Sermon for The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Matthew 17:1-5
Six days later Jesus took with him Peter and the brothers James and John and led them up a high mountain where they were alone. As they looked on, a change came over Jesus: his face was shining like the sun, and his clothes were dazzling white. Then the three disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. …. A shining cloud came over them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!" 

Mountain top experiences

In the classic fantasy book by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins and his troop are travelling through a dark, dangerous forest infested with gigantic, poisonous spiders and all kinds of dark creepy-crawly things.

Just being in that kind of place was a frightening experience. And each member of the group, especially Bilbo Baggins, wanted to get out of that dreadful forest of darkness as fast as they could. They travelled on, hoping against hope that the edge of the dangerous forest was near. There seemed no end to this dark for4st with all of its dangers creatures. One of the leaders ordered Bilbo Baggins to climb the tallest tree he can find in order to have a look around and see where the dark forest ended.

Reluctantly, Bilbo climbed the tree and pushing his way through the top of the tree, he was nearly blinded by the sudden and intense sunlight. It took some time for his eyes to get used to the light, but once they had, Bilbo saw the most wonderful sight. Above him was the most beautiful blue sky and around him was an ocean of green treetops. What a contrast to the dark damp forest below. The glorious sunshine soothed his tired and aching bones. The fresh air blew softly in his face and invigorated his lungs and cleared his mind. What a wonderful place to be! Bilbo Baggins could have easily said, "How wonderful it is to be here".

Now, that story is fiction, but there is a true story about three of Jesus’ disciples who were permitted a view that was extraordinary. Jesus had just shocked them by telling his disciples by telling them, "I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life" (Matthew 16:21). Peter reacts and tells Jesus not to talk such rubbish. They suffer another shock when Jesus tells them that being a disciple is not an easy road to travel. There will be suffering, hardship, tough choices and they too will lose their lives (see Matt 16:24-26).

Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to a mountain top. He took them out of the dangerous valleys of this world and the dark forest of suffering and death up to a high place. There they squinted as they looked at the bright light of the Son of God. Jesus’ face changed its appearance, and his clothes became dazzling white. There, Jesus was seen talking with the two great figures of the Old Testament - Moses and Elijah. Luke tells that they talked about what lay ahead of Jesus as he travelled to Jerusalem, the suffering and dying that he had already spoken about to his disciples (Luke 9:30,31). Then suddenly, they see only Jesus, and hear a voice from the cloud saying, "This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!"

In this dazzling moment of recognition, it was revealed to these disciples who Jesus was. He was more than a man, a wandering teacher. They learnt that his suffering and the cross were a part of God's plan. Moses and Elijah depart, and they see only Jesus - the one on whom God's salvation rested. It is doesn’t surprise us to hear Peter say, "Lord, how wonderful it is that we are here!"

Every now and then we are permitted to stand in the brilliant light and see life in a different way. Last Wednesday there was a meeting of Lutheran pastors at the manse and one of those present talked about his journey so far from the time he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He told us that his time left on this earth is counted in months. One is reminded of dark scary forests and dangerous valleys. Even though he spoke about his disease and his impending death candidly and openly, we couldn’t help feel that here was a person who has been on a mountain top and seen something that defied description.
He told us how he received renewed strength from his Lord following a prayer service for him. Prior to that, he was restricted to a wheel chair and a walker – now he was able to walk unaided.
He told us of the renewed appreciation of his heavenly Father’s love for him and a fresh awareness of what God did for him at his baptism. When he was baptised he died – he died with Christ and was given eternal life. What is about to happen to him will be a continuation of what God had given to him through the water of baptism.
And as this pastor spoke, he took us from the dark valley of the shadow of death to a mountain top. We joined him standing in the brilliant light of Christ. We basked in the love of our God who helps and sustains us in our journey through the dark forests and dangerous places of life in this world.

