*artwork: Transfiguration, by Terrance McKillip, artstann.com/mckillip.html
Home » »Unlabelled » Off the Mountain: a Sermon by Griff Martin
Monday, February 27, 2017
Off the Mountain
A Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9 and Exodus 24:12-18
By Griff Martin
For the People of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On the Sixth Sunday following Epiphany
Feb 26, 2107
(The Sunday before Ash Wednesday/ Joe’s final Sunday)
Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Comforter.
It’s a tricky Sunday. Today is the last Sunday before we begin Lent, which means for many of us it’s the last safe Sunday for a while because Lent is hard. It’s about abstaining from things, it’s a time we set aside to focus on spiritual formation and not the easy 40 Days of Purpose kind, but instead the kind where no stone in our soul is left unturned. It’s spring cleaning of our hearts. It’s a time we pull out the words like confession and sin and repentance. And it’s a journey to the very Cross of Christ and that is a journey that is not easy to make, no matter how many times you have been there.
And then on top of that since it’s the Last Sunday before Lent, that means that according to our liturgical calendar it’s also the Sunday we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday. And for some of us here, preacher included, this is one of those Sundays that feels a bit too magical, as if this belongs in the world of Dumbledore and Hogwarts or the town Hawkins, Indiana from Stranger Things. This whole event is completely other worldly, it’s almost science fiction, and it’s not something many of us can readily relate to. It does not make sense to our science and fact based culture where we want things to conform to the world we know and understand. Even for those of us here that are a bit more miracle prone, this is a hard day because this is not a miracle Jesus performs, this is a miracle that happens to Jesus.
And then on top of that, for our community today it’s the day we are celebrating Joe and Charlotte Bumbulis and their journey thus far with us. It’s a day we honor the work Joe has done here at First Austin as our Minister to Students and Missions Minister. It’s a day we celebrate all they have meant to us and the gifts they have given us over the last 9 years and we grieve their leaving but we celebrate their goodness and presence.
So when Joe set the date, I immediately thought I had been given the golden ticket. “Great Joe, don’t you really feel called to preach one more time here at First Austin?” to which he responded, “Transfiguration Sunday, no thanks….” (Thanks a lot Joe)
So what are we to do on this day? We go on up the mountain because that is where Jesus has called us, that is where Scripture is calling us… up to the mountaintop.
Which is exactly what Peter, James and John do this morning. It’s important to know where we are in the Gospel story. Jesus and the disciples have just returned from a visit to Caesarea Philippi where Peter has declared that Jesus is the Lord, a most important confession, words that change everything… the first time this is revealed aloud in Matthew’s story. However that is all that happens there, it is a very long journey there and back, days of traveling for Jesus and the disciples. Long, hard days traveling on foot.
So Peter, James and John might not be all that excited after a long journey and days of travel when Jesus starts off this day with the request they go on a hike with him. They might even be thinking, “well you often escape to the mountain to pray by yourself, you sure you don’t want some alone time?” in the same tone that early in the morning I say to Jude, “don’t you want to take the ipad back to your bed and watch movies for a few more hours?”
And just like Jude insists that no he really needs to be with me, Jesus insists that he needs these three to go with him, to be with him. Now we always assume these are the special three, the inner circle, the one’s who get it the most…. But teachers know better, think about it: who does a teacher pull aside? A teacher pulls aside the students who are ahead of the class and the students who are not quite keeping up. Your best learners or your slowest learners. These might be the brightest, but they also might be the slowest. So they are us.
Up the mountain they go and once they reach the top they witness something that is most miraculous and mysterious and confusing. Jesus is praying and suddenly in that prayer Jesus transforms. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it like this: “And there he is: someone you thought you knew really well, standing there pulsing with light, leaking light everywhere. Face like a flame. Clothes dazzling white. Then, as if that weren't enough, two other people are there with him, all of them standing in that same bright light. Who are they? Can't be. Moses. Elijah. Dead men come back to life. God's own glory, lighting up the night.”
Radiant light and then in the midst of that, Moses and Elijah, which is strange for several reasons: First, they are both long gone from our story…. Both with rather mysterious deaths that are more disappearances, but nonetheless they are not around anymore and second: If some Old Testament figures are going to appear, these two don’t make any sense…. It should by Aaron the High Priest who interprets the law and King David who defends Israel… it should be symbols of royalty and ritual… but instead it’s these prophets who said difficult things to those in power and led Israel from dark places into freedom.
So the disciples after a long hike are fighting to stay awake and suddenly staying awake is not a problem, Jesus is dazzling white, two ghosts from the pasts are with him and then a heavy cloud comes down and covers them all and a voice, “this is my Beloved, listen to him!”
The disciples see something very few get to see… the very glory of God. Even Moses on the mountain has not seen the full glory of God. The disciples get to see the glory of God… they see as Paul will later write, “with unveiled faces.” They see the full glory of God. And it is Good.
