The 12 disciples had journeyed far in their lives as they followed Jesus. In fact, one could say they had seen things beyond anything they had ever imagined. As Jesus taught them, they had been challenged with ideas and ideals they could not fully comprehend.
In John's Gospel, when John the baptizer had recommended to two of them to follow Jesus, they expected great things, but not near what they were seeing and hearing. When in the other three Gospels the fishermen are challenged to drop their nets and Levi is challenged to leave his tax table, they would have never guessed what an adventure awaited them.
Now as they journeyed following Jesus, they had started to understand. Peter's declaration that Jesus was the Messiah just a chapter earlier in Matthew from our gospel lesson was a great moment in our faith. Peter was beginning to understand the one he had chosen to follow. But as Jesus began to explain the cost of being the Messiah, the price of following him, they could not understand.
Today's Gospel lesson, known as the story of the Transfiguration, three of the disciples - Peter, James and John - join Jesus literally standing at the threshold of heaven. This is a great moment filled with great mystery. Before them stood two great symbols of authority: Moses and Elijah. Moses was the great lawgiver, and Elijah was considered the greatest of the prophets.
The faith journey of the disciples that had led them to this moment and to the mountain as they followed Jesus is a reminder to each of us of the importance of seeking greater truths for living. When one sets out in faith, we never fully know the greatness of what is being revealed to us. When we open our hearts in prayer, lift our souls in worship, search God's Word with open minds, we're never sure where we might be led. Keeping company with the divine can be dangerous to our way of thinking. It can push the comfort zones we hide in so often; but if we expect to grow in our faith, we have to position ourselves to God's guidance.
But the three could not cross the line between heaven and earth. God's revelation is always at God's initiative. Even as the scene was being acted out, Simon was still missing the point. The plan to build three little booths was an attempt at control. It was an attempt to preserve the experience without responding to what lay ahead in their journey.
How many times in our faith journey have we been inspired to see beyond our own little worlds, been challenged to grow in our faith and understanding only to find ourselves talking more about the moment we saw the light or felt the spirit than following where that light or spirit might lead us? But then God speaks. Even in Scripture, this doesn't happen very often; usually it's someone like a prophet or an apostle or maybe an angel speaking for God. The disciples collapsed in fear. It is a frightening thing to stand at the very threshold of heaven. And though we may never have stood at such a sacred point, we often are challenged by the living God.
What leads us to worship when we go? Is it merely a habit, a desperate cry for help, a yearning for peace in our hearts, our appearance we're trying to keep up to impress others? What leads us to pray? Are we merely going through the motions? Are we asking without any willingness to give ourselves? But for whatever reason when we brush against the holy, we often find the way changed, at least for the moment. Just as for the three disciples at the Transfiguration, when our perspective is framed by the holy, we see others as sisters and brothers. Even enemies become people of sacred worth. The cries of the needy and forsaken become holy. The challenge of seeking justice for all and peace upon the earth become sacred callings. The barriers we have erected in our hearts that would divide us from each other drop away. We begin to see life in terms of not the first but the second mile. Not what can I get by with, but what more is possible for me to do?
Following the tragedy of 9/11, the churches and synagogues of our nation were filled. Many were coming to worship who had not been there for many years, if at all. The good news proclaimed from the pulpits sounded strange to them. This talk of self-denial, suffering, the cross, the cost of love, and of caring was not the language of the world they lived in. When our nation was attacked, it was difficult to hear about forgiving and loving one's enemy.
The Transfiguration reminds us that things look different when one stands in God's very presence. The good news can sound like bad news. When we find ourselves in the very presence of God, it can be very unsettling. Our way of living and of thinking is challenged. The challenge is to see beyond where we are.
Children's stories are full of characters who move back and forth between different realms of reality. Take Cinderella, for example. You know the story of four mice pulling a pumpkin, whisking Cinderella away from poverty into an exalted moment of acceptance and glory. In one transforming moment, the servant is transformed into the queen of the ball. Suddenly, everyone can see Cinderella's beauty and worth. Or take the story of The Lion King, where Simba, a young lion cub, makes a series of selfish choices that lead to his father's death. He has to flee. After a long exile, he is challenged to return. While wrestling with the decision, he sees in a pond his own image, mysteriously transfigured into the image of his deceased father. In that moment, he sees the purpose of his life and discovers the courage to return. Or take Beauty and the Beast, where the beast is transformed by love back into a prince.
In these stories, reality is seen in a whole new way. As for the disciples, during these very mysterious moments on the mountain, the one they had followed up the mountain was transfigured before them.
As we pray, as we search the Word, as we gather in worship, as we go forth in service, as we touch the lives of others, there come such moments. At such moments we stand at the very border between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between the secular and the sacred. There also come those moments when God comes to us. It is not that God has been hiding, but we might say God has been waiting. For it is not God that had to move forward in the journey of faith to be ready for these moments on the Mount of Transfiguration, but rather it was the disciples who had to be prepared for such a moment. At the heart of our faith, we affirm that God is the same today, yesterday, and tomorrow. We're the ones who must grow in our faith. We're the ones who can see with greater love and depth.
