by Daniel Harrell
We’re walking in the light all this fall and winter; easy to do when reading the Bible since throughout light shines as the Lord’s true identity. “God is light,” we read, meaning that the physical properties of light resemble the character of the Lord—illuminating, brilliant, radiant, unchanging, omnipresent, undivided, unifying, simple, uncorrupt, accessible yet mysterious, dynamic, life-giving and good. Sometimes when God appears in the Bible he does literally shine. There’s the light of creation in Genesis, the light of a fiery pillar in Exodus, the thunderous flashes of light atop Mt. Sinai for Moses, the blazing light of a chariot of fire for Elijah, a shining star for the Magi, a dazzling blast at Jesus’ baptism, and a knock-down flare that converted St. Paul. In this morning’s gleam, regarded by Christian orthodox traditions as the pinnacle light passage in Scripture, the light of God radiates from Jesus himself. Last week in John’s gospel, Jesus declared himself to be the “light of the world.” In Matthew, Mark and Luke, he literally shines.
Mark’s version kicked off with Jesus promising how “some standing here will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Six days later (which would make this the seventh day: hint, hint), Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain (Moses and Elijah met God on high mountains too: hint, hint). Once there, Jesus’ “clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” Matthew adds that Jesus’ also face shone like the sun. This transfiguration was no doubt an amazing spectacle. Mark tells us that it scared the disciples to death.
Last week in John’s gospel, on the other hand, Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world made the Pharisees furious. For first century Jews, light was the realm reserved for God alone, thus causing Jesus to sound utterly sacrilegious. So why Jesus didn’t glow a little bit for them? It probably would have just taken a flicker for the Pharisees to come around. But the danger was that had the Pharisees believed, they may not have had Jesus crucified. God’s whole plan for changing the world would have been ruined. As St. Paul would later realize, “in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
You may also remember from last Sunday how the Pharisees refused to take Jesus’ word for all this. They said because he testified on his own behalf his testimony was invalid. Jewish law required two witnesses to verify anything as true. Wanting to make sure that his disciples did believe (and just in case his lighting up wasn’t sufficient) Jesus offered up witnesses. A two reliable good ones. Setting aside how it was that the disciples recognized Moses and Elijah, why these two saints instead of, say, Jeremiah and Isaiah? Or David and Deborah?
The reasons had to do with popular Messianic expectations of that day. God had promised that he would raise up another savior like Moses, only greater. For ancient Israel, this meant another hero to make fools of their enemies and establish Israel as the greatest nation on earth. When Elijah arrived on the scene, he was a whole lot like Moses—meeting God on mountains, walking across parted waters, calling fire down from heaven. But then Elijah just left, carried back to heaven in that fiery chariot, leaving Israel to languish in eventual captivity to the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Romans, nevertheless determined to hold out for eventual glory. Still, because Elijah did not technically die, everybody expected he would return someday to finish the job. The prophet Malachi said as much. And Elijah would come back alright. He would call back Israel to God. But it would take another Moses to get them there.
So you can imagine the disciples’ awe not only at seeing Jesus shine, but at Moses and Elijah standing alongside. This was huge. Peter (being Peter) suggested turning the mountaintop into a three-ring circus to prolong the experience. (Mark, perhaps embarrassed for Peter, adds that Peter didn’t know what he was saying because he was so freaked out). God himself puts a stop to the silliness by lowering a tent of his own. A cloud enveloped them and they heard a voice say regarding Jesus, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” Moses and Elijah provide their own validation, pointing to Jesus and not to themselves as the One. Jesus was not to be confused with a reconstituted Moses (a political hero to deliver them from their oppression) nor a returning Elijah (a flame-throwing prophet to coerce the religious leaders into faith). Jesus’ victory would come through defeat, coercion by way of love. He would save their lives by losing his own. Jesus shines with the dark light of a crucified Savior.
No sooner had it all happened, it was over, leaving Jesus alone with his disciples again, clad as the poor and scandalized carpenter from Nazareth. The disciples likely now thought Jesus to be merely disguised as a homeless human—Almighty God in cheap clothes. But Jesus debunked this fallacy by telling them again to keep quiet until after he rose from the dead; thereby reminding them that being human meant dying, something that superhero Messiahs weren’t supposed to do. It was all very confusing, but Peter knew better than to open his mouth again. Instead, “they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ might mean.” Nobody they knew had done that before.
The disciples wouldn’t fully get it even after the resurrection. It would take a big lick of hot light and power from heaven at Pentecost for the disciples to fully come around. But even when you get it, it’s still hard to get it right. Hike up the traditional site of the Transfiguration and you’ll see they built that circus anyway. OK, it’s a church, but that only makes it worse. The power of Pentecost was power to to go out into the world to do good and make beauty and speak truth and share the gospel. Not shut yourself up inside to talk about it. The church was never supposed to be a monument so much as a mission, the ongoing work of Christ in the world. For Jesus to turn and call us the light of the world makes this very clear.
