February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration)
Highs and Lows
I suspect if you were to take a survey of people who attend church regularly, to find out what they want in a sermon, a substantial number of them would say they want to hear something that has some relevance to their lives, something they can take out of the church and put to use in their everyday lives. The Bible study technique I typically teach folks, which the Sunday school class will be learning next Sunday, has as its last step the question, “What does this text mean to me, or to my community?” In other words, how do I apply this text to my life?
So in keeping with that, the point I intend to make in my sermon this morning is, “When you are up on the mountain with Jesus, and he gets all shiny and starts talking to dead prophets, here’s what to do (and what not to do).” Surely that will come up in our life this week, right?
No, not really; and that’s part of why a lot of preachers sort of dread Transfiguration, which shows up every year on the last Sunday before Lent begins. It’s one thing to have a passage in which Jesus teaches his disciples something, and we can dig into it and figure out how we might put it into practice here and now. But realistically, not one of us is likely to find ourselves in exactly the same situation as Mr. Impetuous and the Thunder Boys did in our reading for today. It’s just not going to happen.
Nevertheless, Transfiguration Sunday shows up at this time every single year, ready or not; and we have to do something with it.
In the Hebrew Bible, mountains are often places where people encounter God’s presence. Moses climbed Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments, and when he came back down his face was shining so that he had to wear a veil. Michael Card suggests, intriguingly, that the reason Peter wanted to build booths, in today’s text, for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah might not have been because he wanted to capture and enshrine the event, but because the booths would protect him and the sons of Zebedee from the dazzling light pouring off Jesus and the others—just as Moses had to wear a veil to protect the people from the dazzling brilliance of his face after he had been in God’s presence.
When Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray, they had to have wondered if they were going to meet God there. They knew their Scriptures. They knew about Moses, and they knew that Elijah had encountered God on Mount Sinai as well. They were, apparently, exhausted; but unlike at Gethsemane a ways down the road, this time they managed to stay awake to see what happened. So they saw Jesus’ face and clothing become dazzling white, and they saw Moses and Elijah—who had both been in God’s presence at Mount Sinai—talking with Jesus.
Only Luke tells us what they were talking about: Jesus’ departure (in Greek, his exodus), which would be accomplished shortly, in Jerusalem. Interesting choice of words there, and Luke, whose Greek is some of the best in the entire New Testament, knows precisely what he is doing when he chooses them. His exodus, which he is about to accomplish—Jesus is about to lead Israel into freedom from another kind of bondage, just as Moses led them from slavery in Egypt.
Then Peter starts babbling about building booths, and a cloud—also familiar as a sign of God’s presence—overtakes them, and a voice speaks from the cloud, echoing God’s words at Jesus’ baptism, although with some differences this time: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
And then it’s all over. The cloud moves away, Moses and Elijah disappear, and Jesus stands alone, looking like he always did. Then they go down the mountain, where things aren’t going quite so well.
The rest of the disciples—the same ones who earlier in this chapter had gone out on missions of their own, teaching and healing, with great success—have failed to heal a boy who has epilepsy. You can almost hear Jesus’ sigh of frustration: “You faithless and perverse generation…” It isn’t clear who he is calling faithless and perverse—the disciples, the boy’s father, or the entire crowd waiting for him at the bottom of the mountain like the Israelites waited less-than-patiently for Moses to come down off Sinai.
In any case, he quickly does what the disciples have for whatever reason not been able to do.
Our reading for today captures perfectly the tension that a lot of us find in our faith lives. We worship regularly, we come into God’s presence regularly, we catch glimpses here and there of the Reign of God. But most of the time we’re not having mountaintop experiences; most of the time we’re in the valley, doing the day-in, day-out work we all have in front of us: working at our jobs or our volunteer tasks, keeping house, feeding animals, cooking, visiting the sick and the sad.
A faithful life includes both worship and work. And sometimes even the worship part of it feels like work, or at the very least isn’t as exciting as what we experience on the mountaintop—at camp, on retreat, at conferences and concerts and other places where like-minded believers gather to have ecstatic experiences.
The kids at camp say it pretty frequently: Why can’t our churches be more like camp? After the final campfire, the closing circle, the bell being rung, we all get in cars and go back to everyday life, and we wonder why it’s still so…everyday.
Sunday morning at our local churches just plain isn’t Thursday night campfire. It can’t be. Camp is a place set apart, different from our everyday lives, different from our local churches, different from just about anything we experience anywhere else. We need to go to the mountaintop from time to time, but we can’t live there.
We can’t live on the mountaintop…but maybe we can take a little bit of the mountaintop with us when we leave it.
On the mountain, Jesus was transfigured. He wasn’t transformed—he was the same as he always had been; but his appearance was changed, so that Peter and the sons of Zebedee got to see him in a new way, see him for who he really was.
When we go up on the mountain, whether the mountain be camp or a retreat or a wonderfully uplifting conference, we are in God’s presence in a way that doesn’t often happen in the valley, and we see some things more clearly or more accurately. And because those things are transfigured, we may find ourselves transformed. When we come into God’s presence, and see Jesus as he really is, it changes us. We are not who we were before, and that’s what we take with us back into the valley of everyday.
Can you think of an experience where you encountered God’s presence and the reality of Christ in a special way? How did it change you? How did those changes impact your everyday life afterward? And if you haven’t had an experience like that, or it’s been a long time, let’s talk about that and see if we can find a mountain you can climb.
 Thanks goes to a colleague who posted only as Julie on this week’s “11th Hour Preacher Party” on RevGalBlogPals.org for this rather irreverent (but also rather accurate) set of nicknames for Peter, James, and John.
 Exodus 34:29-35. At one point, a translation error in this passage gave Moses horns instead of a shining face. Michaelangelo’s beautiful sculpture of Moses depicts this error.
 We know Michael Card mostly as the composer of the song “El Shaddai”, but he is a Biblical scholar in his own right. His four-volume “Biblical Imagination Series” on the four Gospels, including his own translations, is definitely worth exploring.
 1 Kings 19:1-18. Here the mountain is called “Horeb,” an alternate name for Mount Sinai.
 The text says he has an unclean spirit; but the symptoms described sound a great deal like seizures. With no understanding of what seizures are or what they mean, it’s not surprising that the ancients thought they were signs of demon possession.
 …like the one I go to in Wichita every fall, the Apprentice Gathering, where next year one of the featured speakers and workshop leaders will be none other than the aforementioned Michael Card.