The House of the Rising Son

Scott L. Barton
March 2, 2014
Matthew 17:1-21

A family is sitting down to dinner.  Two parents, two children.  They start to say grace, as they do every night.  One of the children asks, “Why do we say grace every night?”  “Well,” says one of the parents, “because God has given us this food, and we want to thank God for it.”  Slight pause. Then, “God didn’t give us this food.  We bought it at Stop and Shop.” The child is right!  Now, there’s a pause on the other side.  “Well, we’re thankful to God for giving us jobs so we can have the money to go buy food at Stop and Shop.”  Little does this parent know that the hole is getting deeper.  There’s a very slight pause, and then, “Does that mean that God forgot about the people who don’t have jobs and enough food, like the lady who stands out by the road at Stop and Shop with a cardboard sign asking for help?”  Very long pause.  Still.  They’re still there.  The food’s cold.  What do you say when confronted with the kind of question that has puzzled the wisest thinkers for thousands of years?  Does it bear a rational answer?  If we thank God for good things, like our evening meal, what happens with the bad things?

This may be the issue Matthew is trying to address as he gives us this story we call the Transfiguration.   What is, after all, the real nature of God?   He patterns it especially after the story from Exodus, where Moses takes his key leaders with him up the mountain, and while they’re up there, a cloud covers the mountain, and after six days Yahweh -- that's the Bible's Hebrew name for the LORD -- calls to Moses out of the cloud, and the appearance of the glory of Yahweh was like a fire on top of the mountain, the text says, and all Israel down below saw it.  They saw it, and Moses went into the cloud.  And he's there a long time, 40 days and 40 nights.  And then comes chapter after chapter of instructions from Yahweh to Moses about how to make the ark of the tabernacle, the box, basically, but it's very fancy, that will be Yahweh's dwelling place as they wander in the wilderness.  This isn't just any box.  It's big.  Much bigger than the one Harrison Ford found! It’s described as 45 feet by 15 feet by 15 feet, and there are pages describing how it should be made.  And then there are pages about the priests who will be in charge of this tabernacle.  Aaron, Moses' brother who is back at camp with the Israelites while Moses and Joshua are up on the mountain, will be the first priest, and his sons, and there are then pages of how they should dress, and what the priests' job will be.  It's clear that this tabernacle, and the role of the priests, is something that matters to God.  No reasons are given.  God doesn't have to give reasons.  That's what happens when you get to be God.  It's simply, this is how you shall build it, and this is what they shall wear, and this is what they shall do.  And then there are instructions on taxes for funding the priesthood, and procedures for anointing them, and finally, the importance of keeping the Sabbath, as a sign that God, Yahweh, sanctified them -- the people of Israel.  And at the end of these eight chapters of instructions, God gives Moses the two tablets of the covenant, written with the finger of God.

Now, how much more involved in the details of common religious life, of who they were, could this God get?  Matthew sees that same intimate presence of God in Peter, James and John's midst.  Listen to him, says the voice in the cloud.  Do what he says!  Dare we hear that as our message of everyday life?  Do what Jesus says? Seems simple.  But if Exodus is any clue, it’s not all that simple, is it?  Because while Moses was in that cloud getting forty days' and nights' worth of instruction, even when the people had seen the fire of the glory of Yahweh, they got bored.  Moses was gone too long.  Maybe he wasn't coming back, they said.  Besides, they wanted something they could see and touch and use to prove that there was really a god in their midst.  Which is when Aaron had them take off their rings and earrings and melt them down and make that golden calf, or young bull.  It was the symbol of fertility of the nature religions of the ancient near east, and once they had it, well, they had a big celebration.  Modesty forbids me from speculating aloud on what that big celebration of fertility entailed, but I don't think it was good. I don’t think it built trust and community. Because when it's every man and woman out for themselves, you don't build trust and community.

