Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 26, 2017
2 Peter 1:16-21 Commentary
It’s wonderful when you can see that a very important lesson finally took hold and sunk in for someone. If you are a teacher, then seeing a student avoid making the same mistakes all over again as a result of your instruction is so very rewarding. Some days those of us who teach wonder if we are doing any good at all—does anyone really listen or learn? And then the day comes when you realize people do learn and can change for the better as a result and that’s a mighty fine day!
Among the many interesting things going on in these verses from near the beginning of 2 Peter is precisely a revealing of just such learning. When Jesus had been on earth, Peter had for so long been focused on the wrong things. He wanted Jesus to wield political power, to wow the world with power and strength. When Jesus talked about sacrifice and death, Peter tried to dissuade Jesus. That was no way for a Messiah to talk! Even when Jesus was about to be arrested so as to set in motion the very sacrificial death that Jesus knew would save the world, Peter tried to defend Jesus and cut off a person’s ear. (Ever wonder what Peter was doing carrying a sword around in the first place?)
And then there was that remarkable day up on a mountaintop when it was just Peter, James, and John. They had no idea why they climbed up to the peak in the first place but not long after they were there, it happened! They became eyewitnesses to one of the biggest light shows in history as Jesus became dazzlingly bright and glorious. Next thing you knew, Moses and Elijah showed up to have a conversation with Jesus (who knows just how the disciples recognized it was Moses and Elijah but somehow they knew). For Peter one very clear thought popped immediately into his head: “Now THIS is more like it! This is what I’ve been talking about: not death and sacrifice and humility but spine-tinging, eye-popping power! Just imagine how the Romans would scurry away like scared children if they got a load of THIS version of Jesus!”
With holy radiance reflecting off his eyes, Peter made a proposal: “Lord, this is more like it! Let’s bottle this glory and set up three permanent shelters here so this can become our base of operations in re-taking the world for ourselves and for a New Israel!” Well, let’s admit Peter and the others were scared silly and awed beyond rational thought so we can give him a break for making this rather unhelpful suggestion. Still, it betrayed the kind of spectacle Peter actually had been waiting for all along.
But in the end, it turned out that the world’s greatest light and glory show was not about the light and the glory per se. After all, the divine voice of God the Father that came out of the cloud did not say—as you actually might expect—“This is my Beloved Son. LOOK at him and be amazed and afraid!” Nope. God says “This is my Beloved Son. LISTEN to him.”
Listen? This whole sight and sound spectacular had been about NOT the light show but about listening to something? Turns out, the outward razzle-dazzle was in service of making the disciples stop foisting their own agendas onto Jesus so they could just listen to HIS teachings about sacrifice and humility. Jesus had been saying right and true things all along but the disciples didn’t really hear him. They were not listening. Or they listened but only after having first passed Jesus’ words through their own religio-political filter so as to make Jesus conform to their aspirations for a New Israel on this earth.
It would actually take a long time for this to sink in. This Mount of Transfiguration did not seal the deal, as you can see in all of the Gospels when hard on the heels of this spectacle, the disciples are again jockeying for power and steering Jesus toward the political coup over Rome they were counting on him to lead (so keep those swords handy, boys!).
All of which brings us back to 2 Peter 1. This is a relatively rare passage in the New Testament in which something written in an Epistle harks back directly to a very specific Gospel narrative/event. Clearly Peter is remembering the Transfiguration here. But notice how he frames it: he almost blows clean past the razzle-dazzle glory light show and zeroes in instead on what the voice of Majestic Glory SAID from the cloud. Verse 18 is all about their having HEARD the voice from heaven. The fact that Jesus was shining brighter than 1,000 suns at the time is like an afterthought now in Peter’s memory. It is what God SAID that mattered because it pointed to what Jesus had been saying all along, too. The Gospel is about the power of love not the power of the military; it’s about the force of humility not the force of pride; it’s about laying down your life for your friends not about taking lives to gain power for yourself.
That is what is animating this entire pericope. The Gospel is not from cleverly devised myths or old wives’ tales or some humanly invented scheme. No, we believe the Gospel and cling to it for dear life precisely because it was revealed by the singular glory of the one who set aside the ordinary perquisites of divine glory in order to die a horrible death in the place of all those sinners who deserved that death in ways Jesus never did.
Embrace this message, Peter says, and it will be like . . . well, not fireworks in the sky initially. Not blazing glory or searing flames or eye-popping razzle-dazzle but like a lamp—just a single lamp—shining in an otherwise dark place. But go to this modest light, Peter says, and you will discover soon enough the morning star dawning in your very heart—a light that will shine in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it (to borrow from Peter’s mountaintop comrade John).
Yup, Peter was teachable after all! It took a while but once he got it, he really got it. Now what remains is for the rest of us likewise to learn that the best things in this world come not by might and not by power but by our examples of Christ-like humility, service, and sacrifice. THAT is what makes the morning star dawn like nothing else ever could.
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The novelist Marilynne Robinson is always reminding us of an insight she traces back to John Calvin: viz., we are surrounded by glory all the time in God’s good creation. It’s just that most of the time we cannot see it. But this is why Robinson loves lawn sprinklers. Because on clear days, sprinklers shoot forth water droplets into sunlight and when this happens and the sunlight refracts through the water, we realize that every single water droplet is really a cathedral, a jewel, a luminous rainbow of God’s own glory that suffuses us at all times. We glimpse this glory too rarely but it’s always there.
Jesus on the mountaintop was like that: it’s not that he changed into something he was not ordinarily and all the time. It’s just that he got turned just so into God’s light and the glory inherent in him always shined with peculiar radiance!
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