Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 26, 2017

2017.02.26 “We Don’t Need a Mountain to Know”- Matthew 17: 1 – 9

Central United Methodist Church
We Don’t Need a Mountain to Know
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 17: 1 – 9
Transfiguration of the Lord
February 26th, 2017

transfiguration-mosaic

“Transfiguration”, a mosaic in the entryway to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

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

 

Do you ever wonder what we are missing by living here in the flat Midwest, not near mountains of any kind? How many have ever lived near mountains? Do you miss them?

Last week as I was driving, I looked down at my emergency brake and thought about this. You know what an emergency brake is, right? Over the last 20 years, I have owned 2 cars, and I figure I have used the emergency brake maybe twice. Here in the Midwest, there are hardly any hills where we need to use it; most of the time, if we left our car in neutral it probably wouldn’t go anywhere. All our emergency brakes are likely rusted and useless.

What else we miss other than using our emergency brakes is not having hills and mountains as places of pilgrimage and retreat. All the places I have visited in the world near mountains – whether the Smoky Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, or the Himalayas – are places of adventure, retreat, and pilgrimage. Yes, it takes effort to ascend them – whether by walking, car, or bus – but once you reach the top, the view is commanding, sometimes breath-taking. It gives us a different perspective not only on the world but upon our lives. It makes us feel like we are looking out not only over where we have come from, but where we are going. No wonder we like such high places, towering over the fatlands of our lives.

mt-taborMight this be why Jesus took three disciples with him up Mt. Tabor? Mt. Tabor, 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee, rises dramatically out of the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley. Jesus and his disciples were concluding a busy time of ministry throughout Galilee, and not without controversy. Just before this, Jesus revealed what the next chapter was going to be, how it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, to suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Understandably, his disciples found this unthinkable, with Peter grabbing Jesus and protesting, “Impossible, Master! That can never be!” So maybe it was time for a break, a new perspective, a pivot point, to prepare for what lay ahead. Up Mt. Tabor Jesus went, with three disciples, Peter, James, and John.

This story of what happened on the mountain, known as the Transfiguration of Jesus, also serves as a pivot point for us in the church year. The Transfiguration story links to three seasons: it concludes the season of light and revelation we call Epiphany; it precedes the descent down the mountain and the road to Jerusalem we call Lent, and it anticipates the glory of Jesus’ resurrection, that we call Easter.

But the story of what happened on the mountain is also one of the most confusing stories in the Gospels. As Peter, James, and John were praying, Jesus was transfigured before them. He was joined by Moses and Elijah, symbolic of the law and the prophets. No one knew what to say except Peter, who always had something to say. So, as Peter began to babble about tents and memorials and possibly a tourism ministry, there came a voice from heaven, saying the same thing they had heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.” It was enough to shut them up and make them fall on their faces in fear. Until there was no more vision or voice, but sunshine and silence, a tap on the shoulder and the voice of Jesus, like that of a parent waking a child, saying: “Get up; do not be afraid.”

If – thousands of years later – we still find this story confusing, it has endured because we also find it comforting. Because while we may not understand what happened on the mountain or what it meant, at least we learn how Jesus would have us react to events that challenge our comprehension and paralyze us with fear.

For most of us, the life and times we live in right now are such times. Most day’s headlines are confusing and sometimes outrageous, full of divisive rhetoric, increased anxiety, and the prospect of an unclear future. This past week there has been much alarming news: increased ICE deportation raids tearing families apart; two Indian engineers shot in Olathe, Kansas, one killed, by a drunken Navy veteran who thought they were from the Middle East, shouting, “Get out of my country.” There are also increasing reports of mosques burned, and Jewish synagogues and cemeteries desecrated. But there was also encouraging news: In St. Louis, Muslims have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for that vandalized Jewish cemetery.

