“All that glitters is not gold… sometimes it’s God” – Sermon for February 7, 2016

Categories: Sermons

Cathedral of Christ the Light (interior), Oakland, California

Cathedral of Christ the Light (interior), Oakland, California

“All that Glitters is Not Gold… Sometimes it’s God”

A Sermon on Luke 9:28-36 for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year C; preached February 7, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister


“Now about eight days after these sayings…”[1]  What sayings(?), one might ask.  Clearly we have jumped in here today in the middle of the story.  What was it that had been said, and why does it matter for this trip up the mountain and the special effects show that would soon happen there?

Indeed, we have jumped in in the middle of the story—although perhaps that, in itself, is a fitting reminder.  After all, we are always jumping in in the middle of the story.  Whatever the situation, God was there before we ever thought about coming onto the scene, and God will be there long after we are gone.  We don’t always realize it, of course—don’t always see it—but it’s true nonetheless.

Today, though, we have jumped into a particular place in a particular story.  We have just missed that well-known scene when Jesus asks his disciples, “who do you say that I am?”[2]  Jesus has been going about his ministry… he’s preached his inaugural sermon in his home synagogue, a sermon that god him run out of town and almost off a cliff.[3]  He’s cast out demons,[4] and healed sick people, lepers, and paralytics.[5]  He’s called disciples to follow him, and set 12 of them apart to be his apostles.[6]  He’s taught, and taught, and taught—blessings and woes,[7] love for enemies,[8] against judging others,[9] parables about a sower[10] and a lamp,[11] sayings about family[12] and the Sabbath.[13]  And he’s even raised two people, a widow’s son[14] and a synagogue leader’s daughter.[15]

And then, of course, there’s one of his most famous miracles, the one recorded in all four of the gospel accounts:  the one where he feeds the “five thousand”[16] from “no more than five loaves and two fish.”[17]  “All ate and were filled,” we remember, with twelve baskets full of leftovers.[18]

It was after all that when Jesus asked his disciples what the crowds were saying—“who do the crowds say that I am?”  The disciples gave various answers:  John the Baptist, Elijah, “one of the ancient prophets.”  And then, of course, Jesus puts the real question to them:  “who do you say that I am?”  Peter gives the answer:  “The Messiah of God.”[19]

That’s not quite the end of the scene, though.  Jesus goes on to tell those disciples that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[20]  And he furthermore tells them all that if “any want to become [his] followers, [then] let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow [him].”[21]  It’s not going to be a cause without a cost, he’s saying—an affiliation without an affliction, a delight without a demand.

So, why would anyone choose to follow?  I think that’s a fair question.  Why would those disciples want to be a part of this whole mess, leaving behind loaves and livelihoods, to take up an instrument of oppression and death?  What’s to be had following this Jesus guy and his crazy teachings, and giving up all that they had and all that they were, in the process?

You know, truth be told, I think you could ask much the same question to all of us today… all of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, followers of Christ—and especially all of us who do so, at least in part, by being part of Church.  In fact, I don’t just think you could ask such a question, I know you can, and I know plenty of people have done so and are doing so.  Especially that one about church… why should someone be a part of church?  Why should I give up my time, my money, my emotional and relational energy, all to this thing that can be just as broken and burdensome as everything else in our world?  After all, can’t I worship God on my own?

Indeed, yes.  Yes, we can worship God on our own.  In fact, we should do so, even though too few of us (church-going or not) actually do.

But beyond that, even, some would ask why we need to bother with any of this religion- or worship- or God-stuff at all.  Can’t I be a “good’ person in some other tradition, or on my own without any particular religious or spiritual path at all?

Once again, I would say, yes, of course—in as much as any of us humans are capable of being “good” (and I’ll bracket that question—the degree to which we humans are in fact capable of being, in and of ourselves, good)… in as much as we are capable of being good, you can do it by following any number of paths or philosophies, or even no particular path at all.  I won’t say whether it is any more or less likely depending on the path (you may have an opinion on that… I may have an opinion on that), but I do know it is possible.

