(a sermon for February 7, 2016, the Last Sunday after Epiphany, based on Luke 9:28-43)
It’s not exactly a theological term, but an apt description nonetheless: the text we’ve just shared might well be called “a glory story;” in that it represents one of the places in the gospel story where we get to experience the glory of God, as revealed in the full and “dazzling white” radiance that shone forth from Jesus Christ on that distant mountaintop.
Granted, as Luke tells the story, much of the scene is engulfed by a thick cloud that “came and overshadowed” those who were there with Jesus on that mountain; and yes, it’s worth noting that those three disciples – Peter, John and James – had actually been sleeping up until this moment, so exhausted were they from having made that uphill climb. There is something of a fuzzy, dream-like quality to what Luke’s describing here; but make no mistake, this was a “holy moment,” a numinous, that is, wholly spiritual revelation of the overwhelming “tremendous mystery” of God (in Latin, the mysterium tremendum; and there’s a theological term for you!). What we have in this brief passage that falls smack-dab in the middle of Luke’s gospel is no less than an account of God’s own glory shining forth from the incarnate Christ; it is the very personification of what Paul was referring to later when he wrote to the Colossians that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”(1:19) Not only that, but we also have an appearance here from Moses and Elijah the prophet, both of whom are seen speaking with Jesus; and then there’s that unmistakable voice of God boom out from the cloud saying, “’This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” And these disciples are there to see it all; in fact, Peter’s ready to immediately build up “’three dwellings, one for [Jesus], one for Moses, and one for Elijah’” in order to hold on to this holy moment for as long as possible! And, really, why wouldn’t he want that! It’s amazing; it is incredible; it is “awe-some” in the truest possible sense…
… and then it’s over.
That’s the piece that’s so puzzling to me about this passage: just as suddenly as it came to pass, this “holy moment” comes to an abrupt end. Luke tells us that no sooner than the sound of God’s voice stops echoing in the distance, immediately the clouds disperse, Moses and Elijah have vanished and “Jesus [is] found alone;” presumably with the three disciples nearby, mouths agape and hearts still beating wildly. It’s over, just like that: there’s no explanation of what just happened; Jesus doesn’t “unpack” the experience with his disciples as they walk back down the mountain; all we hear about this, from Luke at least, is that “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Add this to the fact that in Matthew, and also in Mark, Jesus actually orders the disciples not to tell anyone about the experience they’d just had up on that mountain, we’re left here with a “glory story” with a disturbingly vague ending!
Talk about your “tremendous mysteries!”
Actually, I have to confess to you that every year as this story of the “transfiguration of Christ,” as biblical scholars refer to it, comes around on the Christian calendar, the memory that for me always come to mind is that of my ordination to the Christian ministry back almost 32 (!) years ago now. No, we might not have experienced the full radiance of God’s glory that day (at least not in the sense that’s described in scripture today), but it was – for me, at least – a true mountaintop experience. Short of my wedding day, the days when each of my children were born and a handful of other moments I could talk about, the day of my ordination was probably the most significant moment of my life… and it was great! A beautiful worship service led by colleagues, friends and family, and highlighted by prayer, beautiful music and the laying on of hands: it was an amazing day, all the way around, the culmination of everything I’d hoped, prayed and worked for for so many years…
…and then it was over. Sunday afternoon became Monday morning (!) and in fact, I remember that day walking down to my hometown church to say thank you to everybody, and ended up helping to fold church newsletters! In other words, though I was still basking in the glory of what had just happened, life was going on and there was work to be done; including, by the way, my own sermon for the following Sunday! It all came into focus for me a few days later when I received in the mail a very nice note of congratulations and blessing from a colleague of mine – someone who had actually been part of my journey since I’d first sought to answer this call to ministry – and in that note, I’ll never forget, he wrote these words: “That was quite a celebration last Sunday, Michael. What do you intend to do for an encore?”
Understand that the question was not meant to be some sort of ministerial challenge to the effect of “Can you top this?” but rather a powerful reminder that though there had been a long climb up that mountain, and an incredible experience of joy and celebration once I’d reached the summit, now there was this matter of what was to happen next; and the first and foremost what had to happen next was there had to be the inevitable journey down the mountain and into the valley!
That’s the thing, you see; mountaintop experiences, as wonderful as they are, are not meant to last! Sooner or later, the time comes for us to come down from the mountain and return to the chores and challenges of “real life” down below! And that certainly can be a challenge; because the truth is, walking the walk “down in the valley,” and to do so with the same kind of sustained spirit and faith you felt in such abundance up on the mountain… well, simply put, that’s hard!
