A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash February 7, 2016
Text: Luke 9: 28-36
We are at a turn in the Christian year, between the post-Christmas season of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent this Wednesday. It is Transfiguration Sunday, with an utterly amazing story found in three Gospels.
To understand this mountaintop moment you’ve got to know what comes before it, in Luke’s account. Jesus chooses to be baptized, and in that moment “when he had been baptized and was praying,” a voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And he went to the wilderness and came back preaching and healing and and prophesying. He called the disciples - they were his chosen. He was their new family. And Peter, he was the first one of them to say: You are the Messiah, the Christ. Jesus said, the road will not be easy if you follow me.
Our reading picks up from there.
Listen for God’s word to you in Luke Chapter 9 verses 28-36.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, 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. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Prayer before the sermon
At the top of the mountain, Jesus was at the pivot point of his life. Born for a purpose, baptized with water and Spirit, he had been teaching and healing all around Galilee. A close friend had seen him, seen his true nature: not just a prophet, but the Messiah. And for the Messiah, there was more to do than preach. So now, Jesus had turned his focus toward Jerusalem.
Imagine, what this moment is like for Jesus.
Maybe, just maybe he wasn’t so sure of himself. Look at the people that gathered close to him. They were confused. They made odd choices. Peter, sweet Peter, bless his heart, he could see Jesus was the Messiah but didn’t know what it meant. And there were James and John, who wanted to be first. And as many people who were healed, just as many rejected him. Maybe Jesus was doubting that he could make it to Jerusalem. Maybe he, fully human we are told, did not feel strong enough. Maybe he got like we do, so deep within the day to do that he needed perspective.
So, the mountain.
Jesus had a prayer practice made plain by Luke’s gospel. He went away to pray. Sometimes alone, sometimes in a boat, sometimes with friends, sometimes up a mountain. He went away to pray. He set aside the time, he made the space.
And so it was, before he went south to Jerusalem, Jesus turned to James and John and Peter, and said, come with me, up the mountain. They were hearty laborers, used to walking but maybe not to hiking - but Jesus needed to go far away this time. Perhaps for two or three hours they moved carefully along the trail. And they made it with him to the top - thirsty, and dusty, and tired.
This mountain, traditionally thought to be Mount Tabor - is 1886 feet high, is in Lower Galilee and stands above everything around it. From it Jesus could see clearly the flat lands nearby. But he could not see to Jerusalem, so far to the south. He could not see all the way to the Mount of Olives, his next mountain. So he prayed.
I want you to turn your clock back, just a day. Did you look outside yesterday, in the middle of the day? Some of you were outside, surrounded on all sides by snow - fields, trees, roof tops. The sun was shining in a stunning azure sky and the air was warming and the snow was sparkling. Do you have that in your mind? Are you standing out in the field, with the sun warming your face, barely able to keep your eyes open it is so bright?
Good, now imagine with me that in the middle of his prayer, Jesus is dazzling like that,
only not like that,
like a thousand times that.
What a gift God gave to Jesus that day, to surround his son with such a glory.
To put next to him two who had followed their own challenging call.
To confirm his power and his path.
Peter, and James and John - they wanted to make meaning of the moment, catch it, preserve it, grasp it, define it. Jesus couldn’t do that any more that we could. He had business, down the mountain. This moment had to be enough, in all its mystery.
But it was not over, not just yet.
Jesus could remember those words, the words the dove whispered in his ear or roared from the sky, you are my beloved son.
And now the cloud enclosed them, and the voice, “This is my son, my chosen! Listen to him!”
Yes, it was for Peter and James and John, a call to follow.
But for Jesus, heart already turning toward Jerusalem, what must it have meant, to hear one more time:
My Son. My beloved. My chosen. The one I have sent. The one to listen to. You are my son. My beloved. My chosen.
On the mountain, a soul revived & sent.
Our own experience of transcendence begins
with pausing to pray,
climbing the mountain,
retreating from the crowd,
gathering our friends,
We go up the mountain, seeking glimpses of transformative, inexplicable, glorious change.
We go up the mountain for perspective and vision. We go up the mountain so we can believe, when we are in the valley, that the world might not be completely stuck, unchangeable, doomed - and so that we can believe that there is a power outside of ourselves, shining in glory, speaking to us her children: you are chosen, but you are not sent alone. She is strengthening the world for change. And we do not carry the world alone on our shoulders. We go up the mountain to witness the glory of the Lord, so that we may know we are not alone. We live in God’s world.
If for Jesus, the mountaintop was full of dazzling white clothes, appearances by prophets long dead, a transformed face, a cloud blocking all view and a voice from above....what will it be for us?
Perhaps it will be so for us as well.
Once in college I danced alone in a field in the middle of a dramatic lightning storm and thought for a moment I could touch heaven. I’ve never risked trying it again to find out.
But maybe it will not be this way for us at all.
Maybe it will simply be
breath caught again after racing,
clarity of reflection,
an opening to gratitude,
a strengthening of resolve,
a quiet rest,
a glimpse of glory,
the peace which passes all understanding.
Mary Oliver says this about prayer:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
(in the collection Thirst)
Or maybe, a dazzling mystery will astonish us. That could happen, too. God has been known to reveal herself “in ways that are breathtaking, miraculous and wondrous.” (Karoline Lewis)
Unless we climb the mountain, we won’t know what awaits us on top.
Paul wrote about the mountaintop moment in his second letter to the Corinthians, in another reading suggested for today by our Lectionary. He tells us what happens when we open ourselves to this transfiguration: “3:18b we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 4:1 Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”
With the transformation of faith, we do not lose heart.
So this is a Lenten invitation to prayer:
Jesus took with him...Peter, James and John.
Who might you take with you?
His face changed...
How might you change?
From the cloud, a voice spoke...
What message might you hear, when you go up the mountain to pray?