Lectionary Texts: Exodus 24: 12-18; Matthew 17: 1-9
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, February 26, 2017
- Where is God?
So, where is God? No, I know we all know that God is everywhere. But where is God for you? Where is it that you most feel God’s presence? Is it in worship? Is it in nature? Is it when you are alone or when you are surrounded by those you love? The truth is, we all want desperately to feel God’s presence. We want to know beyond what our faith tells us that God is there. We want to feel God’s presence. We want to be walking through our lives and all of a sudden know that God is there. So why is that so difficult for us?
For me, I think it’s because I try to control how God enters my life, or maybe try to figure God out. I think, unintentionally, I treat God’s presence like it’s a water faucet, like I can just turn it on and off when I’m ready, or when it’s convenient, or when I’m prepared to encounter God. And yet, I think God wants desperately to burst into my life when I’m not ready and give me something that I never dreamed. So, when was the last time that you were surprised by God? When was the last time that God burst into your awareness when you hadn’t planned it, when you maybe were not ready, and when all you could do was say, “Wow!”?
- More Than Fantasy
These two passages that we read are familiar to us but on some level, they almost take on an air of fantasy, make-believe, or, at the very least, extreme exaggeration. Oh, we want to believe them. We want to be a part of them. But, really? Our logical minds—you know the ones that plan when and where we will encounter God–tell us that there has to be some sort of conjecture to these stories.
Breaking through our somewhat cynical view of these two stories requires a lot of us—it requires that we open our mind and widen our souls; it requires that we strip away the things that we think we have figured out, to strip away those plans for how we will encounter God; it asks us to focus our attention on what is to be seen rather than on what we see. In other words, these passages ask us to go further, to view our world in the light of God’s Presence—not the way we imagine God to be but the way God invites us to experience the holiness and the sacred that is all around us. These passages call us to see things differently.
III. Up On the Mountain
Seeing things differently is not a new theme for us. I mean, think about it. Here we have the story of a child born into anonymous poverty and raised by no-name peasants. He grows up, becomes a teacher, probably a rabbi, a healer, and sort of a community organizer. He asks a handful of people to become his followers, to help him in his mission. They leave everything they have, give up their possessions and their way of making a living, they sacrifice any shred of life security that they might have had, and begin to follow this person around, probably often wondering what in the world they were doing. And then one day, Jesus takes them mountain climbing, away from the interruptions of the world, away from what was brewing below. Don’t you think they were sort of wondering where they were going? I mean, MOUNTAIN CLIMBING? Don’t we have more important things to accomplish? Shouldn’t we stay here where the action is?
This story is told in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. The writer that we call Mark lays it out as the “messianic secret”. The writer of The Gospel According to Luke tells it as a story about prayer—“Jesus went up to the mountain to pray.” But when the writer of Matthew’s version tells the story, he draws on another familiar story—the passage from Exodus that we just read. The mountain that Jesus and the disciples climb sounds a lot like Mount Sinai that Moses had ascended centuries before.
We don’t really know what mountain this was. There is speculation that perhaps it occurred on Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon, both of which are some of the tallest mountains in the Galilean area and both of which are prime spots in the Jezreel valley. The Franciscans built their Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, so perhaps you can now use the familiar words that “tradition holds” that that is where the mountain is. But no one really knows. Some even surmise that there IS no geographic location, presenting it as if it just rose up, uninterrupted, from the rough-hewed terrain. Either way, the mountain is part of the topography of God. Even for people, such as myself, who cannot claim a single, stand alone, so-called “mountain-top experience” that brought them to Christ but rather came year by year and grew into the relationship…even for us…this IS the mountain-top experience. And there, on that mountain, everything changes.
But like the Moses version, a cloud covers the top of the mountain. And, also reminiscent of Moses’ time on the mountain, Jesus’ account occurs six days after the setting begins in the previous chapter, when Jesus began foretelling his death to the disciples.
Now remember that for this likely Jewish audience, mountains were typically not only a source of grandeur, but also divine revelation. And also remember that in their understanding, God was never seen. I like that—allowing God to be awesome, allowing the mystery of God to always be. God was the great I AM, one whose name could not be said, one whose power could not be beheld. And so this cloud, a sort of veiled presence of the holiness of God, was something that they would have understood much better than we do. In fact, they would have assumed that if Moses or anyone else actually saw God, they would die.
And there on the mountain, they see Jesus change, his clothes taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding white, whiter than anything they had ever seen before. And on the mountain appear Moses and Elijah, standing there with Jesus—the law, the prophets, all of those things that came before, no longer separate, but suddenly swept into everything that Christ is, swept into the whole presence of God right there on that mountain.
So Peter offers to build three dwellings to house them. I used to think that he had somehow missed the point, that he was in some way trying to manipulate or control or make sense of this wild and uncontrollable mystery that is God. I probably thought that because that’s what I may tend to do. But, again, Peter was speaking out of his Jewish understanding. He was offering lodging—a booth, a tent, a tabernacle—for the holy. For him, it was a way not of controlling the sacred but rather of honoring the awe and wonder that he sensed.
And then the voice…”This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” OK…what would you have done? First the mountain, then the cloud, then these spirits from the past, and now this voice…”We are going to die. We are surely going to die,” they must have thought. And then Jesus touches them and in that calm, collected manner, he says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And then, just as suddenly as they appeared, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight. In Old Testament Hebrew understanding, the tabernacle was the place where God was. Here, this changes. Jesus stays with them alone. Jesus IS the tabernacle, the reality of God’s presence in the world. And all that was and all that is has become part of that, swept into this Holy Presence of God.