And their reply is simple: “It is good for us to be here, so let’s build some shelter and stay here forever.” This is a pinnacle moment for them, the fullness of Jesus revealed, a place of Divine Wholeness, this is the place the heart aches for, this is the place where all is well. No wonder they want to stay here forever.
And Jesus replies: “No we are not to stay here on this mountain, let’s get going and head to Jerusalem.”
And they hike down the mountain, away from that sacred and good place where they had just been standing, and they hike down into a crowd of people who are fighting and arguing with one another, into a crowd where the center of attention is a father who is at wit’s end and has brought his boy to the disciples to see if they can heal him of the demon that is robbing him of life. A scene of intense tension, worry, fear… things are out of control and it’s a bit scary. It’s life as most of us know it.
As I sat with the text this week there was a temptation to see it through the typical lens. Typically when we hear this story we think of the disciples as the Three Stooges in this tale. But as I sat this week I was really drawn to the disciples. To begin with the “mistakes” they make in this text are interrupting God, not understanding the things Jesus says, struggling to be present in a moment, asking the wrong question, making an improper demand… and the truth is those are things I do daily, if not hourly.
And then I realized something else about the disciples that I had never seen before. These three who have dedicated their lives to following Jesus and to knowing God better, on top of this mountain they finally experience it, the very fullness of God. They experience God in a way no one else does, so Peter’s comment, “Let’s make tents and stay here forever” is a completely valid thought, this makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is that when Jesus calls them to follow him off the mountain, they follow. They who have experience the Divine Present, head back into life, following Jesus. Off the mountain and into the valley…. Back to life.
It’s the very call of Jesus, to leave the high place and go instead to the valley where God’s very heart is broken. And that is what Jesus has been saying to the disciples over and over and over: this path- My Way- includes heading straight for the place where you will be broken. And then it all started to come together for me.
You see this is exactly what I see you doing this day Joe. You have been on a mountain, the place where your whole life was preparing you for, a place that has a fair amount of safety and security, a place you probably envisioned staying for the rest of your life in full time vocational ministry, a place where hopefully at some point you have experienced God’s fullness and presence and yet Jesus is calling you to more…. Jesus is calling you to a place that is mysterious, where control is gone, a place where fears are real, this place of life where there is heart ache and you are obediently heading there, knowing with full confidence that what you have experienced will sustain you, that you are following the voice of Jesus and that Jesus is present with you.
And maybe this is your final ministerial role here, to show us all how to walk off a mountain and straight into Lent… to call all of us to look around and see if we have made home in a place of safety and security, maybe a place we have envisioned staying the rest of our lives, a place where we too have hopefully experienced God’s presence and to leave that place to go to the place where God’s Kingdom is most needed, we all know God is calling us to more, Jesus is calling us further… and maybe it’s time for us to make that journey as well.
Maybe this Lent is about…..taking the time for us to honestly look at the safe places where we want to camp, the places where we make shelter and try to make permanent homes, the places where everything feels right and good and secure… and these places are all over our lives from the way we as a community do church- it worked once, this makes me feel good, this programming provides me security, this is where I feel God’s presence, this mission is not too risky… to the ways we individually commune with God which is often less relationship and more routine… to the ways we follow Jesus, think about how many of our ministries and missional activities are actually about us, think about how often our good deeds fill our egos and don’t even touch God’s will or how often we only do that which is safe or ask how often we truly engage with life in terms of the hard and wholly broken places in our world.
Our Lent this year might need to be hearing the words of Sir Francis Drake’s prayer:
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.
This Lent is an invitation to look at the places we are camping and to remember that we serve a Jesus that never made camp. A Jesus who once said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Which makes sense because for Jesus the journey of faith is a journey of progress, of forward movement, and he can’t get comfortable and make camp because there is a world to save and because God is one step ahead of us. So he goes up the mountain to experience God’s presence and then back down the mountain to life because that is the journey of faith, to head straight into the place where God’s Kingdom is most needed, in our own hearts and in the world.
Maybe this Lent is about us finding ways to escape to the mountain to be filled and then to enter the world where God’s very heart will be broken. To find ways to live a rhythm of contemplation and action, listening and doing, being and following.
But let us not forget, as the disciples left the mountain, they did carry that moment with them. And the light from the mountain gave them enough light to see by each and every day.
It’s the words the Lion, the King, Aslan gives in Narnia novel The Silver Chair, his final speech before entering the Land of Narnia: “Here on this mountain, I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on this mountain the air is clear and your mind is clear, as you drop to Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all like you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”
Joe may you continue to meet Jesus and experience the fullness of God on the mountain and may you continue to follow Jesus off the mountain and into the world that needs salvation.
And may we continue to meet Jesus and experience the fullness of God on the mountain and may we continue to follow Jesus off the mountain and into the world that needs salvation.