The disciples were literally struck down by the impact of what they were a part of. The radiance of Jesus as he shown like the sun. The sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah. The bright cloud overshadowing them from which came the voice proclaiming Jesus as God's son and beloved.
The challenge is how we respond when we're overwhelmed. There's an old gospel song that goes:
Back of the clouds the sun is always shining
Back of the clouds it's waiting to shine through
God understands and knows about your troubles
Back of the clouds God's waiting to shine through.
The challenge for the three and the challenge for us is to listen, to know that there are those times when we encounter the holy, the very presence of God, that we're not in control. We can only listen and trust. When we worship God, we are allowing ourselves to be approached by the holy. Christian worship is not an escape from the world. The disciples were not running from their commitment. Rather, for them and for us, worship is a process in which we celebrate and discover reality at its deepest level.
William Bennett once wrote, "If we have full employment and greater economic growth, if we have cities of gold and alabaster but our children have not learned how to walk in goodness, justice, and mercy, then the American experiment, no matter how gilded, will have failed."
We can have the wrappings of the gift without the contents. You truly can't judge a book by its cover. This scene in the Transfiguration reminds us we have to get beyond trying to merely preserve the moments beyond our fears and listen to where God would lead us.
And these moments come not just in a religious context, but there are those other moments in life when reality is certainly changed, when life is more than we can handle or control, when a diagnosis of a dreaded illness is made, when the news of a pregnancy is shared, when two are joined in marriage, when a job offer is made, when a transfer is called for, or a loved one dies suddenly, when a weak economy strikes home with a loss of income and we have no job, no career, no self-identity.
Remember the story about the turtle who wanted to go to Florida for the winter. He knew he could never walk all the way, so he talked to the two ducks that shared his pond. They were better equipped for long-distance travel. He found a piece of stout cord and persuaded each of them to take an end while he with his strong jaws held on to the center. It was a pleasant flight and everything was going as planned until someone on the ground looked up and said with admiration, "Who in the world thought of that?" Unable to restrain the impulse to take full credit for the idea, the turtle opened his mouth and said, "I did."
Peter gave these instructions in his second letter: "You do well to be attentive to this as the lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." Let us listen. The foundation of goodness that would be Christian is more than the mastery of God's rules and their merely skillful interpretation but a living relationship of God. The danger is that we think we know best when actually we know least. We need to listen and, as the disciples on the mountain did, get up. Jesus got them on their feet to help them deal with their fear. He got them to see things were back to normal. He was still with them and ready to move on.
Gladys Milton said, "Whether life grinds you or polishes you depends on the material you're made of." It's an old saying that we can't always choose what is going to happen to us in life, but we can always choose how we're going to respond to what has happened.
Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish theologian wrote, "If it doesn't kill you, it'll make you stronger." The result is how one responds. For as we listen and get back on our feet, we have to come down the mountain. The prophet Micah challenges us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. It is not enough to get up; we have to keep moving. There is danger in merely contemplating what has happened. There is danger in treating faith like a relic, always reliving what happened on the mountain. Truly, it is at the end of the service that the service begins.
For the three, there had been the danger of running in the opposite direction as Jesus led them up the mountain, back to the comfort of their boats and nets and fishing for fish. There was the danger of never coming down, the idea of building three little booths. Avoidance is not adjustment. Locking yourself away with fear and confusion enslaves us to them. The challenge is both to go up the mountain to find the holy and to follow the challenge back into the valley. Dr. Zan Holmes in his book "Encountering Jesus" called Christianity a come-and-go affair. "We come up to the mountain but we must go back down it again. We come to worship and we go to serve."
At the church where I am pastor, the Dunwoody United Methodist Church, we sum this up in our vision statement: Rejoice. Renew. Reach Out. We are challenged during our journey of faith to see further, to respond in new ways. God calls us to grow, to go the next step. Oswald Chambers in "My Utmost for His Highest" wrote, "Sometimes God puts us through the experience and discipline of darkness to teach us to hear and obey him. When you are in the dark, listen; and God will give you a very precious message for someone else once you're back in the light."
We cannot control when these moments of revelation will come. We have to prepare our hearts and be ready. We have to listen and to respond. God will come to each of us in God's timing. We have to have the attitude expressed in a sign at the football stadium of the University of Southern Mississippi. This is a football program in one of the non-bowl game conferences that is anxious to show its credibility. The sign simply says, "Anybody. Any place. Any time."
When God comes to us, when we stand there at the border of the sacred and the secular, when we are moved to a new understanding of faith, there is a firmness that comes when we have experienced it for ourselves. To see Jesus with Moses and Elijah, to hear God's blessing and preparing Peter and James and John for Calvary and what laid ahead.
Listen! Be cautious. They just didn't leap to this point. Their faith grew until they were ready, really ready. But when it got ahold of them, they shared it whatever the cost, whatever the price to anybody, any place, any time.
Precious God, as we prepare for the coming Lenten season, let us too be on our journey of faith. Let us too know that as we sense your presence, we too will see the world differently. Amen.