the cloud. This particular preview of God's coming attraction is in fact related to the main feature that is about to unfold. God's voice from the cloud confirms it. For when that voice declares, "This is my son; listen to him," Jesus' disciples, then and now, do well to obey. Listen to him. What is he saying? He just got finished talking about how he must be rejected and suffer and die. That's what we need to listen to. The glory will come. The Transfiguration is a preview. But first must come the main attraction.

The main attraction: a fitting description, for when Jesus spoke of his crucifixion, he said, "When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself." That's the main attraction: the cross of Christ, hard though it is to understand, hard though it is for our Lord to bear.

Obedient to the divine command, "Listen to him," we focus on that cross this coming season of Lent, and attend carefully to the story that unfolds. The empty tomb of Easter is for now a coming attraction, and the Transfiguration is the preview. Jesus has literally to go through Hell before that picture opens, and with it, the graves of all God's beloved daughters and sons.
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