The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Year B – Feb 15, 2015
Let us pray,
God, you have a word for us. Send your Spirit to open our ears and soften our hearts, so that we may hear that word. Amen.
One of the biggest stories this year in sports has been the story of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson who free-climbed, that is without any harnesses, El Capitan, which is a vertical rock mountain-like formation in Yosemite. These men took 19 days, during which they slept in tents tethered by rock to the side of El Capitan to complete their ascent, one of the most dangerous in the world.
And we are a people that love the ascent, the moment when we finally reach the peak. We live our lives, and speak our metaphors, in ways that reflect these mountaintops, like when we say we’ve reached the “pinnacle” of our profession. We are a people of the journey up the mountain, and the exhilaration of reaching the peak. We are often man in search of a God.
And here we are at the peak, the pinnacle, of this momentous event of the transfiguration of Jesus, revealing him as the fulfillment of God’s promises and the promised Messiah, and in our story, it falls in…the middle? It’s not the climax, it’s not the ending, it’s actually doesn’t get more than about five sentences in Mark’s Gospel.
Because, more than anything, the transfiguration is a turning point, an unexplainable and miraculous turn of events, that having come all the way up the mountain, that this God revealed in Jesus, starts back down the mountain.
I think it’s helpful to reset a bit where we are in the story, because we’ve jumped forward in Mark’s Gospel. Last week, Jesus was healing folks in and around Capernaum, and now he is in a period of teaching and discipleship with his disciples. And he has just had one of the more famous exchanges with Peter, telling him that the Messiah must be crucified and raised for God’s promise to be fulfilled. Peter strongly objects that the Messiah could undergo this kind of suffering, and makes his opinion known. And Jesus utters this zinger towards Peter: “Get behind me Satan.”
And now, we have only three of the disciples headed up the mountain with Jesus to experience the events we hear about this morning.
And these journeys up the mountain are central religious experiences in Judaism, something that Jesus and the disciples are keenly aware of. And two of the people in those stories appear in our Gospel this morning. There is Moses, who went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. And there is the prophet Elijah, who when his work was completed, went up a mountain, and disappeared into a cloud. As well, there are mountain stories about Abraham and Isaac, about Solomon, and about Job and many of the prophets.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era, said that Judaism is founded around the memory of these mountaintop experiences, and draws off them for their continued existence. In fact, the Rabbis held that the voice of God has always emanated from Mt. Tabor calling Jews to repentance and prayer, they just refuse to hear it.
And one of the ways that these experiences was ritualized was what Jews call Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, in which the Jews prepare for the final end of the exodus and the coming presence of the Patriarchs.
And this is what Peter thinks is happening. He doesn’t realize that this is the middle, but he thinks it’s the end, the fulfillment of all things, the apocalypse. But what has actually happened is Peter has stumbled into the middle of a story he and the other don’t fully understand.
And they are even more confused when Jesus starts back down the mountain.
In many ways, this confusion for Peter, like for us, is because a spiritual experience on the mountain is one of the foundational stories of world religion. It is the central energy of religious life across the world, to ascend, to meditate or clear one’s life enough in order to achieve a “mountaintop experience,” an experience of God’s glory, or another kind of spiritual high.
Much of religion has been built around this experience, and both in ancient times, and in modern times. That we work to climb the mountain to experience these fleeting moments of the presence of God. Religion, in many ways, has come to be about sustaining that experience and to recreate it as often as possible.
While Rabbi Heschel reminds us that Judaism seeks to remember these mountaintop events, we have sought to recreate as many as possible. With all the effort to make as many spiritual ‘highs’ as possible, like the Disciples, it becomes more and more difficult to perceive how God might be present in everything that is below that mountaintop.
As I’ve shared before, when I was a kid, my mom was really sick. This made for a pretty difficult childhood, in which it was already hard to believe that God was truly present in our everyday lives.
Like many Midwest Lutheran kids, every summer, I went to bible camp, specifically Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Bible Camp, in Amery, Wisconsin, where for a week, you were in an intense community, led by “cool” college aged counselors, learning and worshipping God. It was, in many ways, a transfiguration experience every summer, in that first week of August. It was a wonderful experience, just like the Transfiguration, but in the brightness of that light, came a shadow with its own darkness.
Slowly, year after year, and as I got older, Camp became my escape for real life. I craved that experience of God at camp, because it was not an experience I could have in our difficult lives at home. I couldn’t simply live off the memory of it, and after years of going to camp, it was the only place where I could find God. And, like the disciples being forced to head down the mountain, I couldn’t understand how or why God would be back in “normal life.”
I struggled with this for many year, and I still do, and I suspect many of us struggle with this. It’s easy to make sense of a God who can be found in this grand experience at the top of a mountain, what is more difficult to understand is a God who would come down the mountain into the darkness and muck of everything that lies below.
It was illness and sadness at home that I couldn’t imagine God being revealed in, and I wonder what might be for you?
Maybe, just maybe, the miracle on this Sunday isn’t the Transfiguration at all, but that the One who is transfigured and affirmed as God’s Messiah, comes back down the mountain.
Maybe these fleeting, beautiful experiences are just that, fleeting gifts. And that the real challenge, the real beauty is not the God on the mountaintop, where man is searching for God.
What that momentous dazzling light reveals, is that man’s search for god has failed, and what we have in front of us, is the God who is in search of man.
Back down the mountain, we can see the light clearly now: it’s God in search of us, on the hunt for you and I, for this world below the mountain. And this God, in Jesus, doesn’t just come down the mountain, but goes lower and lower and lower, to the depths of death itself, to find us.
This, I think, is why the Transfiguration story marks the transition between Epiphany and Lent, because the clearest Epiphany, the most stark revelation of God, doesn’t appear on this mountaintop, but in the journey to Jerusalem, and on the Cross, and in the unexpected light that comes from the darkness.
Transfiguration, and the journey down the mountain, mark a new awareness of God, and that this sort of God is not like the other gods of the world, that this God is drawing nearer and neared, away from those fleeting moments of dazzling light, and into the normality and occasional darkness of everyday life.
One of my favorite musician, Sufjan Stevens, wrote a song called “The Transfiguration,” in which he sings this beautiful and poignant line that has always stuck with me: “Lost in the cloud, a voice: Have no fear, we draw near.” And it’s not the peak of Mt. Tabor that God draws near to, but to Jerusalem, and to our lives.
It’s the good news that Job once proclaimed about God: “Thou dost hunt me like a lion.”
And that’s what this transition from Epiphany to Lent marks, that the God who hunts us like a lion, is actually on the hunt for us and for our redemption and salvation. And that is good news, because this God hasn’t just simply come down from heaven as Emmanuel, God with us, but has now been revealed as the Messiah, in search of our redemption and salvation, found not in a mountaintop spiritual experience, but in a Cross, thousands of feet below the events we hear today.
No longer are the things below, the lives we live when we come back from Camp, or from Church, apart from God’s reign and restoring power. And as we move into Lent, and as we actually move literally lower from Mt. Tabor, to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to the Tomb. And that God’s presence keeps infecting this dark and grey world with light and joy and hope.
And all this, was unexpected. Instead of staying on top of that mountain, God comes down, and it begs the question of us: Are we content with staying on top of the mountain, like Peter, or do we move into Lent with the same questions that were on the hearts of the disciples, the question we hear in the last verse of the Gospel this morning:
What could this rising of the dead mean?
What could it mean for this weary and broken world of ours? For our own exhausted and anxiety-filled lives?
What might this rising of the dead mean for you?
Just how far, how low, how deep and dark might this God go to transfigure the world all around us with God’s presence?
So as we come down the mountain, let’s do it together this Lent. On Ash Wednesday, on Thursday evenings, and in our everyday lives.
Let’s find out about this sort of God who is revealed dazzling light, only to come down the mountain for us and for our salvation.