But you see, merely “being good” isn’t the point of this whole enterprise, when you get right down to it.  We’re all too aware of the myriad ways “church people” can be just as bad—if not worse—than anybody else.  If “being good” is the point, then you may be just as likely to succeed outside the church as in it.  And for those first disciples—the ones Jesus was telling to take up their crosses daily, the ones who joined him on the mountaintop in today’s reading—“being good” wasn’t the point for them, either.  They already had a perfectly workable, right, and holy way to be considered good, by following the traditions and practices of their Jewish heritage.  And they lived in a world with plenty of other competing options, too, if they were looking for some other path to the achievement of “being good”—the various philosophies and religious schemes of the wider world in which they lived.  If anything, following this Jesus guy was a pretty good way to get judged as not good:  not good under the Jewish laws, not good under the standards of the empire, not good under the precepts of the philosophers.  If “being good” was the goal, following Jesus was a path leading the wrong direction.  And carrying your cross?  That was like parking your Yankees-logo-covered car right outside Fenway.  Except far worse.  Far, far worse.

Even the famous German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenged the notion that “being good” is the goal of it all.  Bonhoeffer, as some of you know, was a German Protestant pastor and theologian during the rise of the Nazi regime, and became a foremost leader in that small section of the German Protestant church that resisted control by the Nazis.  He was eventually arrested and, ultimately, executed for his participation in the resistance, in a plot to try to assassinate Hitler.  One of Bonhoeffer’s last major works—a work he never completed—was a new exploration of the topic of Christian ethics.  The collection of manuscripts and notes that still could be found after his execution were assembled together into a book titled simply Ethics.[22]  In that book, from near the very beginning, Bonhoeffer—this paragon of courageous Christian discipleship and action—challenges the idea of mere goodness as our standard:

Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand—from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem:  “How can I be good?” and “How can I do something good?”  Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question:  what is the will of God? … When the ethical problem presents itself essentially as the question of my own being good and doing good, the decision has already been made that the self and the world are the ultimate realities.  All ethical reflection then has the goal that I be good, and that the world—by my action—becomes good.  If it turns out, however, that these realities, myself and the world, are themselves embedded in a wholly other ultimate reality, namely, the reality of God the Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, then the ethical problem takes on a whole new aspect.  Of ultimate importance, then, is not that I become good, or that the condition of the world be improved by my efforts, but that the reality of God show itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality.[23]

“But that the reality of God show itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality.”  For those of you wondering where I’m going with all this, wondering what any of this has to do with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration that we heard a bit ago, it is this.  It is about ultimate reality and its revealing.

You see, in Jesus, God gives us a glimpse into the reality of God—God’s glory, God’s purposes, God’s presence.  In fact, as a Christian, my confession of faith is that God gives us the best, the fullest, the most complete glimpse into the ultimate reality in Jesus.

As we watch this scene unfold on the mountaintop, we hear that voice from the cloud:  “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”[24]  It’s almost “as if we, the readers [and hearers] of the Gospel, were sitting in the back row of a theater, and the director of the play has slipped up behind us and, to our surprise, taps us on the shoulder and whispers in our ears, ‘This is important. Listen to this.’”[25]

We who witness this scene, we get to see this shining, shimmering glimpse into the glory of God… and then the cloud goes away, along with the light show, and we realize that all that wonder has been there in Jesus all along.  John Calvin once noted that the three disciples there on the mountaintop, that God gave them such a taste of God’s infinite glory as they were able to receive,[26] but that’s just it:  it’s just a taste of something even more, and something that’s been there all along.

That’s why, I believe, those first disciples gave up all, and (for many of them, eventually) even life itself, to follow Jesus.  By the grace of God and the work of the Spirit, they came to see that in Jesus they were seeing right into the heart of God.  It wasn’t just that Jesus was a great teacher or an astounding healer and miracle worker—though he was all of those things.  But truth be told, there were plenty of other such teachers and healers in Jesus’ time, and they (I’m sure) had followers, too.

