(a sermon for February 11, 2018, the Last Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Mark 9:2-9)
It was a powerful moment; that much is for certain, one that up to that point had to have been the most profound experience of their entire lives.
And as Peter, James and John stood up there on the mountain with Jesus, they were stunned at what they were seeing; and yet at the same time fascinated, exhilarated and warmed to their very souls. This was no less than glory itself; and as the three of them stood there amidst the brilliant and shimmering light of their teacher Jesus transfigured before them, watching him “in deep conversation” (The Message) with Elijah the prophet and with Moses (!), who could blame Peter for his excitement and for blurting out the very first thing that came into his head? Mark’s account of this story tells us that Peter responded to all this by saying, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” but he might just as well have said, “Is this great or what?!” Because he wanted to hold on to this experience forever! Let’s build three dwellings, three tents, he says, “one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” and then we can just stay right here and never have to leave!
Like I said, it was a powerful moment; and it’s all punctuated by a voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” and you can understand why they’d want to stay atop that mountain for as long as possible!
Of course, that doesn’t happen; for soon the vision fades, the glory dissipates, and once again it’s just the three of them there with Jesus. And now it’s time to come down from the mountain and to get back to the intense daily realities of following Jesus: the long walks going from town to town; the throngs of people clamoring at Jesus’ feet, the cries of people looking for healing and teaching and love; it was so much more than anything they’d ever imagined back on that morning mending nets on the shore of the Galilean lake. But this was the life they’d chosen (or, perhaps more accurately, the life they’d been chosen for), and it would go on now just as it had before; except that because of this glimpse of glory they’d received, everything was somehow different. They were different.
One of the great “little pleasures” of ministry for me has always been those all too rare occasions when I happen to run into a couple at whose wedding I officiated a few months or even years before. After all, the nature of pastoral ministry, to say nothing of the nature of life itself, is such that you sometimes just lose track of these couples, so it’s great to get caught up on what’s happened to them since that fateful day I got to join them in holy matrimony! And there’s always stories to tell; but I always have to laugh that almost inevitably when I ask how they’re doing, one or the other will always answer, “Oh, we’re ‘old marrieds’ now!”
“Old marrieds!” Now there’s a label for you! It sounds kind of like “used car,” or “factory seconds,” doesn’t it? I wonder, what does that even mean; “old marrieds?” Certainly, it can’t mean that the experience of marriage has caused them to age pre-maturely (or at least I hope not!), and I do hope that it’s not an indication that the excitement and passion has gone out of their relationship! No, I suspect that when they use the term “old marrieds” they’re telling me that over time and experience their marriage has become, well, familiar.
You know what I’m saying; now that the wedding and honeymoon is behind them, they’ve settled into this new daily routine of life that more than likely includes home, work, family… the whole thing. Moreover, they’ve gotten used to each other’s little quirks of personality; maybe they’ve even set out to “adjust” a few of those qualities, in the other if not themselves! They’ve probably already had times that they’ve grown closer together and other days they’ve felt like they’re drifting apart; and I’ve no doubt they faced more than a few challenges along the way. And they’ve probably also come to realize, as I like to say to couples about to get married, that that stuff about “for better or worse, for richer or poorer” ain’t just boilerplate; it’s the ebb and flow of real life that enters into every marriage!
You see, the interesting thing about all of this is that no matter how glorious or memorable the wedding, eventually that day of celebration passes into memory, and life goes on pretty much as it did before; except that now, because of the marriage that’s been forged on that wonderful day – because of vows taken and commitments made – all of life and living is forever changed; and that’s because they’ve changed!
Well, I think that the message of the gospel this morning is that likewise, even as we carry the mantle of Christian discipleship life does indeed go on; and rest assured, friends, that combination of faith and life-as-we-know-it-and-actually-live-it is not always – if ever (!) – going to be easy. But you see, it’s how we incorporate the glory of what it is we believe into the minutiae of daily life that gives that life meaning, purpose and joy!
The fact is, whereas we weren’t there on the mountain with Peter, James and John, we know all about mountain-top experiences, don’t we; those incredible moments of perfect clarity and insight that occasionally come along in our lives in which we are made profoundly aware of God’s presence and love. For some of us, that experience came in times of great joy and elation: in the birth of our children; in moments of sudden inspiration and creativity; or when we discover for the first time a fellowship with the divine in the singing of a hymn or a saying of a prayer. Or that experience may have come right in the midst of pain and strife: in the realization that your prayer for strength and healing was answered; in an inner peace that passes all understanding but somehow brought you through what you never thought you could endure. These are moments that are both divine in their nature and utterly transformative; truly, this is, in every spiritual sense of the word, transfiguration. It’s what it means to be up on life’s mountaintop when suddenly, without warning, God cracks open the crust that forms over daily life and suddenly we see, hear and feel God’s awesome presence. And when that happens, it’s a truly glorious thing.
