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“Coming Down from the Mountain”
Sermon on Luke 9:28-36 (Exodus 34:29-35)
Transfiguration of the Lord, Year C
There are times when the membrane between heaven and earth becomes permeable. Something shifts, and a bit of heaven’s radiance leaks out and spills onto the earth, so that ordinary mortals get a glimpse of a reality that is normally veiled from human sight.
Something like that happened the day Jesus took his disciples up the mountain to pray. They may not have wanted to go – Luke says they were fighting sleep most of the time they were there. They might have preferred to find a boat in some secluded cove where they could take a nap -- but Jesus said it was prayer time, so up the mountain they went. It was well worth their time, it turns out: they were stunned out of their lethargy by the sight of their friend and teacher all lit up like a thousand candles. There he stood before them, giving off an unearthly brilliance, even his clothing shining incandescently. Then suddenly there were two others with him, Moses and Elijah making cameo appearances, all three of them inside a white-hot nimbus of light. And then it was over, so quickly they might have thought they’d imagined it. Just as Peter began babbling in confusion, a dark cloud swept over the mountain, veiling their eyes from the dazzling display. As they cowered in fright, a voice came from the cloud, the same voice and words that were heard when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan: “This is my Son, my Chosen One” -- only this time there are instructions as well: “Listen to him!”
The three disciples did not talk about this experience afterwards. It was awesome but also disturbing. Nothing had prepared them for the supernatural radiance they had witnessed. Nothing had prepared them for the cloud, the voice, the weirdness of the whole event.
In the Bible, the usual response of people who see manifestations of the divine is fear. When angels show up, the first thing they always say is “Don’t be afraid.” In our Exodus reading, when Moses came down the mountain with his face literally shining from his direct encounter with God, the people didn’t say, “Look at you, you’re glowing!” Quite the contrary: “They were afraid to go near him.” They knew it was dangerous to get too close to God; they remembered all the warnings that said they shouldn’t even touch the mountain because the glory of the Lord would blaze out alarmingly. Moses put the veil on his face so people could approach him without fear. In Hebrew, by the way, “fear” and “awe” are the same word. The “fear of the Lord” is a good thing, a positive religious emotion. It means we recognize the difference between God and us. The God of the Bible gets through to people by self-revelation, and protects them by not giving them too much of it.
That seems to be what happened on the mountain with Jesus. The radiance that was a sign of Jesus’s divine identity and a preview of his future glory was quickly followed by the overshadowing cloud, plunging the disciples back into darkness and mystery.
Some of you may be objecting that this did not really happen, at least not the way Luke tells it. But whether or not you accept all the details of the story, something happened on that mountain. Something hidden was momentarily revealed. I have heard some writers describe “transfiguring” moments as key to the creative process. Nobel laureate Alice Munro, looking out one day on an ordinary scene of a man and his work horses in winter, says she saw the scene “suddenly alive and potent,” giving her “something like a blow to the chest…The man and the horses are moving through a story that is hidden, and now, for a moment revealed. How can you get your finger on it, feel its life beating?”[i] For Jesus’s disciples, the event we call the Transfiguration must have been like being close to the beating heart of the universe, if only for an instant. Something happened on that mountain, and it happened at just the right time, because life was about to get much more difficult for Jesus and his disciples.
Luke is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells us the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The subject of their conversation was death, though that isn’t the word Luke uses. They talked about Jesus’s “departure”: the exact word used is exodus. Like the escape from Egypt led by Moses a thousand years earlier, this exodus would also be a saving event. And this exodus wasn’t something that was going to just happen to Jesus, it was something he was going to accomplish, in Jerusalem, on another hill.
The disciples would need to hold on to the memory of that transfiguring vision in the days and weeks ahead. Jesus has done all he is going to do in Galilee, and now he is “setting his face toward Jerusalem” to accomplish his ministry. There will be no more mountaintop retreats, no more skipping through the grainfields or long, chatty nights around the campfire. The enemies will be closing in soon, and the encounters in Jerusalem will be tense and fraught with danger.
A vision is what all disciples need to keep going when the daily ministry gets too stressful and dangerous. In 1956, early in the civil rights movement, when Martin Luther King was a leader of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, a campaign of intimidation was mounted against him. As the threats increased he began to lose his nerve and wondered how he might bow out gracefully. But one night, sitting alone at his kitchen table, he heard an inner voice that he knew was the voice of God: “
‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even unto the end of the world…’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone…Almost at once my fears began to go….I was ready to face anything.”[ii] We know the rest of the story.
A vision is also what disciples need when the daily ministry, without any danger or difficulty to present a challenge to rise to, gets to be too much of a grind. Too many churches are trying to carry out ministries without any vision – or maybe the original vision happened so long ago that everyone has forgotten about it. Founders of congregations often have a grand vision and a Spirit-filled, Christ-centered sense of mission, but over the generations people lose sight of the vision and have a hard time saying what their mission actually is. They get weighed down, like the sleepy disciples, with lengthy to-do lists, bureaucratic requirements, and concerns about attendance and membership. Ministry begins to be more about everyday troubleshooting than about casting out demons of injustice and bringing good news to the poor, more about recruiting volunteers than reaching hungry souls. We worry about strategy and process and lose the sense of a holy purpose, divinely given and divinely guided. As one writer has put it, “Churches are notorious for severing the transfiguring cord between work and spirit, making us the agents of a task list rather than missionaries with power.”[iii] We forget or ignore the hidden life waiting to move among us, the Spirit of Christ the Lord. We pray for the mission of the church without really expecting our prayers to change anything, especially not us.
The truth is, transfiguration is what we least expect, but it is what we most long for. We long for a vision or a voice, something that will transfigure the present moment and lift us above its tedium.
Yet even without divine light shows and heavenly voices, the present moment can be radiant enough if we are paying attention. We may not see any glory, but we can be assured that the hidden life of Christ works through the church when we go where he goes and do what he says to do. “Listen to him!” God said to the disciples. It is now up to us to keep listening.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
March 3, 2019
[i] Alice Munro, A Wilderness Station: Selected Stories, 1968-1994 (New York: Vintage International, 1997), xvi.
[ii] The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson (IPM/Warner, 1998), 77-78.
[iii] Bradley E. Schmeling, in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Vol. 1, eds. J.B. Green, T.G. Long, L.A. Powery, and C.L. Rigby (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 314.