A light in dark places

February 26, 2017

Bible Text: Matthew 17:1-9 |

It may not surprise you to find out that while some folks prefer to read scripture as though it were a catalogue of factual statements, like you might find in an almanac, I tend toward the other extreme; perhaps too often jumping toward metaphor and symbolism when it comes to biblical interpretation.  It’s not that I don’t believe the statements made in the bible, I absolutely believe, as I said when I was ordained, “the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.”  It’s just that I want to expand them somehow; I want to unpack them a little so they make more sense to my puny brain and my sometimes-skeptical soul.

 

To that end, I often turn to sociological commentaries on scripture.  You know, the ones that speak of the culture of the day, and what words like, ‘virgin’, or ‘Son of Man’ or ‘possessed’ really meant.  But this tendency stops when it comes to the Transfiguration.  I don’t want to dwell on the fact that the synoptic gospels all mention it, and perhaps the story came from an outside source, and that the presence of Moses and Elijah are symbolic representations of the law and the prophets.  I don’t want to do mental gymnastics when it comes to this story because, wonder of wonders, I believe it—literally.

 

I have been to the mountain!  No, really, I have, during my trip to the Holy Land.  And as we drove up Mt. Tabor—the generally agreed upon site of the transfiguration—I looked out onto slopes populated with coniferous trees and small delicate flowers blooming in the grass underneath.  I took in the dappled sunlight of the ground and, in my mind’s eye, I could see a foursome of men ascending it late one morning.  It couldn’t have been the first time they made the trip, but it would definitely be the most memorable.

 

Blessed as we are with mountains, we north westerners likely take them for granted.  If we haven’t actually hiked up a peak, chances are most of us have taken a weekend drive up Rainier, or into the Olympics and Cascades.  We understand what it is to dip our toe into alpine snows in the midst of a summer day, and sweeping vistas may no longer take our breaths away.  But back when we believed that mountaintops were meeting places where mortals touched the face of the divine, ascending to the heights took on more import.  Rather than just a leisurely hike, a climb up Sinai or Mt. Tabor meant a meeting with God.

 

And what meetings we have in today’s lectionary!  Moses, blessedly insulated by clouds, climbs the mountain and enters into the glory of the presence of God.  Just so, Jesus, James, John, and Peter climb Mt. Tabor and have a ‘mountaintop experience’ unlike any other.  Not only do they hear God’s voice booming from the holy cloud, but Jesus is lit up like a vigil candle and they see Elijah and Moses as well!

 

Did I mention I believe this literally?  I do.  And here’s why:

 

It goes beyond my merely visiting the geographic location of the vision, and it certainly goes beyond the fact that it’s ‘in the bible’.  Rather, I believe because I have had my own ‘mountaintop experiences’ as I’m sure have many of you.  No, I haven’t yet seen a burning bush, and none of the Church fathers or mothers have appeared to me, but I have experienced the inexplicable; moments that will not be tamed by human knowledge—that refuse to get in line with how things work.  These moments become touchstones for me—memories I can pull out and know that God is real, that I am loved, and that I am not in control.

 

And here, as we get ready to begin our first tentative steps into Lent, it is good to remember.  It is good to be reminded that the Christ we are emulating, that we are all called to follow, is God’s son—the beloved.  It is good to remember to listen to him.

 

Remember, six days before the Transfiguration, Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the son of the living God.  And then, as soon as Jesus told them he was to undergo suffering and be killed, Peter rebuked him, “God forbid it Lord!  This must never happen to you!” and Jesus responds by calling Peter ‘Satan.’ And so today, Jesus asks Peter along with James and John to come with him to the mountain—to get away from the world, to pray, to gain a greater perspective.

 

And he was transfigured before them.

And Peter understood, as he never really had before.  Granted, he still wanted to enable them to live on the mountain and bypass all that pesky suffering, but he had seen with his own eyes and heard the voice of the Holy One claiming his friend as son.  How utterly terrifying.  How beyond understanding or common sense; but, oh, the glory!

 

Unfortunately, the thing about mountaintops is at some point we all must come down back into the real world.  And it is in the midst of the world—in the difficulties and darkness—that we must cling even more tightly to the gift of the mountaintop.

 

There is a bit in JRR Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” where Galadriel, the elfin Lady of Lothlorian, gifts the protagonist, Frodo, with a vial of starlight saying, “May it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.”

 

That’s what our mountaintop moments must be for us.  The moments that shine God’s light into our fears, and doubts, and that guide us forward through the wildernesses of Lent, and uncertainty and temptation.  These are the moments that allow us to trust God and stay on the path even when it is obscured.

Today we are welcoming Jeffrey Boyce to journey with us for a while as a postulant to the deaconate.  His path through postulancy has not been a straightforward one—it has been replete with twists and turns, starts and stops; even though he hasn’t told me, I’m fairly confident he too has spent some time on the mountaintop—and the light of that experience has brought him here, to walk with us.  He will share the light he’s been given with us, and we will together discover God in new ways.

 

This was likely Jesus’ last trip up Mt. Tabor.  The last time he walked under the trees, rested in the grass, and took in the expansive view.  In the version of the Transfiguration story that lives in my head, Elijah and Moses encourage Jesus.  They are like sponsors at a baptism—coaches, if you will, who tell him to keep his eye on his own vial of starlight; who bolster him up and allay his fears even as he descends the mountain.  After this, he and the disciples will make their way inescapably to Jerusalem and the darkness of betrayal and execution.  But, oh, the Transfiguration!!  Now that is some light to hang on to.

 

Lent is coming.

I encourage you to enter into it boldly.  Don’t turn away from the unpleasantness the wilderness might bring; instead, bring your whole attention to its gifts.  They are full of richness and value.  If you choose to take on Lenten disciplines, give your whole heart to them; turn off the television, disconnect from your phone and your I pad—quit checking out, and instead, pay attention to the state of your soul and what the season asks of you.   Keep your eyes on the light of the mountaintop—the light of Transfiguration.  Don’t be deterred if you’re not perfect—remember Peter?  He falls asleep at Gethsemane and denies Jesus three times before it’s over.  And no one had seen the light as brightly as he and James and John.  Still, when Matthew’s gospel closes, he is there with the rest—once again on a mountain with Jesus, the son, the beloved.  And he is listening.

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