Sermon preached at Gorbals Parish Church, February 14th 2010 – Transfiguration Sunday
When I was a child my family and I used to spend every single one of our summer holidays in the mountains. We have amazing tall mountains in Romania, with large, thick pine forests, and soaring rocky cliffs. I still remember a few memorable camping trips on some of those mountains, together with other families. We would always go up the mountain, find a clearing in the forest and pitch our tents somewhere near a mountain stream. Those were the days!
The smell of pine trees and fresh mountain air that filled our lungs every morning is deeply ingrained in my memory. Agendas were much more easily managed in those days, so we always had our best friends with us. We had so much fun running around in the forest, playing cowboys and Indians, and all sorts of other games. And then at night, we would all sit around a large camp fire and listen to stories, and sing all kinds of songs until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. When we went to bed in our tents we fell asleep listening to the sound of the stream and the wind blowing through the tall pine trees. Those were some of the best times in my life.
There was always something profoundly spiritual about being up on a mountain. Because my father is a theologian, we always managed to have friends who were also into that kind of thing, so I remember as a child listening to their conversations about God around the campfire, and I remember thinking that it makes perfect sense to talk about God in such a place: in the darkness of the night, cuddled around the dancing flames of the expertly build camp fire.
If there was a place in the world to talk about the greatness of God, THAT was the place. And that is so because being there was to be somehow in the middle of God’s presence. We weren’t just talking about God or listening to ideas about God: we were experiencing God in our midst – we could almost feel his presence moving around the campfire in a most tangible, mystical way. We had no doubt: God was there!
The words we were saying about God did not matter so much. That is not what I remember. I do remember however the deeply spiritual feel of those places. There’s just something about being on a mountain top that makes us feel out of this world.
Perhaps for this reason we tend to use this kind of language:
I’m on a mountain top in my life, which means, I’m doing very well. I couldn’t do better.
Or, I’m in a deep valley in my life, which means, I’m not doing very well. I could do much better.
Where are you now? Are you on a mountain top, or in a valley? Where would you want to be? Where would anyone want to be?
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Peter, James and John, the closest of Jesus’ disciples had this amazing vision of the Transfiguration up on a mountain top. Because that was the perfect kind of place where such a vision could take place.
What they saw must have been breathtaking. In front of them, on each side of Jesus, were the most important men in history: Moses was the law-giver, the man who answered God’s call to lead the nation of Israel out of the land of Egypt and towards the promise land. Elijah was the greatest prophet in the Old Testament, about whom the Bible says that he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind accompanied by chariots.
Peter, James and John had a vision of the whole of the Old Testament right before their eyes – the whole history of their nation appeared embodied in Moses, the law-giver, and Elijah, the prophet. And Jesus was standing in their midst, as a fulfilment of the law and the prophets. In the Old Testament, it was the face of Moses that was shone like the sun, but now, it was face of Jesus that changed, and his clothes were dazzling white.
What the three disciples saw was the glorious past of the law and the prophets, and the bright future of Christ glorified, all in one place, at one time. Of course Peter wanted to freeze that in time. He wanted to build tents for them; he didn’t want that to be over.
But a cloud concealed the three men and a loud voice was heard from the cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when he voice had spoken, Luke tells us, Jesus was found alone. The law and the prophets were behind them, in history; it was Jesus they had to listen to now. He was to be their focus. And if that was to happen they could not remain there, on the mountain top. They had to come down.
And Luke tells us that the second day they came down the mountain and found the reality of suffering waiting for them in the valley. His disciples could not heal the demon possessed child; they needed Jesus to heal the child. And Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, Luke tells us, and the child was healed, and everyone was astonished at the majesty of God.
If they would have stayed up on the mountain and dwelt in the three tents, the suffering of the child would have continued. It is so tempting to remain up on the mountain, and have visions about God and marvel at the beauty of the work of God in history, but the reality of ministry is waiting down in the valley.
In a way, this is what we do here, every Sunday. For us, this is a mountain top. We come together to hear the story, to celebrate the feast, but then we also come so that we can be sent out into the world. It is so good to be here together in God presence, to hear about the great things God has done, to sing beautiful hymns, to listen to inspiring sermons. But this is not all there is. We cannot pitch our tents here, and build a camp fire, and dwell here all week, no matter how tempting that may be.
The majesty of God needs to be known and experienced down in the valley, out there where the real life is. Eugene Peterson, the translator of the Message said that in church on Sunday everything is nice and neat. Everyone is on their best behaviour, we are well dressed, the hymns are nice, the prayers well crafted, the language dignified, the hand-shakes warm. But out there, in the real world, the people are suffering, and they are in need of relief.
Even though you are here today, you may feel that you are in a deep valley. But we can all be encouraged that wherever we are, be it on a mountain top, or in a deep valley, Jesus is there to accompany us all in our joy AND our pain, in our ecstasy AND our agony, in our amazement AND our bewilderment. This is why we listen to him!