February 11, 2018
The passage for this Transfiguration Sunday – Mark 9:2-9 — starts off ordinailry enough. Jesus and his three closest friends – Peter, James, and John – go up on a high mountain. Nothing unusual. Jesus often went off from the crowds to pray and rest and at times He would take some of the disciples with Him. It indeed started very ordinarily. But from here on, ordinary ends. No sooner do they arrive than Jesus is suddenly “transfigured.” He “glowed.” As the text has it, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Not only out of the ordinary, but absolutely out of this world – which, of course, is precisely what the story wants to convey. And if that is not out-of-the ordinary enough, two men who were so important in the faith tradition of Peter, James, and John – two of faith’s most honored heroes — suddenly appear by Jesus’ side. Moses, the great law-giver, and Elijah, the prophet par excellence, as if to suggest that the entire tradition of the Law and the Prophets was paying respect to Jesus, in whom both were brought together.
This is, both literally and figuratively, a “mountain-top experience.” No wonder Peter, James, and John are terrified. But, of course, a little terror never stopped Peter from running his mouth, so, for lack of any other ideas, he suggests erecting three shrines to commemorate the event!
Wow! A big enough deal so far. But that is not all, for after this vision a cloud overshadows the mountain. It must have looked like a deep fog suddenly came over the mountain. Thinking about a foggy day or a time you have been to the mountains and a cloud has enveloped the mountain or a time when you were flying and the plane flew into a cloud can help you envision what this must have been like for Peter, James, and John. The damp air closes in and all the world slips away into a grayness. Then the voice of God echoes around them saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Glowing face and clothes. Visits from famous figures of the past. Hovering clouds and heavenly voices. Wow! It was so extraordinary, so extra ordinary that when it was all over, and Jesus and Peter and James and John were headed back down the mountain, Jesus told them to “tell no one about what they had seen.” That made sense. Who would have believed it anyway? But the three of them believed it. They had been there, and those moments on that mountain would forever mark their lives and change the way they looked at everything.
Certain “wow” moments in our lives have a way of doing that. They have a way of marking our lives and changing the way we look at everything. I came across a story of a 33-year-old truck driver by the name of Larry Walters who was sitting in his lawn chair in his backyard one day wishing he could fly, and then he figured out a way to do so! For as long as he could remember he had wanted to fly but he had never had the time nor money nor opportunity to be a pilot. Hang gliding was out because there was no good place for gliding near his home. So he spent a lot of summer afternoons sitting in his backyard in his ordinary old lawn chair and hoping, wishing and dreaming. Then one day he devised a scheme. He somehow came up with 45 helium-filled surplus weather balloons and attached them to his lawn chair. He put a CB radio in his lap, tied a paper bag full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to his leg, and slung a BB-gun over his shoulder to pop the balloons when he wanted to come down. He lifted off in his lawn chair expecting to climb a couple of hundred feet over his neighborhood. But instead he shot up 11,000 feet right through the approach corridor to the Los Angeles International Airport. When he finally decided to come down, he was somewhat of a celebrity. When asked by the press why he did it, Larry answered: “Well, you can’t just sit there.” When asked if he was scared, he answered, “Yes…wonderfully so.” Wow! Larry Walters will never be the same again after his trip to the mountain in his lawn chair. He has seen things and felt things that will shape the way he lives the rest of his life.
I am sure it was the same with Peter, James and John.
Up on that mountain they had been given nothing less than a glimpse into the future. They saw past the suffering and death of Jesus which Jesus had predicted a few days before, past their doubts, past their fears. For one brief shining moment God had cracked the door to the end of time and they had seen how history would be worked out, their own history and the history of the whole world. And they would never be the same again. Wow!
If you had a chance to see how everything was going to turn out in the end, would it affect how you viewed the present? Of course it would. I read an article by a hospice chaplain that testified to this. The chaplain had been at the bedside of many persons who had near death experiences and reported that most of those who had these near death experiences are not afraid when their death actually occurs. He relates one particular time a patient’s heart stopped, but aggressive intervention brought his heartbeat back. The chaplain was not there when this happened but when the chaplain went to see the patient the next day the patient broke into a big grin. “I’ve seen the light” the patient told the chaplain, and then the patient gave a story that coincided with most of the near death experiences the chaplain had heard from others. A bright light, an overwhelming sense of peace, and other details that were similar to the near death experiences of others. This patient had, at one time, directed his doctors to try all means to resuscitate him if his heart stopped. He was terrified of dieing. But after this experience the patient insisted the doctor issue a “do not resuscitate” order and make sure it was followed. The patient had to twist the doctor’s arm to get this DNR order, but was at peace with the decision. The patient was convinced by the near death experience that death was not something to be avoided. Wow!
