Transfiguration, Tendencies, and Something Else

Feb 19, 2023

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Transfiguration, Tendencies, and Something Else

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

Transfiguration, Tendencies, and Something Else
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On February 19th, 2023

Matthew 16:24-17:8

Today is the last Sunday before Lent begins with Ash Wednesday this week. The last Sunday before has come to be known as Transfiguration Sunday. Every year we hear the story of Jesus, Peter, James and John ascending the mountain, and Jesus face starting to shine like the sun while Moses and Elijah appear on either side of him. Our text for today sets this episode in context by giving us a look at what happens six days before they ascend the mountain. They’ve been on the road to Caesarea Philippi, a town about fifteen miles north of the Sea of Galilee at the base of Mt. Hermon, which is a 9,000 foot high mountain, by the way. Jesus asks his disciples who other people say he is, and then who they say he is, and Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus responds by calling Peter the Rock on which he will build his church. Then, when Jesus says that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed and on the third day rise, Peter rebukes him, saying, “God, forbid, this shall never happen to you.” Whereupon Jesus, in reply, tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me, for you’ve put our mind not on divine things but human things.” That’s when Jesus turns to the whole group of disciples. Listen now for what he tells them, and then for all that happens after he and Peter and James and John—the big three—ascend the mountain.

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

I want to begin today by asking you to recall a time you climbed or drove to the top of a mountain and gazed out on valleys and vistas as far as your eyes could see. Think about that sense of being up high and looking down. I remember, for instance, being up on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire with Bruce and Betsy Thomas. We’d driven up there. I was scared all the way up that we might go off the edge of the road. I didn’t drive, but we got the sticker that said, “My car climbed Mount Washington.” We were up there on top of Mt. Washington ans we are able to see for miles in all directions.

I call to mind being on other peaks, both higher and lower, and feeling that I was above or within the clouds. There is something about the exhilaration and the perspective that we feel from being in such a place that helps us understand why many religious traditions have viewed mountains as places of divine encounter. If you want to experience God, if you want to have an encounter with the living divine, these texts and traditions seem to say, go up high.

The Bible is full of such examples. Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, then much later, from the vantage point of Mt. Nebo to the east of the river Jordan, looking out towards a promised land that he will not enter. The prophet Elijah facing down the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel by calling down fire to consume a sacrifice, and then, after slaying all those prophets and being on the run from the servants of a murderous Ahab and Jezebel for forty days, going up to Mt. Horeb, where he hears God’s voice—not in the earthquake, wind, or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. There is Mt. Moriah, where Abraham, who is about to sacrifice Isaac, where he gets a message from God through an angel telling him to stop—and Mt. Gerizim, near Schechem, where Joshua calls the people to choose this day whom they will serve. If you want to have a special encounter with God, go up a mountain. That’s what all these stories seem to say. It’s not for nothing that the Bible talks about building altars in the high places.

So when, six days after telling all of the disciples that he must suffer and die, and that if they want to follow him, they have to take up their crosses and be willing to lose their lives, too—Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up a high mountain, they might have half-expected to have some sort of religious experience—especially since Jesus had recently told them there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. A religious experience, of course, is what they get. Jesus’ face starts to shine like the sun. His clothes become dazzling white. Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the most famous prophet of God, appear on either side of him—having a conversation with him. That’s when Peter, who never seems to have a problem blurting out exactly what’s on his mind, says to Jesus, “It’s such a good thing we’re here. If you’re up for it, I’d like to build three booths here—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” This is a thin place, Jesus. So let’s just stay here a while.

When I’ve preached on this text in the past, I’ve often talked about our human impulse, like Peter, to freeze time in those sorts of mountaintop moments. To photograph them or catch them on video, to turn them into relics, memories of a time when, for a moment at least, everything seemed right in our world. The wedding day. The birthday party when the kids were little and they were so excited about everything. The picnic in the park with our beloved. The graduation day. The baptism, like the one we had last week, remember that? That one vacation that stands out as so special. The performance, or the hearing, of a particular piece of music. That worship service where the tears came and we just knew without a doubt how beloved we are.

I’ve argued before that the disciple Peter speaks for a lot of the rest of us, (he does that a lot by the way), by saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s just stay up here.” But that’s not the way life works. Life is not one continuous mountaintop experience. There are peaks and valleys and the hard work gets done when we come down from the mountain—from the wedding into the marriage, from the graduation into the job, from the baptism into the life of discipleship, et cetera.

That’s a pretty good sermon. That’s not a bad take, as far as it goes. However, as I think more about it, I think the meaning of this passage goes deeper than that. It goes deeper than gotta come down from the mountain into the hard work of doing what we’re called to do. That’s important, but I think the message goes deeper than that. Because what Peter suggests doing is not building permanent structures. He’s not suggesting building houses, but booths (or tabernacles). Setting up a tent.
That would have evoked for the original hearers of this story the temporary structures that the Jewish people were to make for Succoth, the yearly festival of booths—during which they were to recall how God provided for the people as they wandered for forty years in the wilderness after being led out of Egypt. That festival was, and is, a reminder that God isn’t just with us in the mountaintop experiences, but when life seems hard—and we wonder where the next meal is going to come from, or how we’ll ever make it through our grief when it is all we can do to get a breath—and as the psalm says, our tears have become our food both day and night.

