A sermon on Psalm 99 and Matthew 17:1-9, preached on March 2, 2014.
I want you to take a moment to think back on the times where you felt like God was most present with you. Instances where you have felt like the Holy Spirit stirring inside and around you. A moment where something of God’s character became completely evident.
Maybe you felt God’s presence with you during summer camp, at a retreat center, on top of a mountain, or while staring out into the ocean from the shoreline during a summer vacation, or maybe it was in the delivery room, seeing your children for the very first time.
I remember being in Montreat, NC with my friends from my senior high youth group. The very last night of our weeklong youth retreat those summers, all 2,000 youth circled around Lake Susan with lit candles. We sang songs and prayed prayers together. I remember how the reflection of 2,000 lights bounced off the surface of the rippling water and became 4,000.
There is something about mountaintop or lakeshore experiences, isn’t there? When we are reminded of life in its great and wondrous abundance. Sometimes the best places to meet God are at the edges of our world. Up high in the mountains or down at sea level where the water meets the land. The places where we can go no further, where all we can do is stare out beyond us, seeking something more. And in those holy moments, don’t we get the feeling that we want to stay there forever? We want that moment to stick. We take pictures thinking that in doing so we will capture that mountain-top experience eternally. If only we could stay. If we could bottle up those moments and take them with us, we would.
Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain. What happened on top of that mountain must have been the mountain-top experience to end all mountain-top experiences. What the disciples saw up there as Jesus is transfigured, as he shines with the bright light that God rains down on him, must have been at once mesmerizing and dumbfounding, both awe-inspiring and completely beyond their capacity to understand.
The disciples are not the only ones left with questions about what’s happened there.
One of my mentors taught me to ask several questions of myself before I begin writing a sermon about a particular text, and two of those questions are, “What are the bridges to understanding this text?” and “What are the barriers in the way of understanding this text?”
When I read this story, I’m afraid that there are a whole lot more barriers than there are bridges. I don’t have anything in my own experience that connects me to what’s happening here.
This passage strikes me as a completely odd moment in scripture. We have Moses and Elijah. They’re hovering somewhere in the sky and they’re talking with Jesus. Like, these 3 are actually having a conversation with each other, catching up with one another—as if it’s a reunion. Moses and Elijah chumming it up with Jesus from beyond the clouds. Jesus glowing afterwards.
Sometimes we need to be honest about how a story like this can leave us feeling left out and confused. Not because we don’t believe that it happened necessarily, but because we have little in our lives that help us to identify with it.
Doesn’t this text leave us with many more questions than answers? It’s hard for me to connect with what’s happening in this moment. But thankfully I’m not alone in this. Even after seeing it with their own eyes, it seems like Peter, James, and John can hardly understand what happened either.
Peter, always the one who says things before he thinks them through, responds to this unbelievable thing that just happened in front of him in an almost frantic way. Peter’s reaction to all of this is an outward gushing of emotions. He wants to somehow freeze this moment in place. Peter wants to memorialize it by building monuments—“shrines” the text says—to make what he just saw stick. I can see Peter running around Jesus on the top of that mountain and shouting, “Ok we gotta preserve this somehow, Oh, I know! Let’s build something out of stone, let’s make a plaque with today’s date on it and a little summary of what just happened. It’ll say, ‘Here on March 2nd, AD 25,’” …and on he goes. Something about Moses, God, Elijah, and Jesus.
I can hear Peter shouting breathlessly, Too bad I didn’t bring my camera up the mountain with me, Jesus—those pictures would have been amazing!
Let’s bottle this moment up somehow!, Peter exclaims.
Now, Peter’s reaction is something that I can understand! That’s the part of this story I can identify with. The frantic attempt to forever capture and bottle up a mountaintop moment. Jesus, though, will have none of it. Jesus says, there will be no staying on this mountain, nor will there be any memorializing anything about what just happened. In fact, he says to Peter, James, and John, no one’s even allowed to talk about what just happened. Not a peep out of you! “Not until after the Human One is raised from the dead.”
Much to Peter’s dismay, there were no monuments built. The only thing Jesus and those 3 disciples left on top of the mountain were their footprints.
I have experienced many holy moments in my life. Mountaintop experiences complete with picture-taking, times of walking on the beach talking to God. Times of transition where I wanted to gather all the good memories I had about a place before I had to leave it.
I spent the last night in my college apartment alone. My parents had already moved my stuff back home as I was planning on 4 more years of school at seminary in Richmond. My roommate had already moved back to Florida, and the only thing left inside of my apartment was me, a sleeping bag, a pen, and pad of paper. I had just finished an internship with a church that Spring to finish my degree, and that night I wrote my final goodbye for their newsletter. And in it I wrote,
I’ve come to learn that no matter what holy moments I’ve had, God has even better moments in store for me somewhere up ahead.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to follow where Jesus leads us, even when Jesus leads us away from our mountaintop experiences.
The life of discipleship is not about staying in holy moments, neither is it an effort to collect more and more mountaintop experiences. Sometimes we are like Peter in that we want to soak in all of the Peak moments. We want our lives with God to be filled with these spiritual highs as often as possible. But through this passage, we see that Jesus is the one who needs us to walk with him down the mountain too, leaving only our footprints as a sign of our time there.
Jesus wants us to walk with him down the mountain and into the ordinary valleys of our lives too and to seek him there.
It is when we are mature enough in our faith and make an effort to seek out the amazing in the commonplace—when we expect God to teach us through the everyday, usual, small experiences in our lives, that we learn what following Jesus is really about. The life of discipleship is about recognizing the holy in the altogether ordinary.
This Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter morning is a time for us to walk with Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem. It is there in Jerusalem that the cross awaits him.
During Lent, we are asked to journey with Jesus to the cross. It’s a dark 40 days. Today on Transfiguration Sunday, we follow Jesus up the mountain to see his face shining and his clothes white as light as he basks in Holy presence, but just like Peter, James, and John we are asked to come down from this mountaintop experience and to follow Jesus into the darkest of valleys—the valley between this mountaintop and another—the mountaintop on which he will be crucified. The shadow of the cross looms large, even from this distance.
Jesus knew what awaited him in Jerusalem. But still he walked towards the cross. Obedient to God the whole way.
Lent is a time to recommit ourselves to the tough work of following Jesus when we know the way is hard and even though we know the journey will take us to the cross where we will see him crucified. May we be his faithful disciples and walk alongside of him not only in moments of brilliance and light but also in times of trial and darkness. For Jesus has always walked with us through our light and our dark, and his love for us is faithful at all times.
The cross of Good Friday represents how devoted to us Jesus really is. Jesus’ love for us is so great that he was willing to give up his life for it. Even if it meant death on a cross.
This Lent let us go forward in amazement for how spectacular God’s love is! In this season, may we offer ourselves to God in the same way God has offered himself to us.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.