On and Off the Mountain (sermon 2/7/16)

hello my name is

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

And all were astounded at the greatness of God.   – Luke 9:28-43a

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I’m not sure about you, but I always thought it was a bit odd for the Christian calendar to jam Christmas and Easter so close together in the year. From a logistical standpoint, wouldn’t it have been easier to observe them further apart, even a full six months apart? I mean really, we just got Jesus born and out of the manger, and we’re already getting ready to kill him off – and it’s more pronounced this year, when Lent and Easter come so early.

Be that as it may, today is Transfiguration Sunday, when we hear about the amazing things that took place on the mountaintop. This event is a pivot point in Jesus’ life. It’s a literal high point, after which Jesus comes down from the mountain and resolutely heads toward Jerusalem, where he’ll face rejection and the end of his earthly ministry. And of course, it’s this journey toward Jerusalem, the days leading up to the crucifixion, that we’ll walk with Jesus symbolically by way of observing Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday this week.

It must have been an incredible thing, really – Jesus, dazzling white; the appearance of Moses and Elijah, symbolizing the Law and the Prophets and that Jesus himself was the fulfillment, the very personification of them both. Just as a sidebar here, did you ever wonder when you heard this story just how the disciples actually knew these two strangers were Moses and Elijah? When they appeared out of nowhere, were they wearing name tags, “HELLO, My Name Is _____” Did they have a little meet & greet? In any case, we hear how the story progresses. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about… well, something, we tend to imagine Moses and Elijah giving hope and comfort to Jesus as he approaches his time of crisis. And in the middle of this incredible, surreal experience, Peter starts running off at the mouth, because, well, that’s what Peter does, and because he doesn’t really know what to say but he thinks he should say something, so he suggests that this is such an incredible thing that’s happening that they should build three booths, like they do in the Jewish festival of Sukkot – they need three structures, three dwellings, for the three of them to stay in and settle into – showing us all that from the very beginnings, the church had a tendency to get all wrapped up in its real estate, until God steps in and cuts Peter off, telling him to be settle down, be quiet, he’s missing the point of what’s happening in front of his very eyes. This is my Son; listen to him.

We can all imagine for ourselves what this mysterious encounter on the mountain must have been like, but the one certain thing is that it had a profound effect on the disciples who witnessed it. So profound that they didn’t want it to end; as misguided as Peter’s idea was, it came from a place in his heart that recognized this, and he wanted to keep it going, just as it was in that moment.

But we all know it doesn’t work that way. Whether it’s some incredible “mountaintop experience” we have while attending a spiritual retreat, or anything else for that matter, we know that the ordinary always returns. The next day, the next step, the next thing always comes, and God tells us, just as with Peter, to be obedient and step into it in faith.

And it’s interesting to note that that’s exactly what Jesus and the disciples did. Apparently after a good night’s sleep, they came down from the mountain, they got right back into the thick of things. Back into the daily routine of their work. Even knowing what lay ahead, Jesus continued to proclaim the good news, and continued to heal people.

It’s easy for us to be distracted in our own lives of faith by voices other than the ones we should be listening to. It’s easy for us to want to settle in and set roots when God actually wants us to sprout wheels. It’s easy to hear voices like Peter’s instead of God’s. Instead of the voices of poor, the sick, the marginalized and oppressed; the voices from down off the mountain; the ones we’re called to bring good news to. The mountaintops of our lives of faith can be amazing, soul-nourishing experiences. But we have to realize that they aren’t there just for no reason. They’re meant to nourish us for the things that God is drawing us toward, the things that God is leading us to do for the good of God’s reign, and for the good of others. They’re meant to nourish us for life off the mountain, wherever and whatever that might look like; and whether name tags are needed or not.

Thanks be to God.

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