What the building of booths suggests—and what I think Peter is saying even though he doesn’t even realize he is saying it (and how often do we do that? People say things and they don’t even realize what they are saying, how profound what they are saying is). What Peter says is “Let’s build some booths here. Let’s build some temporary structures to remember.” What he’s remembering is that God is with us not just on the mountaintops but also in the valleys. God isn’t only with us in the times when life seems like one big green light, and we go from strength to strength and promotion to promotion, but also in the midst of the pitfalls and the missteps and the hardship and the consequences of our mistakes. God is with us in the job loss and transitions, and the difficult early days of recovery, and in the challenging conversation. God is with us when the baby is colicky, and when our kids (or we ourselves) are teenagers. God is with us through the chemo, the surgery, the loss of independence that comes with aging. God is with us, sure, when loving someone with whom we are in covenant relationship is as easy as falling off a log. But God is also with us when we are at our wits’ end with them—and loving them isn’t as easy as pie.

I guess the point I’m trying to make—and I think Peter was making, whether he knew it or not, when he wanted to build booths on the mountain—is not just that we can’t stay on the mountaintop—and that we can’t expect life to be just one mountaintop experience of clear revelation from God after another—but that it’s not just on the mountaintop where we can and do encounter God. It’s also in the challenging times, in the times of wandering through the wilderness and wondering where our next meal is going to come from.

You have heard me quote the words of the late Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner many times. He was able to understand and articulate better than most how God comes to us not just on the mountaintop but through all of life. Perhaps Buechner’s best quote to that effect is this: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” All of it is an opportunity for encounter with and experience of the living divine. Even the times that seem like they are the worst.

Perhaps the best embodiment of that in Buechner’s own life is the true story of how, when his then teenaged daughter was suffering from anorexia, and hospitalized with life-threatening weight loss that made her look like a living skeleton, he received a phone call from a dear friend of his who lived several states and 800 miles away. After pouring out his heart to his friend, Buechner hung up the phone that night. The next morning, his friend showed up, having driven those hundreds of miles just to be present with Buechner. Would you call that a mountaintop moment, or an experience of God in the midst of the wilderness? How can we keep our eyes and ears and minds and hearts open to experiencing God through all of life? And what does an experience of God look like? That’s really the question, isn’t it?

Which is why, I think, after Peter suggests building the three temporary dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah up there on that high mountain apart, the scene continues. Perhaps his suggestion was a way for Peter to forestall living into what Jesus had said six days before, about how the Messiah was going to suffer and die and they were also going to have to also be willing to lose their lives for his sake. It’s after Peter wants to build the booths that a cloud overshadows them and a voice rings out, “This is my beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.” And then what? Then what does the voice say? “Listen to him.” Whereupon the disciples fall to the ground and are overcome by fear—and Jesus says, get up. Get up boys. Don’t be afraid.

Listen to him. Listen to the voice of the One who calls you to serve—to move into and within and beyond the fear. To get up and not be afraid. To come down from the mountain.

One of the things that my predecessor John Sonnenday said that
impacted a number of you—something you will never forget him saying—is that we are called to be not upwardly mobile, but downwardly mobile. We, who have much in the way of
material resources and status, are called to lives of humble service.
That’s the goal. That’s what Jesus was saying when he told the
disciples, if any want to become my followers let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me. That’s what the voice from on
high was calling Peter and James and John to when it said, “This is my
beloved Son. Listen to him. Watch him. Listen.”

When people listen to Jesus’ call to self-giving love, there’s absolutely no telling what they will do. They will spend countless hours trying to make sure that a fellow Immanuelite gets the best medical care available. They’ll open their homes to a friend who can’t go home—and hasn’t found adequate facility for care—after surgery. They’ll volunteer to tutor an at-risk child. They’ll work to make sure an immigrant family has a good working vehicle. They’ll reach out to a grieving friend, not with platitudes, but with presence—and maybe even drive hundreds of miles to do so.
When my Mom died, so many of you said, “Gosh, we wish we could be there at the funeral.” And we all discouraged that. Thank you for not making a hundreds of miles trip. Thank you for watching it on video.

But I was tipped off that somebody was going to be there. So I was on the lookout. When I walked into the sanctuary for that funeral, and saw John and Gayle Von Seggern, who had driven over from their place on the coast of South Carolina, I started to weep. I wept because I knew they represented not just themselves, but all of you.

When people listen to Jesus’ call to self-giving love, there is no telling what they will do. They’ll bring in suitcases and bars of soap and toilet paper for people in Cuba. They’ll make themselves proximate to the least of these, through working in a shelter or visiting a prison or serving a meal to someone who is hungry. And something happens in and through all of that.

God is glorified. The presence of God becomes real through us and other people who are with us and with others. The presence of God becomes revealed in the midst of the valleys.

And sometimes, sometimes, we find that our faces, too, begin to shine.

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