Bill Bryson, in his wonderful book A Walk in the Woods, about his journey along the Appalachian Trail, tells the story of his first days walking that 2,100 mile path from Georgia to Maine, and discovering that despite all of his excitement and planning and preparation for the walk, he was “hopelessly out of shape – hopelessly. The pack weighed way too much,” he wrote. “Way too much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle.” And the worst part, he said, was “coming to terms with the constant dispirited discovery that there was always more hill!”
I don’t know about you, but I get that; and I don’t expect ever to walk the Appalachian Trail! I don’t care where you’re walking, or what kind of journey you’re on, or what challenge it is that awaits you moving forward in your life; whether it’s something you’ve set yourself to do, or if it’s something that’s been somehow thrust upon you: the journey can be hard. No matter how much you think you’re ready; no matter how much joy and enthusiasm you bring to the task before you; no matter how much you think you’re skilled and prepared to expect the unexpected; there are going to be a great many times when you will find yourself deep in the dark valleys of life feeling totally exhausted, ill-prepared and questioning whatever possessed you to consider taking this journey, doing this thing in the first place! And the worst part of all is… that there’s still more hills. There’s always more hills!
And the thing is, friends; that are how it is on the walk of faith as well. I don’t want to sound foreboding here or to be any kind of “buzzkill,” as it were; but this is how it always goes on the walk of faith.
That’s why I included in our reading for this morning the passage from Luke that immediately follows his version of the transfiguration story. Luke tells us that on the very next day after they’d had this mountaintop experience, Jesus and the other disciples are met by a large crowd and by a man who begs Jesus to come and attend to his only child who has been “seized” by a spirit. “I begged your disciples to cast it out,” (presumably the “other” disciples who weren’t up on the mountain with Jesus!) “but they could not.” And what happens next is very interesting: Jesus does “[rebuke] the unclean spirit” and heal the boy, astonishing all those around “at the greatness of God.” All of this happens, but not before Jesus says – and rather sternly, I might add – “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”
Admittedly, it comes off as sounding more than a little harsh on Jesus’ part, and biblical scholars suggest that in fact, this was Jesus’ rebuke of those who had turned away from their faith, only to clamor for the healing presence of God when the pain and struggle of life had become too much to bear. And that is certainly true; but I also think that this little addendum to the transfiguration story serves as a very powerful reminder that on faith’s walk, there will always be a valley filled with human need; that there will always be times and places and people in need of Jesus’ love and healing touch; there will always be for us, an admonition to stand strong and be bold against the powers of evil, in whatever form they present themselves in this life. So in other words, when it comes to our mountaintop experiences, and I’m quoting David Lose, of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia here, “it is not a retreat from the world but a retreat in order to come back to the world in love, mercy and grace.”
All through these weeks of Epiphany, we’ve been talking about the wonders of each one of us being named and claimed and called by God; and about how each one of us here, you and me, are being empowered, equipped and commissioned for living our lives and doing our work in Jesus’ name, so that we might make a difference in the lives of those around us; and maybe even begin, by God’s good grace and his Spirit leading, to change the world a little bit. So it’s fitting, I think, that at the end of this Epiphany season we find ourselves up on that mountain along with those three disciples to bear witness to this “glory story;” that perhaps as Christ is transfigured before us, we might also be transfigured by his love, and inspired by all the possibilities that his love creates and strengthens within and around us.
But, I hasten to add, it’s almost Lent… and almost time for coming down the mountain; to move “onward” on this walk of life and faith that we share, and make our way, slowly but inevitably, to the cross.
It’s no accident, you know, that this story does fall right in the middle of Luke’s gospel. Before the transfiguration, Jesus is in Galilee engaged in his ministry of teaching, preaching and healing. Afterward, he’s on his way to Jerusalem, where he will encounter betrayal and death. It is, both literally and spiritually speaking, a pivot point in the gospel, and in fact, almost immediately after the events we’ve read about this morning, Jesus tells his disciples point-blank that he’s going to die (9:44-45), and a few verses after that we’re told that he “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:53) Simply put, the story’s about to change; and the not-so simple truth is that if we are answer this incredible, amazing, life-changing call of God to follow Jesus where he goes, and to live our lives as Jesus Christ would have us, and to go where God’s Spirit will lead , our story will change as well.
How that story will unfold… where we’ll go, and what we’ll do, and how long it will take us… well, only God knows for sure; though I suspect it might last a lifetime, and it probably won’t always be easy; just as I also know that whatever the challenges we face as we move “onward” along the way, we won’t be alone on the walk… and that it will be worth the journey.
And as that journey is about to begin again in earnest, friends, now seems like a very good time for us to “pause for refreshment” at the Lord’s table; to remember and experience with that transfiguring presence is all about in the bread and the cup.
But then it’s… onward, beloved!
And as we go, may our thanks be to God!
Amen, and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry