Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 2, 2014

Central United Methodist Church
Listen to Him!
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 17: 1 – 9
Transfiguration of the Lord
March 2nd, 2014

Mt.Tabor 3.2.14

Six days later, three of them saw Jesus’ glory. Jesus took Peter and the brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light. Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with him.
Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain — one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”
While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.”
When the disciples heard it, they fell flat on their faces, scared to death. But Jesus came over and touched them. “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.
Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. “Don’t breathe a word of what you’ve seen. After the Son of Man is raised from the dead, you are free to talk.”
– Matthew 17: 1 – 9, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Last summer in Israel, we drove from Tel Aviv to Tiberias, which takes only a few hours. As we drove, from time to time there would be a sign announcing some Biblical site or town that would catch my attention. One that really caught my eye was a sign with an arrow that said: “Mt. Tabor.” That’s the traditional mountain associated with the Transfiguration of Jesus, our Gospel for today.

I looked to my left, and there it was, Mt. Tabor. I knew there was a church at the top commemorating the event, and for a moment, I thought about taking the turn and check it out. Who wouldn’t want a transfiguration post card?

But – it is a mountain, and if you’ve ever driven up a mountain, you know what that’s like: switchbacks, serious grades, and slow speeds, not something you do easily or quickly. Plus, our rental car was an economy car, which means it didn’t have a lot of power. Thinking it would take forever to get up the mountain and back down, I held my course. Next time.

But as I drove, I thought about this story, which serves as a hinge story for us every year, as we say goodbye to the Sundays of Epiphany, the season after Christmas and prepare to head into the wilderness for the forty days of Lent, on our way toward Easter. On another snowy day in Chicago, a wilderness would feel pretty good right now, wouldn’t it?
Given that it is a mountain (1,886 feet high, with 4,430 stairs) don’t you wonder if Jesus also met dissension when he suggested to his disciples, “Let’s go pray up there.” “Really? You want us to hike UP there to pray? Can’t God hear our prayer down here? Is reception better up there?” There have been many explanations of why Jesus took only Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him to pray, but maybe the simplest one is this: maybe the rest of Jesus disciples said, “You guys go ahead; we’ll meet you down here AFTER prayer.”

But perhaps it also explains why as soon as Peter, James, and John got up there, sleep closely followed prayer. “You’re sleeping! No I’m not; I’m praying.” For some of us, sometimes the two look a lot alike.

But then the fireworks began. When light appeared in what had been darkness, and it became impossible either to pray or sleep, what they saw must have made them sure they were dreaming. Jesus – whom they thought they knew – radiated light. With him appeared two figures, one who appeared to be Moses, the giver of the Law, and the other, Elijah, representative of the Prophets. (Whether they had nametags which gave them away, I cannot say.)

What would you have done? Pulled your robe over your head, and pretend that you didn’t see what you just saw? Pinched yourself, to see if you were dreaming, perhaps the result of that stale fish you ate last night? Take the opportunity to rise for a speech?

Which is what Peter did. “Master, this is so cool! What would you think if I built three memorials here — one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”

But before Peter’s words could fall flat, they were enveloped by a cloud, both dark and radiant. And with the cloud, they heard a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.”

Listen to Jesus? He wasn’t speaking, only glowing. And now, not even that. The whole experience was so overwhelming they were terrified, and fell on their faces, afraid to see or hear more.

But then it was over, and they felt a hand on their shoulder, like that of a parent gently waking a child: “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, and only Jesus.

Does it sound right to you that Jesus would pledge them to secrecy? And that they would so quickly agree? Experiences like that which are unsettling, which show us at less than our best, we just as soon not be posted on Facebook. And, after all, even if you told the story, who would nod politely and say they believed you, and not, at their earliest opportunity, call 911 for people in white coats to come and take you away? And so, for a long time, what happened on the mountain, stayed on the mountain.

“What is the meaning of this story?” That’s the question we ask each year when we hear it – as if – if we could find the meaning and summarize it in three points and a poem, we wouldn’t have to puzzle over it again every year. Perhaps if we had been there with our iPhones to take pictures and record the voice, we could analyze them for clues about what was going on.

But it wasn’t something to be explained, it was something to be experienced, an encounter with something greater than their minds, greater than their ability to understand it, definitely greater than their ability to explain it.

So much of life is like that; this is why many of us are religious; why we feel a need to be here today. Even if someday science can explain all phenomena in detail, many of us feel like we will never understand it, and after life’s greatest experiences we are left to stand – like Peter, James, and John did that day – in fear and in awe and in wonder. Once you have been through the birth of a child, for example, or the death of a loved one, are we ever the same again?

I wonder if it wasn’t that way with Jesus’ disciples. I wonder if they went up the mountain confident in their ability to pray, not knowing that they were actually weak. I wonder if they went up the mountain with certain assumptions about Jesus, only to have them shattered and unsettled by this experience. I wonder if they didn’t leave more in awe of Jesus than they had ever been, understanding not more, but less, than they thought they previously knew. Life is so often like that, shattering our pre-conceived ideas and assumptions, even about things we think we know, including God.

One of the most popular books in the Christian history is an anonymous work written in the latter half of the 14th century, known as The Cloud of Unknowing. What The Cloud of Unknowing proposes is that the only way to know God is to abandon all preconceived notions, beliefs, and knowledge about God, and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to “ignorance,” after which, you may begin to glimpse the true nature of God. Was that what Peter, James, and John experienced on the Mountain of Transfiguration: The Cloud of Unknowing, in which all their preconceived ideas were reduced to stammering and ignorance?

Are the most important words in the story, for them and for us, the ones they heard in the cloud: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.” Did they leave the mountain, with a new intent to do that?

Isn’t that what we do here? For the last seven weeks, we have listened to the words of Jesus, for the last four Jesus’ words on another mountain, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the weeks to come, we will continue to hear Jesus’ words, through the seven Sundays of Lent.

We need this, because, truth be told, it is often so hard to listen to Jesus in the midst of our daily lives and responsibilities. It is so much easier to listen to the world speaking to us, to the talking heads, to our bosses, to all the voices, including those voices speaking in our heads, telling us we are not good enough or not smart enough or not brave enough, to face whatever it is that we are facing. In which case perhaps the word of Jesus we most need to hear is the one he spoke first after his transfiguration: “Do not be afraid.” This is the word spoken so often in the Gospel, at the beginning of Jesus life, here in the middle, and at the end, even after his resurrection. Why is it spoken so often? Because we so often need to hear it. Perhaps what it tells us, is that the biggest and most important things in life are always terrifying, before they are life-giving.

Well, if not that day, before long, the story of what had happened on the mountain got out. “Say, did I ever tell you what happened on Mt. Tabor that day we went up there to pray?” And, in time, Peter’s advice was taken seriously, and not booths nor tents but churches were built on Mt. Tabor to commemorate Jesus’ transfiguration, not one but two: one Roman Catholic and one Eastern Orthodox. Someday, I hope to visit them, by driving, not walking up the mountain.

But until then, and for all those who can’t go there, we tell this story, heeding the word given not only to Peter, James, and John, but to all who desire to follow Jesus, not only on the mountaintop but through the deep dark valleys of life: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.” Amen.

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