Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
February 23, 2020
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
While on vacation in Florida, I had to make a couple of unfortunate but necessary trip to the pharmacy for prescriptions to battle my upper respiratory infection. On my first visit to the CVS counter, I had what seemed like a rather strange conversation with the clerk, a young man around 30 years of age. Perhaps it was just me. I told the clerk that I had a couple of prescriptions to fill. His reply to me was one word – “Awesome.” Now I was glad that I had been to the doctor, happy that I had prescription health coverage, and hopeful that that medicine would make a difference in how I was feeling. But I wasn’t quite certain that the word “awesome” applied that particular situation. The clerk then asked if I had a photo ID and insurance card. I opened my wallet, produced both and handed them to him. His reply to me was again one word. This time it was “Amazing.” Again, I feel blessed that Laura’s job provides such excellent prescription coverage and I am rather satisfied with my photo on my new enhanced Michigan’s driver’s license but I wasn’t quite certain that “amazing” was the word that fit that exact moment and time. Regardless I remained silent and allowed for the young man to do his work as he sent along my scripts to the pharmacists behind the counter.
This past week I read an article about the ten most overused words in the English language. It didn’t surprise me that both “awesome” and “amazing” made the top five. The author of the article said that the overuse of these particular words is a method of tempering a wild, mystical experience to everyday terms that we can handle. The overuse of such adjectives can also be a way of raising up otherwise ordinary experiences so that they appear more significant than they actually are. The article went on to say that the overuse of awesome and amazing is often a lazy way of saying what we really should say: fabulous, great, wonderful, beautiful, or outstanding. The word “awesome” is meant to convey something inspiring, a show of majesty and force, something larger than life, something divine, something glorious. Yet we tend to use it to affirm something quite ordinary. The same is true of the word “amazing.” Amazing should point toward something surprising or astounding. Instead we give the adjective to describe things that are just OK or good. The author of the article pointed specifically to a Facebook page of over 1000 followers which accents the overuse of “awesome” and “amazing.” It pokes fun at celebrities like Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, and Ryan Seacrest who use one or both of the words in many of their social media posts. The author concluded by saying that perhaps the word “awesome” should only be used in relationship to some mystery that cannot be explained by any other word and that we reserve use of the word “amazing” for the song “Amazing Grace” or describing the 1962 New York Mets.
Perhaps it is appropriate to use both “awesome” and “amazing” in the description of Transfiguration Sunday. On the Sunday before the season of Lent begins, the church traditionally hears the story of Jesus mountaintop experience with his disciples Peter and James and John. Transfiguration Sunday draws the season of Epiphany to a close. We began the season in January, studying Jesus’ baptism and it feels like the transfiguration story provides a perfect bookend as we contemplate the light and mystery of Jesus for us. Although it is the last event observed during Epiphany, transfiguration leans into Lent. When Jesus comes down the mountain following his transfiguration experience, he is on his way to a different destination, one that will include sacrifice and pain and death.
While on the mountain, Jesus was transfigured- his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. He was visibly changed. Moses and Elijah, the two legendary prophets and leaders of the Hebrew faith came to stand alongside him. In the book of Exodus, we read of Moses seeing God face to face upon the mountaintop. In the Old Testament, Elijah also heard God’s voice and saw God’s glory while in the midst of a lonely wilderness journey. Here on the mountain, Jesus had a profound experience that seems to authenticate his identity as God’s Son and points to the glory of God that would be part of his uncertain future. He found a renewed sense of God’s glory and new insight and strength to fulfill God’s purpose within him.
Peter was so moved by the experience that he thought the proper thing to do was to build a tent for each of the participants, to freeze the moment in time, so that it could be revisited and experienced whenever needed or necessary. It seemed that Peter wanted to domesticate the moment, tame it down into something controllable and understandable. But apparently this wasn’t part of God’s plan. The voice of God came from the clouds, much as the voice that spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” For Jesus, transfiguration wasn’t necessarily just an “Atta Boy” slap on the back and affirmation that he was doing things the way God wanted. Instead it was a reminder of God’s truth in him. Jesus was transfigured so that we might find the special nature of God in his mission. Jesus was transfigured so that we as followers could cherish the special nature of our own encounter with the divine presence. The face of God is not an everyday amazing or awesome. The presence of God is something that moves and frightens and changes lives.
In his commentary on Transfiguration, Bruce Epperly writes that “one of the problems of our times is ecstasy deficit.” We have become so busy about our own affairs that we have lost the vision of beauty. We have tamped down wonder to consume it, prophesy to profit by it, beauty to buy it, and awe to acquire it for ourselves. The world has become flat. We focus on the literal words of Scripture as a plan and rule book for life and deny wonder within the stories of the sacred text. We settle for controlled experiences of God, as Peter wished, for a predictable God, for the letter of the law and not the life-giving mysterious Spirit.”
As we stand on the mountaintop, with Jesus and Peter and James and John, we need to become aware of our how we have done our best to tame the divine. We prefer to put God in a box. We tend to worship a “do me a favor Jesus.” We are more comfortable following a Jesus of our own making, not the unpredictable awe-inspiring God of the mountain. As we contemplate the wild and majestic and transfigured Jesus, might we prefer a God that we can manage, control, and predict?
Yet the story of transfiguration reminds us that God is not anything at all like that and what Jesus showed us of God is something larger than life. Rather than trying to tame or tone down God, transfiguration should raise the awareness of our own capabilities, increase the level of challenge in our lives of faith, and inspire us to the potential of God that exists within us. Transfiguration is a reminder that our journey of faith is not something that leads us to comfortable certainty but challenging actions that transform our faith.
In a National Review this week, author Kathryn Jean Lopez described a program within her Roman Catholic church in Charlotte, NC. It is called “Hard as Nails.” The title doesn’t sound very inviting, does it? The program was a three day mission at the start of Lent which is supposed to resemble the trip of the transfiguration mountain with Jesus. Participants join hands-on mission projects to help alleviate suffering. They spend quiet moments in prayer and meditation. They join in meaningful celebrations of the sacrament together. They contemplate and seek the real presence of Christ. The purpose of Hard as Nails is to contrasting the truth of what people profess to believe about Jesus with what Jesus actually calls us to say and do. It is an examination of who we have made God out to be with that which God is calling us to be. Those who participate are moved by the change that they encounter. They feel transformed and transfigured. Lopez writes that it is hard to stay tame and unmoved and comfortable when the Beatitudes are your oxygen and when Christ’s words of mercy are your marching orders.
On the mountain with Jesus we learn that faith is not a safe and certain harbor. It is not a tame language nor a set of rules set to our standards of reason. The mountaintop is a place where we become very aware of the divine presence of God, a God who intervenes in our world and perhaps more frighteningly- in our lives. Our lives have meaning because they were made by and for this loving God. That is what Jesus experienced on that day long ago. As we begin our Lenten journey, that is what we need to know.