St. John's, Centreville
February 11, 2018
Last Epiphany B
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Every year, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, we read the story of the Transfiguration on the mountaintop. Peter has just proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus has told his disciples that he must head to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die.
Six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain with him. There Jesus is transfigured. His face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear there with Jesus. The Old Covenant, with Moses representing the law and Elijah representing the prophets, meet with Jesus, who has come with a new covenant for the people, that they should love one another as God loves them. Wouldn't it be wonderful to know what they talked about!
We can imagine that Epiphany moment, the moment when the sacred and the human touch, that moment that we want to last forever. Most of us have probably had a mountaintop experience, whether we are at Shrine Mont, or on a retreat, when we have felt the closeness of God. And we want to stay there forever. Perhaps that is why Peter offers to build three dwellings, one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. Peter wants to hold on to this holy moment, remain on this sacred ground. Perhaps if they all stay on the mountain, Jesus will not have to go to Jerusalem and die. And just as Peter and James and John could not stay on the mountaintop forever, neither can we.
As the disciples are on the mountaintop with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, a cloud overshadows them and the disciples are terrified. And a voice says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him." The voice of God is not directed to Jesus as it was at his baptism when God says, "You are my Son, with you I am well pleased." This time, the voice of God is directed to the disciples, announcing not only who Jesus is, but commanding the disciples to listen to him.
In our Old Testament lesson, we read of Elijah being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind and the mantle of being God's servant and prophet is passed on to Elisha, who has stayed with Elijah until the bitter end. Elisha is filled with grief at the loss of his mentor and friend as he wonders how he will carry on by himself.
In these two lessons, Jesus and Elisha make themselves vulnerable to do the will of God. Their dependence is on God alone, and whatever comes their way, they know that God will be with them. Elisha is facing an uncertain future. Jesus is facing death on the cross. I am sure both would rather skip the hard part. But they don't. They have faith that God will give them the strength to do whatever it is that God asks them to do, without taking any shortcuts.
In a memoir, Donald Miller, a writer on Christian spirituality, describes traveling to Peru with friends to hike the Inca Trail. The hike began along a river in the Sacred Valley, and their guide pointed out that if they followed the trail that went along the river, they would reach Machu Picchu in about six hours, a place that our parishioners Craig and Nita visited recently. In ancient times, the river was a commercial route, and a shorter way to their destination. But those going to Machu Picchu on a pilgrimage had to take the Inca Trail across the snow-covered Andes Mountains. "Why would the Incas make people take the long route?" one of the hikers asked. "Because the emperor knew," the guide answered, "the more painful the journey to Machu Picchu, the more the traveler would appreciate the city once he got there, and the more he would learn along the way." Four days later, after climbing summits of nearly fourteen thousand feet and descending back into the valley, Miller and his group arrived at Machu Picchu. He recalls running the last mile to the Sun Gate on blistered feet and sore legs. Weary as they were, they knew the guide was right. "You can take a train and then a bus and then hike a mile to the Sun Gate. But the people who took the bus didn't experience the city as we experienced the city. The struggle made the city more beautiful. The struggle makes us different people than we would have been if we had skipped the long hike and showed up at the ending an easier way."
An easier way? Perhaps that's what the disciples wanted at the transfiguration. Perhaps that is why Peter offered to build three dwellings, so they could stay there and not return to Jesus' journey to the cross. They have seen a preview of the fullness to come and perhaps they wanted to take a shorter route, to get to the glorious ending an easier way. But there is no easier way - not for Jesus or for the disciples or for us.
The life of faith means taking the longer route - an often hard journey interspersed with encounters of God's glory. There are times when all of us would rather take the shorter route, to be able to take the bus around the weariness or grief or the unemployment line, or the chemotherapy treatments, or the couples counseling or the 12 step meetings. We just wish there was a way to skip ahead, to show up at the ending by an easier way.
When Jesus stood on the mountaintop in radiant glory, he could have chosen an easier way. But he did not. The Son of God took the longer route through the Garden of Gethsemane and to the cross.
The disciples stand on the mountaintop hoping for an easier way. But what they don't realize is that God's glory will be revealed to them and to us, throughout our long and sometimes painful journey. God chooses to be made known to us not only on the mountaintops but also in the valleys of darkness and despair.
We are about to head into the season of Lent, the forty days of fasting, prayer and self denial. That is why the story of the Transfiguration is read on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany each year, so that we, too, can hear about Jesus' encounter with God on the mountaintop; so we, like the disciples can have the strength and direction for our long journey ahead, knowing that God is with us.
During this Lenten season, may we listen for the voice of God each and every day, pray for ourselves and for our loved ones, for St. John's church, for all those in need, and for all those who are less fortunate than ourselves. It can be a life-changing experience, a transfiguration, as we come daily into the presence of the living God. Amen.