Sermon – 2.23.20 – Tell No One

Rev. John Callaway

Matthew 17:1-9

17:1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

17:2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

17:3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

17:4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

17:5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

17:6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.

17:7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

17:8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

17:9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Katie and I have been trying to share just a little bit more of our own personal stories each week for you to get to know us. It is hard for that process to not simply be like social media where only the pristine is shared. We are trying to model showing a little bit of vulnerability, hopefully in a fun way that let’s you see a different side of us. So, here is a story that wouldn’t be posted on social media.

When I was a child, I thought as a child, and I loved the music from The Lion King. OK, I’m an adult and I still love the music from The Lion King. I mean, we definitely took Sophie to the theater to see the new rendition of the film because she wanted to, right Katie?

For me, I was taken back to my room growing up. Sure, there was a basketball goal and some toy rubber band guns, but there was also a CD player. Having seen many choral programs, choir cantatas, and plenty of hymn conducting, I would crank up The Lion King soundtrack and blast the Elton John music, sing the Tim Rice lyrics, and conduct the Hans Zimmer orchestral pieces. I was modeling my performance after the great conductors I had seen and heard about, John Williams, Aaron Copland, John Rutter, James Richardson, and the list goes on. I was creating my own niche, arms spread wide, I’d conduct the orchestra and mighty choir. And then I’d face the audience to sing the solo of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”

 “Everybody, look left! Everybody look right! Everywhere you look I’m, standing spotlight!” 

Luckily, I’ve left all that behind me.

I’m not sure why this memory is so vivid, but it was that song, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” that really resonated with me and really brought the house down. 

Was the song connecting due to an innate longing for power, and maybe as a child agency? I’m not sure, but having had the opportunity to sing songs and lead groups in singing, the song I love to lead others in the most is called “The Servant Song.” It is in many hymnals today and is often sung with the tune Beach Spring. The lyrics are:

“Sister, let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you. 

Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant too.”

The first time I heard it was on a BSU retreat led by Atlanta artist, Anna Hutto. The challenge in the lyrics drew me in and I was hooked. Me-centered praise and worship music would not cut it anymore. 

The imaginative experience in my room growing up and the retreat experience years later were both formative for me, and I’m describing two lyrical subjects that speak of two very different types of ordering the world. They also describe two very different approaches to power. Hold onto those two approaches to power and I’ll come back it.

Our text today is fascinating. It is hard to pack so much mystery, nuance, instruction, and unexplainable things into one paragraph, but the Gospel writer succeeds today. I’ve got more questions than I have sermon time, but I would like to focus on one main oddity in this passage. 

Here’s a quick retelling: Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a mountain it seems to get away. All of the sudden, Jesus is transfigured. His face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling. Then Moses and Elijah appears and Jesus talks to them. Not much detail there, just your normal appearance of thousand-year-old prophets. Peter says, wow Jesus, we should build something here to mark this place and time. Interrupting Peter, a bright cloud appears and a voice speaks from the cloud. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Or basically, Peter, stop talking and pay attention. The disciples fall down in fear and picking up at verse 7: 

17:7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

17:8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

There are so many things to talk about, but this is the part I’m focusing on today:

17:9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Tell no one about what you have seen. 

“Jesus, your face and clothes changed, two long-dead prophets just appeared and we heard the voice of God. Tell no one?”

Tell no one.

As Rob Bell said in a 2018 podcast, “that sure is an interesting way to start a movement.” Tell no one?

And this is not the only time this happens. We’ve heard this in previous sermon texts. Matthew 8: Jesus heals a man suffering with leprosy and says “See that you say nothing to anyone…” Matthew 12: the man with a withered hand is healed along with a crowd of others, and Jesus orders them not to make him known. Matthew 16: Peter recognizes who Jesus is and the text reads, “Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”

What is going on here? I’ve read other explanations for this, but I’m going to suggest some possibilities by going back to talking about two kinds of power.

Episcopal Priest, Robert Farrar Capon wrote about two kinds of power in his book Kingdom, Grace, Judgement and he described them as right-handed power and left-handed power. Now let me quickly say this has nothing to do with our modern political labels in this divisive political climate. This is a biblical and historical description or metaphor.

Right-handed power is how the world most often works and understands things. It is usually rules based and can often be fear based. If you are wanting to fly on an airplane and you walk up to the security checkpoint, the TSA agent has right-handed power over you getting on your airplane. Very few other people can look at you and say, take off your belt, your jewelry, your shoes, and outer garments. But if you want to get on the airplane, you’ll do it. 