When Yahweh saw it, he said to Moses, “Get down there on the double!  Your people, whom you brought out of Egypt [it's interesting how God suddenly absolves himself of responsibility for the exodus] are acting perversely.  No.  On second thought, I'm going to destroy them.”
But Moses talks God out of it, by appealing to Yahweh's pride: “What will all the other nations think if after all you've done for these people, they end up destroyed by you out here in the wilderness?  That's pretty bad P.R. And remember your buddies Abraham and Isaac and Jacob?  That would all be gone.  Don't do this.”

Moses and Yahweh are THAT close.  And Yahweh changes his mind! And Moses comes off the mountain, smashes the tablets, and whips the tar out of the Israelites  himself.  And there's anger and bloodshed, and a plague, and then, redemption.  Yahweh promises to send before them an angel to drive out the Canannites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, and all the other "-ites" in the land of milk and honey.  And the people mourn, they say they're sorry.  They're sorry for all the trouble they caused. And Moses goes to get another set of tablets, which, of course, is how they will live as a community, how they will care more for each other than do all the other tribes around them.

That’s what those tablets, those commandments, are all about, you know.  Mutual care and the health of a community that has experienced what God has done for them. That’s good news. So don’t let anybody trivialize them by saying they’re a timeless set of rules that everybody ought to follow, period, darn it.  That’s not good news. It doesn’t make any sense without the context of the community of faith.
So, Jesus and Peter, James and John come down off the mountain.  And Jesus says, "Don't tell anybody about this, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead."  Huh?  They answer.  And there's this little thing about the Son of Man suffering.  It's not just the physical suffering, but the suffering of rejection.  God knows all about that.  Yahweh died a thousand deaths when Aaron and the people made that calf.  God dies a thousand deaths when God's son is rejected.  And they get to the boy with epilepsy, and what does Jesus do?  Just what Moses did.  Gets mad at those he's left behind for not healing the boy!  Why does he get mad at them?  I had always wondered.  And then it occurred to me -- because of their idolatry. Why was it idolatry?  Because they believed only what they could see. So they had no vision of the future, and no hope that was needed for the boy. And the disciples are sorry, privately.  And Jesus reassures them, and tells them again, to believe. Just a little.

In both these texts, and in most of the texts, I think, of our Bible, it's all about building a community in which people will hear, and are changed by, again and again, the redeeming love that goes beyond all the unanswerable questions of our lives.  It's about people hearing God's call and choosing to follow where God leads when you don't really know where you'll end up, and where the only guarantee you have is the intimate involvement of a God nobody can prove.  It's about a people whom you might call the House of the Rising Son.  You, First Congregational Church of Hadley, are the House of the Rising Son.  Not a house of ill repute in New Orleans, which you might think of as Mardi Gras approaches on Tuesday, or as the song by the Animals many years ago, where it was every person out for themselves, which was the ruin of many a poor boy, and thank God I won’t sing it to you today!  But it’s a house in which the risen Jesus is the foundation of who we are.  We celebrate the risen Jesus every Sunday in this house.  By the way – here’s a bit of trivia for you – it’s resurrection that’s always central, even over these next several weeks.  That’s why we call these Sundays the Sundays IN Lent, because they’re not technically a part of Lent, like the Sundays OF Advent are a part of Advent.  The 40 days of Lent don’t include Sundays.  Because Sunday is when we remind ourselves in this house that we have chosen to follow the Lord who doesn't give up on people, whose love will never lose – even when we’re hard-pressed to prove that God is among us, or, that our neighbor, and even we ourselves, are redeemable!  A house where we try to see the big picture of all our lives, despite all the rest of the world’s reasons to look out for ourselves alone and despite our succumbing to that culture just about every day.

So, what do you say at that dinner table when you get that question from the child that is fundamentally about the nature of God?  I think you say, “That’s a real good question.  Faithful people have been asking that a long time.  And I don’t really know the answer.  What I do know is that God wants me to believe in God’s love, the kind that people saw in Jesus, so that I will be the most loving and caring person I can be, so that I can even care about the people who don’t have some of the good things I have, and one of those good things includes you.  And that makes me very thankful.  Not just that I have this food that we bought at Stop and Shop, and not just even that I have you.  But that we -- all of God's people -- have a God who helps us to love and care for each other, and others, no matter what.”

Thanks be to God!