Category: Sunday Morning Sermon
Speaker: Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
FAITH FOR THE VALLEY
The Transfiguration of Our Lord B
February 11, 2018
Christ Lutheran Church
Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
Have you ever had a “mountain top experience” when your faith was so real, when God was so close, when everything was so clear? Have you ever had a “mountain top experience” that was so powerful that you felt that it was a life-changing event? I have. One of them was six years ago today when Ann and I got married.
Another such experience was February 20, 1974 when I along with 450 other students voted to close Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, leave the campus and start a “seminary in exile” at a local Jesuit school, St. Louis University. I can still remember it, almost as if it was yesterday, the singing of the hymns, the passing of student resolutions, the convictions that were so clear. Seldom in my life has anything seemed so clear! It was a “mountain top experience.”
How about you? Have you ever had a “mountain top experience?” Perhaps it was at a retreat, a concert, a special Christmas Eve service, that hike in the woods, a national youth gathering with 30,000 youth or being the undeserved beneficiary of an act of kindness. Never did God seem so real, your faith so strong and your convictions so clear.
BUT . . . then you had to go back home, to the daily routine, to your ordinary church where the altar guild makes mistakes, where the choir can be off key, where the pastor can preach boring sermons and people can behave badly.
That must have also been the experience of the disciples in today’s Gospel. Jesus takes his inner group of disciples, Peter, James and John, to the mountaintop. There a “mountaintop experience” takes place, an extraordinary and miraculous encounter with God, like so many other mountaintop experiences in the Bible. Abraham was on Mt. Moriah when, just as he was about to plunge the knife into the chest of his only beloved son, Isaac, God interrupted him. Moses was on Mt. Sinai when God appeared to him in a burning bush. Then later God appeared to Moses again on Mt. Sinai and gave him the covenant written on tablets of stone. Elijah on Mt. Carmel through a series of divine miracles defeated the prophets of Baal. In today’s Gospel on a mountain . . . Jesus’ appearance is miraculously “transfigured.” He glows a brilliant white light. Moses and Elijah appear and have a conversation with him.
The disciples are stunned! Peter, the impetuous one, feels that he must do something. He wants to preserve this glorious moment. He offers to build three tents, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. He wants to create a religious shrine to preserve this momentous occasion. Perhaps they can set up a religious theme park. They could invite tourists, sell tickets, offer T-shirts promoting a trip to the Mount of the Transfiguration. This is just the kind of mountain top experience for which Peter and his buddies had been waiting!
BUT . . . then just like us, when we have to go back home . . . the mountain top experiences is oever. A cloud obscures the glowing Jesus. A thundering voice speaks. Suddenly Moses and Elijah are gone. That voice? What does it say? “This is my Son, the beloved. . . . LOOK at him.” No, that wasn’t it. The voice said, “LISTEN to him.” Listening to Jesus was going to be important.
We treasure our mountain top experiences. We wish that all of life would be this way. BUT . . . just as in this story we must go down into the valley, on to Jerusalem. This mountain top experience is not something to dwell on. Such an experience must propel us, . . . as it did them, . . . into the future.
The Transfiguration of Our Lord . . . is about the future. That is why our color today is white. See the large white banner with the risen Jesus portrayed on it. That reminds us that this Transfiguration of Jesus in all his glory is about what lies ahead. It is a sneak preview of Easter and the glory of the resurrection that lie beyond the suffering and death of Good Friday. BUT . . . in the meantime the season of LENT lies ahead of us. We must first make our 40 day walk to Holy Week and the cross. We cannot stay on the mountaintop. This Ash Wednesday we will be marked with ashes and reminded, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We must go back to the real world where, as the Psalmist reminds us (Ps. 23), we live “in the valley of the shadow of death.”
