Sermon 2016-2-7

February 7, 2016

Luke 9:28-36

Intro to reading: Some of us grew up in churches where, like, once a year it was something called revival week (anybody grow up in that tradition–been to a revival meeting?)  They’re often held in the evening–a traveling evangelist comes–the whole neighborhood invited to hear God’s word preached–opportunity given to people to turn their lives over to Jesus.  Well, as this one story goes, it was revival week, the first night, and wouldn’t you know–as the invitation was given for people to come forward–here comes the town’s most notorious sinner down the aisle—comes crying out in a loud voice, “Fill me–fill me, Jesus!”  Now, this being a really small town, everybody knew who this guy was, right?—knew how he lived (or so they thought), meaning the good church folk were both shocked and thrilled at this sudden, public display of faith.  Until the next day, that is—when there he was, right back on the street, sinning with as much gusto as he’d been the day before.  So, now it’s the second night, and wouldn’t you know, again–as the invitation is given–here comes our guy, walking down the aisle, crying out loud: “Fill me–fill me, Jesus!”  But sure enough, the very next day, there he was again, all backslidden, even worse than before.  Well, this goes on all week, night after night, until the last day of the revival–the invitation given one more time–and here he comes again: “Fill me–fill me, Jesus!”  At which point an older woman in the back of the church pipes up, “Don’t do it, Lord!  He leaks!”

Which is, of course, the problem with all of us, isn’t it–we leak!  Our good intentions have a hard time holding water…  But while that is certainly true of us, here’s something else we need to remember–the unmistakable gospel truth–that (with God’s help) lasting change really is possible—it’s possible for any of us.  Do you believe that?  Again and again the gospel affirms that a deep and abiding change of the human heart and life can happen.  Just when we start thinking that the way things are now is the ways things will always (and can only) be, well, God turns out to be waiting in the wings—waiting to show us a way through, a way beyond, waiting to promise that when we choose to trust not in what we know for sure, but in what God knows and has promised to be true for us, why, we get opened up to change–miraculous change…  (Read text & pray: Luke 9:28-36…)

The past couple weeks, Julie and I had the privilege of being with friends in Southern California—got in on 70 degree days—ate fresh grapefruit/tangerines–right off the trees—saw Big Horn Sheep wandering around, some of which I managed to take  award-winning photographs of:

–you maybe can’t quite see him, but he’s there somewhere—trust me on this!  Of course, we managed to get home in time for Snowmageddon on Tuesday; I’m sure there was some good reason we came back—just not sure what it was

It turned out to be a walking vacation, for the most part—didn’t rent a car—just borrowed a friend’s car a couple times–but mostly we were “off-road”–walked everywhere we went—came home needing a new pair of shoes!  Our favorite thing to do was to go hiking in the San Jacinto Mountains.  The San Jacintos are a part of a longer range having one of the most abrupt escarpments in North America—they rise from sea level to 10,000 feet in a matter of just a few miles.  It means they can mess with you, those mountains…  Got snow on top of them–all the way ‘til June, most years…

(That’s me, in case you can’t tell–just a hop, skip and a jump from the top…)

Now, I’m guessing it has something to do with those rare opportunities I’ve had to go hiking in the mountains, but I will tell you that it has not been difficult for me to get it that mountains have so often been places where people meet God.  Have you noticed that?  It’s happens all over the place in the Bible–Moses getting the Ten Commandments on a mountain; Solomon building the Jerusalem temple on a mountain; Elijah meeting God on a mountain…  In the New Testament, we read again and again of how Jesus went up on mountains to pray—to hang out with his heavenly Father.  And here in the Luke’s Gospel—the part we just read—three of the disciples have this spectacular encounter with God–what would come to be known as the Transfiguration of Jesus—and where?  On a mountain, that’s where…

Scholars can’t seem to decide whether this moment took place on Mount Tabor (which is two thousand feet elevation) or Mount Hermon (which is more like nine thousand feet).  When Matthew’s Gospel tells the story, it seems to suggest the higher of the two–meaning there may well have been snow up there–Mount Hermon’s almost always snow-capped year-round—which makes for a great Bible trivia question, right?—whether there was a white Christmas when Jesus was born?  Well, up on Mount Hermon it coulda been!

Here’s something I learned from my Celtic sisters and brothers in faith (the Irish, for example—me being a wee bit Irish so these are people I share DNA with).  It has to do with their understanding of (and sense of) place—of the holiness of some places–something I find so intriguing—what the Celts call holy trees, or holy springs, or holy mountains—“thin places,” they call them—places where the veil between this world and the next—between what we know here and the heavenly realm—where it’s so sheer that you feel like you could step right through it—step from one into the other…  You might be walking down an ordinary country road–all of a sudden you see a path leading off to the right—you follow it a ways and come to this little mossy hole in the ground, filled with crystal clear water.  And it would be so easy to mistake it for an ordinary watering hole, were it not for this tidy little bank of stones around the hole–set there hundreds of years before by people who recognized it as a “thin place,” right there in the middle of a sheep pasture.  And believers who live nearby will tell you that if you can stop all the racket in your mind—stop all the restlessness in your body for a moment–you can sometimes feel it for yourself—this freshness that will drench you as thoroughly as taking a shower does.  How it works is a total mystery, but there’s no denying the effect; simply to stand near is to experience living water.  And down through the ages that’s what mountains have been–thin places—places where the presence and glory of Almighty God can be felt—felt deep in your bones…