The Apostle’s Creed describes Jesus as he that sitteth at the right hand of God to judge.

A Messiah with right-handed power is what people were expecting. 

Right-handed power says, sign this belief statement.

Proclaim this creed.

Come to the mandatory chapel service. 

Right-handed power also says to slow down in a school zone. The world needs right handed power.

But, there is also another kind of power. Left-handed power doesn’t ring the front doorbell, it is the kind of power that sneaks in the side door or crawl through an open window. Left-handed power is the smell of fresh bread and all of the sudden, you are hungry. Left-handed power is seeing a coastal sunrise and recognizing that all of the sudden you are more peaceful. Left-handed power is paradoxical power and it orders the world in a different way. Jesus doesn’t spout of facts and figures. Jesus tells stories called parables. These are alternative wisdom. They often disorient and surprise when orienting in a different direction. Robert Faraar Capon says, “Left-handed power is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness…”

The Roman government’s political execution tool, crucifixion, was right-handed power. God raising Jesus as a protest to death was left-handed power.

In our text today, it is possible that Jesus is trying to help his disciples be transformed and to transform the world. He is worried they might miss something. And rightly so! What is Peter’s response? Let’s build something. 

Tell no one because they might misinterpret. Tell no one because they are going to want to make me a right-handed king. Tell no one because the crowd will miss the undercurrent and what is happening in the bigger picture. 

Jesus is working for transformation. And I wonder when they realized it.

I wonder when these tax collectors and fisherman said, wait a minute! We are a part of something so much bigger. Everything has changed. Jesus drew out of a group of tax collectors and fisherman something much deeper within themselves. We are here today because of it.

This sermon is not simply saying “tell no one” and show everyone. This sermon is saying live it. Live it. If you claim to be Christian then let that be yours lens. Be open to seeing the whole world in a new way. Because, when a transfiguration takes place, you just can’t look at the world in the same way.

This left-handed power is counter-cultural still today. So often, people come to church, to a faith leader, or to a teach and say without speaking, just tell me what to think. Just tell me what to believe. Just tell me what to read.

We are trying our best to help you listen for the whispers in your own life and the greater movements of the Spirit—to become a more full version of who you are. We are attempting to approach the world with openness as to be transformed and hope that you will too. 

We’ve got to remember why we are here and why we aren’t here today.

In addition to expectations, I imagine that you are here today because you want to be a part of something bigger than yourself. To find family, community, challenge, and growth together. And you came to a Baptist church, so I hope you came to do some thinking.

Yes, we are sitting in the oldest standing house of worship in Savannah, but the operative word in the description is worship. And worship is all about transformation. Seeing the world in a new way and listening to Jesus as our text says today. 

Let’s be open to being transformed. Friends, I hesitated in using the descriptions right-handed and left-handed power because of the divides right now. As I’m sure you know, this is an election year. Ministers don’t enjoy election years because they rarely bring out the best in a congregation. 

Dr. Leah Shade from Lexington Theological Seminary says:

“…being the church means being with people who have different values, different perspectives, even misdirected commitments (like the disciples on the mount of transfiguration)…What kind of church shall we be, knowing what this passage models for us.  And knowing what challenges our community is facing (election year, politically divisive time)? Above all, we must listen for God’s voice above the tumult telling us to “listen to Jesus.”

We must listen for opportunities for transformation. The season of Lent, which starts this week on Ash Wednesday, is the perfect time to listen and to be open to transformation. 

Practically, maybe this means attempting to be open to a group you are suspicious of, or just don’t know. Maybe you haven’t gotten beyond a title or a stereotype (ok, Boomer – Flakey Millennial).

Maybe this means being open to some some changes in worship. Our staff has discussed and planned a few new worship elements in the Lenten season and are hopeful that they will help all of our spiritual development.

Maybe this means being open to taking on a new spiritual practice. Starting next Sunday, each Sunday in Lent we are going to ask you to take home a spiritual practice. There will be offering plates as you leave for you to take an offering, which will be a slip of paper with a spiritual practice on it. Katie and I are challenging ourselves to do this spiritual practice every day that week and we hope that you will try it too. 

Friends, Jesus is still speaking. The Spirit is still moving in our world and in our lives with the left-handed power that leaves us changed. 

Are you open to transformation?

Are you open to see the world in a new way?

This Wednesday we begin with a reminder that we are dust and will return to dust, that we are a part of this great circle of life. 

May this Lenten season be a time of growth and transformation for you. 

Will you pray with me?

God of life. God of growth. God of transformation,

Help us to be open to your call throughout this week, throughout this Lenten Season, and throughout our lives.