In an attempt to live into my fear, I stepped up to the pulpit without a pre-written sermon and offered this about The Transfiguration…
In an attempt to live into my fear, I stepped up to the pulpit without a pre-written sermon and offered this about The Transfiguration…
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.
I like having a plan. Whether Lindsey and I are preparing to travel with Elijah, or the church is hosting an event, or even just putting together the order of worship for Sunday mornings, I like having a plan. This need for structure and planning probably began during my time in scouting (“Be Prepared”) and it has continued to manifest itself throughout my life over and over again.
When I felt God calling me to a life of ministry as a teenager, I started planning with my home church pastors about where to go to school and how to follow the guidelines of the United Methodist Church to be ordained one day.
When I experienced God calling me to spend the rest of my life with Lindsey, I started planning the perfect way to propose to her while we were dating.
When I received the call to serve St. John’s UMC, I started planning all the ways I could help move and nurture the church even before I set foot on the property.
I like knowing where the road of life is leading me. Yet, for most of the people in scripture, the way forward is more like walking into a dense cloud covering the mountain.
Abraham was told to go to a strange new land and he did not have the advantage of Googling it before he arrived. Noah was told to build an ark and fill it will animals without really knowing what life would be like on the other side of the flood. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and let him float down the Nile River without knowing what would happen to her precious baby boy. And Moses went up on the mountain to encounter the Lord while a cloud covered everything he could see.
When I read these stories in scripture, they make me anxious. I think they make me anxious because in the characters I encounter a faithfulness that I rarely experience in my own life. Again and again, God’s chosen people are ready and willing to walk into the cloud of the unknown, while I insist on patiently preparing for any and every contingency.
Part of the strange and beautiful mystery of following Jesus Christ is that we do not know where He is leading us. We might have an idea based on stories from scripture and the experiences of the disciples, but the road that leads to life eternal is one that is often covered with a thick and dense cloud.
Or to put it another way, a biblical way: Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rejoice in cloud of the unknown and the comfort of the living God who surrounds you with hope and grace and peace. Celebrate the mystery of not know what is about to come, but that God is with you in the midst of it. Enjoy the strange and beautiful thing we call life; a life that is strange and beautiful precisely because it is not under our control.
When I was in seminary we had all sorts of assignments that were designed to get us engaged with scripture. When I took a class on the gospel according to Mark, I was required to read all 16 chapters out loud, in my spare time, at least once a week. When I was learning about biblical Greek, I was tasked with memorizing the Lord’s Prayer in Greek and I would mutter it under my breath everywhere I walked on Duke’s campus. And when I was enrolled in a class on the art of preaching, I had to work with a group to come up with a strange and exciting way to bring a scriptural text to life.
My group broke up parts of the worship service; one person would do the call to worship, one person would lead the rest of the class in singing a few hymns, one person was responsible for all of the prayers, and I was assigned the “sermon” section. Rather than waxing lyrical about the particular text (Jesus’ Transfiguration) we agreed that I should just retell the story in an exciting and dynamic way.
I prayed over the text during the days leading up to the worship service and decided that I would tell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration from Peter’s perspective, from the future looking back on the incredible event. Like a lot of group of assignments, it felt like everything was just thrown together, but we were confident that God could make something out of our worship.
When the day of the assignment arrived, everyone in the group nailed their respective parts and I eventually had to stand before the gathered class and give my rendition of the Transfiguration. As I went on and on as an older Peter remembering the past, I could tell that the class was starting to lose interest, so I started elevating my volume and delivery. I began building the story up through a crescendo until that pivotal moment when Jesus was clothed in white and everyone in the room went wide eyed. I, at first, thought that my command over the scripture had blown the class away, but I soon realized what had happened: While I was talking, one of my peers had slowly started to dim the lights in the room until it was rather dark (I was so focused on what I was saying that I didn’t even notice it). But then at the exact moment I described the dazzling whiteness of Jesus’ garment, she turned on the projector and I started to glow.
Transfiguration Sunday is an important event in the liturgical calendar as we bask in the glory of Christ right before we enter the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Important for us is a willingness to be knocked back by the dazzling power of Jesus’ life and work. We take the time to be blown away, just like Peter was, by how God’s love really knows no bounds.
