2.14.10 sermon notes
Watching Olympics yesterday – ski jump. Sitting on that bar, then they stand, and WHOOSH! They are heading down the mountain – actually, they are practically flying down the mountain! It is exhilarating to watch, and I can only imagine what it must feel like to experience it. But let’s face it: few of us travel with such speed and determination. And frankly, we don’t all find ourselves at the top of a mountain (at least metaphorically) all that often. But when we do manage to get there, we are not always so willing to leave. The idea is much more terrifying than it is exhilarating. The mountaintop makes us feel safe, more capable, more joyful, perhaps superior. Why would we want to leave?
Today is what the liturgical calendar calls Transfiguration Sunday. It is the fancy word for the day of the church year when we read one of the gospel accounts of Jesus up on the mountain – having a divine experience that leaves him transformed, or transfigured – still the same, but appearing in a new way to those who were with him. This day always marks the end of the season of Epiphany, in which we have been celebrating the many ways in which Jesus Christ is revealed as the Son of God, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life. Here, just days away from the beginning of the Lenten season, we have two stories of the luminescent effects of being close to God, and perhaps more importantly, where that experience takes us. Both stories begin at the top of a mountain.
Moses had been up on Mt Sinai, talking with God, receiving the commandments that would guide the lives of the Israelite people. We are told that as he came down, “his face shone because he had been talking with God.” It frightened people! They did not know how to respond. And in Luke’s gospel, Peter and James and John go with Jesus up the mountain, and the radiant quality of Jesus’ encounter with God evokes awe and wonder.
Both of these stories point to the necessity of closeness with God, especially before a challenging experience. Moses was about to lead the people of Israel in the wilderness for 40 years – and we know that experience was fraught with challenges! Jesus was about to set his eyes toward Jerusalem, where he would experience betrayal, torture and death. Each needed the assurance of God’s presence with them; each needed a holy energy boost of sorts before the way got more difficult. And as we know, each of these men will talk with God many more times to lament, to cry, to reconnect when necessary – we would do well to remember that for ourselves.
So if these stories are about experiencing the holy and being truly present with God, it is ironic that texts like these tend to garner the most academic speculation. These stories don’t make a lot of sense when we try to discuss them analytically. They are mysterious and beautiful and glorious! As one scholar says: “This glory silences our religious chatter and renders us blinking and confused in its light.” But we love to study the text and exegete it and muse over it, but in doing so, are we missing an opportunity to be truly present and open to the transforming – the transfiguring – glory of God?
Jan Edmiston is a Presbyterian pastor outside of Washington DC, and she tells the story of just such a missed opportunity: She says, “A while back, I met a guy who told me that last year he decided to visit a church on Easter. He had not been in a church building for about a decade. He was hoping to experience something that moved him. But what he heard was a sermon about the scholarly theories that Jesus was actually killed on a Wednesday.
All he wanted was a sense of blessing and a personal glimpse or experience of The Holy. But what he got was ‘religion.’” Jan concluded that “The message of Jesus is the only cure for religion. I believe that people want Jesus, not religion.”
Where do you experience the Holy? What feeds your soul? And what kind of spiritual food are we offering here at Northminster? How are we nourishing people’s faith and equipping them for service? And how and when are we getting in the way of allowing ourselves or others to truly experience the glory of God?
Lent begins this week. Ash Wednesday. Then subsequent Wed nights – Prayer around the cross. Time to sit, reflect, hear words of scripture, sing, pray, be silent, listen to God, experience the holy. I hope that many of you will take the time to be a part of this sacred experience. But so often, we don’t do this well. We get uncomfortable with silence. We want to fill the spaces with more noise, more distractions. Are we afraid of what God might say to us? Or are we afraid of what other voices we may hear when we take the time to truly listen? Are we anxious about where we might be called to go?