Yes, we live “in the valley of the shadow of death.” Just this past week I saw a video on the internet of an 80 vehicle pile-up that happened on a snowy interstate in North Carolina during the morning commute. It was terrifying to see cars that had stopped on the road suddenly get smashed by huge semis that were unable to stop on the icy road. There were numerous injuries, some of them serious as cars were suddenly rear-ended. Good Samaritans, people who had gotten out of their cars to help, were run over by vehicles unable to stop. Five people were killed. It was all there captured in real time by a video camera set up to report traffic and weather.
Several years ago I remember when the Indianapolis Star ran an in depth story about an accident that took place on snowy morning on I-69. 34 vehicles skidded on the snow, piled up in a twisted pile of metal and broken glass . . . and two people were killed. The article retraced the simple choices that people made that morning. They thought they were trivial but they turned out to be the difference between life and death.
The author asks WHY? Why did this have to happen this way? Many of the persons interviewed could only offer what the author called “empty platitudes:” Everything happens for a reason. Or The good die young. Or When your number is up, it’s up. Then there was Ivy Phillips, mother of two children, who lost her husband in that bloody crash. She said, “The only thing I can think of . . . it’s not fair!”
That is real life in the valley. Jesus leads his disciples off the mountain. They can’t stay there. They must go on to Jerusalem. We too cannot stay on the mountaintop. We must live in the real world down in the valley. There life can be insanely random. There seemingly trivial choices can be the difference between life and death. There simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can be lethal. There an unexplained lump in your chest, shortness of breath in the middle of the night or a missed phone call can mean disaster. There in the valley we ask “What if? . . . Why me?”
If we dare to do the really gutsy thing, the thing that the Scriptures are always willing to do, we ask the God question. What kind of a God permits a 34 vehicle pile up and two little children losing their father and a wife losing her husband? What kind of God permits the crucifixion of a simple carpenter’s son of Nazareth who in the name of God challenged the authorities by befriending people no one else would ever dare to ask to their house for dinner?
However, Jesus doesn’t flinch. He embraces life in the valley. He welcomes those who were wounded and excluded. He loves the victims. He hangs out with the unwashed. He forgives perpetrators, tax collectors, crooks, sinners of all kinds and confronts his critics who say, “You can’t do that . . . in the name of God!” He even stands up to the righteous frown of his own father who is unhappy with a world that defiantly goes its own way. Jesus loves that world . . . all the way to the cross. There he suffers the consequences for living with such folk as us . . . in the valley. However, contrary to what everyone expected, he doesn’t stay dead. On the “third day” he is raised from the dead in all his transfigured glory. God declares, “That’s my boy and he did exactly what I wanted him to do!”
That mountaintop experience enabled Jesus to go through the valley all the way to the cross. That mountaintop experience enabled Jesus’ disciples going long after Jesus had departed from them and ascended into heaven. Even though Jesus would be gone and they would no longer be able to see him, they still had the Word. They would always have the memory of that the voice from the cloud that said, “Listen to Him!” Jesus would continue to speak to them . . . and to us . . . and keep us going as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The risen Jesus continues to speak to us at the font, at the table, through Scripture, through the words, deeds, smiles, hugs and love of the people in this place.
Jesus wants us to listen for His life giving Word. When we hear that Word, something marvelous happens. It is as if we are there on the mountaintop. We SEE the very face of God, Jesus in all His transfigured glory . . . surprisingly . . . in the faces of the very ordinary people of this congregation!
A young husband suffering with cancer, wasting away before my very eyes, once said to me, “Pastor, I don’t need a Jesus who can walk on water, but one who can walk on dry land . . . in the valley of the shadow of death . . . with me.”
That is the Jesus we get! We cannot SEE this Jesus like Peter, James and John did that day on the mountain. But we can LISTEN to him. We can hear him speak good news . . . (“I forgive you. I love you. This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.”) When we are down and out. a friend smiles, puts his arm on our shoulder and asks, “How are you today?” there we meet Jesus.
Then we are on the mountain top. Then we are there with Jesus . . . in all his transfigured glory! Then we can have the faith to keep us going as we live life . . . IN THE VALLEY.