On that day on the mountain top, the transfiguration of Jesus lasted only a moment. It was a glimpse of the future - the future had not yet become the present. The disciples accompanied Jesus down from the mountain, back down into the valley where there were sick people to be healed, and disputes among the disciples to be settled, and lots more work to be done, including the work of salvation that involved suffering and dying.

And just as the disciples returned down into the valley, likewise the pastor I mentioned still has the dark valley of continued deteriorating health and death ahead of him, and like the disciples, he has the assurance of the love and hope that only Jesus gives. In the darkest hours, the light of Christ continues to lift us up.

If Peter ever experienced, as we do, days of uncertainty, if he ever wondered if he was on the right track, if he was ever tempted to go back fishing instead of being an apostle, I believe the transfiguration was one of those moments that shed light into his human dilemma. It said to him, "Yes, Jesus is truly God's Son. I know it. I have seen his divine glory. He is my Saviour and Companion through the difficulties of this life. One day I will see that glory again in heaven" (See 2 Peter 1:12-18).

When we come here to worship, we are confronted with God’s revelation. We hear again the Good News of salvation, sins forgiven, the call to discipleship, the promise of eternal life. In some small way, every time we hear God’s Word, celebrate the sacraments, the veil over the future is torn away and for a moment we see the glory of the Lord, his will for our lives and our place in his family. This is a mountain top experience.

It happens that a Bible passage we have read a million times suddenly takes on new meaning in our present circumstances. The Word that God speaks to us at that moment is a brilliant answer to the dilemmas we are facing and a reminder of what kind of God we have. As I said, we have heard it before, but at that moment the Holy Spirit speaks it to our hearts and makes a difference.

A young grieving mother said to me after the funeral of her husband, "I have heard those words of Jesus dozens of times before, but today when I heard, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me’ suddenly my anxiety about what the future will hold for my family was lifted. I felt a strange peace come over me." That was a mountain top experience. God speaks and our lives are changed.

When we are burdened with everything that has happened in the past week, we are given a glimpse of the One who invites us to load all our burdens and worries on to him – his power is far greater than any problem that we think is insurmountable. He says to us in our particular need, "Don't be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand" (Isaiah 41:10 NLT). Hearing words like that lift the veil that was clouding our lives and assures of strength that is beyond our strength to cope with the future. It’s like Bilbo Baggins emerging from the dark and scary forest into the brilliant sunshine and fresh air. Bilbo was strengthened and his hope renewed – there was more than this frightening forest – there was a brilliant end to the dark journey.

A group of men from a church went on a weekend retreat. The retreat leader asked the men to share one thing out of their lives that made a great difference in their lives. There were many events and special persons and ideas that were shared. One man talked about the birth of his son. One person told of the importance of his work. All were moved to deeper thoughts when one man said, "The greatest thing that ever happened to me was when I learned that my wife knew about the worst part of my life, the things of which I was most ashamed, and she still loved me".

For this man, his wife’s love was like brilliant sunshine that chased away the dark shadows of the past. His wife reflecting the grace of her Saviour was a mountain top experience that changed his life. His guilt and bad feelings about things he had done in the past dissolved in the brilliance of grace.

As we attend Holy Communion, we shall experience something of the grace and the glory of God again this morning. As we kneel at the Communion rail and receive Christ's body and blood we are brought into the presence of the radiant Christ and experience something that is out of this world - forgiveness for all our sin and the assurance of eternal life. We go from here transfigured - changed. Our experience of the love of God in the bread and wine will make us want to extend that love to others in every avenue of life.

When you walk out the doors of this church this morning, nothing very much has changed in our world. It will be an ordinary, perhaps somewhat uninteresting, February day out there, down there, in the valley, with nothing visibly different from when you came in.

But you will be different. You have seen the brilliance of your Saviour’s face and his love for you. You will be different because you seen the future, God's future. You have heard the word that keeps you going until your next mountain top expereince: "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him. You are my son or daughter. I will walk with you through dark and scary places of this world into the brilliant sunshine of eternity".

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
6th February, 2005

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