This week, as we prepare to celebrate the Transfiguration, let us look for moments where God’s glory shines in our midst. We might see it in a perfect sunset, the laughter of a child, or in the still small silence of prayer. And whenever it happens, let us give thanks for the glory of the Lord.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white. such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
Two years ago, today, I woke up like every other Sunday and got ready for church. Though I was enriched with theological education Monday – Friday in seminary, I looked forward to spending time in worship with people who were not from school on Sundays. Duke Memorial UMC is a beautiful church located right on the corner of downtown Durham and serves the needs of a wide variety of people. The sanctuary is wider than it is long, with a balcony, and a raised area above the altar for the choir and the organ. The church prides itself on its ability to worship faithfully, and engage deeply in the community.
Two years ago, today, I woke up like every Sunday morning, but this one would be different. While my roommates got ready to attend their respective churches, my phone began to ring and my pastor’s name appeared on the phone. Now, many of you might not know this, but if you receive a phone call from me on Sunday morning, it usually means there’s an emergency. I nervously answered the phone and through her scratchy voice I learned that both pastors of Duke Memorial were sick, and neither one of them would be able to preach. I had a feeling that I knew were the conversation was headed and I quickly glanced over at my clock; worship would begin in one hour. She continually apologized for their sickness and then finally asked if I would be willing to preach in a very short amount of time. “Of course” I said with a chipper voice, knowing full and well that I had not the faintest idea regarding what I would preach about.
The next hour was a blur.
I obviously did not have the time to write out a manuscript, I was not able to consult numerous commentaries about the text, and I had not spent an appropriate amount of time in prayer over the passage. All I knew was that the passage was the same as today’s (Mark 9.2-9) and that it was Transfiguration Sunday.
I barely made it in time for the service to began with a 3×5 index card in my pocket with three key points that I wanted to make. Upon arrival I searched for a bulletin to discover what else would be going on during the service and I quickly said a prayer before entering the sanctuary. My eyes were still closed when organ began and an acolyte walked up to me and asked, “Where’s the preacher?” To which I responded, “You’re looking at him.”
The next hour was also a blur.
I led us through the usual motions of worship after explaining the lack of two ordained pastors. We prayed together; we sang together; we read together; I preached; and before I knew it, the service came to a conclusion ten minutes earlier than usual.
While people departed from the sanctuary, I did as all pastors do and stood at the door to shake hands with everyone. Many made comments thanking me for my service and willingness to preach on such short notice, but most of the compliments came in the form of, “Hey thanks for getting us out early!”
However, there was one older woman waiting around at the back of the line for her turn to come forward. Another thing you might not know is that if someone waits a long time to speak after a service, they usually have a critique or a criticism that they don’t want to share in front of everyone else. I waited and waited until nearly everyone was gone when she finally stepped forward and grabbed my hand; “Son,” she said, “I’ve been coming to this church my whole life to worship the Lord and hear people preach. I want you to know that you said more in 10 minutes than many could say in 45. Thank you.” And with that she left the sanctuary.
Two years ago, today, I woke up and got tapped to preach a sermon at a moment’s notice. Now, of course, I am the pastor here at St. John’s and I have plenty of time each week to work on preparing for Sunday worship. I have the time to be in prayer over the words of scripture, I have the time to consult commentaries about what’s happening in the deeper sense of the text, I have the time to write out a full manuscript of everything I will say from this pulpit. But this week, I kept thinking about what happened two years ago on Transfiguration Sunday, and I wanted to do something similar…
Instead of combing through numerous books highlighting the ins and outs of Mark 9, instead of doing all the things I normally do to prepare a sermon, I began by reading one verse: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”” and then I felt propelled to do something radical, something that I have not done in a long time, something that I want to share with all of you right now:
I listened to Jesus.
I spend so much time talking about Jesus, that I don’t spend enough time listening to him. Now, I have had some remarkably beautiful and religious experiences in my life, but I have never literally heard the Lord speak like on the mountain during the Transfiguration. I felt called to the ministry but it did not come in the form of a voice booming down from on high saying, “Taylor you need to be a pastor!” So, this week, I put away all the books, and tried to listen to Jesus speaking in my life.
I heard Jesus during my interactions with other people:
One of my best friends in the world found out he has cancer this week. As a young pastor, husband, and father of two young boys, he is more often on the other side of the hospital bed praying for people in the midst of suffering. I immediately wanted to shout with my clenched fists in the sky, I wanted to know why this was happening, but when he wrote to me about his diagnosis I heard Jesus telling me that I need to keep the faith. I remembered that even pastors need prayers and that all of us are called to be faithful and loving people toward those who are suffering around us.
