February 23, 2020, What Goes Up Must Come Down, Matthew 17:1-9 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Lately we have been blessed with quite a few days of sunshine and blue skies. Even when it’s still windy and cold outside, the bright sun always lifts my spirits and makes me feel more cheerful, and more hopeful. There’s something about light, about brightness, that is as nourishing to us as fresh bread when we are hungry or cool water when we are thirsty. It lifts our spirits to wake up to sunshine after days of dark, gloomy weather. It brings new hope to come to the end of a long dark night. It chases away fear to turn on a lamp in a dark room. We need light.
And I think one reason light is so important to us is that it is one of the marks that God built into his creation to let us know who he is. There is a popular painter, Thomas Kinkade, who is sometimes called the “painter of light” because his paintings capture the light so well in scenes of villages and gardens and cottages. But we worship the original “Painter of Light” – the One who was the Creator of light in the very beginning. And every one of his creatures loves the light just by our nature, because whether they know it or not, they are seeing a reflection of the One in whom they exist, the One from whom every good thing comes. James, the brother of our Lord, wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
Over and over again in the Bible, when God revealed himself to his people, he revealed himself in light, because light is one of his signature things. Light is a manifestation of who God is. We read today about Moses, when he went up on the mountain to receive all the words of the Law. When Moses went up Mount Sinai, the glory of the Lord settled on the top of the mountain. The word “glory” means a shining – the presence of God himself rested on that mountaintop like a dazzling cloud. In Exodus Moses wrote that the glory of God was like a devouring fire on the mountaintop. And Moses himself was right there – like the burning bush where he had first met God, in the midst of all that glorious, burning brightness, but not consumed.
About fifteen hundred years later, Jesus chose three of his disciples, Peter and James and John, the three men who would become the pillars of his church, and like Moses he brought them to a mountaintop. And there, like Moses, they saw the glory of God. When Peter was an old man, sitting in prison in Rome, knowing that his death was near, he still remembered that day. He wrote: “What we taught you is no made-up story. We saw his glory with our own eyes. We heard the voice out of heaven. We were there with the Lord on the holy mountain.”
It was a transforming moment. It was so terrifying at the time that all three of them fell flat on their faces, and Peter babbled foolishly about putting up tents. It was so glorious that it burned in Peter’s heart, the memory undimmed, for the rest of his life. But like all glorious moments, it came to an end. Suddenly Moses and Elijah were gone, and the three disciples saw only Jesus. His face and clothing, that had gleamed like lightning, just looked like they always did. The bright cloud had faded away. The voice from heaven was silent. And it was time to go back down the mountain.
If you continue reading chapter seventeen, after the account of the Transfiguration, it’s kind of a big disappointment. They come to the foot of the mountain and meet a man whose son has severe epilepsy. But the disciples are completely unable to heal the boy, and after Jesus has healed him, they come timidly to Jesus, asking what they were doing wrong. And he tells them it was because they didn’t have enough faith. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, he told them, you could move that mountain. If you had faith you could do anything.
From the glory of the mountaintop the disciples were thrown right back into life as usual. Having come so near to the face of God they were still just as human as ever; their lives were still full of failures and fears, and they were still just as full of flaws. What was the good of being on the mountaintop at all?
I would imagine that there were many, many times in the days and weeks to come when Peter and James and John wished they could get back up on that mountaintop. It was the kind of experience anyone would wish they could get back to, or hold onto somehow. We understand that, because we’ve all had our own mountaintop experiences. We’ve all had times when the face of God seems so near, times when we have seen or heard or felt clearly what is so hard to hold onto down in the day-to-day real world. It might have been just a flash, just a fleeting moment, but we remember it, and if we could we would stop everything and stay right there.
But it doesn’t work like that. When the glory faded away, Jesus led Peter and James and John back down the mountain, back on the road to suffering and death. God doesn’t leave us on the mountaintop. Not yet, at least. But he doesn’t bring us up to the mountain for no purpose, either. When we behold the glory of the Lord we are changed by it – not all at once, like a magic spell, but by degrees, step by step. Little by little. the light of God’s Holy Spirit re-creates us, makes us more and more like him, makes us more and more the people we were created to be. Henri Nouwen wrote, “When we keep claiming the light, we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant.”
We treasure those times when the Holy Spirit brings us close to God. Maybe you have an “aha!” moment when you are reading the Bible, where you suddenly feel like the words are speaking directly to you. Maybe you have a deep sense of God’s presence when you kneel at the altar rail to receive the Eucharist. Maybe you have a moment of solitude where you are finally quiet enough to hear his still, small voice. Maybe you suddenly recognize the face of Jesus in another human being. We love those moments, we treasure them, but we can never hold onto them. We can never stay on the mountaintop.
And if we try to make them happen again, if we try to manufacture experiences with the Spirit, we are always disappointed. It is only God who can lead you up the mountainside, in his own good time. And then he always leads you back down again. But here’s the thing: even though the road looks the same; even though the potholes look all too familiar; even though you still make wrong turns and get yourself lost from time to time; the important thing is that you don’t come back down the mountain alone. And you don’t return to the journey unchanged.
The same bumbling Peter who was always putting his foot in his mouth, who failed miserably at the crucial moment, the same Peter who skulked in the courtyard when Jesus was on trial and denied even knowing his Lord – that was the same Peter on whom the church of Jesus Christ was founded, just as Jesus said he would be. That is the same Peter who faced martyrdom with hope and courage. It is that Peter through whom the Holy Spirit speaks today in his letters to the churches. Peter the fisherman was transformed from one degree of glory to another, by that revelation of glory on the mountaintop, yes, but also by following Jesus back down the mountainside and traveling the road step by step with him.
It is very hard for us to see the work that God is doing in us by his Spirit. It’s easier to be hopeful in those mountaintop moments when the light is bright and the air is clear and God’s voice is not drowned out by the clamor of the world and our own worries and fears and the worries and fears of the people around us –all those “traffic” noises we hear along the road, all those detours and roadblocks. But if we hold onto our mountaintop experiences we lose our way, because Jesus doesn’t stay on the mountaintop either. Jesus isn’t “back there” on the mountaintop; he’s with you right now on the road. Jesus doesn’t hang out in this beautiful, peaceful Sanctuary all week long, just waiting for you to come back and worship him on Sunday mornings; he leads you back out into the messy, noisy, scary world we live in all week long. And his Spirit is growing and changing you even when you can’t feel it – I think maybe especially when you can’t feel it. And the way you can tell that is to look back along your road.
Think back in your life, remember things that once ruled over you that have begun to lose their power – unkind words, or painful experiences, or the shame of your own failures – things that were once paralyzing to you. By the work of the Spirit, as the glory of the Lord is revealed in your life, these powers are losing their hold on you, and you are being changed, you have been changed, little by little, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, from one degree of glory to another. Hope is reborn, as we sang in Ellen’s song: Joy outpouring, breaking through the mist of disappointment, pain, desperation, depression, fear, anxiety and hate. Now the dawn appears at last! And the day is coming when you will be the perfect image and reflection of his glory that you were created to be.
And that’s what we pray for in the Collect today. If you pay attention from week to week, we pray for some big things in the Collect. We pray altogether for things we might not be brave enough to pray just on our own, for ourselves. But today we join together, and we pray: Grant that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and that we may be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. The disciple John was there with Peter, and with his brother James, on the mountaintop that day. John saw Jesus in all that radiant glory, and when he was an old man he wrote these words, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”