Sunday, August 8, 2021

From the Mountaintop into the Valley


August 8, 2021 – The Transfiguration

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 18:05.

When was the last time you experienced a moment so wonderful, so beautiful, so joyful that you wanted it to last forever? The vacation you didn’t want to end. The honeymoon you wished would stretch on another week, another month. The victory celebration that you wanted to linger in forever. We all know what awaits us on the other side of those moments. The work that must be done. The ups and downs of marriage that inevitably come. The season after the championship, when we have to start the process all over again. But isn’t that where the real, deep, abiding joy is to be found—not by staying up on the mountain top but by coming back down into the ordinary, real world and bringing with us the memory of that moment as we reengage the challenges and struggles that await us?

In today’s gospel lesson, our friend and role model Peter found himself in the midst of one of those mountain-top experiences, and, as it began to fade, he allowed his desire to stay forever in that moment get the best of him. “Master,” he said to Jesus, “it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” not knowing what he said. He was groggy, weighed down with sleep, and, like he did so many other times, he opened his mouth before he really thought about what he would say. But sometimes those unguarded moments are the times when our deepest desires come out. 

Peter didn’t want to leave. Even if he didn’t understand what was happening, he knew it was good, and he didn’t want it to go away. He wanted to preserve this moment for ever. So, when he saw the great icons of the faith, Moses and Elijah, begin to fade away, he interrupted awkwardly and interjected himself where he didn’t belong. “Let us build three dwellings”—literally, three booths—“one for each of you, so that you—so that we—can all stay here forever.” In that naïve request, we see that Peter was motivated not only by a desire to remain on that mountain top but also by his desire to celebrate that moment for what it really was—the coming together of Law and Prophet and Christ, a complete manifestation of God’s great work of salvation in the lives of God’s people.

Although the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is a central episode in Christian scripture, the telling of that moment is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition of Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths. It has become a less important observance in contemporary Judaism, but in Jesus’ time, the Feast of Booths was as important as any other religious observance. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus called it the “most important and holy feast” in the Jewish year. Back then, it was simply referred to as “the holiday,” in much the same way as the days that connect Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are now called collectively the “high holidays.” 

When Peter suggests that they should build booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, a first-century faithful observer would automatically be taken to that annual festival, when people would come to Jerusalem from all over and set up their own temporary shelters or booths in order to remember and reenact their ancestors’ sojourn in the wilderness. That practice was a way to celebrate how God had led God’s people from slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the land of promise. 

Understandably, Peter thinks that this is the moment worth celebrating, that this glorious display of God’s saving work is the thing that should be bottled up, commoditized, liturgized, and dispensed back to God’s people. But, just like that time in the wilderness so many centuries earlier, this was a temporary moment on a journey toward something else. Remembering and celebrating moments like that can be helpful, as we celebrate this moment again today, but, when we get stuck in them and begin to mistake the transition for the destination, we lose sight of the salvation God is leading us to.

We don’t need help magnifying the mountain-top experiences of our lives. We need help finding hope in the midst of life’s valleys, and that’s what this episode is really about. Notice that Luke identifies for us what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah had been talking about. “They appeared in glory and were speaking of [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Literally, the text tells us that they were speaking of Jesus’ “exodus.” The use of that word is no accident. That exodus, that departure, that salvation-giving journey would be found not on the mount of Transfiguration but in the depths of betrayal, suffering, rejection, and death that awaited Jesus in the holy city.

In case we didn’t pick up on the exodus allusion, Luke introduces this story with an explicit reference to Jesus’ death. The lectionary version of this gospel lesson omits that connection by abbreviating the first verse in order to make sure we don’t hear a reference to a part of the story that we may not have read recently, but I think it’s impossible to appreciate the Transfiguration without it. Listen to the unabridged version of the first verse of this passage (Luke 9:28): “Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Luke wants us to know that, as we climb up that mountain with Jesus and the disciples, the words that had been spoken eight days earlier were still ringing in their ears. And what were those words? After Peter, for the very first time, had identified Jesus as the Christ, Jesus had said to the disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” 

That is the life-giving, liberating, salvation-granting exodus that awaits Jesus and the disciples in Jerusalem. No wonder Peter wants to stay on that mountain. We all want to stay on that mountain. It is easier to hang on to the joy we know rather than risk losing it amidst the struggle and suffering that await us, but God’s saving work in our lives is not complete on the mountain top. It is not finished in those transient moments of glory and joy that we experience up there among the clouds. Instead, it is wrought in the hard moments of pain and struggle that we encounter back down on level ground—in those moments into which we bring new confidence because of what we have seen on that mountain top. 

Remember that life’s struggles have been changed because of the one who was glorified on that mountain and yet descended again back into the brokenness of the world. God and God’s salvation are not waiting for us, hidden away on a distant peak. That salvation, which was on display in the transfiguration of Christ, has already come down into the muck and mire that we experience in order that we might be lifted from them. The glorification of Jesus Christ would be an unattainable goal if it were not for the cross and the tomb. That shining hope that he brought to the world would always be beyond our grasp if it had remained up on that mountain. Thanks be to God that it didn’t! Jesus didn’t stay up there so that we could admire him from afar. He came back down to where we are. Because of what happened in Jerusalem, his exodus becomes our exodus. His struggles redeem our struggles. Our hope is found not in the fleeting moments of transcendent glory we experience in the good times but in the one whose transcendence and glory come down and meet us in the ordinary, difficult places of life. Our hope is in the glorious  one who suffered and died for our sake, our savior Jesus Christ. 

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