Sunday, February 7, 2016

Glory Runs Downhill (Luke 9:28-42)

28 About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. 31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.

33 As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying. 34 Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.

35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” 36 Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.

37 The next day, when Jesus, Peter, John, and James had come down from the mountain, a large crowd met Jesus. 38 A man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to take a look at my son, my only child. 39 Look, a spirit seizes him and, without any warning, he screams. It shakes him and causes him to foam at the mouth. It tortures him and rarely leaves him alone. 40 I begged your disciples to throw it out, but they couldn’t.”

41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and crooked generation, how long will I be with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon threw him down and shook him violently. Jesus spoke harshly to the unclean spirit, healed the child, and gave him back to his father.

Beach or mountains?  How many of you would say beach?  How many of you would say mountains?  How many of you would say both?  The good news for you is that you live in central North Carolina – either one is just a few hours away, and you don’t have to choose!

Ashley and I are beach people.  That’s our soul place.  Something about the smell of salt air, the rhythm of the crashing waves, sand between our toes – we just breathe deeply and that’s a little piece of heaven for us.  That’s not to say that the mountains don’t have something special, either.  Ashley grew up in Cashiers, in North Carolina’s southern mountains, and my first church was in Boone.  The folks up there will tell you that God bent down and kissed the earth, and today, we call that spot, Boone, North Carolina.

The cross at Lake Junaluska at sunset.
Our Western North Carolina conference of the United Methodist Church continues to meet in Lake Junaluska year-after-year, despite the lack of parking, handicap access, a shortage on decent accommodations, or that the auditorium in which we meet is 1000 seats short of the number of people required to be there.  Why?  Well, one reason is a refrain commonly heard in churches – “Because we’ve always done it that way” – but another is because more-than-a-few folks are convinced that Jesus lives in the mountains.

There’s some Biblical basis to that belief.  Throughout Scripture, mountains play a specific role in being places of particular meetings with God.  How many stories of someone entering into God’s presence involve them climbing a mountain?  Mount Sinai, Horeb, Nebo, Carmel, to name a few, all feature prominently in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Even Jerusalem, the holy city itself, was built on a mountain, so that no matter from which direction you approached, you always went “up” to Jerusalem.  Going to the holy city was an uplifting experience, both spiritually and geographically.

Ask people, “Where is God?” or “where is heaven?” and we instinctively point “up.”  And so it makes sense, if God is “up there” somewhere, that we would climb mountains in an attempt to get closer to God, both physically, and spiritually.

Our youth are on a retreat in the mountains this weekend.  They’re up in Boone and Blowing Rock, getting closer to God, through a retreat called, “Summit.”  The mountains remain a place where people feel closer to God.  Going to the mountaintop is necessary for anyone who seeks spiritual renewal.

Mount Tabor
Even Jesus climbed mountains when he needed to think and pray and be refreshed.  In today’s Scripture reading, he has climbed a mountain, Mount Tabor, and he’s taken his inner circle – Peter, James, and John – up with him.  Jesus is praying, his three followers are fighting back sleep, and Jesus begins to glow.  First his face, then his clothes, glowing with a brilliant white radiance that is truly something from out of this world.

We call this glowing, “the Transfiguration,” meaning that Jesus’ form was changed.  He was transformed, changed from glory into glory.  In this moment of glory, Jesus is not alone – Moses and Elijah, who represent the totality of Hebrew scripture and tradition, Moses, representing “the Law;” Elijah, representing “the Prophets;” and right between the two, in all his radiant glory, is Jesus.

It’s a moment in time.  Peter knows all too well that moments come and moments go, and this is a special, unique moment.  Peter does what we all want to do in these moments – to extend the moment at far as possible, to capture the moment.  Peter offers to build three shelters – three shrines, three temples – to the moment, one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah.

“Was he trying to busy himself with lesser things so that he didn't have to deal with the extraordinary that was happening right in front of him? Was he trying to contain these visions, put them in a box? Protect them from the elements? Capture the moment in a medium that he could understand—symbolic bricks and mortar—maybe a building campaign?

“But friends, haven't we also undertaken these same avoidance techniques to escape things—even wonderful things—that we cannot understand?” (Rev. Robert Chase)

To be sure, Peter represents an impulse within the faith, an impulse against which we must constantly be on guard.  In offering to build a shrine, Peter is opting to reduce the movement of God to the building of monuments.  Generations later, people could visit that monument and say, “Once upon a time, God was here.”  And so, faith becomes a fairy tale, the nostalgic remembering of what God has done, once did, and used to do.

But here’s there good news: God is still alive!  Still at work!  Still up to something!  In the moment Peter is tempted to settle down and build a monument, while he is still speaking, a cloud overshadows them.  If you’ve spent any time in the mountains, you know this experience.  The cloud comes, and you are in it.  The cloud comes, and literally envelopes you.  It’s worth noting that, in Scripture, “the cloud” represents God’s presence.  And so, just when Peter wants to preserve this Kodak moment in faith, God’s presence comes along to move us out of what is comfortable toward what is faithful.It would have been simpler to have built three memorials and stayed there. Life was good. But no, along comes a dense, thick cloud. And out of the cloud, a voice:

Along the way many of us thought that if we loved God, if we followed Jesus, life would become calmer, simpler, easier. But through the experience of the journey we discovered instead that God confuses things, God complicates

It would have been simpler to have built three memorials and stayed there. Life was good. But no, along comes a dense, thick cloud. And out of the cloud, a voiceBishop Ken Carter says, "It would have been simpler to have built three memorials and stayed there.  Life was good.  But no.  Along comes a dense, thick cloud, and out of the cloud, a voice: ‘This is my Son.  My beloved.  My chosen.  Listen to him!”

What does Jesus say?  “Let’s get going.  Time to leave the mountain.”  They descend from this mountaintop high into the valley below, and there they encounter a boy possessed by an evil spirit.  They had caught a glimpse of glory, a ray of light up on that mountain, but down in the valley, there were people who desperately needed some of that light to shine into their darkness.


I love the way Scottish theologian Henry Drummond puts it: “It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We don’t tarry there. The streams begin in the uplands, but descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.”

God’s light – or whatever else you want to call it – God’s grace, God’s love, God’s glory – is given to us in order to flow through us.

When we meet God upon the mountain, the point is not to find some way to stay on the mountain.  The point is that the mountain is a place of clarity – where we know God and know ourselves to be cherished by God, where we receive a clear vision of what God wants us to, and where we can get a good view of the terrain in front of us.

 Along the way many of us thought that if we loved God, if we followed Jesus, life would become calmer, simpler, easier. But through the experience of the journey we discovered instead that God confuses things, God complicates things.

It’s easy to find Jesus on top of the mountain, but while we’re up there, we need to pay attention to what God tells us.  God says, “Listen to Jesus.”  And what does Jesus say?  “Come on, let’s get off this mountain and take God’s glory down into the valley.”  And so, we pull away from our building of monuments and join the movement of God’s life-giving activity in the world.

We do so with the assurance that the Jesus who was revealed in dazzling splendor on the mountaintop is the same Jesus who walks with us through darkness, pain, and fear of the valley.

I’ll be honest – I don’t know where you are today.  Maybe you’re on top of the world, maybe everything is bright and clear, maybe God’s glory couldn’t be shining any brighter around you.  Or, maybe you’re down in a deep, dark place somewhere, where it seems no light could possibly reach you.

If you find yourself on top of the mountain today with the radiance of God’s glory clearly in view, listen to what Jesus says to do – to go down into the valley and share that light with someone else.  And if you’re down in the valley and it seems all is dark, hang on!  Someone with light is on their way.

Friends, whatever has been given to you – whatever insight, whatever experience, whatever skill, whatever resources, whatever love, whatever grace – whatever God has given to you, God is trying to give to others through you.  We have been blessed, and we are asked by God to bless others.

We follow Jesus from the top of the mountain down into the valley – into a world that desperately needs a bit of God’s love and light.

Come, thou fount of ev’ry blessing: Tune my heart to sing thy grace.

Streams of mercy never ceasing;  Call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount  I’m fixed upon it,

Mount of thy redeeming love.

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