A few days ago I visited one of our long time church members who is nearing the end of her life. Upon arrival I learned, from one of her helpers, that she had tried to get herself ready for the visit, but discovered that she did not have enough energy to get out of bed. As I made my way into her bedroom, and knelt beside her bed, I saw her smile for the first time in a long time; “It’s not everyday that I invite a young man into my bedroom” she said with a laugh. We talked together about her struggles, we reflected on the many blessings from her life, and we prayed for God’s peace to reign abundantly in the days ahead. While kneeling beside her bed I heard Jesus telling me to be thankful for my blessings. I felt convicted by her faithfulness to not wallow in my own self-pity, and strive to live my life as fully as she has.
I heard Jesus during my reading of scripture.
This might come as a shock but I am ashamed at how rarely I read my bible. Sure, I read scripture every morning as a devotional practice; Sure, I read the bible every day in preparation for sermons on Sundays. But it has been a long time since I just picked up the good book and started reading for the simple pleasure of reading. More often than not my reading of scripture is based on a requirement or using the text as a resource. Even when I tell myself that I am reading for the right reasons I find myself writing down notes about using this bit in an epistle article or weekly devotional.
So, one day this week, I carved out some time and sat down with my bible. It took a while to rid myself of the vocational tendencies I have when reading scripture, but eventually the words and pages started to flow through my mind. I read about the great acts of God during the life of Moses, I flipped ahead to the story of Samson when he toppled the pillars and destroyed the Philistines, I soaked up some of the psalms and let their words become poetry for my soul, I walked the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus as he prepared to overturn the tables in the temples, I entered the strange new world of the bible and felt it come alive. Through reading the scriptures I heard Jesus telling me to that all people are part of God’s cosmic plan. From the patriarchs in Genesis, to the crowds in Mark, to the disciples at St. John’s, God can use anyone to bring about his will on earth.
I heard Jesus in the silence.
I am not a quiet person. I am as extroverted as can be. I usually have music playing in my office, or I am tapping my fingers away in some sort of percussive rhythm, or I am humming a hymn or song out loud. But this week I tried to be quiet and listen. I turned off the radio in the car, I let my turntable collect some dust, and I left my headphones at home. Silence is uncomfortable. Even a few moments of silence can drive us to fidget in our seats. Allow me to demonstrate: (1 minute of silence from the pulpit)
How did that feel? Yet, even though it makes some of us uncomfortable, silence can be beautiful. Turning off the noise this week allowed me to hear things that I normally miss: the sound of children laughing in the preschool, the crisp sound of pages turning in my bible, I even heard my heartbeat. What did you hear during our minute of silence? Maybe you heard the wind blowing against the roof of our church, perhaps you heard people breathing beside you in the pews, or maybe you heard heard the faint murmurings of your heart beating. During my time in silence this week I heard Jesus telling me that life is precious and beautiful. Only God could have imagined something like a heart to give us life, constantly thriving and pumping to bring existence to our bodies, a constant reminder of the fragility and beauty of what it means to be alive.
The disciples thought they knew everything they needed to know about Jesus. They believed they had him completely figured out. But when they made it to the top of the mountain God made it very clear that their assumptions and expectations were wrong; whenever we think we know what God is up to, its usually more about us than God. Its like looking for something at the bottom of a well, when all we really see is a faint reflection of ourselves. The Transfiguration shines brilliantly as a reminder that we are called to listen to Jesus. We need to hear him through the people in our lives, through our prayers, through our bibles, and through the silence.
Listen to Him through the words of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s table. Hear what God has done in the world for people like you and me. Listen to the Messiah that speaks to us through the bread and the cup. Hear the Lord speaking to you as you come to gather at the altar. Listen closely, and you just might hear God speak. Amen.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.
Six days later. An innocuous beginning to our scripture today. In order to properly experience the depth of the transfiguration, we have to go back six days in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Before hiking the mountain with the inner circle of Peter, James, and John, Jesus asked the disciples about his identity. “Who do people say that I am?” “Well Jesus, some call you John the Baptist, and others call you Elijah or one of the prophets.” “Okay, but who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.”
Jesus then immediately taught his disciples about his impending death, and predicted his resurrection for the first time; “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter, the great representative for the rest of the disciples, the great representative for all of us, pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke him for making such claims: “the messiah cannot be rejected by the elders and be killed Jesus, thats not what a messiah is supposed to do.”
Jesus quickly stopped Peter in his tracks, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
And so, six days later, perhaps when the disciples needed a reinforcement of faith after such a strange episode, the inner circle was invited by Jesus to the top of a mountain. I can imagine their wavering faith as they slowly walked along the path, unable to comprehend the new understanding of what it meant for their Lord to be the Messiah.
