Monday, March 7, 2011

Sunday's Sermon - Last Sun. after the Epiphany (03/06/11)

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

For me, my “mountain-top experience” was quite literally on a mountain top. I had grown up on the Gulf Coast, where you can drive for miles on a straight county road without ever ascending the slightest hill. I don’t think there’s any inherent spiritual deficiency in flat places, but, for a host reasons, I had to travel up to a high point before I figured out who God is and who I am as one of his beloved children.

As a child, I had been encouraged countless times to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and savior. “Just pray the prayer, and ask him into your heart, and then you can go to heaven.” But I had done that—countless times. Then, one summer, away from home, up in the mountains, someone told me something different: “You can’t ask Jesus to come into your heart. He just does. You can’t make that happen. God is the one who does it.” That night, with those words echoing in my mind, I went out to a secluded ledge with a view of the valley below, and I realized in that moment, for the first time in my life, that God loved me. It was an amazing feeling. There may have even been fireworks—I’m not sure. I was so overwhelmed with the sense of being loved, being saved, that there could have been dancing girls on that ledge, and I might not have noticed.

I remained on that mountain for a while that summer, and I have travelled back to it a few times. But, eventually, of course, I had to come down. Life required that I return to the flat places, where things seem so ordinary, and God, though present, feels a little further away. Perhaps you have had a “mountain-top” experience. Yours, like mine, may have actually occurred on the top of a mountain. But, maybe not. There are lots of ways and lots of places that God can make himself known to us.

Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Matthew 17:1-2)

That’s not the sort of mountain-top experience that many of us have unless aided by psychotropic substances. Jesus’ face became as bright as the sun. His clothes were transformed into sheer brilliance. Moses and Elijah appeared at his sides. And God’s thundering voice split the air as it emanated from a bright cloud. I guess Jesus wanted to be sure that Peter, James, and John got the message. He wanted them to see his true nature unveiled and to discover for the first time who he really was.

Whether or not they occur on top of a mountain, unique moments of spiritual clarity can be tipping points in our lives, and I think that’s the role this story played in the lives of Peter, James, and John. Before this moment of amazing revelation, they had journeyed with Jesus, gathering bit by bit an understanding of who he was. And, after this strange encounter, they continued on their journey with Jesus. But the epiphany they shared—when they saw Jesus transfigured before them—left an impression on their lives that they took with them as they descended the mountain. Much like us, they were forced to resume their normal lives, and, although each step took them a little further from the mountain top, they carried a small piece of that experience with them.

Usually, mountain-top revelations don’t happen on their own. That’s because moments like the Transfiguration need some grounding in previous experience in order to make sense. As Dustin Hoffman’s character declares in the 1991 film Hook, “All the jagged parts of [one’s] life…come together to form a complete and mystical whole.” Jesus’ shining face and clothes, although unsurpassed in drama, didn’t come out of nowhere. The disciples had spent years trying to figure out who Jesus was. They had seen him heal the sick, feed the multitudes, and walk on water. They had heard him teach with authority and captivate crowds with his sermons. Then, six days earlier, Peter finally had pulled all those fragments together and had confessed for the first time that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But, still, neither Peter nor his companions had quite figured out what that meant—who the Son of God really was.

The timing was right, so Jesus led his closest friends up the mountain to show them his true identity. This time, the disciples saw something more convincing than a miracle and heard something more compelling than a sermon. As Jesus face and clothes shone with pure brightness, Peter, James, and John caught a glimpse of Jesus’ divine nature. And, when the bright cloud beamed down with that same light and the voice from heaven declared Jesus as God’ beloved Son, the disciples knew what they were dealing with. This man, whom they had known for years, was actually God himself, walking among them.   

But then the light went out. And, when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus, standing all alone. And then, as if nothing had happened, Jesus and his disciples walked back down the mountain to continue their journey together. Jesus asked them not to talk about what they had seen until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead, so I’m guessing that they spent a while walking in silence, trying to figure out what had just happened. I imagine that they were still thinking about it when their path turned toward Jerusalem and the fate that awaited Jesus there. Perhaps they were even still conscious of what they had experienced on the mountain top when their master was betrayed and handed over to the authorities. But, whether they knew it or not, what they saw together on that summit sustained them through their darkest hours.

You see, moments of clarity are just that—moments. They are here one minute and gone the next. That’s why this mountain-top experience is a tipping point. The disciples spent years getting there, but, once they figured out who Jesus was, they journeyed on. Peter’s naïve utterance, “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” underscores the ephemeral nature of an epiphany. It isn’t a destination—only sustenance for the road ahead.

There are moments in our lives when everything falls into place. After working our way through things, the pieces suddenly seem to fit together with surprising ease, and the longings of our heart receive their answer in a moment of bliss. And then that moment fades, and life goes on. The question remains, “How will we take that moment with us?”

Perhaps you’ve had an experience like that of the disciples, when you climb a mountain and discover God in a new and powerful way. Or maybe you haven’t. Most epiphanic moments like the Transfiguration are reserved for audiences of only one or two, and many of us never experience one at all. But there is one particular moment in which God has chosen to reveal to the whole world his power and glory. The resurrection was Jesus’ promise to his disciples as they descended the mountain—that their fleeting experience would find its fulfillment in the empty tomb. And that empty tomb remains our tipping point—the moment where all the little fragments of human history coalesce into a unified whole. That revelatory moment, which shows us God’s redemption of all our weaknesses, is a point that we can look back upon and claim for ourselves. It’s not a place where we can stay forever, but it is a sign of an ultimate hope that sustains us in our own journey. Amen.

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