23 February 2020

"On the Mountaintop" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday February 23, 2020
Scripture:  Matthew 17:1-9 (with a brief reference to Exodus 24:12-18)

I love the story of the Transfiguration – the story that we read each year on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent – this story that is told in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke where Jesus and three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, ascend a mountain and Jesus’ physical body is transformed, is transfigured into a body that shines as brightly as the sun, and then is joined by Moses and Elijah, leaders of the Israelite people from many many centuries earlier, and there they hear the voice of God speaking from a shining cloud.

I love this story, but I have to confess that it is almost impossible to preach about this story, because how can I put human words to the holiness of God?  God is so very obviously and overwhelmingly present with and in Jesus at this moment in time – beyond anything that I can describe with human words, and beyond anything that I can even imagine.

This isn’t the only time in the gospel story when we encounter God a bit more directly, but most of the other times we seem to have tamed or domesticated so that maybe they begin to lose their impact.

At Christmas, we encounter the mystery of God who created the heavens and the earth choosing to be born as a vulnerable human baby; and yet we domesticate this mystery by cooing over a cute baby lying in a manger and focusing on feasting and gift-giving.

At Easter, we also encounter the mystery of God who shows us that God has power over everything in the world, even death itself; and yet again we domesticate this story with Easter Eggs and Easter bonnets.

At the Baptism of Jesus and at Pentecost, again we encounter the visible, audible presence of God; and again we celebrate with water and with fire and by wearing red clothing.

But today, on Transfiguration Sunday, we have another encounter with the Holy, annother encounter with Mystery that we can’t explain away or solve.  And we don’t exchange Transfiguration cards today, and we don’t have a Transfiguration feast later on today – or I should say that I have never heard of a Transfiguration feast, but if anyone is hosting one, please let me know! There are no special foods or sweets associated with the Transfiguration, and we don’t decorate our homes for the Transfiguration.

And so the only thing that we are left with is the story.  This peculiar story where Jesus and three of his disciples climbed the mountain and the veil that separates us from God was lifted.

We are left with this story, and we are left with our imaginations.  With our imaginations we can climb that mountain along with Jesus, and imagine what it must have been like to witness his transfiguration.

Can you imagine what it would have been like?  You have started your life fishing on the great lake known as the Sea of Galilee.  One day, this itinerant preacher and teacher and healer came through your village and called you to follow him.  You must have seen something special in him, because you drop your fishing nets and you leave your family and your home, and you join him on his journey from place to place.  You have heard his preaching as he taught people about God’s kingdom of peace and love.  You have witnessed him heal people.  You have even seen him perform miracles, like walking on water and feeding a crowd of thousands with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.

And today he has invited you and two others from the inner circle of disciples to accompany him up a mountain.  I wonder why these three were chosen?  And when you get to the top, you witness this transformation – Jesus shining as brightly as the sun, so brightly that your eyes are dazzled and you need to either close your eyes or turn away.  And then standing with Jesus are Moses and Elijah.  Moses who led your ancestors to freedom and who also encountered God on top of a mountain.  Elijah who was one of the great prophets who never died but was carried up to heaven.  And then you are engulfed in a bright cloud and you hear the voice of the Creator of the universe saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

How do you feel in this moment?  Are you afraid?  Are you overwhelmed?  Are you filled with joy?  Do you feel loved?  Does the peace of God fill your heart?

We get a hint of how Peter was feeling, based on his reaction.  Peter seems to have been overwhelmed by the encounter – so overwhelmed that he needs to fill the holy silence with babbling words.  Peter says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Peter doesn’t know what to do with the moment and so he fills it with words.  But at the same time he seems to want to prolong the moment by putting up tents there on the mountaintop.

And in a twinkling of an eye – in one of those moments that seems to last forever but is over before you know it – Jesus has returned to his normal appearance, and he is placing his hand on your shoulder, telling you to get up and to not be afraid.

No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to put language to encounters like these; and when we do, our language often contradicts itself.  When the disciples hear God speaking, it comes from a “bright cloud” – instead of casting shadows like a regular cloud, this cloud seems to cast light.  In our reading from Exodus when Moses encounters God, we get a similar contradiction in the description of the glory of God which is both hidden by a dark cloud but burning brightly like a fire that devours everything around it.

Language fails us in moments like these, and we have to fall back on being and feeling.

If we are lucky, once or twice in our lifetimes we might have a mountaintop experience where the veil that separates us from God is briefly lifted; a moment when we are overwhelmed by God’s mystery and holiness.  We can’t make these moments happen, and if we seek after them, they become ever more elusive.

But when they happen, they transform us.

It wasn’t only Jesus who was transformed there on the mountaintop – the disciples who went up with him were also changed by the experience.  They didn’t become perfect after that – remember that Peter is going to deny knowing Jesus when Jesus is put on trial and tortured – but they were surely changed and would go on to be leaders in the earliest church after Jesus’ resurrection.  These fishermen from the backwater of Galilee would go on to lead a church that would eventually encircle the world.  This moment on the mountaintop changed them.

And so we too are changed by our encounters with God.  If you have been fortunate enough to have a mountaintop experience, a moment when the veil that separates us was lifted and God was overwhelmingly present; once you’ve experienced it, you can’t un-experience it.  That moment, that experience stays with you forever.

And yet God is also present in the valleys of our every day lives as well.  God is present in our lives even when we can’t hear God’s voice or see God’s face.  God is present with us when we are sitting here in church, when we are driving, when we are washing the dishes, when we are drifting off to sleep.  These mountaintop experiences – they come and go; and as Peter experienced, trying to hold on to them makes them slip away.  But even when the veil is lowered again, God is still there.

And so my prayer today is that each one of us might have a mountaintop experience at some point in our lifetime, in whatever form it might take – a moment when we come face-to-face with God; a moment when we are overwhelmed by God’s presence.  And may that experience stay with us and change us, even as we return to the valley of everyday life.  Amen.

View From the Top of Mount Sinai 
Photo Credit:  Kate Jones

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