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February 23, 2020


Passage: Matthew 17:1-9

The first time I tried to grow a lemon tree, it died. —Because I am a person and the tree was a tree, technically I killed it, but bracket that for the purposes of the illustration. We had bought the tree the summer I moved to Tucson, a particularly hot one and our first, and it died before fall came even though with the exception of a single week of travel I watered it every day. I watered it every day, a pitcherful, until the water began to seep from the bottom of the pot. And yet the lemon tree died dry. The week I had been away had been enough for the soil around the roots to dry out and compact, to shrink in on itself and grow dense, so that when the water came pouring in, it could not hold it anymore. I was wetting the surface of the soil, but most of the water ran through channels around the circumference of the pot and out onto the ground. It only takes a little bit of lack to make abundance hard to accept.

The past affects the future, for us. What we have experienced affects, in a very material way, how we experience what comes later and even what we are able to experience at all. People, after all, are fairly predictable and the grind of living is rarely a surprise. We can take past actions and make a reasonable guess about future ones, for better and for worse. You know the proverbs: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, (shame on me). Once bitten, (twice shy). Dial back expectation, minimize disappointment. It is nothing if not a pragmatic way of living.

But pragmatism has no jurisdiction in the realm of God.

God chose finite human brings to bear the divine image, chose an aged man and his aged wife to begin a nation, chose a shy fugitive with a stutter to bring that nation to freedom and go between them and God, chose a coward to lead Israel's army, chose a boy to defeat a giant, chose mercy over retribution again and again, chose to demonstrate strength in weakness and might in justice, chose incarnation and suffering and death for the sake of the redemption of the whole world. God is not subject to the kind of predictive logic that teaches us to adjust our expectations downward.

Draw near with me to Peter and James and John for a minute, trudging up a mountain behind Jesus, expecting, probably, another prayer session, maybe a sermon. Less than a week earlier, Jesus had asked them who they thought he was and Peter had absolutely knocked it out of the park, confessing Jesus as Messiah, and then immediately put his foot in his mouth—do you remember? Jesus starts telling his disciples about his coming suffering, death, and resurrection, and Peter’s reaction is to scold him for talking like that. Peter’s expectations for the Messiah did not, could not predict for him the trajectory of Jesus’ life, could not prepare him for the literally cosmic scope of the redemption God was undertaking in it. Expectations we have pegged to the way of the world cannot serve as a measure of God’s actions.

Truly: Do you think the three disciples expected to see their teacher transfigured, shining like the sun, in conversation with the giver of the Law and the greatest prophet? I suggest not: I do not know that any of us could ever expect a thinning of the veil that lets us see more of the truth of things, of the nature of God, than is ordinarily visible to us, even if sometimes we find ourselves in thin places like that. Nothing in purely human experience could suggest it would happen. And it is clear that the disciples were not able to absorb the whole truth they were shown: out of Peter’s mouth tumbled the impulse to grasp and to keep; later James and John would ask to be given seats of honor in the coming kingdom, a sure indicator that they had no idea what they were really asking for.

Yet these people were shown the transfiguration anyway. Yet they were given a glimpse of the divinity of the Son of Man. Not because they were primed to receive it, to soak in every bit of meaning, but only because it was Christ’s good pleasure that they be given that gift, that for just a moment the veil should become thin to them.

Our readiness, our fitness, our expectations, are not the measure by which we receive things from God. The measure according to which God gives is God’s own nature as Gift-Giver. Nothing prepares us for divine abundance: Not our own hard-won knowledge of the world and its limitations, not the expectations for goodness that some of us keep low so we will not taste disappointment, not even what we have seen of earthly abundance, which is fragile and cannot withstand any suffering at all, let alone teach us life about that comes through death or show us the face of God in a peasant. 

We can say, Why didn’t the disciples understand? Shouldn’t they have known, shouldn’t they have anticipated, shouldn’t they have expected strange and marvelous things from Jesus? Perhaps they were unusually slow. But I think that then, as now, daily living does not encourage anyone toward anticipation, that ordinary life compacts the soil in our spirits. Think about it: What do you expect? Don’t tell me, don’t even lean over to whisper to your neighbor, but say it to yourself, the truth, unvarnished. What do you expect God to do? Where do you expect God to be? Do you expect anything of God at all?

Yet even when we are too dried out to take much in, even when the lacks and the disappointments of the world have taught us not to look for much goodness, God continues to pour goodness over us by the pitcherful, unexpectedly, abundantly, and will do it again and again. We do not serve, beloved friends, a God who meets our expectations. No such God is shown to us in scripture nor found by experience. Rather we serve a God who will either surpass all expectations, or upend them utterly. We will be taken unawares up the mountain and shown a vision; we will be sent out to serve with neither purse nor sword; we will carry our cross; we will be healed and empowered; we will suffer and we will die; we will see God face to face in glory. It does not do us any good to manage our expectations on God’s behalf because they can never tell us what God will do. It does us good to expect God, to expect God in moments of transcendence and moments of despair, on mountains and under them. But God will show up whether we are expecting God or not.

After the vision was over, after the very voice of God spoke to silence Peter and sent the three of them falling onto their faces in worship and fear, Jesus came over to touch them, and they saw no one but him, alone, as he had always looked to them, and they wound their way down the mountain together. 

They went down, if I may speculate, toward what could seem like drought: dissension among the disciples, plotting among the local leaders, and the looming shadow of the cross, which they could not understand. And we, this week, descend into Lent: a forty-day wandering in a dry land, forty days of examining where we have become dry, where we have shrunk in on ourselves. But I tell you, my beloved friends: the drought of the world and our dryness have nothing to do with the abundant nourishment of God, who waters our souls with mercy in the desert places, who leads us through the wilderness into glory, whose abundance never ceases. Expect it.

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