Overshadowed By God
March 2, 2019 Luke 9: 28-43
I’m truly grateful to be in worship with you all this weekend. And especially to return to this story in particular. Saturday nights have become an important part of my weekly rhythm, and as sleep experts and doctors have told us for years, rhythm is important to our overall well-being. Yet even as I say that I acknowledge that rhythm has been hard to find these past few weeks.
I’ve found it extraordinarily hard to focus these last 15 days or do. Like the wind that whipped through our community last week leaving behind debris and fallen tree limbs, life has recently felt as if a strong current has moved through and disturbed, shaken and reshaped our realities. For me, it started with a phone call from our district superintendent that radically changed the direction of my life and our parish. I wasn’t shocked to get the news about a new appointment, but I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I thought. And then it was another phone call, just a few days later, that my successor was ready to meet with our Parish Lead Team, then announced to the churches. And then last week happened, the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church, to discuss a way forward regarding human sexuality. All of these occurrences and announcements and decisions have messed with our realities, and they’ve left many of us confused, frustrated, wounded, surprised, anxious and asking the question, “What happens now?” Yet here in the midst of our uncertainty is this wonderful story we call the Transfiguration, a story where Jesus invites three of his closest friends us to travel outside of their realties and instead to experience His. And I think this is a timely passage for us to look at today.
For the disciples who are invited up the mountain with Jesus (Peter, James and John), it had been eight days since they experienced their own roller coaster of emotions. You know, I never understood why it was only these three who received that invitation, but God certainly had a purpose and a reason. I think this is a good reminder that God meets each of us in different ways. We’ll all experience powerful moments of God’s presence, moments in which we feel that God is more than real, but the ways in which you and I experience God won’t be identical. Some people have a Damascus road story, where they are “blinded by the light,” but others don’t. And that’s ok. We can’t manufacture those experiences, but we can receive them when God invites us in God’s timing. And for Peter, James and John, that invitation comes after a long eight days.
Eight days before this moment, their realities had been shaken. At one point, they had been on a hillside, watching Jesus miraculously feed 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two small fish. The next day? They’re hearing sermons about suffering and crosses. That’s quite the internal tug-of-war, isn’t it? The thrill of watching a miracle unfold before your eyes, and then a gut-wrenching lesson on how Jesus intends to save the world through his death? And by the way, if you want to truly find life, you’ll need to look in the aisle labeled “self-denial.” Wow. That’s some serious stuff! It would take at least eight days for the dust to settle on that one! I can’t be certain of what happened over those eight days, but I’m guessing there was a lot of confusion and frustration, a lot of anxieties and concerns, a lot of soul-searching, and of course, the question “What happens now?” When I first started to follow Jesus, I don’t think I really understood that there was another side of the gospel that didn’t include miracles and healing and power. I didn’t realize I was also signing up for “carrying my cross” and denying myself. But that’s the truth, isn’t it? There is no resurrection without crucifixion. There is no Easter without Good Friday. There is no new life without the death on an old one. And I wonder if the disciples were just as surprised to discover this as I was? So in the midst of trying to travel this topsy-turvy spiritual terrain, Jesus invites Peter, James and John to go up a mountain and to step in to sacred space.
With so much good that needed to be done in his world, and so much good activity we read about in the Gospels, it can be easy to overlook these get-aways that very much were a part of Jesus’ regular rhythm. They weren’t vacations so much as they were sabbaticals, and from time to time, Jesus knew his primary task was to cultivate space for God to create, restore, and empower. Even for Jesus, the demands of life in general and his ministry in particular could be draining, and so turning to sacred space where he could be with God was vital. And if that’s true for Jesus, then it’s doubly true for us. That’s one of the reasons why the church has traditionally worked a day of worship into our weekly calendars. We need time to step away from life as we know it, to clear the clutter of all that is good and not good and uncertain, all that distracts and grabs for our attention, to simply be with God. And after eight days of questioning and trying to come to grips with what they’ve just heard, the disciples need God more than ever.