But you know, not everyone has the kind of wow experience that can change your perspective and change your life. You may remember the TV show “Murphy Brown” that used to come on Monday nights. I don’t remember the real reason for the question, but in one episode the characters were discussing their thoughts or feelings about God. There were different responses from different characters. One was an agnostic, one was a Baptist, and so on. But for me the response of the character Jim stands out. He said he went to church every Sunday with his wife, then commented something on the order of: “I haven’t had any experience of God. I go to Church because it is obvious to me that the people who attend are experiencing God, and I am hoping that one day I will too.”
Does that sound familiar? I wonder how many real-life “Jims” there are here today waiting for an experience with God. I would dare say that a lot of people fit into Jim’s category! Why do most , eople have to wait for their wow experience?
One reason may be that the wow experience for Peter, James and John occurred on the mountaintop, but most of us spend most of our lives in the valley, not on the mountaintop. Maybe your prayer is: “O Lord, carry me away to the mountain,” But remember the place of your ministry is with those who need our help down in the valley.
That being the case, how can you arrange for having those wow moments — those energizing, even life-changing, mountaintop experiences — during the course of your journey. How can you arrange for those moments that will strengthen you, give you a glimpse of the holy, and even let you know that all your work is blessed by God ? The easy answer is that you cannot! You have to wait, just like Jim in the “Murphy Brown” episode. But if you remember, Peter, James, and John were there with Jesus because they had been invited. There were nine others who were not. I suspect the reason that they were invited while the others were not has something to with the fact that they were ready, while the others were not.
A friend of mine has noted that, when his children were small, he and his wife discovered that there were some words that they could not say at the dinner table. Not that these words were inappropriate or not nice or did not make for good conversation but the truth was they could not be said because as soon as words like “cookies, candy, or cake,” were said, their children did not want to eat supper any more. My friend observed that the kids knew what “cookies, candy and cake” meant but did not seem to understand the word “later.” They wanted the dessert right then! Forget the main course! If they were allowed to eat the sweet stuff, my friend observed, they would have no interest in the nutritious stuff and may have never had a healthy diet.
A mountaintop experience – a wow experience — is like dessert. If that is the extent of your spiritual diet, we will be poorly fed. Your faith will be unhealthy. You need some preparation before you can truly appreciate the wow of the mountaintop.
Do you want to be ready for an invitation to the mountaintop? Let me make a few suggestions.
First, make yourself available. Peter, James, and John were invited up the slope because they were already in the company of Jesus. This means that, if you are to have a wow experience, a mountaintop experience of Jesus, you have to be active in the company of those who follow Jesus, which means being active in the Church. Those who, for whatever reason, choose to absent themselves from the fellowship of the Church will not be ready to respond to the invitation to the top of the mountain where the wow experience awaits. So make yourself available.
Second, learn all you can about your faith tradition. Come to Sunday School and Bible Studies. Have personal time in God’s word. All the surveys indicate that biblical literacy is at a low ebb these days, and going down! This is sad, is it not? The Transfiguration story in Mark 9 does not tell us how Peter, James, and John recognized Moses and Elijah, but they did, and they knew how incredibly important these men were. Had they never heard of them, the moment on the mountain would not have been nearly so special. Learn all you can about your faith tradition.
Third, listen to Jesus. There are only a few times in the gospels that God actually speaks. Jesus’ baptism is one such time and another is here at the Transfiguration. When God speaks, He does not mince words. “This is my son, the Beloved; Listen to Him.” Listen to Him. You can hear Him as you worship. Listen to Him. You can hear Him as you study scripture. Listen to Him. You can hear him in the voice of other Christians. Listen to Him.
Fourth, remember where your work is. It is in the valley. We are called to bring Christ to others in our community and the world. The Church is the only institution I know of that exists primarily for the sake of those outside it. If you listen to Jesus, you will hear him say “Go and make disciples.” Remember where your work is.
One final suggestion. If you want to be truly prepared for Christ’s invitation to the mountaintop and to have a wow experience, you need an attitude of joyous expectancy. When you come to this holy place from week to week, prayerfully begin your trip through the doors ready to have an experience with God. Don’t come ready to not run into someone you would rather not see, don’t come ready to not sing a hymn you don’t know and would rather not learn, don’t come ready to mumble through a prayer or a creed without giving it much thought, don’t come ready to “suffer through a sermon” that you will not understand or be able to relate to. Instead come ready for an experience with God, an experience with Jesus, an experience that may come in a person, or in a song, or in a prayer, or maybe – just maybe – even in a sermon.
The older I get the more I realize that attitude is everything! If the attitude is right, then the invitation for a wow experience, a mountaintop experience, can come and be received with the joy it deserves.
Five suggestions in preparation for a trip to the mountaintop. Five suggestions for preparation for a wow experience.
Make yourself available –
Learn all you can about your faith tradition –
Listen to Jesus –
Remember where your work is –
and finally, have an joyfully expectant attitude.
These might help you be ready when the mountaintop experience, the wow experience, presents itself! Amen