08 March 2011

Transfiguration 2011


Exodus 24: 12-18

Matthew 17: 1-9

Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination spoke these last public words:

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I‘ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know [tonight] that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy [tonight], I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

His words speak of climbing the mountain and of seeing the vision of the promised land. Both today’s Old Testament lesson and the Gospel lesson speak about mountain top experiences. Moses enters the cloud which covers the holy mountain, but inside experiences the awesome brilliance of God’s presence. Much later in the book of Exodus, Moses returns from the mountain of the Lord and his presence and his own face shines so that the Israelites are afraid to approach him.

This story seems to be echoed in today’s Gospel story. Jesus brings Peter, James and John up the mountain with him. Jesus’ appearance changes before them and he shines with a holy light. A mysterious cloud descends upon them and they perceive Elijah and Moses.

Peter babbles on – probably not knowing what to think or say and they hear God’s voice saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” And the disciples hit the dirt in fear.”

This sounds like a reasonable response to me. As they descend the mountain Jesus tells his disciples not to speak of this until after he has been raised from the dead.

What a strange story. What are we to make of it all?

First of all, it is important to understand that an experience of the Holy cannot be explained in words. And the words of the Gospel here have all the classical marks of a religious experience. It is not something to be completely understood. They speak of an awesome experience which defies description. What exactly happened that day? Well, God happened! Can we comprehend it all? No, but we can experience it.

The disciples have a glimpse of the resurrection glory that Jesus will have. But first, they must descend the mountain and Jesus must move forward to the death of which he speaks. They have their mountain-top experience, but then they must descend back into the valley. People might seek those amazing mountain-top experiences, but it is in the valley that we actually live our lives.

Jesus descends with the disciples to return to the people where they live. Our God is a God who descends to be among us.

So how can we experience our own mountain-top experiences, and how can those experiences make a difference to how we live?

Well, the disciples come to their experience by following Jesus. That’s how we get to the mountain-top as well. That was how Martin Luther King Jr. came to his mountain-top, he walked faithfully with his lord, Jesus, following his example in his life.

It’s a bit of a trek. It’s not usually arrived at in a simple straight line. It’s a day by day journey going uphill and down, ascending bit by bit until you reach the top. Sometimes it feels like an arduous journey.

Martin Luther King Jr. got there by travelling a dangerous road of self-sacrifice and courage.

What must it be like at the top of the mountain? From it, Martin Luther King Jr. saw the promised land, even though he said he might not get there, he knew that his people would.

Would it not be tempting to try to stay on the mountain-top, and not return to the difficulties of the valley?

But you see, the mountain-top experiences cannot be wholly grasped and owned and kept. They provide us only with glimpses of glory. They give us but an inkling of a dream – a vision. They are fleeting, but they are real. And the difference they can make in our lives is that they can change the way we see the world. They can make us hope for more, and they can make us act with courage.

Sometimes when I read the story of the transfiguration, I wonder if it isn’t really about Jesus changing at all, but about the disciples changing. When Jesus touches them when they are flat on the ground in fear and lifts them up, it seems to be the same old Jesus. It was the same Jesus throughout this story, but they were given the gift of seeing a fuller reality.

This gift of seeing more can go with us back into the valley. I believe that the disciples would see more and more the glory of God even in their everyday lives.

When I think of mountain-top experiences I also think of a group of our parishioners who will travel to Honduras in the coming week. They will fly to the city of Tegucigalpa, way up in the mountains at an altitude of almost 1 km up. Their experience will be a combination of a mountain-top high as they see that their work will make a real difference to the kids they serve, as well as seeing the valley of extreme poverty.

Perhaps the real gift of the experience to them will be that they will see a deeper reality that many people don’t even notice. Perhaps, like the disciples who followed Jesus, it will be they who are changed. And perhaps they will see clearly the face of Jesus in the boys and girls and the people that they meet.

It was first in the shanty-town where I worked in Uruguay that the scales fell from my eyes and I really saw Jesus in a poor man working in the garbage to try to feed his family. It was after this experience that Jesus started to show up more and more often in the faces of others.

I believe that our faithful group from St. Luke’s will see this too. And they will experience the amazing paradox of the Kingdom as they see and feel great hope in the midst of poverty. They too will have a glimpse of the promised land as they too are changed. My prayer is that all of us will experience mountain-top experiences too, and will be changed by our glimpse of this promised land. Amen.

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