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Scripture: 2 Peter 1:16-21
It’s been generations since the disciples were dazzled by Jesus’ glory atop the mountain; his visitation by Moses and Elijah are no longer in living memory, just a story passed down from christian to christian to help keep hope alive. Jesus was supposed to have come back by now, though, right?
Folks are losing hope, starting to think (and understandably so) that maybe the stories are just stories after all, maybe they’d put all their eggs in the wrong basket, picked the wrong horse. Maybe they’ll be under the thumb of Roman oppression for evermore.
And then a letter from Peter the apostle appears. It reads: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Even so, many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned. And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.”
Now at the time, few would have actually believed that this letter had been written during Peter’s lifetime, wisely predicting their current woes, remaining hidden away until just the right moment when it miraculously surfaced.
Instead, like many of its genre, the letter written in the name of a well-known figure, in this case, the apostle Peter, imagining what he’d have to say to a contemporary audience. MLK did this with a letter of Paul’s; you may remember Pastor Kent read it a couple years ago on MLK weekend. This wasn’t a sneaky endeavor, however, this was a well known rhetorical device in the era.
Think of it like if a newspaper were to run an op-ed ‘by’ George Washington, written to the modern electorate, giving advice about the separation of powers, or military strategy, etc.
In this letter, we hear “Peter” recap the story of the Transfiguration, which you heard just minutes ago, reminding his readers that this wasn’t hearsay, but that he and other apostles were eye-witnesses, and it is their account that confirms the prophetic message of the Messiah.
Peter begins the next chapter of the letter decrying false prophets and teachers who he claims are busy maligning the truth, motivated by greed to exploit and mislead the masses. We know what that feels like…We hear in the news about both high and low-tech efforts to simultaneously interfere with, and weaken our trust in our elections; hacking, disinformation and propaganda campaigns abound, and as soon as the news breaks and the reports are released, it’s dismissed by those in power, or twisted into new narratives with different characters and motives altogether.
The very fact that the very real science explaining the reality (and urgency) of climate change is so callously dismissed and even attacked by politicians, CEO’s, and the social media masses is enough to make you want to throw in the towel and go back to single-use plastic bags. And we’ll come back to that.
So, “Peter” lashes out against these false teachers who are trying to convince people that the second coming is just a cleverly devised myth, that Jesus isn’t the messiah, that we’re on our own and no one is coming to help us. But what if these false teachers don’t have any mal-intent? Perhaps they really do feel taken in, deluded…perhaps they’ve given up hope, and exhausted, are trying to save others the effort it took for them to hold out hope as long as they did. And truthfully, I think we can relate…we are living in a time of multiple, simultaneous crises. Political, medical, ecological, financial, military and humanitarian; what I hear a lot is that lately it’s begun to feel like all fo the things we’ve felt we could trust are threatening to fail, and it’s coming from all angles.
News of hearings withheld, votes not taken, exhortations to ignore the evidence of your own two eyes, it can feel like our very democracy is precariously close to failing- the cracks in the dam are spidering out and the sound is deafening. If we can’t trust in checks and balances, in an impartial Justice Department, in the integrity of our elections, what do we do? Do we give up? Tune out? It’s not a huge leap from doubting the integrity of our elections to deciding not to vote at all. I know I’ve made the joke before that ‘well I’m a lefty from the bluest of the blue states, it’s not like my vote is gonna decide the election’.
We’re swiftly approaching (or maybe even have passed) the climate ‘point of no return’, the 2 degrees celsius of warming that will trigger a domino effect of ecological disaster- setting aside for a moment the knowledge of how humans have triggered and contributed to global warming, it often feels like we can’t even count on the earth itself to stick by us. For every article about zero-waste lifestyle adjustments and ways to cut down on emissions, I see a counter-article about how making individuals feel responsible for ecological stewardship is just a way for corporations to avoid making the big changes that they need to. Some even claim that recycling is basically a hoax to lull us into a false sense of accomplishment and eco-stewardship, but that the majority of what we think we recycle actually ends up in a landfill. If that’s the case, why bother recycling in the first place? If the things we thought made a difference actually don’t, then what’s the point of even trying? When the problem feels insurmountable, it’s easy to shut down in despair.
