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February 19, 2012

02-19-2012 Sermon The National Geographic television channel recently aired a program about a rapidly growing movement in our nation. The program featured the millions of Americans who are feverishly preparing for what they fear is going to happen. They call themselves Preppers. Some Preppers believe that a collapse of the global economy is imminent.  Others are preparing for a cataclysmic natural disaster that they fear is coming. Still others are getting ready to survive a nuclear war. Whatever their motivation, they share a common bond. They are preparing for the worst. Preppers convert spare rooms into storage pantries, learn how to grow survival gardens, take self-defense classes, and stock up on everything from gas masks to auxiliary generators. One Prepper, who lives in the Texas Hill Country, has turned his 40,000-square-foot ranch house into a fortress stocked with an arsenal of automatic weapons, sniper rifles and small explosives.

Are Preppers prudent or just paranoid, practical, or practically nuts? Whatever your opinion of Preppers, give them credit for living in a way that is consistent with their vision. They fear the end of the world as we know it, and they are preparing themselves accordingly. Rather than ridicule Preppers, we are challenged to ask: What do we believe about the future, and are we preparing ourselves accordingly?

Well, Mark’s story of the Transfiguration of Jesus casts light onto such questions. We   recall that, when Jesus led Peter, James and John up a high mountain, the disciples were in a state of confusion and uncertainty. Up until six days before their mountaintop experience, the disciples had been enthusiastic followers of Jesus. They had heard Jesus preach that the Kingdom of God had come near. They had experienced the Kingdom’s breaking into the world as Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and cast out the unclean spirits. Thus when Jesus asked Peter: “Who do people say that I am?” Peter declared, “You are the Messiah.” You see, the disciples believed that they were preparing for a triumphant moment, when the fortunes of Israel would be restored, the Roman occupier cast out, Jesus exalted, and the disciples themselves assigned to positions of prominence.

But then, Jesus had frightened and confused them by saying that he was going to undergo great suffering, rejection, and death–and that only then would he rise again. He instructed the disciples that they, too, should prepare for hardship and suffering. So on the day the disciples followed Jesus up the mountain, their faith in Jesus had been shaken and the future no longer seemed so hopeful.

But then something surprising, something totally unexpected happened. For a moment, the disciples saw Jesus in a new way. His face and clothes became translucent with heavenly light. Two figures from Israel’s past appeared with Jesus:  Moses the liberator and Elijah the prophet. The disciples were awestruck. Peter wondered if this moment signaled the very climax of history, the end of the world as we know it. Suddenly a cloud encased them. The voice that spoke at Jesus’ baptism thundered yet again: “This is my beloved Son: Listen to him.” Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the cloud lifted and the vision faded away.

So what did this mountaintop experience mean for Jesus’ disciples? What had changed?  In one way, nothing at all had changed. When Jesus and his disciples descended the mountain, the same issues, problems, challenges, and difficulties were waiting for them.  People were still arguing and at odds with one another. The sick were still among them.  Rome still ruled with a heavy hand. The poor still suffered. And in spite of hearing God’s command on the mountain to listen to Jesus, the disciples continued to misunderstand him. No sooner did the disciples descend the mountain than they began to argue about who among them was the greatest. Yes, in many ways nothing had changed.

But in one essential way, everything had changed. Even though the disciples continued to struggle with their faith, and even though they faced various trials, they were now motivated by a vision that Jesus was Lord of history, and thus no matter what happens, love will ultimately prevail. The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain gave the disciples a momentary glimpse of God’s future, in which all things in heaven and earth will be transformed and made new.

And not only did the transfiguration reveal the identity of Jesus, but also it confirmed that the way of Jesus was God’s way into the future. Yes, Jesus is the beloved Son, the Lord of history, but his lordship will be lived out in compassion, in lowly service and nonviolent resistance to evil. Jesus prepared the world for God’s Kingdom by loving the world and giving himself for others.

Now in light of the Transfiguration story, let’s revisit our modern friends, the Preppers.  Our issue with the Preppers is not that it’s wrong to prepare for the future. Neither can we say for sure that some of what they fear won’t come to pass. But our issue with them is that their preparations are motivated by fear rather than by love. Our issue with them is that they cannot see beyond the darkness they fear to the light that overcomes it. They listen to dire predictions and then spend their lives preparing to survive disaster. It’s their own survival that consumes them.

But how differently we might live if we listen to Jesus. He knew that the future held suffering, rejection and death, but observe how he prepared for it. Jesus didn’t withdraw to the hills in order to secure his own safety. He didn’t stock up on food, arm himself for protection, or make survival his primary goal. No! Jesus prepared for the future–God’s future–by showing compassion, loving his neighbors, enduring suffering, and forgiving his enemies.

So perhaps we, too, are called to be Preppers, but of a very different variety. Instead of stockpiling food, we prepare for the future by feeding the hungry. Instead of an all-out effort to make ourselves safe, we prepare the way for God’s Kingdom by becoming more compassionate, loving and generous. Instead of fearing the worst, we live as those who are preparing for the best. The poet James Russell Lowell put it well:

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though his portion be the scaffold and upon the throne be wrong.
Yet the scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadows keeping watch above his own.

Friends, the cross of Christ sways the future, so for God’s sake, be prepared!