Sermon given on Transfiguration Sunday, February 14, 2010, at Wooddale Lutheran Church by Pastor Tim Rauk. Text is Luke 9:28-36, Exodus 34:29-35.
I don’t know if the phrase “Mountain top experience” was coined because of the story of the Transfiguration — or if it simply describes what kind of experience these disciples of Jesus had. But either way, what we have in today’s Gospel is a description of “A Mountaintop Experience.” A “Mountain top experience” is what we call any experience, religious or otherwise, that is uplifting, inspiring, life-changing, exhilarating, illuminating. If you have been watching any of the Olympic coverage, you have seen some pictures that beautifully illustrate the idea of a “mountaintop experience” – the uplifting, inspiring, exhilarating feeling you get, standing on a mountaintop.
And that’s exactly what Peter, James and John felt as they went on this rather weird journey with Jesus. It is significant, I think, that they went up on the mountain to pray – and as they prayed, two powerful leaders of their faith appear with Jesus; his appearance changes; and a voice from heaven declares “This is my Son, my chosen … listen to him.” It was a powerful “mountain top” religious experience that we call “The Transfiguration.” It was an illuminating experience for the disciples. Now they saw Jesus in a whole new light. It was obviously inspiring and uplifting, having Moses and Elijah there, and it changed their lives.
Have you had an experience like the one described in this story? Can you point to a powerful moment of insight where suddenly, the glory of God was unmistakably clear? And what does it mean to be transformed and changed through an encounter with God? Do you know someone who has had a life-changing religious experience? So, what do you do with an experience like this? How is your life different after you’ve had the experience on the top of the mountain?
Let me start with a cold, hard word of reality. What you are going to find when you come down the mountain of your religious experience is exactly what you left behind when you went up the mountain. That’s what happened to Jesus and his disciples. That’s what happened to Moses when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the 10 Commandments. That’s what we find today, when we leave our moments of retreat, solace and renewal. What we find is sin. What we find is people in pain; people with needs; people struggling with life.
Jesus, Peter, James and John came down from that mountain and were met by a huge crowd of people. The first one to reach them was a man, who was begging, pleading with Jesus to look at his son, his only child, who was possessed by a demon. It doesn’t get any worse than that, to feel like you’re losing your only child. And there were others who sought him out. Jesus was met with people living in hopelessness, faithlessness, doubt and despair.
And when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, what did he find? The people had already abandoned God in favor of the “quick-fix-of-the-month god. He was met with complaints, doubts, frustration and sin.
Sometimes my friends, we want our religious experience to somehow free us from our responsibilities in the world. We want God to lift us up and out of the uncertainty, the pain, the questions, the doubts, the needs. Or we want our religious experience to shelter us from the world. The temptation is to use our religious experience as an excuse to try to build a retreat center on the mountain to keep the riffraff away from us so it can be just me and you God … me and you against the world.
And to be sure, Jesus from time to time needed to retreat from the world but it was never Jesus fighting the world; fighting the people of the world. Instead, Jesus used the renewing experience of the Transfiguration, as a way of becoming refreshed to return to the needs of the world with a deep sense of compassion and love for the people he ministered to. If my religious experience sends me out into the world, reluctant, or afraid; self-righteous or judgmental, then maybe I need to return to the mountain and listen to God again.
You see, Jesus came down the mountain with a glow that embraced people, and made them feel loved and accepted and cared for. Moses came down from the mountain, and there was a visible glow in his face. True mountain top experiences are never used as clubs to try to convince other people that my religious experience is more authentic than yours. True religious experience transforms us into servants of God … disciples who seek to embrace and love others with the same unconditional of love that we have received from God.
There is a Chinese proverb that says,
“There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.”
There are many different kinds of religious experience. You have the emotional experiences common with a more Pentecostal church; you have the consistent and solid assurance of Lutheran worship that revolves around God’s gifts of grace through Word and Sacrament; you have retreat experiences that are away from life as usual; and you have the more intellectual experiences of personal decisions to discipleship. “There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.”
And that view is what Jesus saw; it’s what Moses saw. The view is of a world that is filled with needs and hurts. A world of people who, for a variety of reason, struggle with life. And what this experience did for Moses in the Old Testament, and for Jesus, is it gave them a confidence, a glow if you will, a peace in their mission that would see them through some very difficult struggles.
Moses still had years of desert wanderings ahead of him along with the Hebrew people who were filled with complaints, questions and doubts, but his encounter with God gave him a strength that nothing could shake.
Have you known people like that; people who are consistent; people with a faith foundation that you know you can trust, because their decisions are always grounded in what God would have them do? We buried one of the yesterday – Irene Schreiber. You know that their religious experience is real and authentic, because it bears fruit.
So have you had a Transfiguration experience with your faith? Most of us would probably say “NO”, certainly not like the one described in the Gospel. But I would like to suggest that more of you have had a Transfiguration experience than you think.
And let me give you a kind of simple test that you can ask yourself about your own faith. If you’ve faced adversity in your life, struggled with difficult decisions and temptations, and have found your faith to be a source of strength and hope … a source of guidance and instruction, then I would suggest that you have had a Transfiguration experience with God. It may not have been as dramatic as the one Peter, James and John had with Jesus, but it is no less powerful and meaningful. The strength Jesus and his disciples received from the Transfiguration event would soon be put to the test. Shortly after Jesus and his disciples had their experience, they journied to Jerusalem where the events that eventually led to the cross began to unfold.
Today, Julian Bruns is baptized. There is a mountaintop element to his baptism: Julian is surrounded by people who love him unconditionally and rejoice in the gift of God’s grace. But his baptism sends him out into the world
It would be nice if all of life could be a mountain top experience, but people don’t live on the tops of mountains. People live in the valleys, where the ground is fertile, where things grow and flourish. We need to come back to the mountain from time to time: to pray, to worship, to refocus our lives, and hopefully that’s what worship does here for you. That is what LENT, which begins this Wednesday is: a time to refocus our lives, to worship, to pray, to reflect a bit differently; but God always sends us back down the mountain, back out into the world.