And so the disciples start down the mountain. Jesus remains with them but he tells them not to say anything. The truth was that Jesus knew that this account would only make sense in light of what was to come. The disciples would know when to tell the story. They saw more than Jesus on the mountain. They also saw who and what he was. And long after Jesus is gone from this earth, they will continue to tell this strange story of what they saw. For now, he would just walk with them. God’s presence remains.
The Greek term for “transfiguration” is “metamorphomai”, deriving from the root meaning “transformation”. It is, literally, to change into something else. (Like metamorphosis, the scientific process that a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly.) There is no going back. You can never be what you were before. The truth is that the disciples probably got a little bit more of God’s presence than they wanted. Because there was more than just Jesus changed on that mountain. The disciples would never be the same again. We will never be the same again.
The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live. You know, I think they were right. No one can see God and remain unchanged. We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud. The truth is, when we are really honest with ourselves, we probably are a little like the disciples. We’d rather not really have “all” of God. We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives. We’d rather be a little more in control of any metamorphosis that happens in our lives. We’d rather be able to pick and choose the way that our lives change. We’d rather God’s Presence come blowing in at just the right moment as a cool, gentle, springtime breeze. In fact, we’re downright uncomfortable with this devouring fire, bright lights, almost tornado-like God that really is God.
Remember the words of the Isaac Watts hymn: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” God’s power is God’s power. It does not just come to us; we enter it—taking with it all that we are. It is not a warm and fuzzy relationship; it is wild and risky, full of awe and wander. It is mystery. It is more than anything that we can possibly imagine. It is a complete and total metamorphosis. There is no going back.
Rick Morley, an Episcopal priest in New Jersey tells of something he heard from a fellow clergy. He talked about going into a child’s Kindergarten class and seeing a bulletin board illustrating what the students wanted to learn in school that year. Most of the statements were like, “behave”, “learn to sit still”, “follow the rules”, “listen to the teacher better.” One child said “I want to know why the ocean shines like fire.” Holy smoke, Morley says, I mean, HOLY smoke. Now that the kid mentions it, I want to know why the ocean shines like fire too! Now there’s a kid who has the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. (In other words, to get out of our box and see where God is.)
He goes on. We can say a lot about the Transfiguration. And given its prevalent use in the lectionary from year to year, we get to say a lot about it. But, if there’s ever a “WOW” moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry, this is it. Jesus took his three chosen disciples up on a mountain to do many things. One of them was to blow their sandals off…When is the last time you let God blow your sandals off?[i]
- After the Mountaintop
In the Old Testament passage that we read, Moses descended the mountain with the law; in the depiction of the Transfiguration of Christ, Jesus descends with his own life and body given unto all. Fred Craddock describes the account of the Transfiguration of Christ as “the shout heard round the world”, the glorious announcement of what happened in Bethlehem years before. It IS the final Epiphany.
Jesus walked down the mountain with the disciple in the silence. The air became thicker and heavier as they approached the bottom. As they descended the mountain, they knew they were walking toward Jerusalem. The veil that had been there all those centuries upon centuries was beginning to lift.
This Wednesday, Lent begins. The Transfiguration is only understood in light of what comes next. Yes, the way down is a whole lot harder. We have to go back down, to the real world, to Jerusalem. We have to walk through what will come. Jesus has started the journey to the cross. We must do the same.
VII. There is God
So, where is God? God is wherever we let enough of our guard down to encounter the holy and the sacred. God is everywhere but we don’t always pay attention. We opt for being comfortable. And we give up coming down the mountain with God all over us because it’s not what we planned. When was the last time that you were awed by God? When was the last time that you experienced wonder? When was the last time that God knocked your socks off? When was the last time that you looked at something and thought, “Wow!”? That’s too long.
You see, as Christians, we’re called not to encounter God, but to pay enough attention that God can encounter us, that God can lead us down the mountain, that God can lead us to be changed. Wow! That’s incredible. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “people only see what they are prepared to see.” Prepare yourselves to see God. Prepare yourselves to follow Jesus all the way into Jerusalem. Prepare yourselves to change. Prepare yourselves to get your socks blown off. Let us go up to the mountain and come back different from anything we could have imagined. Let us find ourselves in a place where the only response is “Wow!”
In the Name of the One who journeys with us to the Cross.
[i] Rick Morley, from “Last Epiphany A: Shining Like Fire”, 02/20/2011, from the blog A Garden Path, available at http://www.rmcmorley.com/a-garden-path/2011/02/last-epiphany-a-shining-like-fire.html, accessed 1 March, 2011.
A Prayer for Transfiguration Sunday
Let’s go up the mountain. Let’s go up to the place where the land meets the sky where the earth touches the heavens, to the place of meeting, to the place of mists, to the place of voices and conversations, to the place of listening:
O God, We open our eyes and we see Jesus, the months of ministry transfigured to a beam of light, the light of the world, your light. May your light shine upon us. We open our eyes and we see Moses and Elijah, your word restoring us, showing us the way,
telling a story, your story, his story, our story. May your word speak to us. We open our eyes and we see mist, the cloud of your presence which assures us of all we do not know
and that we do not need to fear that. Teach us to trust. We open our eyes and we see Peter’s constructions, his best plans, our best plans, our missing the point, our missing the way. Forgive our foolishness and sin.
[We open our eyes and we see those in our church, those in our community, those in our world who need us, who need you, especially________________________________.]
We open our eyes and we see Jesus, not casting us off, but leading us down, leading us out – to ministry, to people. Your love endures forever. We open our ears and we hear your voice, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him!’ And we give you thanks. Amen
(Prayer by William Loader, 02/2001, available at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/TransfigurationPrayer.htm, accessed 1 March, 2011)