(This is a shorter version of a longer extemporaneous sermon, given on Sunday, Feb 25, 2017.)
The last Sunday in the season of Epiphany (which lasts from end of Christmas to Lent) always recounts the “Transfiguration of the Lord”. This event is when Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up on a mountain, and he is transformed in front of them. His clothes turn dazzling white, his face shines like the sun, and God’s voice from the clouds declares, “This is my Son, in whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.” It’s a picture of the Glory of Christ, but before the end of time. Another way of saying it is, Jesus as he is in the permanent glory of heaven. It’s a text picture of who Jesus really is, and a premonition of what we all become in Him (glorified).
As a picture of God’s glory, we must ask how this confronts human ideas of glory. Human glory always involves a vanquished foe. It usually entails a lifting up, a release of some liquid, and a parade (not necessarily in that order). Think of the victorious race car driver who jumps up on the roof of his car, pumps his fist in the air, shakes a big bottle of champaign all over everyone, and then drives a victory lap with the checkered flag in hand. Or the victorious coach or star player, who is lifted up on the shoulders of his team, dowsed with Gatorade, and given a ticker-tape parade in the home city. All at the cost of some vanquished foe. Someone’s got to lose, to be sacrificed. Human glory is what we seek, but God is not to be found in it, but under the form of its opposite.
God’s glory, even though it is previewed here in Jesus’ transfiguration, is the undermining of human glory. Jesus, who is glorious in his essence, puts aside the “glorious” kind of glory—the light, the sun, the majestic voice— in order to go back into the human world, and then is lifted up in shame on an instrument of imperial execution. Jesus, who is worthy of permanent viewing in heaven, is paraded around Jerusalem carrying his own cross, with a crown of thorns on his head. He who is the source of life is mocked, derided, spit upon, and as he hangs on that cross, he is stabbed, and his body emits blood and water, a liquid ablution of ironic victory. And the foe who has been vanquished is—surprise!—not the devil, but Jesus himself. God becomes the victim, who submits himself to our human derision and rejection. In Jesus’ crucifixion, God takes human glory and flips it on its head, "working under the form of the opposite", as Luther would say.
Here’s the Gospel message in this puzzling switch. God takes our desire for glory, our fascination with glory, our attachment to glory, and dismantles it on the cross. God becomes our victim in order to save us from ourselves. You and I want glory for ourselves, or to participate in glorious endeavors, or to see human glory embodied in other people or events. We want glory in our institutions, our nation, our politics (and I mean that in a truly bi-partisan way). Short of that, we’ll settle for it in our hometown sports team, and our kid’s little league team. But to win us over, to convert us from our thirst for glory, we must be overcome by God. This cannot be done by God’s glory (which would overwhelm us as we are), but we must be humbled to accept the love of God revealed in Jesus’ shame. Our hearts must break upon the rock of Jesus’ shame. Jesus’ presence then becomes visible to us in the humbled and the shame-filled. In that experience, God is truly present. Then, and only after this, and in the fullness of time, will all who have ever lived be in a position to embrace, let alone endure, the full, eternal, glory of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.