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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
February 19, 2023
Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The two pieces of the reading that we have today aren’t normally paired together for worship. We usually hear the story of Jesus telling his followers to take up their cross and follow him in the late summer as our program year is ramping up. And at the end of Epiphany, we read the story of the Transfiguration.
So we get them in completely different seasons in the church year. But reading the two pieces of the story together like this takes us from death to new life, and reveals what is to come.
Leading up to what we read today, Jesus and the disciples were in Caesarea Philippi – a city that was known for absolute devotion to the ideals of the Roman empire and worship of the Roman emperor. If you had different ideas, it was best to keep them to yourself – because if you made them public, it probably wouldn’t end well for you.
Despite those politics, Jesus knew that people had been talking about him and trying to figure out who he was, and he assumed that the disciples had joined in at least a few of those conversation. So, in that city, he asked them, “Who are you saying that I am?”
And Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the one who had come to save the world. And then Jesus blessed Peter and named him as the rock on which Jesus will build his church.
Then Jesus goes on to tell his disciples what it will mean for him to be the Messiah – what it will cost him. And Peter can’t imagine that his friend will have to die, so he says, “No! Not you!”
Then Jesus rebukes Peter and tells the disciples what it will cost anyone who wants to follow him. That they also will have to take up their cross. And that in their discipleship they, too, will experience loss – and some will even die for their faith.
That’s a lot to take in all at once, especially given where they were for this conversation. But six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. And in a matter of minutes, it seems, the appearance of Jesus completely changes. The disciples barely have time to react, and it’s over almost as soon as it starts.
But in those minutes, they got a glimpse of what’s on the other side of the cross. They got a glimpse of Easter. They got a glimpse of Jesus as he will be on the day when God resurrects him and as he will be when he returns to complete the work of replacing the old world with the new.
They got a glimpse of the life and the hope that is to come.
When we talk today about what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus – we tend to think of it as bearing any difficult situation or suffering that’s out of our control. But when Jesus talks about taking up our cross to follow him, he isn’t telling us to endure that suffering. And he also isn’t telling us to put ourselves into situations, or to remain in circumstances, where our safety is at risk because it’s his will.
Jesus had a very specific understanding of the cross, and those who followed him when he walked the earth understood what he was saying. Jesus knew that what he preached was dangerous because it confronted the status quo and the powers that be.
And Jesus understood that if he continued to preach that gospel, the cross couldn’t be avoided. Because Rome would see him as an insurrectionist; and the only path for insurrectionists at that time was the one that led to crucifixion.
And none of this is to say that Jesus desired to walk that path, but that he understood it and he chose it.
So, when we today remember the cross’s origins, we remember that taking up our cross means listening to Jesus – choosing God’s way of love and grace and mercy all the time. And we come to understand that it’s hard work and all-consuming because it requires focus, attention, and intention.
Because we choose this way of living in a world that constantly pushes back against it. That tells us its way is better. But listening to Jesus is a way of being and living that completely transforms our everyday lives and, in turn, the lives of the people around us. And it opens our hearts to the life and hope of what is to come.
Isaac Villegas is an ordained minister in the Mennonite Church USA. Several years ago, he taught a class at a prison in North Carolina. He tells the story of walking through the prison yard and noticing flowers – all native to that area – that were intentionally planted in a section of the sidewalks that connected the housing units to the dining hall, chapel, classrooms, and garment factory where the residents worked.
The gardener was one of the students in Isaac’s class. And he told Isaac that for the previous decade, he’d witnessed the flowering plants winding through the chain-link fencing and planting themselves just inside the perimeter.
He persuaded the prison administration to let him transplant the vegetation, and cultivate a home for it in the middle of the prison. Tending that garden led to tending his solidarity with the other prisoners and with the earth.
Isaac tells this story as a reminder that transfigurations happen – often in the places we least expect. He doesn’t say whether the gardener listened to Jesus, but he knows that he created a garden plot of transfiguration. It revealed hope and life in a place where, too often, neither of those things are present.
As people who follow Jesus, most days we take up our cross and listen to him – at least, that’s how we start every day, right? We choose love and grace and mercy even when the world pushes back against it.
But there are days when it’s so hard that, given the chance, we’d set our cross down and go do something easier. Listen to someone else, so to speak. And we wouldn’t think twice about it. But it’s in those days, in those moments, that God gives us a glimpse of life and hope.
Sometimes it’s a patch of flowers in a place we don’t expect to see them. Sometimes it’s a word of encouragement. Sometimes it’s a piece of music. Or a conversation with a friend, or even a conversation with a perfect stranger.
Whatever it is, that glimpse helps us keep listening to Jesus. It touches us with love when we are afraid, and gives us the courage to get up and keep moving forward when we become overwhelmed. It assures us that Jesus is still with us and that the moments of fear and overwhelm aren’t the end. That we’re moving towards something more, something beautiful.
Taking up our cross, listening to Jesus, witnessing moments of transfiguration – living this life shapes us in ways that we can’t begin to imagine. It pushes back against the world and reveals life and hope when we need it most and where it is needed most. And it’s the life and hope that can only come from God. Thanks be to God! Amen.