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The Red-Letter Sermon

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
February 10, 2013

Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9:28-36

 

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen (NRSV).

When I lived in Washington, DC, I used to get up early in the morning, before daylight, and tiptoe downstairs so as not to wake anyone else.  I would turn right at the bottom of the stairs, reach around the corner, and feel for the dimmer switch on the dining room wall.  When I found it, I would dial it down to its lowest possible setting, and then push the button and ever so slowly begin to dial it up.  At the lowest setting the light fixture over the dining table was only a little brighter than candlelight; at the highest setting those five, one-hundred-watt bulbs blazed away inside their frosted glass globes at full strength.  You could have performed surgery right there on the dining table.  It was a little too much for me first thing in the morning, so I would start with that candlelight glow and then dial it up slowly, letting my eyes adjust little by little, until at last I was standing there in the full, blazing brightness of five hundred watts.

I often think about that dimmer switch on these Sundays after the Epiphany, because it’s the best illustration I have found for what we celebrate in these days.  On Epiphany itself, January 6, we usually tell the story of the wise men, and how they found their way to Bethlehem by the feeble light of a single star.  But on this day, Transfiguration Sunday, we talk about Jesus praying on a mountaintop, with his face lit up like the sun, his clothes like a flash of lightning.  In between those two days—Epiphany and Transfiguration—the dimmer switch is gradually dialed up, and we talk about how everything Jesus says, and everything he does, reveals a little more clearly who he really is.

Until we get to this day, when the switch has been dialed up to its highest setting, and Jesus stands there on the Mount of Transfiguration in a blaze of glory, with Moses and Elijah standing on either side of him, and the disciples blinking in the blinding light, wondering what to do.  Peter, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes, blurts out, “Master, it’s good that we are here.  Let us build three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He doesn’t know what to say.  But no sooner are the words out of his mouth than a cloud settles on the mountain, covering them all in a thick fog shot through with beams of brilliance like headlights on the highway.  The disciples are terrified, clinging to each other and quaking with fear when they hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

It is the epiphany of all epiphanies.

Just a few verses before this episode Jesus has asked his disciples what people are saying about him, and they reply, “Some say you are John the Baptist, come back from the dead.  Others say you are Elijah or one of the other prophets.” 

“But what about you,” Jesus asks.  “Who do you say that I am?” 

And Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Christ—you are God’s own anointed one!”  It’s a good answer, and maybe even the right answer.  Jesus seems to suggest as much when he tells his disciples not to tell anyone else.  But in the next sentence he tells them that the “Son of Man” must undergo great suffering and you want to know, “Which is it?  Is he the ‘Messiah of God’ or the ‘Son of Man’?”  The light is a lot brighter than it was in the beginning, but Jesus still hasn’t been fully revealed.  That doesn’t happen until this moment on the mountain when a voice from the cloud says,

“This is my Son.”

Could it be any clearer?  Here is that place in the Bible where God himself says to the church, “Look, this man Jesus of Nazareth is my Son; you don’t have to wonder about it any longer.  And here’s what I want you do:  I don’t want you to fight over who loves him the most.  I don’t want you to argue over who knows him the best.  I want you to listen to him.  That’s what I, God, want you, the church, to do: 

“Listen to my Son.” 

Now, when we receive direct orders from Almighty God we probably ought to obey them.  So, that’s what we’re going to do for the rest of this sermon.  You know those versions of the Bible that have the words of Jesus printed in red, the “red-letter” versions?  Well, this is the red-letter sermon.  For the moment at least I want you to set aside what you have heard about him from your pastors and Sunday school teachers through the years; set aside what you have heard from radio preachers and television evangelists; set aside what you have learned from scholars and seminary professors. For the next few minutes we are going to let Jesus speak for himself, and all I want you to do—all God wants you to do—is listen.  I can’t read everything that Jesus ever said.  We don’t have time for that.  But perhaps you will allow me to read from the Gospel of Luke, in roughly chronological order, what I consider to be “the top forty sayings of Jesus.”[i]

1.    Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know I must be in my father’s house?

2.    The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

3.    Do not be afraid [Peter]; from now on you will be catching people.

4.    Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.

5.    No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled and the skins will be destroyed.  But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.

6.    I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?

7.    Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

8.    But I say to those of you who listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

9.    Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.[ii]

10. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?

11. Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 

12. A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  When they could not pay he canceled the debts for both of them.  Now which of them will love him more?

13. A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.  Some fell on the rock, and as it grew up it withered for lack of moisture.  Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it.  Some fell into good soil, and when it grew it produced a hundredfold.  Now the seed is the word of God, and you are the soil.

14. No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a bushel, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lamp stand so that those who enter may see the light.

15. My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.

16. 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.

17. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

18. Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.

19. A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest and Levite passed him by, but a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 

20. Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

21. When you pray, say: Father, Hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.

22. I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.

23. Your eye is the lamp of your body.  If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness.

24. And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.

25. Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

26. What is the kingdom of God like?  And to what should I compare it?  It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.

27. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.

28. While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

29. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

30. Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…but it was [the tax collector] who went home justified rather than the [Pharisee], for all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

31. Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

32. My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers!

33. Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.

34. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. 

35. This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.

36. Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.

37. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

38. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!

39. Peace be with you.  Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.  Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.

40. Thus is it written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.

When I was in seminary, one of my professors said he didn’t really care for the red-letter versions of the Bible.  He said they created a canon within a canon, and made some parts of God’s Word more important than others.  But according to God himself some parts are more important than others.  “This is my Son,” he said, “the Chosen,”

“Listen to him.” 

Jim Somerville 2013


[i] Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.

[ii] The NRSV actually says “merciful” here, rather than “compassionate,” but the Greek word can be translated either way and I prefer compassion.

 
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