All of us have moments in our lives, where – like Jesus disciples – we are overwhelmed by what we have seen and heard. There are days we would just as soon stay in bed and cover our eyes and ears. There are times where it takes everything in us to find the strength and courage to get up and face our anxieties and fears, some of which are different for each of us, some of which are common to all of us:

  • Our fear of inadequacy, of failing, whether our families, our friends, ourselves.
  • Our fear of shame, of saying and doing the wrong thing, of not measuring up to what we believe is expected of us, of feeling unworthy of love, whether by God or others.
  • Our fear of the other, especially those who might think – rightly or wrongly – seek to hurt or to harm us such as through acts of terrorism.
  • Our fear of dissolution, especially the inevitable changes of aging and illness and death.

Given these fears among many others, we could not do better than to heed the three words of instruction, command, and promise in this story. Those three words are: “Listen to him.” “Be raised up.” “Do not be afraid.”

First, “Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. Amidst all the voices crying out today, too many are filled with resentment and hate. Amid such voices, surely those of us who call ourselves Christians need more than ever to come to church and listen to Jesus. Judging by all those under the big tent of American Christianity, while different Christians hear different things, can we agree that the best way to understand God and God’s will for humanity is to look to Jesus and listen to him? When we do this, we do not hear Jesus say the kinds of things we are hearing today. As the old saying goes, “Who would Jesus bomb, or deport, or deprive of medical care?” After all, as the saying goes, “Jesus was a brown-skinned socialist of Middle Eastern descent who provided free bread and medical care to all.”

Second, Jesus’ command: “Get up.” Except it’s not just “get up;” the word Matthew uses is the same word used of the Resurrected Jesus: “Raised!” In other words, what Jesus is saying is “Be raised up!”

How do we do it, how do we get ourselves out of bed every morning and face a new day, day in and day out, in the face of the anxieties and challenges we face?

I had a professor once, who shared with us how he was having trouble getting up in the morning. He said he resolved to get up, open the window, take a deep breath of invigorating air, and begin with the day. So, he said the first day he got up, pulled himself to the window, threw it open and felt the cold air, and jumped back into bed and covered his head with the blankets. There are some days, that is the way we feel, and not just from open windows and cold air.

How do we do it? Purely by grace. Just when we think we can’t do it, Jesus taps us on the shoulder and reassures us, not only asking us but giving us the courage and strength to get up and carry on, despite our fears. Day by day, God’s Spirit breathes God’s power and grace into us; this is how we ourselves are transformed and transfigured, from frightened, anxious, helpless people into strong, confident, capable disciples able to get up and do what needs to be done; not only to bemoan the state of the world, but to do something about it.

Finally, there is this: “Do not be afraid.” In many ways, these words are a summary of the Gospel, recurring over and again. They were announced at Jesus’ birth to terrified shepherds. They are announced here on the mountain and upon a restless sea to terrified disciples. They were announced to the women who discovered an empty tomb on that first Easter morning: “Do not be afraid!”

To hear these words and to assimilate them into our hearts is needed, now as much as ever, when fear is not only a part of our lives, but used to manipulate us to do things we would never otherwise do. So when Jesus says, “Get up, and do not be afraid,” he was saying that not only to them but to all would-be followers, that part of faith is finding the courage to get up and keep moving forward, even at those times when we are confused, uncertain, or fearful. God does not want us to be afraid, but to move forward with courage and confidence.

Listen. Be raised up. Do not fear. These words spoken about and by Jesus were not an excuse to hide out on the mountain, but to head back down into the valley. They were not an excuse to reside in spiritual fantasy, but to head back into the earthly reality. What lay ahead was the journey to Jerusalem, where – despite his glory – Jesus would be arrested, tried, condemned, and crucified, for then as now the world has no place for the message he preaches. Not until his surprising resurrection at Easter will we understand that in vindication of his life, his message, and his ministry, God will raise him up.

In the end, it turns out that we don’t need a mountain to know, that whether on mountains high or in valleys deep, whether in dazzling light or darkest night, whether during mountaintop experiences or when paralyzed with fear, God is with us, saying:

“Listen to him.”
“Be raised up!”
“Do not fear!”

Amen.

For this sermon I would like to acknowledge two helpful commentaries, that of Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, “Shine!”, at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship Ministries, www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/shine-preaching-notes; and Dr. David Lose’s usual helpful weekly lectionary commentary, “Transfiguration – A: “Timely Words,” posted February 22, 2017, http://www.davidlose.net/

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