Sermon text: Mark 9: 2-9
Every three years the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pulls off a minor miracle; they host the National Youth Gathering. I’ve attended three of these events and I truly believe the Youth Gatherings are one of the best ministries of our national church body. These events provide extremely memorable experiences for everyone who attends.
When I was 17 I went to Atlanta with Zion and I appreciated the energy, the experience of being with tens of thousands of people, the opportunity to meet other Lutherans who were like me in age, but also different in terms of geography or race. I loved the music and the speakers who were able to touch my soul and deepen my faith.
As an adult, as a pastor, I love the Gathering for those same reasons, but now I also have a different perspective. I appreciate the way the event challenges youth past their comfort levels in terms of travel, crowds, and topics. It provides service opportunities that connect our faith with action. The Gathering unifies 30,000 people into one body, for one Sunday it becomes the largest church in the United States. But what I cherish most is the in-depth discussion that flows throughout the entire event as the participants process their experience.
Excuse the cliché, but these are mountain top moments—times that leave you flying high, times that transform you, times that you will never forget. However, like all mountain top moments, the experience is short lived, impossible to maintain for any length of time. Their brevity is part of the reason they’re so special. There is simply no way that you can have enough time, money, or energy to make one of these last beyond a week. Every time I’ve returned from a National Youth Gathering I have been utterly exhausted. You simply can’t live on the mountain top. The peaks aren’t able to sustain life.
Two thousand years ago there was a mountain top moment happening in Israel. Instead of 30,000 people, only four were involved. Jesus went on a hike with Peter, James, and John, and as they paused for a breath at the top something amazing happened. Jesus became transfigured. He lit up like Clark Griswold’s house from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Jesus radiates light and his clothes are dazzling white…whiter and brighter than what any bottle of Clorox could do. I like to think that Jesus is giving us a small glimpse of his true power. In this brilliant light he shows us that he is God incarnate. He is God with us.
This scene reminds me of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in Chapter 22 of Revelation where we read: We see the throne of God and the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need not light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
This week I read a wonderful passage from a Jewish scholar, Joshua Heschel. In the excerpt, he defines this holy light, the very light that may have been present at the Transfiguration. He writes:
“According to an ancient legend, the light created at the very beginning of creation was not the same as the light emitted by the sun, the moon, and the stars. The light at the first day was a sort that would have enabled man to see the world in a glance from one end to the other. Since man was unworthy to enjoy the blessing of such light, God concealed it; but in the world to come it will appear to the pious in all its pristine glory. Something of that light rests upon the saints and men of righteous deeds on the seventh day, and that light is called the additional soul.”
I believe this is the light that Jesus emits on that mountain. This is a light that Peter, James, and John have never experienced. And besides the light, Moses and Elijah have appeared. These long dead prophets are walking the earth, talking to Jesus. This is the very definition of a mountain top moment and Peter knows exactly how to respond. He will preserve this moment. The disciples will make three dwellings, three tabernacles, where these holy men can reside and this fleeting, never-before-seen moment can last forever. Who wouldn’t want to embrace that experience and hold on to it?
But God has other plans. While Peter is still speaking a bright cloud overshadows him and a voice booms from the cloud. “This is my son, the Beloved; Listen to him!” In terror the disciples drop to the ground and when they open their eyes they saw no one with them any more; only Jesus.
Peter wants to preserve this moment of exceptional glory, and God says no. Peters wants to stay and live in this brilliant experience, and God says no. Peter wants to extend the mountain top moment, and God says no.
For Jesus did not come to earth and take on our flesh and blood so that he could live apart from the world on a mountain. God did not become human to keep us at arm’s length. Building dwellings and living high on top of a mountain away from the rest of humanity has no appeal to God. Jesus came to earth to be with us. To serve us. Jesus comes down the mountain and walks with us in all of our valleys and plateaus.
I find this story comforting because Jesus makes the decision to walk down that mountain and to be with us. Jesus doesn’t simply enter our lives when we are successful and happy and full of joy. Jesus is there, and perhaps we sense him most, when we have reached our lowest points—when we are sick or grieving or afraid.
The Transfiguration is a highlight in Jesus’ life. In a brief moment the veil is lifted and we see a glimpse of his awesome power, a pinnacle moment in his earthly existence, the mountain top moment. And yet, in an instant, Jesus leaves it all behind to be with his disciples, to comfort them, and to descend down the path, beginning his long walk towards the cross where he will once again be glorified. He will be lifted up, but this time he will be surrounded by clouds of darkness, not light. Jesus will walk the road from the Transfiguration to Good Friday because he is not afraid to venture into the depths of our existence.
Yes, Jesus came to be with us in all times and all places, through every circumstance and emotion. God reveals Jesus’ glory in light on that mountain, but the nature of Jesus’ is fully shown through his loving ministry to God’s people. And ultimately, in just a few short weeks, we will capture a more powerful glimpse of Jesus’ glory as he is lifted up on another mount called Calvary. AMEN