“Changed by Encountering God”

Transfiguration of the Lord

February 7, 2016


Text: Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2


          If I had a dollar for every time in the last several years I have heard someone say, “The church has to change,” I could probably retire very comfortably. It seems like I have heard this statement everywhere. I have heard it from denominational leaders, church growth experts, clergy colleagues, church members, and the church’s critics. I have also said it on a number of occasions, enough times that some of you might be sick and tired of me saying it.

          But what actually gets the church to change? It seems to me that the effort to change is often treated primarily as a human effort. We talk about changing attitudes, changing methods, styles, and techniques, changing programs. Often these changes are resisted. And sometimes changes are implemented, and they don’t accomplish what we hoped they would. Our church’s experience with the single board model of governance we used in 2014 and 2015 bore that out. So we have changed back to a model more familiar to us, hoping that will work better.

The Scriptures for this Transfiguration Sunday focus on change, which makes sense because on the mountain Jesus’ appearance was changed. Jesus had gone up on a mountain to pray, and took Peter, James, and John with him. As he prayed, his face began to look different and his clothes started glowing.

We also read from Exodus about Moses coming down from the mountain where he had been talking with God and receiving God’s commandments for his people. When Moses came from talking with the Lord, his appearance was changed. His face shone. And after that, anytime Moses went to talk with God in the Holiest Place in the tabernacle, the tent that served as God’s portable dwelling among his people, he would emerge with his face shining.

Now when we in the church talk about needing to change or about being changed, we’re not talking about transformed appearances alone. To be sure, the church does have need for a transformed appearance to the world. I’m not talking about spiffed up buildings or cosmetic improvements. But the way the church often appears to the world is far from what Jesus wants, I believe. The criticism we often hear of Christianity and the church today is that it appears to be narrow-minded, judgmental, overly political, and irrelevant. I don’t believe that is how Jesus wants us to appear. Jesus wants us to be like him—loving, forgiving, and centered in God’s reign on earth rather than earth’s political structures.

However, we are not called to only appear to be that way. I’m sure we’ve all known people who “put on appearances”, who make every effort to appear to be something different than what they really are. Not only should we appear to be like Jesus—we should really BE like Jesus. Thus the change that God seeks to work in our lives is not merely cosmetic. It is deep change, real change, in us.

We have a name for that change. We call it repentance. Repentance is not primarily feeling sorry about the bad stuff we’ve done. Repentance is seeking to change our lives so they are in conformity to God’s ways and God’s purposes.

We cannot change by ourselves. If we could, New Year’s resolutions would have a much higher success rate. Moses and Jesus didn’t make themselves glow. They glowed because they encountered God. I submit that real godly change happens in our lives, and in the life of the church, not through our efforts, but only through real encounter with the living God. Paul said much the same thing when he wrote to the Corinthians, “All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory.” No, we are not privileged with a direct encounter with God’s glory as Moses and Jesus were. But we do get to encounter God’s reflected glory as we encounter God through Holy Scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And that encounter has the power to change us, to make us more Christlike.

We cannot manufacture an encounter with God. We can, however, put ourselves in places and situations where God may choose to encounter us. Moses and Jesus both were on mountains. Moses had been summoned to Mount Sinai to receive God’s commandments. Jesus had gone up on a mountain to pray. However, we do not need to go up on a physical mountain for either of these purposes. Whenever we pray, whenever we gather for worship, whenever we serve God by serving others, especially the needy, hurting, broken people of our world, we place ourselves in situations where God may choose to encounter us and change us.

However, just being put in those situations doesn’t automatically result in real encounter or real change. Peter, James, and John were up on the mountain with Jesus, and as near we can tell the experience didn’t really change them. It scared them; it led Peter to blurt out something really stupid; it left them silent, unsure of what to make of what they had seen and heard. And in the wake of the experience, they were still just as clueless about Jesus’ mission as they were before. Likewise, when Moses came down from the mountain and the people saw his skin glowing, they were afraid. Even though they had been in the presence of God from the time they crossed the Red Sea to be freed from slavery in Egypt, even though they had witnessed many great things God did to preserve their lives as they crossed the desert, they did not change. They stayed as hard-hearted and obstinate toward God as they ever had.

Likewise, it is possible to pray, worship, and serve, and yet not really be changed, not really encounter God. It’s sort of like that old joke: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? You may know the answer: One. But the light bulb really has to want to change. As much as I may talk about change, a lot of times I don’t really want to change. I don’t want to move away from what is familiar and comfortable and be challenged to move in new directions. But when I resist change, I may in fact be resisting God. I may be resisting what God wants to do with my life to make it more faithful and more fruitful. In order to be changed, I have to be open to let God change me. I have to be willing to let God’s Holy Spirit work in me. I need to quit resisting God.

This Wednesday we begin the season of Lent. A major theme of the Lenten season is repentance. Change. The disciplines of Lent--self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, works of love and mercy, and study and reflection of the Holy Scriptures—are intended to put us in places and situations where we may encounter God, so that we may be changed in the direction of becoming the people God intends us to be. Let us enter into this season with our lives open to encountering God, changing, and growing.


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