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.
In our gospel lesson this morning, on this last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we hear the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus goes up on the mountain, as he does from time to time, to get away from the crowds and have time to pray. He takes with him Peter, James and John, the first three disciples that Jesus called to be his followers. "And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white." Not only that, but the disciples see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus.
(Now I want to know how the disciples knew that these folks were Moses and Elijah. I doubt they had nametags and the disciples couldn't "google" them to bring up their picture on their cell phones. Maybe Jesus introduced them. I don't know.)
Perhaps Peter was overcome with emotion, perhaps just overwhelmed, or perhaps wanting this mountaintop experience to last awhile longer, Peter offers to build three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Then a cloud overshadows them and a voice from the cloud says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" The disciples fall to the ground and are overcome with fear. But Jesus touches them and says, "Get up and do not be afraid." Do not be afraid. We can just imagine the power and magnificence of this scene.
The Transfiguration with the appearance of Moses and Elijah grounds Jesus' identity with Israel. 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. Moses went up to the mountain to receive the 10 Commandments from God. Elijah came as one of the prophets to convince people to follow God's ways. Now the Son of God, Jesus, has come to show people a better way to live and who will sacrifice himself for us. (Wouldn't you love to know what they talked about? Did they pray together, or share stories or advice with each other? I wonder.)
Jesus has recently told Peter that he will suffer and die and Peter does not want that to happen. He wants to protect Jesus. Their ministry is just getting off the ground. What would the disciples do without Jesus? Maybe if he builds three dwelling places, they can all stay up on the mountain and Jesus will not have to die.
The voice of God from the cloud confirms the reality of who Jesus is. "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" These are similar words heard at the baptism of Jesus as he is starting his ministry. But Matthew's gospel adds the words, "listen to him!" God knows what lies ahead for Jesus and the disciples, and God knows that it will not be an easy road. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to the mountain so they can hear the words of God and have the courage to face what lies ahead. God implores the disciples to listen to him - listen to his teachings, listen to how we should treat other people, listen to how we should live as followers of Jesus Christ. Listen to him, God implores. But as we know, the disciples scatter in fear when Jesus is arrested, Peter denies that he ever knew Jesus. The disciples are not there for Jesus when he needs them the most.
How hard is it for us to listen to God? On the mountain during the Transfiguration, Luke's gospel says the disciples were "weighed down with sleep" and they almost miss the appearance of God in the cloud. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples cannot stay awake with Jesus as he prays for this cup, this crucifixion, to pass from him, but not his will but God's be done.
It is often hard for us, in our human condition, to listen to the voice of God. There is so much noise that surrounds us every day that it is hard for us to be quiet, or to find a quiet place, or to quiet our minds long enough to be able to listen, really listen to God. It is hard for us to get our "to do" lists out of our minds, to sit still, and be quiet, and listen. Most of us know that we can't always hear the voice of God, in spite of prayer and quiet time. Sometimes it is hard to discern whether we are hearing the voice of God, or our own inner voices telling us what to do. Sometimes we think God is silent. But that is not a reason to give up. We must keep on listening, even through the dry times of our prayer lives, to continue to listen for that still, small voice of God.
When we have a mountaintop experience when we clearly feel the presence of God, we want it to last forever. Maybe it was a retreat at Shrine Mont or another retreat site, or after you receive the bread and wine at communion, or in the middle of the woods, or at the edge of the ocean. And that is the place where you feel the overwhelming sense of God's presence and you are filled with joy and peace. We don't want to "come down from our mountain". We don't want to go home and face the ups and downs and routines of life. But we can't do the work that God has called us to do if we remain up on the mountaintop. We have to come back down into the valley to minister to those around us, to proclaim the gospel, to fight against injustice and inequality, to respect the dignity of every human being, to live out the gospel in our daily lives.
We need to experience and see God not just in the extraordinary but in the ordinary because the ordinary is what we have the most of. Extraordinary encounters with God, though they do happen are more rare. We are called to get up every morning and look for the presence of God in our lives and in the lives of others. Even on our bad days, we need to look for God because God is there - maybe not in the way you want God to, or in the way you think God should, but God is there.
When we encounter God, we are changed in some way. Perhaps some inner healing or growth will take place. Perhaps we will have a stronger relationship with God. Perhaps we will be better attuned to listen to the voice of God. Perhaps we will have the strength and insight to help those in need. Everyone's transformation as they encounter the living God will be different according to different needs.
This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we will begin the season of Lent, the forty days of prayer, fasting and self-denial. That is why the story of the Transfiguration is always read on the last Sunday after Epiphany each year, so that we, too, can hear of Moses' and Jesus' encounters 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.
Lent is a good time to take on the discipline of daily prayer, to talk to and to listen to God. It is not possible for us to stay on up on the mountaintop to be in the presence of God. But we can set aside time each day to intentionally be with God, to feel God's presence, to hear that still, small voice within us. We can intentionally look for ways that God works in us and through us, so that others, too, may see God's presence.
For the forty days of Lent, set aside a specific time each day to pray - for yourselves, for your loved ones, for the sick, the poor, the homeless and hungry, for immigrants and refugees, for those in conflicts around the world, for St. John's and this community of faith......and then listen for the voice of God. It can be a life-changing experience, a transformation, as you come daily into the presence of the living God. Amen.
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