(listen along for a more enhanced sermon experience!)
2Six 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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Of the12 disciples, only 3 of them had a peak spiritual experience. And only once in their lives. The other nine, as far as we know, did not.
How about you?
Have you had an experience that stretches your usual picture of God and life?? I know some of you have experienced this — because you have told me. (Raise hands.)
Anyone willing to share? Going on in your life at the time?
How often has such a thing happened in your life?
Such things DO happen. Did for James, John and Peter.
Imagine: Life has been intense. Something about Jesus has snagged/caught them — to where they’ve left family, business, home.
He’s proclaiming: God’s reign is near; change your hearts & minds; believe good news.
They’ve watched him doing things that made them believe he’s right: healing people. Cleansing their demons. Embracing untouchables. Forgiving unforgiveable.
When they’re near him, they feel known and seen down to their bones. He gets them. He knows the whole story about each of them. He accepts them. He sees them
They go here. Then they go there. The crowds are growing.
A week ago he asks them: Who do you say I am? Peter: in a flash: Messiah!
But then — like a sick joke he says: I’m going to be arrested, tortured, die. And rise on the 3rd day.
When Peter said what they were all feeling: NO! Jesus got instantly furious: Get behind me, Satan!
Then, calmer, he said: If you want to follow me, deny self, take up cross…then follow.
Wait, what?! We’re already following you!
Their heads and hearts were swirling. What’s going on? What does all this mean?
Where do YOU go when your head is swirling? What do you do to sort things out? Don’t you usually need time out? time apart?
Jesus, James, John and Peter went hiking. For hours. Up into silence. Solitude. Beauty. Until they reached the top, where they could see for miles in all directions.
The swirl is still swirling. All the things and people they’d left behind. What they’d been witnessing. What they didn’t understand. The things they wondered about. Including the future. But it all looks different up here.
Suddenly, in the silence and the beauty, it all comes together with blinding clarity — and they FEEL the love of God like a power — surrounding, luminous, pressing in on them, clouding out everything else and lifting them away everything they know. They are suspended in time and space.
Jesus is there — but transfigured. What does transfigured mean? Think: It’s a grey-shrouded day and the Olympics are invisible, just part of the grey. Suddenly, the clouds part. An astonishing sunset of breathtaking golds and roses and purples reveals every ridge, glowing in constantly-changing shimmers. Same place. But elevated and transformed. That’s transfiguration.
Or, simpler: Remember the weather last Wednesday? And then there’s today. ALL Seattle is transfigured.
Are we seeing something that wasn’t there before? No. Not at all. It’s always here, been here all along… but in this light we see it totally differently — See all kinds of things we couldn’t see before. AHA!!
So…the disciples are looking at Jesus, and he’s the same Jesus he’s always been, but – AHA!! They can see so much more of him.
They can see: this peasant man is MORE important than Moses, who received the 10 commandments, and more important than Elijah, the premier prophet of God. Jesus is it. He’s the one. God’s own beloved. Jesus is more than they ever imagined. And they need to listen to him.
WOW! Cool! Definitely a peak spiritual experience.
And…. now what? What do you do with an experience like that when it’s over? An experience so powerful, but so mysterious? You can’t understand it — and you’re pretty sure most other people won’t either. They’ll think you’re crazy — or at least a little odd. Do you decide you’re a better Christian because you’ve had it? Do you write about it? A song? A poem? A video? In your journal? Maybe you pray to keep having it, over and over?
Does it have a lasting effect on you? Change your perspective on the world or yourself or God?
Peter wants to hold on to it forever — “Build a building to contain it. Or maybe to live in it.”
But Jesus says: Don’t tell anyone! Until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.
Desmond Tutu, Bishop and leader of opposition to racist apartheid in South Africa, describes the effect of a spiritual experience he had.
During the darkest days of apartheid I used to say to P. W. Botha, the president of South Africa, that we had already won, and I invited him and other white South Africans to join the winning side. All the “objective” facts were against us–the pass laws, the imprisonments, the teargassing, the massacres, the murder of political activists–but my confidence was not in the present circumstances but in the laws of God’s universe. God is a God who cares about right and wrong. God cares about justice and injustice. That is what had upheld the morale of our people, to know that in the end good will prevail. It was these higher laws that convinced me that our peaceful struggle would topple the immoral laws of apartheid.
Of course, there were times when you had to whistle in the dark to keep your morale up, and you wanted to whisper in God’s ear: “God, we know You are in charge, but can’t You make it a little more obvious?” God did make it more obvious to me once, during what we call the Feast of the Transfiguration. Apartheid was in full swing as I and other church leaders were preparing for a meeting with the prime minister to discuss one of the many controversies that erupted in those days. During our discussions, I went into the priory garden for some quiet. There was a huge Calvary–a large wooden cross without corpus, but with protruding nails and a crown of thorns. It was a stark symbol of the Christian faith. It was winter: the grass was pale and dry and nobody would have believed that in a few weeks’ time it would be lush and green and beautiful again. It would be transfigured.
