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Dazzling Reign

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on March 6, 2011.

Matthew 17:1-9

It’s often said the airy heights of the mountaintop are enough to make mystics out of all of us. Perhaps it’s the exertion of the climb or just the way the world appears altered beyond its ordinariness. Once we have the chance to catch our breath in the thin air, we’re struck with just how truly extraordinary the beauty of the earth can be.
So when we read the story of the Transfiguration, we readily admit it tugs at us from the depths of our mysticism. For some, it evokes the surprising realization there’s a spirituality within they didn’t know existed. For others, it’s simply a moment one must stop and attempt to take in hoping to capture a piece of it to savor at some later time like a morsel of bread saved from an extravagant meal. In truth, there’s a mystic’s world right under our noses waiting to be savored for any and all that would open their eyes to take it in. Henry David Thoreau observed, “People talk about Bible miracles because there is no miracle in their lives. Cease to gnaw that crust. There is ripe fruit over your head.”

Stephen Shoemaker calls the Transfiguration “the hinge of (the) gospel (story)” because it’s at this point the story shifts and heads in a new direction.[1] If this were a novel, it would close the chapter known as “Jesus’ Galilean Ministry.” The story would then shift to tell how Jesus took to the road doing largely the same things he was doing in the towns and villages near the Sea of Galilee, only now he and his disciples appeared to be wandering about aimlessly.

But if the reader pays close attention, it’s apparent that the willy-nilly wandering about in fact does have a general direction to it. Track their movement and we see they’re headed to Jerusalem. Just past this event on the top of the wild and windy mountain, they slowly wind their way “up to Jerusalem” because as the story moves along, they are climbing the hilly trails. You see, they’re headed to another mountaintop in the city of Jerusalem where another transcendent experience will occur in the suffering death of Jesus.

So this story closes one chapter and opens another in the story of the Jesus. And in the church today, we too are closing one chapter while slowly opening another. The Transfiguration is the hinge between two seasons, Epiphany and Lent.

The Transfiguration provides just the right experience to shift our attention. Jesus called upon three of his disciples to join him in the climb to the top of the mountain where they had no clue what might occur while at the top.

Unbeknownst to them, the mystery of all creation was about to open up to them. It was if they were standing on a six-foot ladder and the mystery to be climbed was Mount Everest. It’s as if their capacity to understand such things was a snorkel but the wonder to be experienced sat on the bottom of the ocean.[2]

We don’t know if or when it dawned on them that they were re-enacting another mountaintop experience every Jew of their day recognized and cherished. In Exodus 24, an ancestor of theirs climbed a mountain to meet God in the desert plains of Sinai. The people of God, recently freed from their slavery in Egyptian captivity, waited impatiently at the base of the mountain while Moses disappeared from their view on the cloud-covered heights. And when he came down from that terrifying encounter with the Holy God, his face shone and his hair had turned white. He looked as if he had been face to face with God and had barely escaped with his life.

Peter, James and John were Jesus’ entourage invited to share a holy moment that none of them could have foreseen. These two stories mirror one another in that the man of God went to the mountaintop to be with God. Both Moses and Jesus climbed to the peak so they could see God and hear the word of God for their journeys. Samuel Terrien calls it “a beholding of God” in that moment of sheer terror and wonder. In that moment, one was there not to speak but to listen.[3]

In truth, we need moments like the Transfiguration; at least every now and then we do. We live starved lives hungering and thirsting for the numinous to come along wondering when or if it will appear. Transcendence helps us connect the dots of experience between the numinous and the ordinary. We go to the heights to get a glimpse of the world from a different perspective. We need the mountaintops to renew our vision of the ordinary world and get a new vision of our lives. But deeper than that, we need a fresh encounter with the living, awesome God if our lives are to move beyond the ordinary; in those moments, we need to fall silent and listen to whatever God might wish to say to us.

But the Bible is honest in both cases about how the people reacted to the experience of transcendence. Within weeks the wandering Israelites complained about missing what they left behind in Egypt. The forgot what they learned from on high when they marched across the ordinariness of the desert. Such boredom made them wish to go back to slavery. So powerful was their failure to remember, it was if they had never seen the awesome power of God in smoke and fire.

We’re no different. Søren Kierkegaard once told a story of the geese sequestered in a farmer’s yard (they could have easily been “church geese” like we have here at Holmeswood). Every seventh day they gathered in a corner of the yard, and their best orator would flap up onto a fencepost and honk eloquently of the wonders of being a goose and about the glory of flying, of the heroic actions of their ancestors soaring across the sky, and the mercy of the Creator in giving them wings. Deeply moved, the other geese would nod their heads solemnly.

But one thing they did not do. They did not fly because the corn in the farmer’s crib was good and the yard was secure.

The truth of the matter is we’re closer to transcendence than most of us ever realize. We’re surrounded by it because the Creator has embedded the creation with a generous glimpse of that which transcends the ordinary … even we ourselves are embedded by the Creator with a touch of the Divine Presence as we’ve all been made in God’s image. Oscar Wilde knew of this when he wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Thomas Merton once wrote:  “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and maybe we see it frequently. God shows (God’s)self everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without God. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.”[4]

The transformation of Moses and the transfiguration of Jesus both give us a model of the encounter with God that leads to noble and significant living. The problem with most of us is we don’t seek out the airy heights of the mountaintop. We stay stuck in the lower places where the needs of the world cry out for us to respond. But on occasion, God takes us by the hand and leads us up to the clouds where we can sense the startling reality of God’s presence. But we can’t stay there for long because God leads us back to where the needs demand our attention.

And so we say, “God dazzles!” both in the Heavens and on the earth and wherever we have our eyes open to see as God reigns over the whole of creation.

[1] H. Stephen Shoemaker, “Transfiguration: The Metamorphosis of Christ and Christ’s People,” Myers Park Baptist Church, Charlotte NC, 3/2/03

[2] Guy Sayles, “The Human Face of God,” First Baptist Church, Ashville NC, 9/9/01

[3] Samuel Terrien, The Elusive Presence: Towards a New Biblical Theology, Religious Perspectives, Harper and Row, 1978, 134-36

[4] Merton quote found in Larry Bethune, “From the Peak to the Pit,” University Baptist Church, Austin TX, 2/22/04