My sermon from Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday, preached at Community Lutheran Church.
I love mountains. You could probably even say it’s in my blood since my maiden name is actually Peake! On my dad’s side are Scots and English folk who settled in the mountains of western North Carolina, probably because it reminded them a bit of the old country. Almost every year growing up, we’d travel to western North Carolina to visit the land grandparents and great-grandparents called home. It’s on the side of Roan Mountain where there’s a wonderful Rhododendron festival every year. I love that land. I love hiking around it. And I love the connection to the past I feel there.
It also holds a special place in my heart because it’s where my Grandpa is buried. And it was at his funeral that I first really heard the Gospel and tried to mumble along as best I could with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. On a sunny day, on a mountainside in North Carolina, I encountered Christ and had my own mountaintop moment.
The festival of the Transfiguration of Our Lord comes at the end of the season of Epiphany. It comes at the end of the season of light as we’ve been hearing about the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry to Jews and Gentiles alike. The season where Jesus has been revealed through not only his words, but in his actions. And now, we find ourselves on a high mountain with Jesus, Peter, James and John.
They’re just hanging out and all of a sudden, Jesus is transformed before their eyes, shining in dazzling white clothing – clothes so white, no one on earth could bleach them that white. This is not only an Oxyclean moment, rather the Gospel is getting at the fact that Jesus was divinely transformed, what we call the Transfiguration. He’s shining brilliantly in glory and not only that, but Moses and Elijah, two figures who represent the law and the prophets are chatting with him. Looking at Moses and Elijah, people thought to come before the Messiah, the disciples are terrified. And poor Peter, in his shock and terror, stammers out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He’s trying to be productive and helpful, but he’s missing the point. Jesus is revealed in divine light and radiance and Peter wants to start a construction project.
Then, suddenly, a cloud overshadows them and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved listen to him!” And before they know it, Peter, James and John are alone again with Jesus on a high mountain. They’re confused and wondering about what they’ve just experienced when Jesus tells them not to say a word about this until he’s risen from the dead. Well, that should help clarify things! If we keep reading, we’d find that the next verse says, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.” These poor guys have just seen something crazy and wonderful and now they’re baffled about what rising from the dead means.
In Mark’s Gospel, there are three major events that occur: Jesus’ baptism, his transfiguration and the crucifixion. At each of these moments, Jesus is identified as the Son of God. In between, Jesus keeps telling people and unclean spirits to be quiet about his identity. However, at the Transfiguration, Jesus is transformed so that the disciples can catch even a fleeting glimpse of him in glory – a preview of the resurrected and victorious Christ. They don’t understand what it means at the moment, but after the resurrection, they will.
Maybe you’ve had a moment when you’ve encountered a glimpse of the glory of God. Maybe it was very clear that it was God at work. Or maybe it was baffling and confusing and you found yourself questioning what happened. Maybe you wanted to share it, but didn’t know how. Maybe you can’t think of a time when you’ve had such an encounter.
Whatever the case may be, mountaintop experiences can be beautiful, terrifying, inspiring and confusing. But we are doing ourselves a grave disservice if we live searching for these experiences. The reading for today shows that as quickly as this amazing event happened, it was over, and it was time to go back down into the valleys and wildernesses of everyday life.
I know that I have had some mountaintop encounters in my life and I long to experience those things again. But as wonderful as those moments are, I know that the more important question is how do I live in the every day? The struggle is, how do I continue to be faithful in the meantime when things aren’t so clear? The Transfiguration shows us that Jesus walks with us in the valleys of our lives, too, and not just on the mountaintops. Jesus does not abandon the disciples for glory or to keep chatting with Moses and Elijah, but comes down off of the mountain to live with them in the difficulties of the world. He descends in order to go all the way to the cross – the place where the love of God and the brutality of the world collide. While glory is alluring, the way of God is a downward path – it’s not the climb up the mountain, but the one down to which we should pay attention. In the words of one of my favorite hymns, “When I was sinking down, Beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul for my soul.” Christ lays aside his crown, comes down off of the mountain, and walks with us.
Peter says, “it is good for us to be here.” And it is good for us to be here in worship and in the church, but how do we come down from the worship high of Sunday morning and go back to living in the mundane and weary world? The disciples hear the voice of God speaking from within the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved listen to him!” This command to listen has the sense of, “keep on listening” or “continue listening.” It’s as if God is saying, as you go down into the valleys, away from the brilliant glory you’ve experienced on this mountaintop, keep on listening for Jesus’ voice. Don’t stop listening. Remember what you’ve experienced and keep on listening.
So how do we listen in the middle of our overflowing days and weeks? One way of listening for God is keeping Sabbath or finding ways “live Sabbathly” throughout the day. Our Lenten series this year will look at what it means to observe and keep the Sabbath, especially in the middle of our jam-packed lives. What does it mean to slow down and to spend time simply delighting in God? Peter, rather than taking in the glory of God and rejoicing in the moment, tried to capture it – to spend time building dwellings. Part of living Sabbathly is not trying to commoditize everything, but to appreciate work and play, rest and delight in the goodness of God.
Another way to keep listening is to be mindful of the ways that God’s light is shining around us, even in the most difficult of situations. I will be the first to admit that it’s sometimes really hard to see God’s light while navigating crowded roadways with crazy drivers, or dealing with bureaucracy, or in difficult relationships. But I am often surprised and amazed at where and how I encounter Christ. In a child reaching out for bread at Communion. In my dog as she reminds me to slow down and take in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. In laughter and teasing over a family meal. And, often, in pain and suffering.
In moments when I’ve felt most isolated and troubled in my own life, I have experienced more clearly Christ’s comfort and love. And I’ve encountered this in others as well. Once, I saw it in the beautiful way a man in hospice looked at his death and trusted heaven to be the most incredible and unimaginable surprise. Lately, I’ve been reading about Christ present in the lives of every day Rwandans who, after the horrific genocide, practiced unfathomable forgiveness and reconciliation.
And this week, I see Christ’s light shining through the life of twenty-six year-old Kayla Mueller, captured by ISIS while trying to assist refugees escaping the war in Syria. While it is still unclear how she died, it is clear that even in captivity, in the valley of the shadow of death, she reflected the light of Christ. In a letter to her family, she wrote, “And by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful.” In another letter, she wrote, “I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.” She also explained how she was even trying to teach the guards how to make origami peace cranes.
We may have wonderful mountaintop experiences that move us, confuse us, and cause us to reflect. But our Gospel reading reminds us that we always come down from the mountain, and more importantly, that Christ comes with us. We are never left to fend for ourselves in the difficult, messy and sticky parts of our lives. No, Christ is always there. And along the way, we catch glimpses of his glory in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We are recipients of Christ’s glorious light as it shines through others, but we are also called to reflect and shine God’s resplendent light in our lives. And in this process, we, too, are transformed and transfigured. As we go out into the world, may we continue listening for God in our lives and paying attention to the way we encounter Christ, not only on the mountaintops, but in the highways, valleys and wildernesses of our lives. Amen.
© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.