In the cool of the morning, with the dew still hanging in the air, Jesus was transfigured before the disciples. His clothes became dazzling white beyond human comprehension. And there, on either side of Jesus appeared Elijah and Moses. Then Peter said aloud, perhaps while cowering in fear, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Suddenly, a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a great voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.
Today, we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday. In the life of Jesus the Transfiguration was a defining moment that would come to determine the course of his mission to the world. From this point forward the trajectory of Jesus and his disciples was set toward Jerusalem. For the modern church, Transfiguration Sunday is celebrated immediately before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Just as the Transfiguration trained the disciples’ eyes to the coming death and resurrection of Jesus, so too we are training ourselves to make our way through the coming forty days of Lent preparing for the celebration of Easter.
What do you think of this story? It has forever been a favorite of mine for many reasons. What does the appearance of Elijah and Moses mean for the disciples and Jesus? What must it have felt like to be there with Peter, James, and John to have witnessed Jesus transfigured before them? How powerful and enveloping was the cloud and God’s voice declaring Jesus as his Beloved? A whole sermon series could be devoted to these 7 verses. However, today we are going to focus on Peter’s peculiar request to build three dwellings on top of the mountain.
Peter is both frightened and ignorant. Within the last week he had made the stunning confession of Jesus as the Christ and then he was connected with the likes of Satan and commanded to move behind Jesus. Like many Christians, Peter was willing to go wherever Christ called him, though that didn’t necessarily mean he understood everything that was going on. This event had to have been remarkable for the three disciples present. In a brilliant fashion Jesus was validated as the Son of God. In spite of the shock regarding his own suffering and approaching death, this transfiguration confirmed him as the Lord’s anointed, the beloved Son.
Perfectly timed as a reinforcement for the disciples’ faith, particularly in the wake of Peter’s movement between perfection and ignorance, Peter responds to this glorious moment with the desire to build three dwellings. Behind his words was the need to prolong the experience. Who among us would not want to stay up there on the mountaintop with the transfigured Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah? This was a moment high worth; the true, embodied, and illuminated understanding of Jesus. It was an experience that any of us would have liked to make permanent. However, life is not made up of mountaintops alone, for every glorious mountain there is a equally draining valley. It was good for Peter to experience the transfiguration, but it was NOT good for him to try and prolong the experience. Life must continue to move on.
A few months ago I was blessed with the opportunity to preside over my first wedding. Brian and Sarah are a delightful couple and I was thrilled with the invitation to join them together in marriage. The wedding went off without a hitch, well thats not exactly true, I had to remind the nervous father of the bride to stand with her until he gave her away, and then I had to direct him to sick back down after he had finished. Nevertheless, when it came time for the homily, I stood before Brian and Sarah, remarking about the sanctity of marriage and the role that God plays in all of our unions. I ended the homily with something I tell all couples preparing for marriage:
“From this point forward your individual stories are coming together. I want to tell you something that most will try to claim the contrary. Today will NOT be the happiest day of your lives. If you limit the joy of what you can experience in marriage to this one particular Saturday afternoon, it will cease to be organic and life-giving but instead repetitive and dull. You have an incredible story in front of you, one that has yet to be written, you are traveling as strangers into a strange land. There will be countless mountains and valleys and so much of your horizon is still beautifully unwritten.”
Like Peter, many of us want to desperately hold on to those “transfigured” moments of our lives. We want to experience events where we get a little slice of heaven, but as soon as they fall in our laps we are often unwilling to let them go. The excitement of Christmas is often replaced by the anxiety and dull atmosphere of January. The beauty of a newborn baby is quickly rivaled by the long nights of crying and wailing. The joy of summer break from school flies by too quickly and before we know it we are sitting in a new classroom surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Life is made up of both mountains and valleys. Neither one can, nor should, last forever.
Transfigured moments are all around us, particularly here in worship. Worship is supposed to be a shining hour, high and lifted up, an event where the glory of God the Father, Son, and Spirit shines radiantly throughout our space. Like the disciples gathered on the mountain, worship is supposed to surround us like a cloud when Jesus and his revelation of God are made known to each of us. Worship, when done well, produces a glow unlike anything else on earth. Worship, beauty, joy, love; all of these are those wonderful transfigured moments that surround us daily. A life that has no transfigured hours of worship is poor, no matter how rich and decadent the elements may be.