And yet, as we all know, churches still struggle to get this right. Rather than worry that we’re not serving the world, we worry that people don’t come to our services so much anymore. Al lot has been made of late of “the rise of the nones”—n-o-n-e-s—as opposed to the Catholic women in black habits. “None” as in “no religious affiliation.” Twenty percent of the American public—a third of adults under 30— are religiously unaffiliated—the highest percentages ever according to reliable studies. This number has doubled in the past ten years and continues to accelerate. According to Duke sociologist of religion Mark Chaves, “The evidence for a decades-long decline in religiosity is now incontrovertible—like the evidence for global warming, it comes from multiple sources, shows up in several dimensions, and paints a consistent factual picture.” Religion among young people in on a steep decline.
Diana Butler-Bass, in her book Christianity After Religion, insists that more people would go to church if they could find a community—or a Christianity—that embodied God’s love and mercy in practical and meaningful ways. “People are fed up,” she writes. “They are unwilling to put up with religious business-as-usual.” As I concluded last Sunday, church has to be more than well-done music and a well-honed sermon in a well-crafted building. Church must be situated in the concrete things Christians do to, with and for other people. We must embody the words we preach. Our lives must match our speech—even when we fail—because in our failures we demonstrate what repentance and resurrection look like. “You are the light of the world” Jesus said, not because we are flawless, but because his light shines through us, even on those days when it’s the dark light of crucifixion.
As with death and resurrection, bad news often plows the ground for good news. Diana Butler-Bass goes on to write that the rejection of religion-as-usual may lead to the very resurrection of Christianity itself. Young adults may be ditching institutional religion, but they aren’t abandoning the gospel.
Take Morgan Perry and Jasen Chung, two young Christians who lead a campaign to fight child sex trafficking in the United States. Morgan got involved after seeing a young prostitute left for dead on the streets of Thailand. While researching to write a book about it, she was shocked to discover the same thing happening in America. Jason spent four years in corporate finance, but then left the trading floor to serve the poor in Haiti, fueling his passion for the oppressed. Together they’ve produced a documentary and other resources currently being used for training purposes by the FBI, The Salvation Army and The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as well as other organizations. Their goal is to do church by effectively combat trafficking in America by increasing education, supporting restoration homes for survivors, improving state legislation, and addressing the primary elements of demand that perpetuate the abuse.
Or take Hannah Song, a former ad exec, and Justin Wheeler, who worked with war-affected children in East Africa, two more young Christians, who together founded an agency that provides emergency rescues to North Korean refugees hiding in China and direct assistance upon their resettlement in safe countries. Called “Liberty in North Korea,” they do church by changing public perceptions of North Korea through focusing on the people instead of the politics.
Or take Tyler Merrick, a young Christian and founder of Project 7, a company that does church everyday by manufacturing and selling products that give back to seven areas for good around the globe: health care, homelessness, hunger, creation care, water, education and peace. You can find their products in places like Caribou Coffee, Target, Wal-Mart and elsewhere.
Each of these enterprises, along with many others, have been funded by Christian initiatives such as one called Praxis, a mentorship-driven program for young social entrepreneurs & innovators compelled by their faith to advance the common good and embody the Gospel. One of the founders of Praxis, Steve Graves, was here at Colonial yesterday to train some of our member to be navigators for our own Innové project. We hope to give away $250K along with mentoring and coaching to young Christian social entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities: people like Tyler and Hannah and Justin and Morgan and Jason.
With this morning’s Scripture as our inspiration, think of Innové as a transfiguration of church: a coming down off the mountain in order to shine light in the world. It’s not that mountains don’t matter—they do. We desperately need encounters with God in worship and the love and care we receive in gathered community. Worship reorients our priorities and community keeps us strong and compels us to serve. You can’t be a Christian alone. It’s only together with the Spirit’s power that we can be the real body of Christ. What makes our service to the world different from similar work done by say Partners in Health or Doctors Without Borders or the United Way? The difference is that Christian service brings an everlasting lifetime guarantee. In Christ, health means more than well-functioning bodies, and our borders extend into the expanse of eternity. Eternal life still matters. But rather than viewing it simply something good that happens after we die—remember the transfiguration. Christ’s light shines on earth. Good happens now. The kingdom is here with power. Eternity has already started. Like starlight from billions of years out, the bright future of God pulls us forward toward a life that is already happening, a glory that is already ours, not only to have, but also to share.