Monday, February 8, 2016

Gift of Hope and Love

February 7, 2016 – The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

What do you do when the road gets tough? What keeps you going when things get really hard?

A long time ago, back when I was a sophomore in high school, I got in big trouble. Until then, I had always been a pretty good kid. I never got caught with the wrong crowd. I always did what my parents and teachers expected of me. Sure, I talked my way into after-school detention a time or two, but my record was pretty clean. And then I screwed up in a big way.

I was out of town at a Key Club Convention. I had been elected District Secretary, and, along with a group of other state-wide officers, I was treated to a nice suite in a Miami Beach hotel. I was the only underclassman in the group, and I’d like to tell you that I protested loudly when the alcohol came out, but I didn’t. That first night was a lot of fun. It was the only night that was a lot of fun. The next evening, at the convention’s opening session, I looked up to see the chief disciplinarian pointing right at me and beckoning me to follow him out into the lobby. I never went back in. We were busted. I went all the way to Miami for a Key Club Convention and only saw the inside of the convention hall for about 15 minutes.

But the worst part was the phone call. Three of us had gotten in trouble, and we took turns dialing our parents to tell them what had happened. Much of that whole experience gets lost in my memory, but not the phone call. Left by myself, I dialed my parents’ number. When my dad picked up, I said, “Is Mom there?” Those were the last words I got out before the sobbing began. He knew instantly, of course, that something was wrong. Through choked tears, I explained to him what I had done. He listened as I blubbered my way through my confession. When I was finished, I went into the hall and got the chaperone so that he could fill my father in on the ugly details.

We didn’t actually go home after that. It was cheaper to leave us in a different motel in Miami until the convention was over than to change the airline tickets, so I had a couple more days to think about it. Unlike most of the kids who went to Miami for a week, I didn’t have any good stories to tell my parents. But the remarkable thing was that, when I got home, life went on. Sure, I had to resign from my position in Key Club. I had to meet with our faculty advisor and explain to her what happened. And she made me meet with the principal and the president of the Kiwanis Club that had helped pay for the trip. But, for the most part, that was it. I spent the rest of the summer as a free man—free to ponder two distinct truths: 1) I had screwed up in a really big way and 2) my parents had been remarkably forgiving. They never yelled at me. They didn’t tell me what a disappointment I was. Even on that dreaded phone call, my father was supportive instead of punitive. I had made the biggest mistake of my entire life, and parents loved me anyway. And I would need that forgiving love when I went to college, where even bigger trouble was waiting for me.

“Eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Jesus and his disciples did that a lot—pray—but this day was different. While Jesus was praying, his whole appearance changed. His skin began to shine. His clothes became a dazzling white. His face beamed like the sun. Peter and the other disciples looked, and they could see two men standing with Jesus. One was Moses, and the other was Elijah. They were the Law and the Prophets—a clear and visible indication that Jesus was the fulfillment of both. Anything that had previously been hidden—anything that Jesus had kept under wraps—was now exposed for these three disciples to see. Jesus, their master, their rabbi, wasn’t just a remarkable teacher. He was God’s chosen one—the Christ, the one upon whom the hopes and dreams of God’s people rested.

But why that day? Why that mountain top? Why Peter, James, and John? Why not show everyone? Why not show the whole world who Jesus really was?

Eight days earlier, Jesus, again, had been praying. He stopped to ask the disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they replied, “Some say John the Baptist, and others say Elijah, and still others say one of the prophets.” “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked them. And Peter declared, “You are the Christ of God.” He was right, of course, but that doesn’t mean that Peter and the other disciples knew what that meant. You might recall what Jesus said to them right after Peter’s confession: “The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected by the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and on the third day rise again.” That was the path that stretched out ahead of God’s chosen one. That was the future God had in store for his Son. But acknowledging that Jesus was the Christ and hearing him predict his own death is still very different from watching him nailed to a cross and hearing him gasp for his last breath and seeing him laid in a tomb and, through all of that, believing that there is still hope and trusting that Jesus really is the one God has sent to save the world.

What would it take, in your darkest hour, for you not to lose hope? What would you need to carry you through that place of deepest loss? What would give you confidence that someday, somehow the sun would rise again? Would words be enough? Or would you need something more?

In the glorious light of the transfiguration, Jesus gave to Peter, James, and John a great gift. He showed them what they already knew. He revealed to them his true nature in a way that transcends sermons and parables and even miracles. He showed them with the blinding light of God’s presence that he was who Peter confessed him to be—God’s chosen one, the anointed, the Christ. And, with that knowledge confirmed not only in their minds but also in their eyes and in their hearts, they were able to journey together down the road that led to Jerusalem, where, indeed, the Son of Man would suffer and die. And I wonder whether we might say that the seeds of hope and confidence that were planted in those disciples’ hearts on that transfiguration day were what it took for them and their faith to survive the horrors of Good Friday and sustain them until they could see the empty tomb. Could it be that the light of the transfiguration is the only thing that got them through the darkness of Jesus’ death and led them to the sunrise of Easter?

Sometimes the road is hard. Sometimes the darkness closes in. Where will we see light? What will give us strength? Believing something with your mind isn’t the same thing as carrying it in your heart. Before that fateful trip to Miami, if you had asked me whether my parents would love me even if I let them down in a tremendous way, I would have told you yes, of course they would. They are my parents. That’s what parents do. But, when I picked up the phone and dialed their number, I wasn’t sure whether it would be love that picked up on the other end. And it was. And I will carry that sense of belovedness with me for the rest of my life. But even my parents’ transformative love pales in comparison with the love that our heavenly father has for each one of us.

Don’t just hear that God loves you. Don’t just say the words with your lips. See that love. Look for that love. Sit in that love. Experience it and know it and carry it with you forever. Journey with Peter, James, and John to the top of that mountain where that love shines as bright as the new day. Race with them to the tomb where the stone has been rolled away. Come to the altar and receive the body that was broken for you and the blood which was shed for you. God’s love is more than words. We don’t just say these things about Jesus because someone wrote the words down a long time ago. We profess our belief in him—we give our whole lives to him—because we have experienced that love firsthand. That love is real. His love is real. Find it, experience it, know it, and let it carry you through whatever lies ahead.

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