Theology & The Church

Trump and the Transfiguration

Roger Nelson

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the noise and seeming chaos of the first days of the Trump administration. The tweets, the hyperventilating media, the alternative facts, the pundits, pontificators, and protesters. The insults, the leaks, the fake news, the lies, the Facebook posts, the language of war, opposition, resistance. It’s all created a deafening roar. The world feels full of sound and fury.

The Washington Post recently changed its tagline to read, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Some think “the media” are precisely the problem, that they represent the liberal global elite who would shade the world with lies. Others worry that truth is under attack and First Amendment freedoms are threatened. Things feel murky, dark, and dimly lit.

Where is there an unmistakable light in our landscape? Where is there a light that we can see by? In this present darkness, what would illuminate our way?

Almost every year on the last Sunday before Lent, we revisit the story of Christ’s transfiguration. In the unfolding narrative of God reclaiming creation, it’s a high point. But it’s also unmistakably mysterious, dense, odd, and bursting with light.

The disciples join Jesus to pray—only to doze off. The text reads that their sleep was heavy and hard to shake. Maybe as they woke to Jesus shining like lightning they thought they were still dreaming. They couldn’t quite focus on what felt like fantasy.

Where is there an unmistakable light in our landscape? Where is there a light that we can see by?

The transfiguration is, in fact, an epiphany. It is a luminous and mysterious revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. It is God pushing through the detritus to announce his presence, his activity, his way, and his will in Jesus. Atop this high mountain, where the membrane between heaven and earth is thin, God breaks in to say, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” At this moment God doesn’t say, “Believe in him.” Or, “Trust in him.” Or, “Open your heart and let him in.”

God says, “Listen to him.”

Listen to him. Don’t be too confident in your own assessment of things.

Listen to him. Given all the voices in this world, pay attention to his.

Listen to him. Above the din and distraction, give heed to the words of my son.

Listen to what he says. Watch what he does. Follow where he walks.

Listen to Jesus.

I remember first discovering a “red letter” version of the Bible. Against the backdrop of black text the words of Jesus were highlighted in red. It was dramatic. Against the broad sweep of Scripture the words of Jesus stood out, as if to say, “Pay attention, here. Listen to these lines. These are the important points.”

In recent years, Christians who didn’t see themselves or their faith embodied by baby-boomer-white-evangelical-conservative concerns have developed responses that highlight the teachings of Jesus. One of those movements is called “Red Letter Christians,” described by Tony Campolo this way:

The Red Letter Revolution is not only about preaching a savior who forgives sins and promises eternal life, but who also declared that the shalom of God was breaking loose in the here and now. We’re about furthering this kingdom message that is declared in both the red letters and the black letters of the Bible. We declare the whole gospel for the whole world. We want to help make Jesus and what he had to say in the red letters of the Bible the lens through which the entire Bible is read.

In other words, what Jesus has to say is the light that illumines the rest of Scripture.

Now, this “red letter revolution” has adopted a particular political platform that some will rally around and others will revile. I am not making a case for joining the movement. But I will note that there are only two places in the Gospel of Luke where God speaks. At the baptism of Jesus God says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” And then, at the transfiguration, we are told to “listen to him.”

I know that we need the letters of Paul, James, John, and Peter to make sense of Jesus, and explain Jesus, and fill out our vision of Jesus. I know that Jesus is more than just a teacher and that we should focus on what he accomplishes through the cross and the grave. But we could do worse than be encouraged to listen to Jesus. We could do worse than to focus on the red letters. As the writer of Hebrews puts it: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”

As I’ve tried to sort out how to live with the noise of this particular moment, I keep coming back to the desire to hear the voice of Jesus. In these murky days, I keep coming back to the desire to let the light of the teaching of Jesus illumine a way to live.

Love your enemies … pray for those who persecute you … if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also … if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well … be merciful, just as your Father is merciful … do not judge, and you will not be judged …whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me … whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.

Let me suggest one practice for these coming weeks. Starting with Luke 5, read a few paragraphs each day, paying less attention to the scenes and settings and more to the sentences. Sit with, be illumined by, listen to Jesus. Turn off the talking heads. Turn away from Facebook. And let a few lines from Jesus seep in every day.

My guess is that each day you will find a sentence on which to ruminate, wrestle, hope, embody. My guess is that some of the noise of the day will diminish. My guess is that some of the darkness will retreat. My guess is that the red letters might even spark a revolution.

“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, News & Politics, Politics