So what happened to Jesus and his three disciples up on that mountain that day?  Well, the Bible tells us he was changed into a being of bright light.  The Greek word used here is the word metamorphuo–means, “transfigured.”  Jesus was all lit up–in dazzling brightness–like somebody not-of-this-world.  It was like his skin became transparent for a moment—like what had been inside him all along became apparent—seen by Peter, James and John for a moment.  It wasn’t anything Jesus did, here.  He didn’t change; he was changed—changed by the God whose glory changes everybody it touches.  It’s a light that can’t be captured or controlled any more than God can be captured or controlled–can only be experienced—experienced in ourselves or in somebody else–can only be believed

You see, this here was a pivotal moment in the gospel story–the moment when everything is about to change.  Because when Jesus and his disciples come down off that mountain, his face starts turning toward Jerusalem—toward the evil and cruelty and brutality and pain that was awaiting him.  It’s the path that would lead inexorably to the cross–what begins for us this Wednesday night when we gather here at Park for our Ash Wednesday Service–the beginning of Lent–our walk with Jesus to the cross.  The end is beginning, don’t you see…  So that when God steps in and does this miraculous thing up on that mountain, why, it‘s a glimpse of the glory that will follow Jesus all the way to the cross.  And I’d forgotten this, but back in the Hebrew Scriptures, back in the books of Deuteronomy and Malachi, the return of Moses and Elijah had been promised to the people of God.  It means the disciples of Jesus would have known–in the glory of this moment on that mountain they would have known–that in our Lord’s Transfiguration–when Moses and Elijah show up–God’s promises were being fulfilled.  That’s what’s going on, here—it’s all coming together…

Of course, not all the disciples get what’s going on, here.  Peter doesn’t get it, that’s for sure…  I mean, poor Peter, right?—once again has such a hard time getting the point…  Luke tells us he wanted to build these tents right there on the spot–one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah.  In other words, he wants to stick around—isn’t ready to leave and go back down to the valley.  I’m guessing he was terrified—even before the cloud came and settled on them—just wanted to stay and try and hold on to the glory, right?—which is the danger of every mountaintop experience–we don’t want it to end—we want to hang on to it—want to never have to come back to earth.  You get a taste of glory up there and life back in the valley, well, it just can’t measure up–kind of like a sweet vacation or a honeymoon—it can’t and doesn’t last forever, even if we want it to…

See, staying up on the mountain wasn’t God’s plan.  It’s because it’s never God’s plan to have his glory be more than a glimpse for us.  To the contrary, when we read the Bible, again and again we find God protecting people from the full impact of glory, right?–shielding people from it.  It’s brighter than anything on earth, that glory is–like a doorway to some other world—but the glory is so bright that even when the door is closed, the shafts of light that get through the cracks can blind you if you look too long…  God’s glory is so brilliant!  You can only look for a split second

No, what we’re reminded of in this story is that the ordinary—the humdrum stuff in life—the conflict and sufferings—the stuff that happens in the valley—that’s the norm– the bold flashes of God’s glory are rare.  But here’s the deal–those rare flashes do have a purpose.  They are given to us not to hold onto—not to clutch and grab—rather, they are given to us to light our path back down the dark mountain.  They are given to us so that we might know and believe that ours is a God who keeps his promises—flashes of glory given so that when the ordinary time comes, when the difficult time comes, when the glory is anywhere but where we are–we will remember and know that we are not alone—not ever–that we can walk in God’s presence and promise, just like Jesus did, all the way to the cross…

See, if you’re like me, you sometimes catch yourself thinking, “Well, if I just had a Transfiguration experience, right?  If I just could see Jesus all lit up on a mountaintop, then I’d know for sure–just see Jesus lit up like a bolt of lightning, just for one second.  But I haven’t.  Mine eyes have not seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  If they had, I could, but since they haven’t, I can’t.  Can’t believe, that is…”  I mean, do the math and what do you get?  Three disciples who get in on the miracle and nine who don’t, right?  Well, what if you’re one of the ninethen what?

Let me tell you what I believe.  I believe that whether we’re one of the three who witness the miracle or one of the other nine disciples who don’t, all of us face the same challenge, really—the challenge of believing in and trusting God’s glory and sufficiency, even when we can’t see it–when we’re stuck in dark rooms we don’t know the contours of–when we can’t find the light switch.  Maybe that’s your deal, this morning.  It’s the challenge of believing when we’re coming down the mountain and we’re scared and it’s dark and help’s a long way off and we wonder if God cares.  Because when things are dark—maybe the darkness of economic uncertainty or a health scare in your life—or you’re on the dark side of a relationship that’s failed and the loneliness is so hard—or the dark place of wondering where one of your kids is at—when it’s really dark, I’m not sure the rare experience of having seen the light sometime way-back-when is going to be enough to sustain us.  No, what sustains us (there in the darkness) is our choice to believe—to believe that the story of the gospel is true.

See, stories are strong—they’ve got power—but only when you decide to believe them.  They can change your life, stories can…  And if we choose to believe this story about Jesus, then we live in a world very different from people who do not.  We live in a world where glory is possible, where light may break through at any moment.  We believe in what we can see, but we believe in more than that.  Even when we cannot see the light, we believe in it, because we have heard the story and have decided that it’s true.  And so we know that God’s glory is pulsing just beneath the surface of things, with power to transfigure the darkest of our days.  It’s the moving paradox of faith—that by the power of our beliefs we choose what kind of world we will live in: a porous world full of glory doors that are leaking light, or a flat world where everything is exactly as it seems.  Let me tell you something: I’ll take the story.  Yes, I will…