But in the person and work of Jesus Christ, there was and is more.  More than just great moral teachings by which any of us might find our own way to being good.  More than just some healings that today we can enact—thanks be to God!—with the tools of modern medicine.  Appearing with Moses and Elijah at his side, we see that Jesus is united with all God has been doing in the history of redemption.  In the luminous glory show forth in the midst of the word of suffering and challenge, we se an assurance that there is triumph beyond suffering—which has been, and remains, the good news of God’s power through all of history.

What is all the more marvelous, my friends, is that we are let in on such a vision, that the glory of God and the truth about Jesus are not, as the old hymn puts it, “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”[27]  That we get to partake of the vista of God’s ultimate reality, that itself is a gift of grace to us, just like it was for Peter, John, and James.  One of the early Protestant reformers, a pastor and scholar and associate of Martin Luther’s named Johann Spangenberg, commenting on the three disciples getting to see the vision, points out:  “This also relates to us, for when we should be praying, we [too] are instead sleeping.  On account of their laziness, they did not deserve to be admitted to this glorious sight, and so what happened to them was pure grace.  Christ awoke them from their sleep, so that they might see the glory of God and receive a foretaste of eternal life.”[28]

Which is why we gather as church, is it not?  Here, in the proclaiming of the Word, and the gathering together of a people, and in the bread broken and freely given, in all these things, we meet Jesus.  Or, in fact, more accurately:  In all these things, Jesus meets us.  The life we share together as church, it doesn’t make us necessarily better than others, or more good and gracious people—although we hope that might happen too.  What it does do is take us up to the top of the mountain, where we too might receive the gift of grace to our sleeping eyes, and catch a glimpse of the glory of the One in whom all things are fulfilled, the One him whom we get the clearest and brightest and truest vision of the glory of God, the ultimate reality.

So rejoice, sisters and brothers.  Simply to be here today, you have jumped in to the middle of a story, a story that started long before you or I or any of us ever came along, a story that will flow on long after all of us are gone.  It is a story of grace, a story of glory, a story of the One whose glitter is far more precious than the finest gold.

Thanks be to God!



[1] Luke 9:28.

[2] Luke 9:20.

[3] Luke 4:16-30.

[4] Luke 4:31-37, 4:41, 8:26-39.

[5] Luke 4:38-41, 5:12-26, 6:6-11, 6:18-19, 7:1-10.

[6] Luke 6:12-16.

[7] Luke 6:20-26.

[8] Luke 6:27-36.

[9] Luke 6:37-42.

[10] Luke 8:4-8, 11-15.

[11] Luke 8:16-18.

[12] Luke 8:19-21.

[13] Luke 6:1-5.

[14] Luke 7:11-17.

[15] Luke 8:40-56.

[16] Five thousand men, really, plus women and children.

[17] Luke 9:13.

[18] Luke 9:17.

[19] Luke 9:18-20.

[20] Luke 9:21-22.

[21] Luke 9:23.

[22] Ethik in German.

[23] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Ilse Tödt, Heinz Eduard Tödt, Ernst Feil, & Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Kraus, Charles C. West, & Douglas W. Stott, trans. ed. Clifford J. Green, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2005), 47-48.

[24] Luke 9:35.

[25] Stepehn Farris, commentary on Luke 9:28-36 in The Lectionary Commentary:  Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2001), 360.

[26] John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. A. W. Morrison and T. L. H. Parker, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1972), 198; cited in David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI:  Brazos Press, 2012), 141.

[27] Walter C. Smith, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”, vs. 1.  See, e.g., The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland, OH:  Pilgrim Press, 1995), #1; or Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #12.

[28] Johan Spangenberg, “Gospel on the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity,” Postilla, Das ist Auzslegung der Episteln und Euangelien von Ostern biß auffs Aduent (Nuremberg:  Leonhard Heußler, 1582), CLXXXIr-v; cited in Beth Kreitzer, ed., Luke, Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2015), 205.


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