But the thing about mountaintop experiences is that they’re not meant to last forever. It may indeed be glorious, but sooner or later the time is going to come when you have to walk down the hill and return to the valley from which you came. David Lose writes that one of the most significant parts of the Transfiguration story is that “after all of what happened on the mountaintop… Jesus came back down. Down to where the rest of the disciples are, down to where we are, down to the challenges of life ‘here below,’ down to the problems and discomforts and discouragements that are part and parcel of our life in this world.”
And that’s where we are called to go as well: as Jesus makes clear again and again in the gospels, true discipleship is not as much in what happens atop the mountain as in what we encounter down in the valley! The way of Christ is the way of the cross – it’s no mistake, by the way, that on the Christian calendar, Transfiguration Sunday happens just before the beginning of Lent and our shared journey to that cross – and when we walk faithfully the way of the cross there will be, as we confess in our statement of faith, a cost as well as a joy in that discipleship. But the thing is; as disciples we do walk downhill and we face whatever comes; but not so much because the journey has changed, but rather because we have changed for the journey!
I’ve always loved that passage from 1 Kings we shared today; a beautiful and evocative piece in which God’s reassuring voice is heard not in the noise of wind, earthquake or fire, but rather in the “sound of sheer silence” that follows. That’s a sermon in and of itself (!), but even given that, for me what’s most telling about this story is what brought Elijah to the cave in the first place; for you see, it was not faith as much as it was despair, and Elijah’s deep desire in that moment to quit being a prophet! And you can understand why: nothing was working out right; the Israelites had forsaken God’s covenant, they’d torn down the altars of worship and now they were seeking to kill all prophets; including and especially Elijah himself! So Elijah has fled to this cave, not only in fear for his life but also feeling utterly abandoned by God; he’s disillusioned and angry, and he cries out to God in despair, and as a great storm rages both outside and from within, Elijah waits for the Lord to answer… which God does… in the silence.
But did you notice that when God eventually does speak to Elijah, what he tells Elijah to do? God tells Elijah… to go! Whereas by our thinking the easiest and safest thing to do would have been for Elijah to stay holed up in that cave and safe from danger, God says, “Go!” Get out of the cave, Elijah, and go back to the wilderness; go back and anoint Hazael as King over Aram; go down from this mountain and then wait to follow my lead.
While Elijah is looking at the failure of the moment, you see, God is looking at the big picture and the promise of a certain future that would transcend the success or even the failure of Elijah’s efforts. God’s plan will unfold as God intends; and life within that plan will go on as before. So what matters most now is whether or not Elijah will choose to stay true to the task to which he is called; and if he’ll remember, even in the midst of risk and strife, that incredible moment of transformation and glory that led him to answer God’s call. The question is whether or not Elijah will walk down the hill with the same kind of faith and determination with which he walked up!
Each one of us here is called to be disciples of Jesus Christ, but the truth is that Christ is Lord not only of the bright mountaintops of our lives, but also is the Lord of the shadowed valleys of living. If we are to follow Jesus where he goes, the pathway will not only wind through green pastures, but also through the briars and what my father used to call the “puckerbrush.” If we’re to model ourselves after him, we’ll surely come to times of triumph, celebration and great certainty along the journey, but we’ll also come to crossroads of grief and despair in which we’ll find ourselves struggling to find the right answers. And if we are to be true to him, we’ll reach out with love to others in the same place.
As Christians, ours is a day to day journey of faith that goes uphill and down; and as we seek to move forward in this life with some sense of God’s will for ourselves, our neighbor and our world, we do so never entirely sure of what’s beyond the next horizon. But whatever happens, one thing is always for certain: in our walk, wherever it leads, we have been the recipients of glory. The movement of God’s own Spirit in our lives and faith has offered us a glimpse of how God’s own realm will be. Truly, we are people of a promise that transcends any of the setbacks and the stumbling and the despairing we face as we go along the journey. The only question is whether we’ll be true to that promise, whether we’ll take the risk to put one foot in front of the other and walk down the hill and into the valley.
Before long, our service of worship will be done for today, another Sunday will have passed and tomorrow it’ll be… Monday. Soon enough – maybe even before the day is through – we’ll be back to life as usual – going back to work, buying groceries and doing the laundry – and the experience of our prayers and songs in this hour will be but a fading memory; at least until next week when we do it all again! Truth is, life will go on pretty much the way it did before today; and yet, it’ll be different – it can’t help but be different – because by the gentle, graceful and utterly glorious touch of God, we’re different.
Beloved, in God’s purpose and plan, this week contains a wealth of possibilities for faith, service and love; but you see, we’ll only know what God can do in our lives if we are bold enough and trusting enough to let God’s glory us downhill and into the valley of life and faith.
Just go, God says to us, just keep walking; and always remember that you’ll never be along
Thanks be to God who in Jesus Christ walks with us on the journey.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry