down the mountain

transfiguration - 2.7.16

Transfiguration Sunday – February 7, 2016
Dunbar Presbyterian Church – Dunbar, NE
Southern Heights Presbyterian Church – Lincoln, NE

Scriptural References: Exodus 34:29-25, Luke 9:28-44

A link to the recording is available here.

One of America’s most famous and influential outdoor enthusiasts and a father of our national parks, John Muir is probably most well known for penning the phrase, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” The quote is often used and adapted by enthusiasts to express a love of places of deep heart desires, and the irresistible pull of wild places.[1] I contend that mountains are magical – maybe it’s the thinner air, possibly the slower pace of life or the abundant vegetation and wildlife, but most likely it’s the place I feel closer to God. Whatever the reason, there is something breathtaking, relaxing, and peaceful about mountains. One might even describe mountains as glorious. And that’s where we begin our stories today – at the base of the mountain, full of God’s glory.

The mountains are calling and I must go. As we transition from Epiphany into Lent, we have time to spend in the midst of God’s glory revealed through those whom the Spirit has picked for the role of bearing God’s Word to the world. Moses and Jesus both have transformative encounters with God in the mountains and in both encounters the glory of God shines. The transfiguration of Jesus presents a glimpse of what is possible for all of humanity, and bears witness to the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. Lent is a time of self-reflection when we acknowledge our need for God and our reliance on God’s mercy. Christ’s transfiguration story literally shines a light on how unprepared are we for bearing God in the world. Witnessing the splendor of God shining confounded Christ’s closest disciples – the ones who learned first-hand from him – so surely we can’t be expected to fully understand what took place and how to move forward. Oh contraire.

Moses was called to the mountain more than once, and each time he traveled down to serve as mediator between the people and their God. Moses presents the covenant of God with Israel and every time he is aglow with the light of God. The people couldn’t bear the splendor of God then, either. “Perhaps, this glory silences our religious chatter and renders us blinking and confused in it’s light… This splendor shines with the terrible light of God’s reflected presence, a light that illumines God’s word and renders God’s people conspicuous, marking them as witnesses to the Lord of life.”[2] Today our dependence on God comes to light so that tomorrow we may do whatever we are each called to do when we receive it at the base of the mountain. “Often we do not think of God’s word as all that glorious or God’s people as shining all that conspicuously. Scripture is a text to be studied, a word to be proclaimed to a gathering of not even very ambitious sinners. There is nothing self-evidently glorious about most local congregations. Yet, Moses’ face shone. Jesus’ figure became dazzling bright. This glory…far from being an abstraction, brings us to the disturbing events of Easter morning, where the disciples’ bafflement and joy and even terror come face to face with the risen Lord, whose splendor dispels the gloom of death itself.”[3]

The mountains are calling and I must go. But it’s what happens at the base of the mountain, after we’ve ascended and descended, that is of primary importance. The Jesus who comes down the mountain is one who rebukes unclean spirits. The Jesus who comes down the mountain is the one who brings life and healing to a boy – to us all. The Jesus who comes down the mountain is the one who will cause everyone to be astounded by the greatness of God. The Jesus who comes down the mountain will be betrayed into human hands – but, the Jesus who comes down the mountain is the one in whom there is healing, resurrection, and sustaining power. At the peak of the mountain God’s glory shines, and at the base of the mountain God’s greatness astounds. But also, at the base of the mountain God’s salvation speaks words of life for the whole world.

We believe in and serve a God of encounters. Moses met frequently face-to-face with God and served as his word-bearer to the people. Israel encountered God through Moses’ relationship with YHWH and there learned the intimacy of faith and closeness to God. In his commentary on the text, Andover Newton Theological School President Nick Carter states: “Two critical points are definitive for the people of Israel and for all people of faith. The first is that this concept of proximity has at its base a moral and spiritual idea that shapes our very being. Our closeness to God molds who we are. The second is that while one of the most defining obligations of all Jews is to do justice, the enduring message of Moses’ encounter is that they are called to be in the presence of God.”[4] Moses gathered the leaders of the congregations to share with them personally what God had commanded him. And this happened more than once, as Moses was in God’s presence 40 days. The God of encounters birthed a child to live in proximity to us. Every bit Christ’s life is about a God who desires closeness with us. His birth included the lowliest first. His epiphany is a celebration of Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles (and thus the world). His ministry was about touch and words and presence. Even his transfiguration story became personal as he included his disciples Peter, James and John. And let us not forget the passion of our encountering God: “Forgive them Father…” our Savior spoke to God on our behalf.

Our closeness to God molds who we are. If the transfiguration stories teach us anything, it’s that a life of proximity to God is transforming. When we dare to be the bearers of the Word to the world, the glory of God will radiate through our faces. Our hands, outstretched to serve in love as we have been commanded, will be the hands of God. In her book Jesus Freak, author Sara Miles tells us that “…Jesus said we can go ahead and heal the sick, that we don’t have to wait for authorization from our bishops to raise the dead…”[5] She paraphrases Christ’s resurrection visit with his disciples like this: “Then one night, Jesus walks through a wall and simply appears in a locked room where his terrified disciples have been hiding from the religious authorities… ‘Peace be upon you,’ Jesus says, and shows them his still-bloody hands and side. And then, for the final time, he tells his followers what he’s been telling them all along: that they, too, are children of God, and that they are to continue doing Jesus’ work…Jesus has given us all the power to be Jesus.”[6]

Over these next several weeks of the Lenten season we have the opportunity to reflect. When the mountains beckon you, question why. Inquire within yourself why your heart longs for the irresistible pull of the long places. Is it to escape the pace and trajectory of your life today? Is it to rest your weary body in a quieter place? Is it to reconnect with yourself and discern your next steps? Is it to commune with God in a place where heaven and earth seem inseparable? Once you determine the heart’s desires to temporarily depart from today’s routine, reflect on your proximity to God at present. Are you close enough to the Lord that when you return all will be astounded by the shine on the skin of your face? Or do you have a few more steps to take in order to reach is face-to-face presence?

The mountains are calling each of us. We must go. Because in going, we will be in proximity to God that is a necessary and defining first step for an encounter. Proximity allows encounters to evolve into relationship. And in relationship we “embody and radiate God’s love to the world” when we come back down the mountain. “It is the closeness that calls us and sustains us.”[7] The mountains are calling and we must go. For the world is dark and broken and sinful and unjust and disaster-prone. We want to experience the light of God in Christ. We must see it. The world needs you to bear it. You must be the one to say, “Look! Here shines the one in whom there is power to overcome death.”[8]

In the name of God the Creator,
Christ the Redeemer,
and the Spirit the Sustainer, Amen.

Let us pray:
Holy God, present in our midst yet beyond all comprehension, by your light, we see light; by your healing, we are made whole; by your mercy, we know your greatness. Turn your gaze upon our weakness and show us the way of your love that we may live with unveiled faces, through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

[2] Currie, 436.
[3] Thomas W. Currie, “Theological Perspective on Exodus 34:29-35” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent Through Transfiguration (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 436, 438.
[4] Nick Carter, “Homiletical Perspective on Exodus 34:29-35” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent Through Transfiguration (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 439.
[5] Miles, Sara. Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. (San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 163.
[6] Ibid, x-xi.
[7] Carter, 439.
[8] Kimberly Miller Van Driel, “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent Through Transfiguration (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 455.

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