|"Down the mountain" by Raoul Pop, on Flickr|
He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." Then he said to them all, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Luke 9:18-24; 28-36)
It is the second semester of the school year, and our Confirmation students are taking this whole winter and spring to learn about important characters and stories in the New Testament. A week ago, we learned about the twelve disciples. We learned that they were a bunch of relative nobodies who were yet chosen by Jesus to be his followers. We also learned that they were well-meaning and eager, but prone to confusion and misunderstanding. If you read through the gospels, you will find plenty of places where the disciples simply miss the point of what Jesus tries to teach them. Far from unredeemable characters, the disciples often are stand-ins for us, as we try to follow Jesus faithfully while still hanging on to the burden of being human.
Today’s gospel is another one of those stories, where Jesus and the disciples keep speaking past each other. The disciples fixate on the glory of God while Jesus tries to teach them about sacrifice and discipleship.
Everything starts right after Jesus has done a significant miracle – feeding thousands with just a few loaves of bread. Peter, having seen the glory of this and other miracles, confesses Jesus as Messiah.
Immediately, Jesus turns the conversation away from glory and instead talks about the cross, which is the opposite of glory, and he tells the disciples that the point of his life, and the point of their discipleship, is sacrifice.
Then, they go up the mountain. Jesus prays, and while he is praying, the glory of God shines through him and he is transfigured – his face sparkles, his clothes are dazzling white, it is a picture of light and glory.
Elijah and Moses show up to talk to Jesus about his departure – he is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will be arrested and crucified and will die in an ultimate act of sacrifice. He’s on his way forward to the least glorious days of his life.
Peter and James and John are a little way away, and they can’t hear what Jesus and his companions are talking about, but they see the shininess of the moment, and Jesus’ dazzling white clothes, and the faces of Elijah and Moses, two incredibly important and revered ancestors in faith.
So Peter tries to be helpful. There is glory on that mountaintop – transcendence and safety and mystery and beauty. And he wants to believe that that this is what following Jesus is all about, even though Jesus has just told him that discipleship is about sacrifice and not about glory. So Peter says “it is good for us to be here; I’ll grab my hammer to build us some dwellings, and we can just stay up here indefinitely.”
He is interrupted by a cloud that overshadows the shininess of the moment, and the voice of God from the cloud that reminds Peter, “This is my Son, my Chosen – LISTEN TO HIM!” It’s God, saying to the disciples, “didn’t you listen to what Jesus just told you about suffering and sacrifice?” It’s God, saying to the disciples, “Instead of taking charge of the moment and figuring out how to construct the First Lutheran Church of the Transfiguration on this mountaintop, maybe you should first let Jesus talk and see what he wants you to do.” It’s God, saying to the disciples and to us, “This is Jesus, and I have given him a mission and purpose on this earth, and the way to be a part of this mission is to let Jesus take the lead, no matter how much you want to control things, no matter how much you think you might know best.” It is God, telling us, “Take a step back from the shiny, mysterious, glorious stuff for a minute, and remember that the heart of my love is found among the rough lumber and crude nails of the cross.”
Jesus keeps pulling the disciples away from glory and pushing them toward discipleship. Jesus keeps reminding them that faith isn’t just about chasing the shiny stuff and God’s grace isn’t an excuse to settle down on top of the mountain, basking in glory. Following Jesus is all about love for neighbor and service and humility and witness, about keeping on the move to find new places to share God’s hope.
Like Peter and James and John, we are so often tempted by all of the shiny stuff, even as Adam and Eve themselves were tempted by a shiny apple way back in the garden. We are tempted by the shiny stuff of this world – money, fame, power, glory. And we are tempted by the shiny, mountaintop moments in our lives of faith – worship experiences that move us to places of transcendence, intense moments of feeling God’s presence, the enlivening sensation of receiving free grace and forgiveness.
Certainly not all bad things, of course. I mean, there’s a reason that we talk about Jesus as light in the darkness; we are blessed to see God shining in all sorts of ways in our world, and the light of Christ brings hope and joy to dark corners of the world.
There’s no question that God is shining among this St. Timothy family. Have you ever stopped to consider how many projects and programs we sustain for the size of our congregation? It’s amazing. We study together at Bible studies and book groups. Our kids go to Sunday School and sing in worship, we have a huge group of Confirmation students and a super-active and leadership-oriented high school group. We care for one another, pray for each other and often reach out to one another with meals or a listening ear. We give lots of money and stuff and time to a whole host of ministry partnerships, helping those who are hungry or homeless or voiceless or sick. We worship together faithfully, creatively, and beautifully. There is music all over the place, and art. There are leaders here, and worker bees, creative types and those blessed with the gifts of understanding church budgets or driving the Bobcat or supplying us with their green thumbs.
On a day like today, when I stand at the top of this mountain with you, I am ready to raise up my hammer. And I’ll bet you are too.
But God is here in this place today, overshadowing us and removing the tools from our hands. He reminds us that faith isn’t an excuse to camp out on top of a mountain. God says to us “trust in Jesus, my chosen one, and listen to his voice; and follow him down the mountain because he is leading you forward in my name.”
And so together, we begin to take our first steps down this mountain, with Jesus as our guide.
For me, climbing down the mountain means following Jesus to a new place and a new expression of my call to ministry.
For you, climbing down the mountain means exploring again the mission and ministry of St. Timothy Lutheran Church and looking at the new doors that God is opening up; new ways of reaching out to the community, new ways of sharing Christ’s love in this neighborhood in this community in this country in this world, taking stock of your gifts and passions, and learning anew where this congregation’s passions and this world’s needs intersect.
And for each of us, climbing down the mountain means digging in deep and taking a risk on our faith. We are redeemed and beloved children of God, chosen by love and saved by grace. Jesus’ voice challenges each of us to take new steps forward in our own lives of discipleship, crossing boundaries, taking risks, doing the hard and vulnerable work of really living as disciples. Jesus’ voice asks us to wear our faith on our sleeve, to take a risk on compassion and generosity, to see everyone as beloved, to put other people’s needs ahead of our own, to shine like stars, to bear the good fruit of faith, to seek lives of service instead of lives of glory.
It’s hard work. It’s emotional work. It isn’t easy to step beyond what we know. It isn’t easy to stretch our faith beyond its comfortable boundaries. But we trust Jesus to lead us and to be with us every step of the way. In every step down the mountain, through every mile along the road, to every new challenge of faith, Jesus is with us. His voice calls to us, and we can trust it, and when we listen to it we hear Jesus say “I am the good shepherd.” We hear him say “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We hear him say “You are the light of the world” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We hear him say “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness” and “Come to me, all you who are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” We hear him say “Go, therefore, into all the world, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” We hear him say, “This is my body, given for you, and my blood, shed for you.”
And so, fed and nourished for the journey, we follow Jesus down the mountain, our faces shining as his beloved, ready to give ourselves as bread for the world and hope for the hopeless. May your journeys be blessed, my friends, and your steps sure. May you shine like stars in the heavens, and may God bless and protect you until we all meet again atop his holy mountain once again.