Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo. on Feb. 14, 2010.
The sacred story we hold in the ordinary hands of our humanity reminds us of the delicate balance between heaven and earth because contained in every ordinary moment is a reminder the Divine is present and waiting to be unveiled. Need an example? Robert Johnson begins his book with a simple line: It all began with the crash of a car against a brick wall and the small knee of an eleven-year old boy caught in between. The wreck that pinned him against a wall occurred when he was a boy at the height of the Depression and his life hung in the balance for a few days. When he was perilously close to death, he had a vision of what religious scholar Mircea Eliade called the golden world (something mystical and beyond the doorway of death); one glimpse and Johnson longed for it more than for the present world, not caring whether he returned to life and family and friends.
Johnson regarded his recovery as a harsh intrusion, a summons back to the earthly realm. He wrote later that over the years he longed for a full experience of that which he had had only a brief glimpse. The car wreck took both legs as the accident occurred before antibiotics and he battled gangrene. In reflection about the wreck, Johnson claimed this near-death experience was a wound deep enough to set off a deep experience of the inner world but not so deep as to take his life. So what do we make of such moments of clarity and insight into the inner world? I suspect if we were diligent we would admit contained in the ordinariness of any given moment is the shine of the holy and the one consistent thing that keeps us from seeing it is our unwillingness to see it.
The season of Epiphany comes to an end today but it ends in a bang, doesn’t it? Jesus climbs to the top of the mountain to pray with three of the disciples and unexpectedly, in the elevated heights of the mountaintop the shades of heaven part and the glory of heaven shines upon him. The mighty voice of God signifies the Divine Presence that overshadows the moment telling them to hush: Stop jabbering about inconsequential things and listen!
But the disjointed story of Jesus’ transcendence and the subsequent story of the demon-possessed boy don’t seem to fit together (like this pretending as though they’re naturally connected), but it’s likely they are. It’s a story followed by a story. Not only does Luke put them together this way, but so do Matthew and Mark. All three gospels put these two stories together. What response could we give to such a vision of the unseen world?
To be honest, most of us live so much of our existence in the valley of ordinary life we don’t know much about what it means to occasionally venture up on the mountaintop of transcendence. We’re not such extraordinary people that we should be able to live up on the heights where extraordinary things happen to extraordinary people. After all, we’re ordinary people living ordinary lives. We are a true sample of what ordinary people are like.
But ordinary people sometimes do extraordinary things in the everyday commitment they make to the simplicity of what they do well. I was called out a while back to pray with a man and his partner who was dying of HIV-AIDS in a nearby nursing home that specializes in care for persons who are dying from diseases like that. In that place, I watched the nursing staff and was reminded what a gift they are to the dying. This was not a place of healing, but it was ably staffed with nurses who offered the very best in care of the whole person. They dispensed dignity and honest care for their clients. It was a gift to see ordinary persons doing extraordinary things. Some of you have the gift to get things done in the world and others have come to see how much you add to the rest of us. But by and large, we are ordinary folks with a wide array of ordinary gifts and our experiences in life are mostly that: ordinary.
So how do us ordinary folks approach this extraordinary story of Jesus who stands on the top of a windy mountain and is a part of a very small audience to a special effects show that not even Hollywood could duplicate? What is described in this gospel story is something extraordinary that us ordinary folks aren’t quite sure what to do with it. What did it mean to Peter, James and John? What did it mean to Jesus? And what does it mean to us?
Take notice this is such an extraordinary experience that even the Bible only records in a couple of places. In this story, the actual presence of God comes face to face with our human experience and out of the sheer awe of the moment a man comes away literally glowing from the encounter. The first time this happened, the children of Israel were refugees fleeing Egypt with only those things they could carry with them. In the exodus, they left everything and followed Moses in a frantic rush for the sea. Once God miraculously delivered them across the sea and conquered their pursuers by the release of the great waters, they found themselves on the eastern edge of the sea. From there, Moses led them down in the Sinai Desert where they stopped to camp at the base of a great mountain.
When Moses descended the mountaintop with the law of God under his arms, he reentered the camp of his people with a glow that was so strong that he had to put a veil over his face in order to keep from frightening them. His hair looked as if it was on fire and he had a transcendent look that no one had ever seen before. The veil was important because it shielded their eyes from the shining of his face. But when Moses climbed back up the mountain to meet with God after destroying the original tablets of the Law, he removed the veil so he could once again come face to face with God. While on the mountain, he had no need for the veil because the veil kept him from receiving everything that God had to share with him.
I think the story indicates that while the people shuddered with absolute terror in meeting God in such close proximity, Moses could approach the sheer terror of God with absolute safety and calm. Isn’t that the way it is for most of us? Approaching God can be a terrifying thing. All we can think about are all the reasons why God has something against us. But being face to face with God can be the safest place on earth if we are ready.
Jesus’ mountaintop encounter was very similar to that of Moses. Isn’t it interesting that Moses, the one with the first veil, shows up here with Jesus? Out of the blue Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, joined Jesus. While standing there, Peter, James and John, all wake with a start as if from a deep sleep to see Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah. The three of them stand there under the heavenly glow and the vision of the three of them stuns the disciples. Jesus is aglow with the luminescence that Moses experienced all those centuries before.
The disciples are dumbstruck at first but they overhear what is being said between Jesus and the towering twins from the Old Testament. Luke’s gospel tells us what was said. He tells us that while they are standing there together in the bright sunshine of the transfiguration, they discussed Jesus’ departure, or his exodus. That’s right, it’s the same word used in the Old Testament to describe the coming out of Egypt by the Israelites. They were talking about Jesus’ own journey leading to death. Moses and Elijah came to the mountaintop to visit with Jesus about his future and about his departure from this earthly existence. They paid him a visit to discuss his departure from this life. Maybe that explains the voice of God intruding the scene. Just as soon as Peter blurted out the only thing he could think of, namely, that they should build three booths on the heights of the mountaintop, God spoke up interrupting Peter from saying any more. God overruled the noise of Peter’s nervousness by booming out a message that’s the same Jesus heard while rising out of the waters of his baptism: This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him!
On the top of that mountain, Jesus discussed with Moses and Elijah what would be asked of him namely, that he would be asked to sacrifice his life for the sins of the world. It was a conversation about death and the riddle of his life was solved. There was no more mystery of what would come of him in his journey on the earth. Whatever he thought about the direction of his life, from this moment on, he knew he had come so he would die. The twin messengers of death were accompanied by the shining presence of God. Where there was a need for a veil with Moses, there was now no need for a veil at all and the three disciples were left there with their mouths open and the shining glow of being near to the very face of God.
The voice of God gave Jesus the strength to leave the mountaintop. Jesus knew that after the Transfiguration, he must head back down into the valley of human need where his very life would be called upon. But before he left, God gave him bread for the journey. God spoke to the affirmation of his existence and gave him the blessing he needed in order to leave the mountaintop.
But what about us? Most of us are like Peter. When we find ourselves caught in the glow of the presence of God, we either start looking for a veil to hide behind or we start filling the silence with our unwanted thoughts. We try to fill the holiness of the moment with our thoughts and projects when really we ought to honor the moment with silence and accept what message God may be trying to offer us. The truth of the matter is that on occasion, when we least expect it, God may be trying to break through the ordinariness of our lives to give us an extraordinary experience of affirmation and direction. In the moment of sheer terror, we are invited to lift the veil that separates us from hearing all that God has to say and we are invited first hand to experience the presence of God so that we might receive the bread for our journey.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).