March 3, 2019 Sermon
“A Perverse and Faithless Generation”
Old Testament Scripture: Exodus 34:29-35
New Testament Scripture: Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)
Sermon: “A Faithless and Perverse Generation” Rev. David Hawkins
Today is the last day of what I have been calling the ‘Season of Epiphany”, which really isn’t a thing on the liturgical calendar, but I like the idea of a time when we celebrate and talk about Jesus being revealed to the world, beginning with the visit of the wise men from the East, through a series of encounters in his home town, various healings, the calling of the disciples, all that.
And today is the ultimate revelation of Jesus, the Transfiguration. We go from the Sermon on the Plains of the last couple of weeks to the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah. Jesus, between the law and the prophets, fulfilling both. Peter, James, John, rubbing the sleep from their eyes, trying to figure out what is going on. Jesus, his face shining, blinding white clothes, a voice from heaven.
We know this story, we hear it every year, right before Ash Wednesday. It’s an important story, and every time I read it, I learn something new about the glory of Jesus, about his relationship with God, about the confusion among his disciples about who he really was, our own desire to build a house around Jesus, to put him in our own small box.
And all these things are worth exploring, year after year. We need remember that Jesus didn’t come to enforce the law, he came to fulfill it. He didn’t come to preach the word of God, he came to be the Word of God. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t really wrap our minds around the mystery of the Transfiguration. We can never, ever, contain Jesus in our own small box of doctrine, and at some point, we need to leave the mountaintop and go back down into the valley.
But today, I’m going to look at a neglected part of the story, at least, it’s been neglected by me. The part that happens after Jesus, Peter, John, and James walk back down, and join the crowd at the foot of the mountain.
It turns out there is a problem. A father is pleading for his son, who is possessed by a demon. Theoretically, at least, the disciples had been given power and authority to deal with this sort of thing way back at the beginning of chapter 9, but they can’t seem to get the job done. The demon is causing havoc, and the disciples are helpless, and it seems nothing will ever get better.
And Jesus does something weird, something we don’t see him do very often.
He complains about this perverse and faithless generation, which seems a little harsh. He complains about having to stick around with them, which seems a little callous.
Now, I’m not completely sure who Jesus is talking to here. I’m not sure if he’s talking to the crowd, or to his disciples, but I’m also not sure that matters. Either way, it is unlike Jesus to complain. It is unlike Jesus to use the sort of language he usually reserves for the Pharisees and the Scribes, language usually reserved for the hypocrites and rulers who load down their followers with burdens, and don’t life a finger to help them.
It’s unlike Jesus to be mean. And he is, just now, a little bit.
And I wonder, why? Why is Jesus so angry? Why does he use such harsh language?
And above all, what can we learn from this part of the story? What part of the Gospel message do we walk away with, after all the smoke clears, the lights fade, the voice from heaven is stilled, Moses and Elijah disappear, and the transfiguration is over? What grace is buried in this strange story at the foot of the mountain?
You know, it would be easier for all of us if we just skipped over this strange reaction from Jesus. That’s what most of my Bible commentaries did. They went right from the transfiguration to the healing. They seemed to think the two things were linked, somehow. And maybe they are. But still, we have this faithless and perverse comment to deal with. And I’m not really sure how to do it.
But let’s try.
I think the first thing to consider is are there any translation issues that might help us to understand what Jesus is talking about. And it turns out, there are. Another way to translate the word translated as perverse is ‘distorted’, or ‘broken’. Another way to translate the word translated as ‘faithless’ is ‘someone who has lost, or doesn’t have trust, or hope’. The moderates the heat behind Jesus’ comment, but it doesn’t take the original intent away. Regardless of the translation, Jesus is not happy.
And so, the next thing to consider is to whom the comment is directed. Is this for the disciples, because of their inability to heal the boy, or the crowd? The text says that Jesus says this as an answer to the father’s plea, but I can hardly imagine that Jesus is blaming the father’s lack of faith for his son’s possession by a demon.
