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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

A Secret Transfiguration Witness - 02/11/2018

When I was a little girl growing up in the Caesarea Philippi some of my warmest memories are of sitting around with my extended family after dinner for hours of conversation and story telling. When I was really little, I remember pressing myself into the warmth of my mother or one of my aunts as they held me in their arms. When I was a little older I would often be on the ground with my brother, Jonathan, or my cousins playing with a top or a little sheep on wheels I had as a toy.

Whenever I played with that sheep, Jonathan would recite from the scrolls he was learning to read with his teacher. “Bereneice,” (Bare-ha-neice) he would say – that's my name – “you must always remember, The LORD “will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isa 40:11) Or sometimes he would recite that beautiful line from his favorite Song of Thanksgiving: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” (Ps 100:3)

No matter what I was doing when we all gathered around together like that in the evenings, I was always at least one-ear-open to what people were saying. It was mostly the men who did the talking, but I would ask my mother and aunts questions about what I heard when we were alone. I still have conversations like this today with my husband Simon, who is a dyer of clothe. And I recite those songs and prayers and stories for my daughter Lydia as she plays with that little sheep today.

When I was younger I would talk mostly to my Mom though. Sometimes I asked about the scrolls we talked about. Like, in one of the Songs of David it says that the LORD is good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love for all who call on the LORD in their times of need. (Ps 86)

Jonathan taught me that song too. But then I would look at the world around us – too many people didn't get enough to eat, some weren't even able to afford bread twice a day for their families. Many people were sick or possessed by demons, but no one seemed to help them. And the priests and scribes put so many rules and laws into place about was clean and unclean, that it made it nearly impossible to help anyway, unless you were willing to become an unclean outsider too.

  Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, had started making us Jewish people pay triple the number of taxes others had to pay. And some of our religious leaders turned far from God and betrayed us, working to make sure the empire stayed in control so they could keep their positions and riches too. Like Herod the Great's family, who not only betrayed their own people, but seem to take great pleasure in terrorizing us.

Of course there are constantly waves of Jewish uprising against all of this unfairness, but the Romans are very strong and they usually put those revolts down quickly.

So I asked, one day as I was helping my mother make bread how we profess that this powerful LORD of us Jewish people is like a kind and fearless shepherd to us sheep when all of these other horrible things seem to happen over and over again without any hope for change?

My mother looked at me like she expected someday I would ask a question like this. I remember thinking how tired her eyes looked just before she responded, too tired for someone who had just begun her day. “We must wait,” she said, “ our people have always done, from the time Moses brought them out of Egypt. And we must trust the faith that the LORD has given us and that somehow the LORD is working a way for our life and not our death.” And then she reminded me of her favorite reading, one she said pointed to a sure sign of the LORD's salvation for the whole world. The Messiah.

She put her hand on my cheek and said, “One day, the Messiah will say to us: 'The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. '” (Isa 61:1-3a)

It wasn't long after that, that our family suffered horribly at the hands of Herod. Jonathan had gone to the marketplace and while he was there Roman soldiers got into a scuffle with a Zealot who tried to resist being arrested. One of the soldiers was badly hurt and they got very angry and rounded up a few other Jewish boys and men, including Jonathan. They were crucified on the road to Jerusalem as an example – to remind us all to stay in line. He was 16.

“Sheep, indeed,” I thought – but not sheep of the wonderful LORD – we were sheep of this empire. And for awhile I gave up any hope that the LORD was at work for our lives at all – all I could see was Roman death.

At least I thought I had extinguished all hope – until the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth came along – all the way up here to the foot of Mt. Hermon and the headwaters of the Jordan River.

He was in the marketplace one day – the same dark place where Jonathan was taken. And the crowds … you should have seen it. It was everyone I could think of from Caesarea Phillipi,  and many, many people I had never seen. I got close enough to see and hear Jesus speak and it was like his voice and very presence drew me in.

Suddenly I realized that I must have had some hope inside of me somewhere because in the presence of this man, I could feel it changing from an imperceivable spark deep within me, to a little flame with warmth and anticipation and life! He spoke very much like my mother and Jonathan when they talked about the scrolls. But he spoke with such authority about our compassionate, abundant, forgiving LORD. And then he'd say: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mk 1:15)

This Rabbi had my attention immediately. Some of the people who had followed him to Caesara Philippi came from Bethsaida. They told of how Jesus healed a blind man there and others had told them about amazing things too. How he cast demons out, helped lepers, stumped the Pharisees with his understanding of the law, called tax collectors to be disciples, fed multitudes of people and even walked on water.

You can imagine that by now I was more than attentive to what Jesus was saying in the marketplace that day – I had to know more. Because you see, healers and preachers and people good at slight-of-hand are a dime a dozen. But nobody, no matter how good and holy they might seem, makes an extra effort to minister to lepers and tax collectors and the demon-possessed and even Gentiles! There was something very different about Jesus, so I made every excuse I could be to in those crowds and I saw Jesus heal people with my own eyes too.

About a week later, I was out looking for him again – he was usually easy to find with that persistent crowd following him everywhere.  But I didn't see a crowd that day. I thought he must have left and I was heading home when I saw him slip between a couple of houses with a few of his followers.

So I followed too – at a distance – all the way up the high mountain. I kept thinking that I was like my little sheep toy, compelled to follow a faithful and trustworthy shepherd. And my mother's words kept going through my mind too … “We wait … for the Messiah.” Somewhere inside I was already asking, is it him? Is this Jesus the Messiah? He looks like just a man.

They didn't see me and when they got to the top, they stopped and I stayed hidden and watched.

Never could I have imagined to see what I saw next – I don't think I'll ever see anything like that again. As I and those three men looked on, Jesus started changing right before our eyes. At first it seemed like I must be imagining it, but he started growing brighter and brighter until he was gleaming white with what could only be the light, the radiance of the LORD. It was pure and perfect and unstoppable. I could hardly keep looking, but I had to because I thought I saw other people too, two others. Then the men were terrified, they were shaking so hard I could see it. I heard one of them say “Moses” and “Elijah.”

And then I heard that voice … it came from a cloud that was quickly coming down upon us and the whole mountaintop. I felt waves of sound move through my body when it spoke. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

And then it was over. Everything looked normal again, Moses and Elijah were gone and the sun was shining. I was frozen to the spot, unable to move or speak. I wasn't sure I could even breathe. The men kept talking, but I couldn't seem to understand what they were saying, but I knew they hadn't seen me.

And then, as Jesus began to go back down the mountain – back into the valley of our everyday lives and all of their joys and sorrows – I heard Jesus' voice again. And he said the oddest thing. He told the men, and I felt he was telling me too – not to say a thing about what we had seen, but to wait – “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

I didn't understand what that meant at all, but I didn't understand anything that I had just seen or heard. I only knew that the flame of hope Jesus had fanned to life was now a whirlwind of hope and curiosity and confidence to continue following him back down into that valley and then back up again on the road to Jerusalem.

And so that's what I did, with that divine command ringing in my ears: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mk 9.7b)

And I hope and pray you will do the same as you enter this season of Lent and your own road up to Jerusalem. I will see you on the other side of this remarkable story, on the other side of an empty tomb. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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