He Came Down

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Okay, you know as well as I do the confusing nature of Transfiguration Sunday. Its name, after all, is a word we hardly use. It’s a reading that skips nine chapters ahead into Mark’s story from the first chapter we’ve spent the last month exploring. And it’s a day that in some ways culminates Epiphany (all the bright shining clothes and revelatory voice from heaven), introduces us to Lent (zeroing in on the cross as they leave the mountain), and previews Easter (white clothes and glory again). So what’s an honest Working Preacher to do?

Here’s a suggestion: pay attention to the dramatic movement of the story. For while Jesus takes his disciples with him up the mountain, after the period of revelation, transformation, and transfiguration, they come back down again. Think of it: Jesus could have stayed there. Perhaps he should have stayed there. After all, this transfigured state, attended by Moses, Elijah, and his three disciples, was much closer to the state of glory that Jesus deserved than what’s coming. Yet he comes back down.

Down. Down into the mundane nature of everyday life. Down into the nitty-gritty details of misunderstanding, squabbling, disbelieving disciples. Down into the religious and political quarrels of the day. Down into the jealousies and rivals both petty and gigantic that color our relationships. Down into the poverty and pain that are part and parcel of our life in this world. Down. Jesus came down.

Why is this important? At least two reasons: First, because I think it gets at the heart of the gospel, Mark’s and, truth be told, that of the whole New Testament. As Paul sings, “though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). Jesus’ downward movement from his rightful place in glory to embrace our lot and life out of love is, in a very real sense, the essence the gospel.

Second, and just as importantly, I also have a hunch that, deep down, most of us think Jesus is a little too good for us. That, truth be told, our job is to try our darnedest to become more like him. While that’s a good impulse on one level, on another it can prevent us from being honest. Because no matter how hard we try to be like Jesus — to be, that is, perfect — we know that we fall dreadfully short. As a consequence, we may feel that the most broken parts of our lives are the ones that keep us from being like Jesus and therefore are the farthest things from him.

But this isn’t a story about our going up, it’s a story about Jesus coming down, all the way down into our brokenness, fear, disappointment, and loss. And, of course, it only gets more so, as we will soon watch our Lord travel to the cross, there embracing all that is hard, difficult, and even despicable in life in order to wrest victory from death itself that we might live in hope knowing that wherever we may go, Christ has already been and that where Christ is now we will one day be.

So maybe the task this week, Working Preacher, is to invite our people into a moment or two of candid contemplation about what is dark and fearful in their lives. You will know how best to do this, whether with a moment or two of silence, a rite of confession, or a chance to write down what is most frightful and frightening to us. (And, given that this theme is coloring next week’s reading, it may be enough simply to alert people to think about these things throughout the week.)

However you engage your people, know that we do so not to dwell in the dark places of our lives, but in order to assure and remind each other that Jesus is already there. That Jesus is not afraid of what is difficult in our lives. That Jesus will not reject us on account of our failings. Jesus’ descent back down the mountain reminds us that we don’t have to hide the hard parts of our lives from the God we know in Jesus. For God the Father came to us in and through the Incarnate Son precisely to be with us and for us through thick and thin and through life and death — indeed, God came in Jesus to be with us through death into new life.

So trusting the mercy of the One who came down the mountain — the One who entered the dark places of the world and still seeks out the dark places of our lives — trusting this One, perhaps we will be honest enough to name what is broken and hurting in our lives and world and thereby fear it a little less. For no other reason was Jesus born, lived, died and was raised again, except that we might know that God is unrelentingly and indefatigably for us! Thanks be to God.

And thanks be to God for you, Working Preacher, and for your unwavering commitment to proclaim the God who came all the way down … for us. We need to hear this word, and I am grateful for your willingness to share it. Blessings on your proclamation!

Yours in Christ,

PS: If you’re looking for a good hymn to accompany this message, consider Oh, Love, How Deep (ELW, 322; LBW 88; or you can find the words and tune here ).

PPS: If you have a minute, check out this new column by my friend Paul Raushenbush,
where he offers answers to spiritual questions named by readers of the Huffington Post. Both the questions and the answers give us insight into the world we are preaching into.