Jesus and Peter and James and John could not stay on the mountain. It was lovely there. Peter really wanted to stay. He was ready to build some permanent dwellings up there. I get that. We love the peace and security of our buildings and our traditions and our institutions that feel comfortable, perhaps more sacred – more holy. But God calls us down from the mountain. Down to the dirty, messy, even tragic real life — because God is there too. And God’s people are in need of healing, in need of the glory of God. And we cannot remain closed off from the voices of those in need. Imperfect though we may be, it is the disciples’ (and our) responsibility to keep revealing the divine in the middle of the life. We are so quick to compartmentalize the holy experience up on the mountain and assume that everything else is somehow absent of the glory of God. But the beauty of this story is that it keeps going, and it reveals that the glory of God is just as present in the hardships of the world below the comfort of the mountain-top. Listen for a moment to the verses that follow:
“the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
“And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” The lectionary brackets this passage immediately following the Transfiguration story, but it’s much more powerful to read the two stories together as one text. After all, we may not have been up on that mountain with Peter, James, and John, but we can see who Jesus is in what he does with the little boy in the grips of a demon. We might say that in his healing of the child, Jesus explains what the mountaintop experience meant. God’s voice, after all, was heard during the glorious episode up on the mountain, but God’s power is dramatically revealed in what happens below, where people are suffering. It is in the act of service, in the moment of healing, in the midst of despair that the greatness of God is revealed.
It’s true, then, that in our own lives, thousands of years later, our experience of God, rather than being our own private pursuit and comfort, is inextricably linked to our response to the suffering of the world, and that makes us vulnerable ourselves. Personal devotion and closeness to God are important. But they are just one step in the life of faith. One scholar cautions us that “The more open we are to God, and to the different dimensions of God’s glory, the more we seem to be open to the pain of the world. We are right to be wary when we return from some great worship service, when we rise from a time of prayer in which God has seemed close and [God’s] love real and powerful. These things are never given for their own sake, but so that, as we are equipped by them, God can use us within this needy world” (N.T. Wright).
This sentiment is captured in a prayer by Walter Brueggemann, the great biblical scholar who has spent his life helping us to connect with the God of the Bible. His prayer could be for this very occasion, a prayer to Jesus, up on the mountaintop, but headed down to the people below, who yearn for wholeness. Brueggemann writes: “You, majestic sovereign…move off the page! Move off the page to the world, move off the page to the trouble, move out of your paged leisure to the turmoil of your creatures. Move to the peace negotiations, and cancer diagnoses, and burning churches, and lynched blacks, and abused children. Listen to the groans and moans, and see and hear and know and remember, and come down!” (Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).
Come down! Jesus might have preferred to stay on the mountain. It was safer there. He had Moses and Elijah there with him. But the needs of the world called him down. His love for the world and his mission brought him into the valleys, to turn toward Jerusalem, where he would find himself on the cross. So “the most profound revelation of God is not on this mountain. Rather, it is on the cross. The cross reminds us that even in our doubt and sadness, even in the lowest times in life, God is profoundly present” (Ann M. Svennungsen).
So what do we do with all of this? Is the Transfiguration just a mysterious story that we tell around this day each year? Or are we capable of being transfigured as well? Just as Moses’ face did not radiate out of his own power, but through the glory of God reflected in him, so too, are we transformed – transfigured – by the light of Christ. Because, face it, we can be pretty dull on our own. We make mistakes; we hurt people; we cloud the beauty of God’s creation. But thanks be to God that we are not left on our own. For as Karl Barth reminds us, “Christ is the one who makes us radiant. We ourselves cannot put on bright faces. But neither can we prevent them from shining. Looking up to Christ, our faces shine.” How will you bear the light of Christ to the world this week? How will you radiate the radical love of God to others? As we prepare to begin this Lenten journey, I invite you go up the mountain so you can come back down again. Take time to listen. Seek spiritual disciplines that bring you closer to God, not so you can stay there, but in order that you might be filled, so you can go forth and serve others. Amen.