So, just think for a moment, imagine the many areas in which the mood of Peter, when he said, “Lets just stay here” blocks the possibilities of life. Life cannot just be one big wedding celebration, nor can it be replaying our favorite song over and over and over again, nor can it be a endless worship service here at St. John’s. Whether we like it or not, we cannot stay on top of the mountain forever, we have to move and go on to new experiences of life, faith, and understanding.
As the disciples grew closer and closer to their Lord, his words and proclamations became increasingly difficult to understand and follow. While making their way to the inevitable result of Jerusalem, the disciples needed to hear Jesus. The voice from the cloud echoed out, “listen to him!” and I can think of no better words for all us to hear this morning.
When I was 16, standing on the sidewalk along Ft. Hunt road in Alexandria, Virginia on a cold and dark December evening my life was forever changed. I am a product of “listening to him.” I stand before you as the pastor serving this church because I was enveloped in that strange cloud of God’s grace, without a big booming voice, without particular words, and yet I somehow knew that I could do nothing with my life other than serving the church. My life has been filled with mountaintop experiences, some of them on literal mountain tops, but there have also been deep and seemingly endless valleys.
And so, what are to make of us this Transfiguration? That day when he took the three disciples to the mountainside to pray, his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame. Two men appeared, Moses and Elijah came. Lost in the cloud a voice, have no fear, we draw near, lost in a cloud, a sign, Son of Man turn your ear.
We are just like those disciples standing on the mountainside with Jesus. We are given glimpses of heaven regularly in our lives. We are blessed to be showered with transfigured moments if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. However, life must be made of both mountains and valleys. Like the disciples we are called to listen to Jesus when the time comes to re-enter the reality of life. We have the privilege of listening to Jesus and having his words become incarnate in the ways that we live our lives.
If you want to truly experience a transfigured moment in your life, look no further than this table with the gifts of bread and wine. This banquet that has been prepared for you and me is an encounter with the divine, it is a little slice of heaven for us. This is our mountaintop, that incredible and glorious moment when Jesus’ true radiance shined in a way unlike anything else on earth. In this communion we are brought into union with the triune God, we are nourished with the grace of God for our journeys of faith.
So, as we prepare to feast at Christ’s table, remember that we cannot stay on the mountain forever. We will depart from this place and enter the world filled with the body and the blood. Listen to him in the valleys of life knowing that we are always going on to something new and wonderful. Let us all strive to be transfigured and delight in God’s will, walking in his ways forever. God is with us at the wedding receptions and in the hospital waiting rooms, God is with us when we fall and love and when we lose our jobs. God is with us when we cradle new-born children for the first time and when they leave us to begin their own lives. God is with us on the highest mountains and in the deepest valleys. Listen to him.
This Sunday I will be preaching about Peter’s peculiar desire to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses on the mountain during the transfiguration. In his words, I believe, was the desire to remain on that mountain in order to continually experience God’s radiance. However, life is full of both mountaintops and valleys. It was good for Peter to experience the transfiguration; it was not good for him to try to prolong it.
Raphael’s The Transfiguration captures the incredible contrast between the mountain and the valley. The top of the frame witnesses to the glory and radiance described by the synoptic writers, the beauty of that striking event. The bottom shows the tragic need and suffering of the disciples.
The image serves to help connect the two seemingly opposed experiences. Our lives are made up of both joy and suffering, righteousness and sin, success and failure. It is in a painting such as this that we are reminded of the true value of the incarnation; God came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, to be celebrate with us in our triumphs and weep with us in our sorrows.
In preparation for Transfiguration Sunday (March 2, 2014)
“The Transfiguration” by Sufjan Stevens
When he took the three disciples to the mountainside to pray
his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame
Two men appeared, Moses and Elijah came
They were at his side
The prophecy, the legislation spoke
Of whenever he would die
Then there came a word of what he should accomplish on the day
Then Peter spoke, to make of them a tabernacle place
A cloud appeared in glory as an accolade
They fell on the ground
A voice arrived, the voice of God
The face of God covered in a cloud
What he said to them, the voice of God, the most believed son
Consider what he says to you, consider what’s to come
The prophecy was put to death, was put to death
And so will the son
And keep your word, disguise the vision
Till the time has come
Lost in the cloud, a voice
Have no fear, we draw near
Lost in the cloud, a sign
Son of man, turn your ear
Lost in the cloud, a voice
Lamb of God, we draw near
Lost in the cloud, a sign
Son of man, son of God
"Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto."
Faith, Hope, and Love: But the Greatest is Love
the musings of a 30-something brewery theologian
Applying leadership to life, love, and family.
Listen, Think, Live