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“A Necessary Combination”

February 8, 2016

“‘A Necessary Combination’” Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-43 © 2.7.16 Transfiguration of the Lord by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It had been a rough and ragged week for the disciples, the kind all of us have from time to time, in which we are lifted up and encouraged and think we have things figured out only to be shot down and crash and burn in confusion and dismay. Peter had confessed Jesus to be the Messiah of God, but then our Lord had confronted them all with some stiff and disturbing talk about what that meant. He would go to Jerusalem and be killed by those in authority. Plus, following him meant probably facing death by crucifixion or stoning or some other gruesome means. The Twelve were stunned and bewildered by the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah. That was neither what they had been taught to expect nor wanted to believe.

The experience of the Transfiguration was a glimpse of the glory of the resurrected Christ for disciples who were trying desperately to sort things out. It was a time of renewal and retooling before they went with their Master to Jerusalem and faced the trauma and tragedy he had predicted. The vision on the mountaintop gave Peter, James, and John, the leaders of the group, a look at the new reality that was to come.

I doubt if T.S. Eliot had this text in mind for his poem Burnt Norton, but he could have: “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement….the inner freedom from the practical desire, the release from action and suffering, release from the inner and the outer compulsion, yet surrounded by a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,… both a new world and the old made explicit, understood in the completion of its partial ecstasy, the resolution of its partial horror” (https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/18/t-s-eliot-reads-burnt-norton/?mc_cid=708c53d187&mc_eid=044c64f487; reformatted for this sermon).

Think of how we would feel if suddenly the rug were pulled out from under our standard way of thinking, if all our hopes and dreams for a new tomorrow were suddenly dashed to pieces, if disappointment and confusion and constant change became our new normal. You and I would need to rest somehow at Eliot’s “still point of the turning world.” The disciples craved that same sort of support and guidance as they reflected on their new understanding of the Messiah. The heavenly experience on the mountain helped them get back on their feet again after being bowled over by the startling teachings of Jesus about his impending fate in Jerusalem. It gave them support when everything else was giving way. The still point of the turning world.

In the account of the vision, Jesus’ appearance is transformed in the sight of the disciples. His clothes become very bright and even his face changes in appear­ance. Moses and Elijah come to speak with our Lord. They represent the Law and the Prophets, or maybe, the deliver­ance of God’s people and concern for the poor and the Gentiles. As Luke has it, the subject about which they talk with Jesus is his “exodus” (in Greek), his departure from this life at Jerusalem in a little while.

When the Old Testament figures leave, Jesus is left alone. For Luke, the new thing Jesus does takes the place of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus, and Jesus only, is the one to whom people must now listen. He is the one chosen by God to carry out the redemption of humankind at Jerusalem.

Peter, however, continues to try diversionary tactics. With typical lack of forethought, Peter blurts out, “It’s good we’re here, Master. Let’s make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Translation: “Let’s stay on the mountain! Let’s not go down to all the hurt and squalor and pain. Especially, let’s not face your suffering and death.” Life is easier if we stay on the mountain and never come down.

Jesus, of course, saw the trip in a different light. Going away with the inner circle of disciples was not an escape. It was an intentional retreat, a time to rethink and rest, to build up a reserve of spiritual and physical energy.

And they would need all the energy available to them. In the valley, the next day, a large crowd came to meet Jesus when he descended. A man had asked the disciples who had remained below to heal his epileptic son, who in that day was thought to have an evil spirit. They had been unable to. With a rebuke to everyone, apparently including the helpless disciples, Jesus drove out the disease that had so broken the boy’s body and spirit. The report concludes with the note that everyone was amazed at the greatness of God.

Let me suggest to you that this story is like an ellipse, with two focal points. Luke shows us what happened on the mountain, but he also wants us to pay attention to the incident in the valley. So these two stories really ought not be separated, but always read and considered together. They represent the two poles between which Christian life moves. On the one hand, we are renewed in God’s presence, and on the other, we engage in redemptive action in God’s world. We don’t discount the value of either of them.

Worship, the sacraments, retreat, meditation, study, and prayer in its many forms from silence to movement to social action are absolute musts for the maintenance of Christian life. Without these “means of grace,” as our tradition calls them, we cut ourselves off from the very source of our vitality, the God who is our strength.

Someone commenting on the Exodus text we heard this morning observed: “Even though none of us will see God immediately—for that would destroy our eyesight more quickly than direct exposure to sunlight—still we must be attracted towards this vision of the Lord. We need to be drawn toward the blinding light of the Lord’s glory. Even though the voice still resounds from a distant place, we must climb Mount Sinai and listen for the Lord…” (Carroll Stuhlmueller)

Having said that though, we need to turn to the other aspect of this story. Not only do we need the strengthening of retreat, worship, the sacraments, and prayer. We also must enter into God’s world in redemptive, healing action. Jesus knew it was of the essence of the spiritual life that we come down from the mountain.

The late theologian Robert McAfee Brown had it right. “Where is the action?” he asked. “Down at the bottom of the mountain. Jesus’ descent leads immediately into a response to human need, the healing of an epileptic boy” (Unexpected News: 122).

The situation Jesus encountered was filled with emotion and pain. A father concerned about his child and maybe angry with the disciples and himself for being helpless, angry at God for making the boy that way. The disciples, frustrated by their powerlessness. Everyone, afraid of the supposed evil spirit that had gripped the boy. Jesus himself, no doubt sick of saying the same thing over and over and still encountering blank stares. Again, we can relate in our own feelings of powerlessness, fear, frustration, and anger.

But in the midst of all that is the word and power of Jesus. None of us can escape more than a little while from the chaos and pain of human need, including our own. All of us need respite and relief. But I’m going to go out on a limb and wonder if when we encounter troubles, we could embrace them and our feelings as gifts. I think we all know that when channeled into passionate speech, selfless service, and sober deliberation, strong, potentially frightening emotions can be sources of power for change. Our Lord is just as much present in the valley as he was on the mountaintop. Again, with Brown: “It is all of a piece—ecstasy and epilepsy. This is what [being the Messiah] is all about: being in the midst of the poor, the sick, the helpless, those with frothing mouths. [Being the Messiah]—like Christian living—is not just ‘mountaintop experiences’ or ‘acts of concern for human welfare’; it is a necessary combination of the two (ibid.; italics his).

A hymn writer in the second decade of the 20th century captured the message of this story in his lyric: “We thank thee, Lord, thy paths of service lead to blazoned heights and down the slopes of need; they reach thy throne, encompass land and sea, and he who journeys in them walks with thee.

“We’ve sought and found thee in the secret place and marveled at the radiance of thy face; but often in some far off Galilee beheld thee fairer yet while serving thee.

“We’ve felt thy touch in sorrow’s darkened way abound with love and solace for the day; and ‘neath the burdens there, thy sovereignty has held our hearts enthralled while serving thee.

“We’ve seen thy glory like a mantle spread/o’er hill and dale in saffron flame and red; but in the eyes of men, redeemed and free, a splendor greater yet while serving thee” (Calvin W. Laufer, “We Thank Thee, Lord,” 1919).

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