Or is it a rhetorical question muttered to himself, as he rolls his eyes? It really could be any of these, the text isn’t clear. The first part of his answer is that thing where the Greeks say, ‘you all’. ‘You all’ are a faithless generation, he says. The second part is definitely to the father. So, you really can’t tell exactly who Jesus is addressing in the first part.
Let’s assume for a moment that Jesus is talking to the crowd in general, including the disciples. In fact, let’s assume that Jesus is also rolling his eyes. I think that makes the most sense. It isn’t directed toward the father specifically, it’s more of an observation of the fact that despite given the tools and resources to cure the boy, the disciples couldn’t get it together. It’s also a genuine acknowledgement of what it feels like to have a mountaintop experience, and then go back down into the heat, and dust, and chaos of the valley.
We’ve all felt that. We’ve gone on a spiritual retreat, or a specialized convention of some sort, or an honor band, or a dance camp, or had a moment where we saw a glimpse of the glory of God, and then the world seems just a little grimier when we look at it, as though it was covered with thin film of dirt. It’s hard to come back to the real world when you’ve been to the mountaintop.
And so, maybe this is what’s happening. The very human Jesus is expressing an understandable frustration with his disciples and with the world in general, lamenting the fact that he had just had a long conversation with Moses and Elijah, and now he’s got to get back to the hard work of dealing with people. That could be an explanation of his first reaction.
Or maybe Jesus is naming a simple truth, that he was addressing a generation that was broken, that had lost hope. And the reality was, Jesus wasn’t going to be there to fix things forever. There was going to be a time when he would take a different path, one the disciples couldn’t follow, and they would be on their own.
And you know, I think it’s all of these things. I think that Jesus is coming down off a mountaintop high, and is confronted by the reality of human limitations, pain, and needs, with the knowledge that soon, he was going to walk back up the mountain, but this time, to Calvary.
This is an existential moment for Jesus, a ‘come to Jesus’ moment for Jesus. The full weight of his time on earth, and his ultimate destination on a cross have combined to hit him over the head, and it is almost unbearable.
And he expresses it. He lets us know exactly what he’s thinking.
And then he goes back to work, saving the boy, rebuking the demon, healing, teaching,
forgiving. A moment of frustration, a lifetime of grace. Jesus comes down from the glory of the transfiguration, encounters humanity in all its inglorious despair, names it, and then continues his ministry.
There is something so very true about this story, something that perfectly captures the humanity of Jesus as he re-enters the world after the transfiguration, but something that also reveals his divinity in the way he continues the work of God. Both are present in equal measure, and both offer for us the truth of Jesus and the reality of the work before us.
Because we, also, are a broken generation who has lost hope. We, called as disciples to heal, to help, to minister, to be the hands and feet of Jesus, encounter problems that are too big for us. We see Jesus for who he is in the breaking of the bread, we sing his praises, we read his words, and then we go back outside and the poverty, the crime, the addictions, the demons of this world are overwhelming.
It can lead to despair.
And maybe that’s where the Gospel of this message is revealed to us.
Because it’s not just up to us. We do what we can. We help where we can. We give what we can. And when that’s not enough, and it will never be enough, Jesus gets back to work.
For the last several weeks, we’ve been celebrating the revelation of Jesus, the season of Epiphany. Today, Jesus was revealed as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. And now, we go out into the world, at the foot of the mountain, and despite our best efforts, we cannot save the world.
But the Gospel of this story is the reminder that in our failure, Jesus is revealed. We do not reveal Christ. In our best and least efforts, we are the revelation of Christ. And it’s in our inability to save the world that the true Savior is given room to work.
This is the paradox of our faith. We do not have enough. We will never have enough But, despite our lack of faith, we are still called to minister to the world, and when our best efforts fall short, Jesus steps in and does the heavy lifting for us.
We live in broken world that has lost hope. And sometimes, we ourselves are broken and hopeless. The promise of today’s text is that despite this reality, Jesus is still among us, despite our brokenness, despite our hopelessness, in fact, maybe even because of our broken hopelessness, Jesus is with us, and he is still healing, still saving.
And when Jesus is revealed in our brokenness, we, and the world, are once again given hope.
And this is the sort of transfiguration we can wrap our minds around.
Thanks be to God.