As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration–of God’s transformation–in our world. The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again…
The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is “untransfigurable,” that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God, when it will not be just dry inert matter but will be translucent with divine glory.
Christian history is filled with examples of transfiguration. An erstwhile persecutor like St. Paul could become the greatest missionary of the church he once persecuted… I doubt, however, that we could produce a more spectacular example of this principle of transfiguration than the Cross itself. Most people would have been filled with revulsion had someone gone and set up an electric chair or a gallows or the guillotine as an object of reverence. Well, look at the Cross. It was a ghastly instrument of death, of an excruciatingly awful death reserved for the most notorious malefactors. It was an object of dread and shame, and yet what a turnaround has happened. This instrument of a horrendous death has been spectacularly transfigured. Once a means of death, it is now perceived by Christians to be the source of life eternal As I sat in the priory garden I thought of our desperate political situation in the light of this principle of transfiguration, and from that moment on, it has helped me to see with new eyes. I have witnessed time and again the improbable redemptions that are possible in our world. Let me give you just one example from our struggle in South Africa, which I know best, but such transfigurations are not limited to one country or one people. This story took place almost twenty-five years after that first experience in the priory.
First election – both Black South Africans and white emerged from voting both transformed and transfigured.
Yes, our first election turned out to be a deeply spiritual event, a religious experience, a transfiguration experience, a mountaintop experience. We had won a spectacular victory over injustice, oppression, and evil. There we were–people who as a matter of public policy were deliberately tearing one another apart, declaring that human fellowship, togetherness, friendship, laughter, joy, caring, that these were impossible for us as one nation, and now here we were becoming, from all the different tribes and languages, diverse cultures, and faiths, so utterly improbably, we were becoming one nation. Now who could ever believe that that was possible? Only in 1989 police had threatened to use live ammunition to get people to disperse who were protesting against beach apartheid. In 1989 they were ready to kill to maintain apartheid and to keep the beaches just for the whites. And just a few years later there we were a nation that had elected as president Nelson Mandela. This man who languished in jail for twenty-seven years, vilified as a terrorist, and who eventually became one of the moral leaders of the world.
I remember sometime after the election there was a lunch he hosted for the widows of political leaders. There the widow of black consciousness activist Steve Biko was chatting with the widow of B. J. Vorster, who was the prime minister when the police killed Steve. Totally improbable, totally unlikely material for triumph, and yet it has happened. It was a transfiguration. If you had said a few years before that South Africa would be a beacon of hope, people would have taken you to a psychiatrist. And yet it was so. Our problems are not over–poverty, unemployment, and the AIDS epidemic–because transfiguration is ongoing. But just because there is more to be done, we should not forget the miracles that have taken place in our lifetime.
In a small brown garden in the middle of winter and of relentless cruelty, Bishop Tutu suddenly saw the cross in a totally new light. He saw it as God’s transfiguring power. Which meant reality was far more than the darkness and cruelty of apartheid. His spiritual experience reminded him of the end of the story: We have already won.
It had a lasting effect on him. It changed his perspective of life, of himself, of God. It gave him courage and hope. And his hope and courage helped many others to keep going with courage and hope, too.
Jesus tells James and John and Peter: Don’t say anything to anyone — UNTIL the Son of Man is raised from the dead.
I think of Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, a professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological School. When she was young, her mother was murdered in their home by a random stranger, who was never found. Cynthia carried this burden for decades. At one point, overwhelmed by the evil she saw everywhere in the world, she went to Pastor John Nelson, an activist and profoundly compassionate, funny, generous guy — and she asked him how he did it. How do you keep going in the face of all the brokenness and injustice?
He answered her simply: I know how the story ends.
She tells this story. It was a spiritual experience for her.
Don’t say anything to anyone — UNTIL the Son of Man is raised from the dead.
We need the end of the story to understand our spiritual experiences and know what to do with them. We need to know resurrection, not death, is how it all comes out. Spiritual experiences remind us and others: God is alive and at work in us and in our world in ways we can’t even understand.
We of all people here in Seattle should know this, right? How many days do we go without the sun? Or Mt. Rainier? Do we give up hope that they exist? Sometimes it gets harder and harder to believe that they do, but we would never actually believe they had disappeared simply because we can’t see them, right?
So now, in this time when life can be hard and the world’s darkness may seem too heavy to bear, honor and trust your powerful transfiguring experience of God. Let it be an ongoing source of hope and courage as we follow Jesus down the mountain into the world’s pain and chaos where God’s light and love are needed most.
Let us go without fear of the darkness because we know the end of the story.