I don’t know if you’ve discovered this yet, but life is hard. And life doesn’t get any easier because of faith. Faith gives us a solid approach to navigate the challenges of a world that sometimes leaves us filled with energy and joy and sometimes leaves us drained and wiped out, but faith doesn’t magically transform the world from bad to good. In fact, Jesus lets us in on a secret when he prays his high priestly prayer in John: “Father, my prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17: 15). Jesus doesn’t hide the fact that our world is fractured and in need of redemption, but that work of redemption is nothing short of life-giving. Last week, four of our young Parish disciples took their first steps toward confirmation, where they will publicly own a faith in Christ that their parents have modeled for them. The height of their confirmation will be the moment when they proclaim, “I believe Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior,” which is our way of saying we’ve invited Jesus into our realities to change the direction and shape of our lives. But there will be moments when that confident, beautiful faith is shaken. A diagnosis. An unexpected phone call. A deflated dream. A broken relationship. A challenging General Conference. A wounded reality. And it’s those moments that call for a story like the Transfiguration, a story that invites us up the mountain, with all our hopes and dreams, to experience the surprising, overshadowing, and yet glorious presence of God.
The first surprise of this wonderful moment is that Jesus is more than what or who the disciples initially thought. They knew he was messiah, a healer, a teacher and genuine good guy. But now they saw Jesus for who Jesus truly was- the Son of God. Jesus was transfigured before them, his beauty and glory revealed in a much needed way. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Their confidence was a bit shaken. Watching Jesus feed 5,000 was a boost. They could’ve stayed there forever! But self-denial and crosses? They weren’t sure this was the same guy! We’ve had those questions, haven’t we? I know I have- plenty of times. I remember a conversation I once had with my dad, when I was really struggling with his cancer journey. I felt betrayed by God, let down by the One whom I knew could do anything, confused as to why this was happening to man who loved the Lord. And when I asked that very question out loud, my dad redirected me back to Jesus when he responded, “Why not?” Jesus is who Jesus is. And nothing can change that. Not even a cross. He’s not who I always want him to be, not who I always demand him to be, not who I always hope him to be. He is the Son of God who is reconciling this broken world to the Father, and nothing about my life or reality can alter who Jesus is! If you’re in a season of confusion and bewilderment, and it’s caused you to question whether Jesus is who Jesus says he is, it might be a good idea to set aside some sacred space, enter a time of prayer and let God cover you with his presence. Travel up the proverbial mountain and let God help you see again.
The second surprise the disciples experience is a heavenly voice (God’s voice) that compels them to listen to Jesus. I find this interesting, because this implies that maybe they weren’t always listening to Jesus before. Have you ever been there? They were following, believing, ministering, worshipping…but that doesn’t mean they were truly listening. And I get it. Sometimes Jesus says some really hard stuff. Sometimes Jesus has some really difficult teachings. And if I’m honest with myself, there are times I’ve selectively heard Jesus and cherry-picked what he’s said. I know Jesus says I should love my enemy, and even though I acknowledge that his type of love produces peace, I don’t always want to hear it. There are times I’m so gung-ho about being right that I forget to actually love others, even if it causes them harm. And there are times I value my voice above all others, even though my voice is human and severely prone to misjudgment.
On this mountain, the disciples are invited to block out all that noise…all that noise that distracts and clamors for their attention; All that noise that tries to tickle their ears and fills them with half-truths; all that noise that sounds good but leaves them unfulfilled. On that mountain, God invites the disciples to return to the only one who can rightly claim to be the voice of Truth. And not only do they see Jesus in a new light, they also begin to listen to what the man is saying. And what he says is life-giving and good. It might mean a cross; it might mean suffering; it might mean self-denial. But Jesus will take these negative ideas and redeem them for abundant good. How do you set aside time to listen for God’s voice? Finding space to return to the voice of Jesus in a world filled with a million voices that will tell us anything we want to hear needs to be part of our regular rhythm of faith. There are no secret formulas for how this is done, just desire mixed with some intentionality. One of our bishops during last week’s General Conference gathering, was asked to pray before a particular vote, and her opening plea set the tone: Come Holy Spirit, come. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come Holy Spirit, come.
This story, of course, does not end on the mountain. No, Jesus doesn’t let the disciples linger in that sacred space; he beckons them back into the messy existence of life that will lead to a cross. But that transfigured moment will go with them. And when they walk back down into a reality that sometimes feels like despair and looks hopelessly lost and utterly confusing, they’ll have new tools with which to navigate. A vision of Christ who is God’s own Son…with them, leading them, urging them on. A voice of truth that cuts through chaos…calling to trust and obey. A reason to press forward…because the Kingdom of God is closer now than it ever has been. I don’t know what that looks like, but brothers and sisters, I know it’s happening. There are some great days ahead. There are some difficult days ahead. There are some crosses to bear and some resurrections to encounter. And Jesus will be in the midst of all. So let us find those sacred spaces to know Christ for who Christ is, and then find the courage to follow him wherever he leads. Amen.