This phenomenon is called learned helplessness. And, as I’ve been learning this fall as I take a deep dive into the wonderful world of dog training science, it isn’t just something that happens to us humans. You can see it in animals, too; in dogs that have been trained with aversive or punishment-based devices such as e-collars or prong collars, no longer able to trust their owner or environment, their curiosity, courage, and willingness to offer natural behaviors shuts down, and they withdraw into a state of learned helplessness that is often mistaken for ‘obedience’..that is, if they don’t become fear-aggressive instead.
Generations after Jesus’ death and resurrection, folks are beginning to shut down. The early church taught that Jesus was coming back soon, like, within a generation soon. Paul said ok maybe not that generation, but still really soon, any moment now, so keep awake, keep encouraging each other, keep living into the kind of community that will make Jesus proud when he comes a-knocking. But the knock never came.
And now there are those out there, spreading what Peter says are essentially disinformation campaigns, saying that Jesus isn’t coming back, and furthermore, that the entire idea of Jesus as messiah, the entire message of the transfiguration, was a “cleverly devised myth”, was fake news. It’s not lazy or pre-mature to want to give up hope at this point, in fact, it’s very natural.
And Peter knows this. He also knows that the way we live our lives when we think the future holds nothing for us and our institutions (or saviors) aren’t there to protect us or provide safety and comfort is very different from the way we live when our hearts and minds, our hopes and expectations are fixed on Jesus.
He says to them, “so we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” reminding his readers about all that came before Jesus that foretold God’s in-breaking into the world as Christ, that this was no haphazard slapdash story pieced together to placate an oppressed population. He encourages his readers to trust in the capital-T Truth, especially if what other (false teachers) seem to be saying flies in the face of all that has been said by all of the prophets to date. “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,” he says, “because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God”
He reminds them, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Telling them- telling us, to hold onto the promise of God’s presence in the world, to follow the light until it is ignited within us and magnified by our own souls.
On Monday, I saw the movie Just Mercy, based on the book by Bryan Stevenson about his work founding the Equal Justice Initiative, which helps provide legal advocacy for the wrongly accused and falsely imprisoned. Towards the end, in a voiceover, Bryan reflects that “Hope allows us to push forward even when the truth is distorted by the people in power”. I immediately became “that” person in thte movie theater, whipped out my phone, and wrote down the quote, because I thought it fit so well with what Peter is trying to say in this letter.
Peter tells us that when people try to distort the truth, whether out of a lust for power or out of the exhaustion of despair, we cannot succumb to the darkness and shut down. We cannot give up. We must follow the light amidst the darkness until the light is able to kindle within our own hearts. Hope is the spiritual fuel that enables us to kindle that fire, and that fire in turn keeps our hope burning.
But where do we find the light? Where are the lamps in the darkness that help rekindle our own inner light, our own hope? It’s easy to say ‘look for the light of Christ in each person’ but that doesn’t get very specific. I’m not the most detail oriented person but even I need more to go off of than that! Here’s what I found about how we can find and follow the light:
Mr. Rogers tells us that in times of tragedy you can look for the helpers- there are always helpers. Maybe the helper is you!
We can be on the lookout for anywhere that we see (or feel) the fruits of the spirit, that is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We can even pick one fruit each week to try and magnify within ourselves- what would it look like if one week you let Joy be your guiding virtue, and the next, “gentleness,” and the next, “patience”, and so-on?
We can make hope lists- these are kinda like gratitude lists, but more anticipatory, and kinda like wish-lists but less materialistic.
We can flex our stubbornness (all my fellow stubborn folks out there, this is for us!) I truly believe that Hope requires an element of stubbornness- stubbornness to keep craning our necks for a glimpse of the light, stubbornness in the face of those who would distort the Truth, stubbornness in the face of those who would say it’s time to give up already.
However we choose to seek out the light in our daily lives, we can start right here in worship, where each Sunday our Acolytes serve as stewards of the light of Christ. As we begin Lent, our season of reflection, preparation, confession, and atonement, Kent and I would like to invite everyone to join us in a practice of standing up for the chiming of the trinity at the beginning of each service, and turning our bodies ad hearts to face the light as the Acolyte carries it in. Let the light they carry magnify the light in your own heart, and let your light in turn increase the magnitude of the light all around you.
For the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Amen.