A sermon based on Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-43a preached on February 7th, 2016
I’ve never seen Him like this?
Peter seems to say.
Can we stay here forever? Can we have it like this all the time?
We know what Peter’s saying. We know that desire—it’s an all too human one: to press the pause button during the greatest moments of our lives, those mountaintop moments where it seems like the veil between heaven and earth has been momentarily lifted. We want to stay in those moments, or at least somehow slow them down so we can savor them. Why do the seconds and minutes and days have to slip away as easily as they do? Is there a way to bottle them up, freeze them, remind ourselves of the way it used to be?
Jesus, why not stay here? Peter says.
That sounds like a fantastic idea to Peter. Imagine what he just saw. The radiant glow that seemed to come from the insides of Jesus. It wasn’t light falling down on Jesus; it was light coming out from Him. Jesus and Moses and Elijah, the very first spiritual leader, the most important Jewish prophet up to that point, the Messiah, Jesus, talking to each other like they’re good pals catching up. Who wouldn’t want to stay right there forever?
Or if we can’t stay here forever?
we can imagine Peter suggesting,
then why don’t we build something to commemorate the moment? Something that contains the holiness of what we just witnessed?
Peter wants this moment to last. But Jesus says,
No. That’s not how faith works. That’s not how discipleship works. And you, Peter, James, John, you’re disciples, and disciples follow their Master. It’s time to move onward.
Jesus knows that if we like a moment in our life too much, the danger is that we might get stuck there, we’ll keep returning to it, if only in our minds. We start wondering why the present can’t be more like that past moment, and we grow nostalgic—we start looking back at what once was at the expense of paying attention to what can be right now. And that’s not how faith sees. Faith sees forward; never backwards. God refuses every single one of our efforts to enshrine Him, to put Him in one place, to relegate to one spot, to rope Him off to one area of our lives. He’s too evasive and slippery for anything like that. God never fits inside those tiny spaces we construct for Him. So, when Peter comes up with the idea to encapsulate the mountaintop moment they’ve just had—one stone for Jesus, one for Moses, the other for Elijah—Jesus will have none of it. That must not and can not happen. As pastor Eugene Peterson puts it,
God doesn’t want us to leave monuments; God wants us to leave footprints.
So they walk on down the mountain leaving only their footprints. God knows there’s always a more important moment ahead of us.
I think I know why Peter wanted to stay so badly. Up ‘til this moment atop the mountain of transfiguration, Peter, James, and John had only head-knowledge of who Jesus was. They know Jesus was the Son of Man (he called Himself that all the time). They knew he was the Son of God. Peter confessed that after Jesus pulled him back into the boat after Peter tried his best to walk on water. They had listened to all of their Master’s teachings, they studied his words carefully, and they followed His instructions to the letter. They thought they knew Jesus! But all that stuff happens from the neck up. It was head knowledge. But there’s another kind of knowing—a deeper sort of knowing. Something much more satisfying then accumulating facts about Jesus. And high atop that mountain they saw something that finally got them out of their head and into the hearts—they experienced Jesus. It was on this mountain of Transfiguration that Peter, James, and John caught their first glimpse of something more. They saw something of Jesus that not only could change their mind, but also—and more importantly—change their hearts, their souls, their innermost beings, and they craved it.
See, up until this point, the disciples knew about Jesus, but up on this mountaintop they caught a glimpse of something much more satisfying than that. They encountered him instead. See, it’s one thing to know about Jesus, to know facts about God, information; but knowing Jesus , beholding Jesus with your heart, having a personal relationship with the Son of God—that’s another matter entirely. That’s what Peter experienced for the first time up there! That’s why Peter wanted to stay! In that moment it dawned on him that the core of faith was something entirely different than gathering up ideas about God. The core of faith is being in relationship with Him. It was as if Peter was seeing Jesus for the very first time. That’s the invitation Jesus extends to all of us—it’s not satisfying enough to know about Him. Jesus wants us to know Him, to encounter Him—to behold Him. To invite Him in to our hearts and lives and let Him change us from the inside out.
Transfiguration means change, and it’s clear that Jesus wasn’t the only one transfigured on the mountaintop that day. The point of this story goes well past Jesus glowing for a moment before everything fades away. This story is about how each and every one of us is invited to encounter Jesus more deeply.
See, there are some who want Jesus to come around, but are much too scared to let Him in. But the heart of faith is to let Jesus in. And once we invited Jesus in, He reorders every bit of us. He moves all of our furniture around. He changes the shape of our lives from the inside out. Jesus transfigures us.
But that’s not the end of the story. It’s actually just the beginning. Once we allow Jesus to change us like that, he will lead us into places we would never choose to go ourselves. Being faithful to Jesus means walking beside Him the whole way along, and once Jesus takes His disciples down the side of the mountain that day, they’re headed along the path that will bring them to the cross.
Peter wanted to stay up on that mountain. Just like Peter, we love the high places—the ones filled with light, the ones that keep us safe. But Jesus must face what needs facing, and any disciple of Jesus must face it with Him. When Jesus climbs down from that mountain, He turns His face towards the city of Jerusalem. And just outside of that city is another mountain. But this one has a cross on top of it. Jesus knows what’s awaiting him there, but He walks towards it anyway. When we follow Jesus, we walk towards a cross. That’s what we’re signing up for. Just because Jesus takes over our lives doesn’t mean life becomes easy, safe, or uncomplicated. There’s nothing easy, safe, or uncomplicated about following Jesus. A life faithful to Jesus is cross-shaped. And the call of discipleship is for us to go, to take up our cross daily, to bear its weight, to follow Him, and face what needs facing.
This Wednesday, we begin our Lenten journey. Lent is an invitation to take up our cross and stumble forward with the weight of it on our shoulders. During Lent, we’re invited to practice the hard task of daily discipleship—of going where we would never go on our own, but following Jesus anyway, trusting Him with each and every one of our steps. Part of what transfiguration means is to let Jesus change who we are and how we do things, to walk forward not using our own vision but Christ’s vision for us. Every step we take along the way is like a tiny arrival of its own—a lesson awaiting us as we learn what it’s like to trust Jesus, to know—not only of Him, but to know Him, to behold, encounter Him.
The first invitation of Lent is the imposition of ashes upon our foreheads. Ashes are a sign of our impermanence and a hope in the permanence God’s promises to us and for us. It’s a time for us to gather together to confess that the first part of Christian discipleship involves dying to our selves, to our own desires. The riddle of the Gospel is that once we lose ourselves, we are then freed to find our real selves.
Lose your life, and you will save it, Jesus says.
It is only when we hold nothing back from God that we will find that God holds nothing back from us. Jesus knew that as he walked down the mountain of Transfiguration and faced the cross that needed facing. He trusted His life to God’s purposes for it, and that trust began when he took is first step along His journey to Jerusalem
Throughout Lent, starting on Wednesday the 17th, we will gather in the Fellowship Hall at 6p where we will spend the next six weeks focused upon the cross. Each week, we’ll focus on a different aspect of the cross and the Christian life. We’ll look at how prayer draws us near the cross, and closer to the heart of Jesus, and how we can find our identity and our purpose right there at the foot of the cross. We will do that by moving through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and by focusing his call to them and to us to nurture a deeper prayer life and to be reshaped by Jesus—transfigured by Jesus—by dedicating ourselves to the task of spiritual formation.
May we face what needs facing and faithfully follow Jesus this Lenten season and through all the days of our lives!
All Praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!