Thursday, March 7, 2019

Leaving the Mountain

Sermon for March 3, 2019 

Our scene for Transfiguration Sunday is one of the more dramatic scenes in the gospels. IT is the scene that confirms for the disciples watching that Jesus is more than just the best rabbi they have ever met. More than a prophet. Jesus really is  the Son of God. The very Presence of God in Divine Form. Glorious. A dazzling shining light. 

Fredrick Buechner describes it like this: " It is as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels. Even without the voice from the cloud to explain it, they had no doubt what they were witnessing. It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they'd tramped many a dusty mile with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they'd seen as hungry, tired, and footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded."
The image of the glowing shining Christ is a hard one to come to grasp with. Jesus the teacher we understand. Jesus the risen Christ is understandable. But this is the teacher we know and love, revealed as divine while he is still flesh and blood before his disciples. 

No wonder Peter falls all over himself in excitement.

I love Peter, and his abundant enthusiasm. This is the man that when he saw his Lord walking upon the water, immediately leaps out of a boat so that he can do the same. He may not always be right, but Peter always throws himself after the Lord wholeheartedly. Peter who upon seeing his Lord filled with glory immediately decides to stay on that mountain top forever. Peter, who is so excited to see Jesus shining with the light of his own divinity, that he interrupts his Lord’s conversation with Moses and Elijah, two of the most well known and holy, people of his  religion. He interrupts them, because he is so excited and wants to start planning. Peter knows how amazing this experience is and wants to save it forever. He wants to stay up on this mountain with his Lord. So he decides to build them all places to live.

Peter wants to stay on the mountain with God.

It seems like we're always finding God on mountains, doesn't it? We have Moses going up his mountain to talk to his Lord in our first passage. And we have Elijah going up to a high place to talk to God, hearing the small still voice in the silence. And here again, Jesus goes up the mountain and we see his divinity and hear the voice of God. We even talk in our own lives about mountain top experiences. Experiences where we get close to our Lord in a setting away from our ordinary lives.

These are those special times when you see with utmost clarity who God is. When there is no fog, no haze, no trees, no obstructions, and there, for a moment, in that mountaintop religious experience, you see with utter clarity a vision of who God really is. You know for sure that the vision is true, and you are forever changed by that experience.

Mountaintop experience is term that is used a lot in youth ministry. When they travel on mission trips, or to youth conferences, youth often have very powerful experiences and see God in a way they never did before.Their relationship with the divine, with Jesus, has the chance to change forever. They are set on fire with the amazing power and grace of God and they can't wait to have those experiences again. The trouble is, we never stay on the mountain.

That's what Peter is trying to do, isn't it? He wants to stay on the mountain with just himself, a couple of his best friends and his Lord. He and James and John can just stay up on that mountain. He’ll build tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, so that the disciples can sit at their feet, learning and basking in their wisdom. Peter knows that when they leave again, trouble will come. That the religious establishment will be plotting against them. That they will be chased out of towns yet again. Wouldn’t it be so much better to stay here, where Jesus is safe and they can behold his glory?

But Jesus doesn't let him stay. As the voice of God cuts off Peter’s enthusiasm, they are told that "This is my Son. Listen to him." Now this is the voice of God is speaking directly to them! No wonder they fall down in terror, I would probably do the same in their shoes. 

Then after God stops speaking, after things have quieted down, all that is left is Jesus. Their rabbi. Looking as he always does. Jesus tells them not to be afraid,  and then he leads them back down the mountain. 

It’s important to realize that Jesus doesn’t let them stay. He knows what’s coming next. For next he turns his face to Jerusalem. That is on the horizon. Surely, they could spend a day, resting up here, before continuing on.

But no. Jesus leads them down the mountain.

And almost immediately, trouble arises. When they leave the mountain, a man asks for help with his epileptic son. The disciples he had left below had tried to help him and they couldn't manage it and would Jesus please just fix it again?

When we leave the mountains, we have to deal with the mess of humanity and it's often hard to keep the sense of the divine we had before. That’s why it's so important to get connected again after those mountain top experiences. When we leave the mountains, God rarely seems as close or as easy to see. No wonder we want to stay on the mountain tops!

But that's not what Christ calls us to do, is it? Christ calls us to leave the mountain. To go out into the world. To deal with people. He comes off the mountain and helps the epileptic son. Then he turns his face to Jerusalem, and wades into the messiness of humanity. 

That's the concern I have with people who identify as spiritual, but not religious Christians. Usually when people call themselves spiritual, what they mean is that they have a close personal relationship with God. It's just them and God on the mountaintop. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to have such a relationship with God. It’s a good thing to find God on the mountain. The trouble comes, when we don't want to leave the mountain.

Because let's face it. Religion is full of other people. Some of them will need things from us, will ask us for help. Some of them are going to have different opinions from us. Some of them are going to be unpleasant. Some of them we will argue with. When we belong to a church we belong to a family of other believers.

In some ways it is easier to have faith when we are up on the mountain. Being holy is easier when it's just us and God up on that mountain. But that's not what Jesus wants us to do. Jesus wants us to go out into the world and deal with other people.

Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, and sit with the outcast and the sinners.  Jesus calls us to gather in his name. We can’t do that if we are isolating our experiences with God.  We can’t do that if we only try to find God on our own. And sometimes, sometimes when we are in the midst of people, following out this call of Christ’s we see God more clearly than ever. 

We need to go up the mountain. We have to have those experiences where we see the glory of God. We need to give ourselves a chance to have those moments. 

And it is important that the lectionary visits the mountain now, before the dark days of Lent that are coming.  Ash Wednesday is this week and we too will turn our faces to Jerusalem. But first, we look at this text. First we are reminded of the glory of the divine, shining through our Lord.

But then we have to leave the mountains, we too turn to Jerusalem. Remembering the mountain, we too go out into the world.