Have you ever had an experience – a magic moment if you will – when for you time just seemed to stand still; and in that singular moment everything was
crystal clear? Have you ever had something happen to you so overwhelming, so utterly beyond yourself that it quite literally filled you with awe and fascination and perhaps even a sense of urgency? The German theologian Rudolf Otto had a word for that kind of experience: he called it numinous, meaning an experience that goes beyond anything that you and I can rationally describe. It’s what happens when, without even knowing how or why, suddenly we’re palpably aware of the presence of the divine.
For instance, most of us understand the biology of how a baby is born; but it’s quite another thing to explain the feeling that comes over you holding your newborn child for the first time. Likewise, I can tell you that while most marriage ceremonies are basically pretty much the same wherever you go, what passes between two people in love as they stand at the altar and repeat those oh-so-familiar vows is unique and powerful and ultimately indescribable.
It happens in a multitude of ways: a “too cool for church camp” teenager reluctantly spends a week at the Horton Center (the New Hampshire Conference’s wonderful summer camping ministry in the White Mountains) and comes home almost bursting with a new-found awareness of God’s love; or, for that matter, a life-long pew dweller is at church one Sunday morning and receiving communion just like she’s done a hundred times before; but this time, suddenly, in the sharing of the bread and cup there’s an intimacy with Christ unlike anything she’s ever known before.
These are numinous experiences; moments that are both spiritual and transforming. Or, to put it another way, it’s transfiguration: it’s what it means to be up on that mountain when suddenly, without warning, God cracks open the crust that forms over our daily lives, and we get to see, hear and feel with great clarity God’s awesome presence. It is for us nothing less than the experience of glory!
Of course, the thing about such experiences is that as much as we’d like them to last forever, or at least to hold on to them as long as we can, they inevitably come to an end. The wonder of holding a new baby gives way to sleepless nights and changing diapers; all the effort in planning the perfect wedding day becomes the hard work required in building a strong marriage! And even the initial rush of having had that incredible faith experience will dissipate somewhat, once the real world barges back in and life goes on!
In other words, you can’t stay on the mountain forever. Sooner or later the time is going to come when you are going to have to walk down from that mountain and return to the valley from which you came, facing all of its cold and harsh realities. And that can be a scary thing indeed!
It’s traditional in the church on this last Sunday of Epiphany to turn our attention to the Biblical account of the transfiguration of Christ, a true “mountain-top experience” that points to the magnificence of the divine presence which is seen in Jesus. And what an image it is: the face of Jesus shining like the sun; with “raiment as white as the light,” as the old King James Version beautifully describes it; there’s Moses and Elijah appearing to, and talking with, Jesus; and then, finally, the booming voice from a bright cloud above them, interestingly enough with much the same words as were spoken at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
What we have here is one more divine affirmation of Jesus as the anointed one. It was for the disciples, and for us, a confirmation of who Jesus truly is: the one who is referred to in our reading from 2 Peter as “the morning star [rises] in your hearts,” the light that comes just before dawn; the light that serves as the herald of a brand new day. And it’s a powerful, numinous experience for those three disciples who had gone with Jesus up to that mountain; so incredibly awesome, in fact, that Peter wanted to somehow enshrine Jesus, Moses and Elijah so the moment could last forever. But, of course, like all numinous moments, it was not meant to last forever! In fact, what’s most interesting – and in the end, most important – about this transfiguration story is not so much what happens on the mountain, but what happens after… in the valley!
Let me explain this: you see, as the gospels record it, this transfiguration comes on the heels of Jesus having very bluntly told the disciples of what is to come: how the Son of Man was to be killed at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, “and on the third day be raised.” (Matt. 16:21) And this, combined with Jesus’ talking to them about taking up their own crosses, and about having to lose their lives in order to save it; well, this was all very difficult for his disciples to even begin to comprehend! Because remember, up till now, this journey with Jesus had almost all been about the miracles, and the wonder of his teachings and joy of just being in his presence; but now, here’s Jesus telling them that it’s all leading – and pretty quickly, it turns out – to death!
So you can kind of understand why this experience of Jesus’ transfiguration was for the disciples at once amazing and also more than a little bit unsettling. Because these three had seen this life-altering glimpse of the future – their future – and as much as they wanted to hold on to the glory of it forever, they also somehow knew, deep down, that if what Jesus was saying were true, then there was no way they were going to be able to bask in the glow of light and glory, and that to follow Jesus meant following him down from the mountain and into the valley with all its struggle and pain. So what else could they do in that moment, then, but fall to the ground; which is what they did, overcome not by wonder, now, but by fear.
The story actually serves as a sobering reminder to you and me that while there’s an intense and incredible joy to discipleship, there’s also going to be a cost. What’s interesting is that all through the Epiphany, the theme is that joy comes in following Jesus: Come and See, Jesus says; Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people! But now, here’s the reality check; and that’s to walk with Jesus means walking the way of the cross. Our discipleship, you see, will be defined not so much by the enthusiasm we bring to our moments up on the mountain but rather by our willingness to follow Jesus where he leads, which will inevitably take us down into the valley.
I’ve told you before from this pulpit that by the time I was 15 years old, I knew that this is where God was calling me in my life, and that I needed go into the ministry. What I don’t think I’ve shared with you is that for the next several years – right up until the time of my ordination, in fact – my own pastor, who was also my teacher, my mentor and my friend, did his best to talk me out of it! It’s not that he wasn’t supportive, because he always was, and continues to be; it’s just that he was always asking me the same question: “Are you sure? Are you sure you want to be a minister?” Over the years, it got to be kind of joke between us; but it was grounded in some hard truth. As he explained to me years later, “I just wanted you to know it wasn’t always going to easy, or fun.” And you know what, he was right! Ministry – and not just the pastoral kind – is not always or completely about the joy of worship or the spiritual rush of feeling God’s love surging through you! Sometimes it’s about proclaiming truth when nobody wants to hear it; it’s about standing with the powerless when no one else will; and sometimes it’s about being rejected for simply doing what Jesus would do.
Now if there any of you this morning who are considering a call to some kind of Christian ministry, please don’t let me scare you out of it! Because in truth, my life is filled to overflowing so many numinous experiences that I can’t even share them all with you (at least not in this sermon!), and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life than what I’m doing right now. But the important point here, the one my pastor wanted me to get, what that if we’re going to be following Jesus, that means walking the walk of faith; and that means that we’re going to be carrying all those numinous experiences of God’s presence into to the darkest places of this world, so that in and through our lives God’s glory will be revealed. As 2 Peter puts it, “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.”
The good news is that this transfiguration story doesn’t end with the disciples cowering in terror. For in a verse that’s included only in Matthew’s account, Jesus comes to Peter, James and John and touches them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Don’t be afraid: the same words with which the angel Gabriel greets Mary; the same assurance that’s given the shepherds by the heavenly host; and eventually, the words the angel of the Lord will say unto the women who came seeking Jesus in the tomb on that morning of resurrection. And Jesus is saying it now to these three disciples terrified at the prospect of what’s coming next: Get up, and do not be afraid. Understand, there’s no rebuke here; Jesus is not calling them, or us, out for our failures to follow him as we should. He’s simply pulling us out of our fears and failure to take those first courageous steps into new life restored and renewed.
Yes, it’s true, he says. To walk with me means walking the way of the cross; but I promise you this. If you will follow me – if you will go where I go, and take up your own cross as you do – you won’t be walking that way alone. I will be with you, to comfort you, sustain you, lead you and carry you… all the way, even unto the end of the age.
Beloved, as we have joy in being with our Lord on the mountaintop, may we also have the grace to go with him into the valleys.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c, 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry