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“Since They Stayed Awake”
Luke 9: 28-36
February 27, 2022
Transfiguration of the Lord
Have you ever stood on a mountaintop? It’s an amazing thing to be up that high and have that kind of perspective. Joseph and I have made several trips to Mount Mitchell, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi River, and the views are incredible. One of my favorite memories is hiking to the top of that mountain with Joseph and our dogs, and seeing the land spread out below us on every side.
I imagine many of you have been on even higher mountaintops, out West or in other countries. There is nothing quite like a mountaintop experience. It gives you a sense of perspective, of how large and grand the world is, how beautiful and majestic is creation.
In our lives as Christians we also have “mountaintop experiences.” There are moments when we feel especially close to God, spiritual highpoints, that we wish could last forever. It might be a moment in a worship service, or at a special place like Montreat, or at a special time of life, like the birth of a child. We sense the presence of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit in a powerful way.
But there are other times when instead of being on a mountain, we feel we are down in the desert. Sometimes our souls can become parched and dry. We long for something, but we are not sure what. We seek for answers we are not sure how to find.
All of us have heavy hearts over the invasion of Ukraine. We seek answers for questions that burden us. We long for the closeness of God’s presence.
Barbara Brown Taylor told a story about a woman who was seeking answers. Taylor said this woman was very smart; she “read everything she could get her hands on—history, philosophy, psychology, religion,” but the answer was not in the pages of those books.
So she decided to travel around the world, trying to find someone who could tell her the meaning of life. Africa, South America, India---- the answer she was seeking eluded her. Finally she heard about a wise, old man who knew the meaning of life. He lived in a little hut on the side of a mountain; so the woman climbed the mountain and found the path to the man’s home. Taylor said, “With knuckles so cold they hardly worked, she knocked” on his door.
“Yes?” said the kind-looking old man who opened it.
“I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of life?”
“Please, come in and have some tea,” the old man said.
“No,” she said. “I mean, no thank you. I didn’t come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won’t you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?”
But the man insisted that they have tea. So she went inside. “While he was brewing the tea she . . . began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened (which was just as well,” Taylor said, “since his visitor did not leave any room for him to reply),” and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea.
She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and cascaded to the floor.
“What are you doing?!” she yelled when the tea burned her hand. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!”
“Just so,” the old man said to her. “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.”1
Like that woman, in this passage from Luke’s gospel, Peter, James and John were full of their own ideas, and so they had no room to open their minds to the new things Jesus was telling them. Eight days before the events in this passage, Jesus had told them that he must undergo great suffering and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Not only that, he told them that any who wanted to be his disciples must take up their own crosses and follow him. This was news they did not want to hear and did not understand. Events in our world this week have reminded us of the human drive for power. Human beings believe power resides in force and military might. The disciples, members of an occupied land, longed for Roman power to be overturned! They expected Jesus to overthrow the Roman government and establish his throne in Israel, and they thought they would be part of his earthly kingdom! They were so full of their own ideas about Jesus, there was no room for them to see who he really was.
So Jesus took these three—his closest disciples—up on the mountain top. While Jesus was praying, he was transfigured before them. His face changed, verse 29 says, and his clothes became dazzling white. The figures of Moses and Elijah appeared, symbolizing the law and the prophets, confirming Jesus’ identity. The disciples were so stunned that everything else fell away, and they realized they were in the presence of the holy.
Every year on the last Sunday before Lent begins, the church observes Transfiguration Sunday. Every year, we read one of the three gospel passages that describe what happened on the mountain on that holy day.
The day comes for us as it did for the disciples: before we begin the journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem. It is a day that reminds us of Jesus’ purpose in coming to earth: to show us who God is, to incarnate the love of God in human flesh, and to demonstrate that love most fully in going to his death on the cross, and then rising in glory, victor over sin and death forever, rising to foreshadow our own victory.
The limitations of the human mind, the limitations of human words, can make it difficult for us to take this in. The disciples did not understand. So Jesus took them to the mountaintop. There they saw that Jesus’ glory had been veiled; he lived as the Son of Man, the one who came to serve, and not to be served, and in that was his true power: that he laid aside his glory to live among people in human form. On the mountain, his glory was revealed, and they had a glimpse that the suffering and death of which he told them would end not in his defeat, but in ultimate victory, for he was the Holy One of God.
It is good to get away with Jesus, to go to the mountaintop. It might not be a literal mountain, but a place or space where we can spend time in prayer, in Sabbath, in solitude, where we can abide with him.
When we are faced with questions of faith, misconceptions can cloud our minds. We can get bogged down, filled up, and turned about. We get tired, and sometimes we may want to give up the struggle. Yet notice how it was that the disciples saw this vision. Verse 32 says, “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.” They were tired—no doubt physically tired from the climb up the mountain; probably emotionally tired from wrestling with questions. “But,” verse 32 says, “since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.”
“But since they stayed awake…”
When we stay awake with Jesus, then we will see him. When we stay awake, we will have eyes to see. In his book Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis wrote, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of the Lord. The world is crowded with God. God walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake,” Lewis wrote.2
“Since they had stayed awake,” Luke says….
If we will stay with Jesus, and if we will stay awake (!), then we will see his glory.
We live in a world where it can be hard to stay awake, spiritually awake that is. We are so full of tasks and to-do lists, technology and information, worry and weariness......we have thoughts buzzing in our minds and spilling from our mouths. Like Peter, do we sometimes find ourselves talking even when we don’t know what to say? In the presence of the holy, Peter started blurting some foolishness about building dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. In fact, he was babbling on so much, that God had to interrupt! “While Peter was still speaking,” verse 34 says, “a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. From the cloud a voice spoke: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
Finally, when the voice had spoken, they found themselves alone with Jesus, and finally, “they kept silent,” verse 36 says.
Throughout scripture we see that often it is in the silence that God is found. When we stay awake, we will perceive God’s presence. Staying awake means more than just keeping our eyes open. It is being attuned to God’s presence. It is sitting in silence without scrolling through our phone or checking our email or seeing what popped up in instant messages. God is not in the noise of media and technology. When we empty ourselves and go aside with Jesus, when we abide in his presence, when we keep our mouths closed and our eyes and ears open; we will hear God’s voice and see God’s glory.
And God’s glory is so much more than we can comprehend with our intellect alone. When Christ was transfigured, light, cloud, the figures of Moses and Elijah, were images, visions, that helped the disciples comprehend the incomprehensible. When we come aside from the routine, when we climb the mountain, when we seek him in scripture, in prayer, in music, in art, in the beauty of creation, we will see his glory.
A baby named Louise McMorris was born with a rare medical condition that caused her to be legally blind. Louise’s mother consulted doctor after doctor for help for her child, and at last, when Louise was eight-months old, Louise’s mother found a specialist who created a pair of glasses to give Louise sight. When the glasses were placed on the baby’s face, she turned her head toward her mother, and with a gasp, her eyes lit with joy and a huge smile transformed her face, as she saw her mother for the first time.3 Her mother had always been there, caring for her, feeding her, changing her, rocking her, loving her, but she had been unable to see her. Then, when her eyes were opened, she was able to see her mother’s face, to see the source of all the love she had received.
When our eyes are open, we will see Jesus. When our eyes are open, we will see the source of all the love we have received. When we stay awake with Jesus, he will be our vision, and somehow, beyond sense or sight, we will know that in love, the Holy One, Creator of all that is and ever will be, loves us so much that the divine put on flesh and came to dwell among us, full of grace and truth.
This day, Transfiguration Sunday, calls us to come once again to the mountain. To open our hearts, minds, and souls, to the miracle and mystery of the Holy. So let us stay awake! Let us empty ourselves, to receive God’s gifts. Let us be still and know. Amen and amen.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church