Transforming Experiences – Lois Aroian (audio available)
February 14, 2010
Texts: Exodus 34: 29-35; Luke 9: 28-36
Exodus 34:29-35 Now when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand– when he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to approach him. 31 But Moses called to them, so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and Moses spoke to them. 32 After this all the Israelites approached, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses finished speaking with them, he would put a veil on his face. 34 But when Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil until he came out. Then he would come out and tell the Israelites what he had been commanded. 35 When the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone, Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with the LORD.
Luke 9:28-36 Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter, John, and James, and went up the mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became very bright, a brilliant white. 30 Then two men, Moses and Elijah, began talking with him. 31 They appeared in glorious splendor and spoke about his departure that he was about to carry out at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those with him were quite sleepy, but as they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 Then as the men were starting to leave, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three shelters, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”– not knowing what he was saying. 34 As he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 Then a voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him!” 36 After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. So they kept silent and told no one at that time anything of what they had seen.
I spent this week shoveling snow. I’ll bet many of you did, too. Actually, the day I moved to my house here in Fairfax in January 1987, a storm dropped 17 inches of snow. I stood in the snow checking off boxes.
That’s how I met my neighbors and established fellowship with them. We were all out shoveling. We got to know each other. This event transformed me from being a newcomer to being a neighbor.
But it wasn’t a “mountain top” experience in its usual meaning. We tend to reserve that term for something more spectacular and, potentially, more life changing, something like the two direct encounters with God contained in today’s scriptures.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. But it’s also Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, and the day before President’s Day.
I think it’s fair to say that we Protestants are more comfortable with the last three than with the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is awesome and mysterious. We wonder what it’s really about. By contrast, in Eastern Christianity, which celebrates Transfiguration Sunday on August 6, it’s a big holiday, right up there with Pentecost and Christmas. I believe that we in the West celebrate Transfiguration Sunday at this time of year, not in August, to prepare us for Lent. Lent is meant to be a time of reflection and spiritual growth.
Luke’s gospel account, which draws from Mark but changes it, contains six main elements. First, Jesus takes the disciples to a mountain—we don’t know which one – to pray. Second, Jesus changed. Third, Moses and Elijah appeared. Fourth, Peter responded. Fifth, a voice from God spoke. Sixth, the disciples responded.
What we’re going to focus on is how what happened on that mountain can transform you and me. As in Luke’s account, God often takes us from our comfort zone and challenges us. The experiences may not involve applying spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting, but they change how we as Christians interact with the world around us. Through them, God gives us the power to witness to God’s glory and majesty in Jesus Christ, which this scriptural account reveals definitively.
The main “mountain top” experience, the one that transformed my life as a Christian was studying and traveling outside the U.S. on the Presbyterian Junior Year Abroad Program. One encounter stands out, as we at FPC begin to consider the meaning of Christian hospitality during Lent.
I was stranded in Baghdad in July 1966. A coup d’etat attempt in Iraq had closed the border with Iran, my destination. My feet were sinking into the pavement because of the heat. The 4th class desert bus from Damascus had dropped me at a travel agency. When I couldn’t find another place to stay, the owners, Christian Iraqis, took me in, showed me the sights, and found a creative way to get me to Iran, where my roommate from the American University of Beirut was waiting. That was Christian hospitality.
Now, years later, I’m a volunteer screener of applications for a program that gives American high school students merit scholarships to study hard languages abroad, Arabic included. They live with host families. I would encourage you FPC teens with an interest in languages to apply. It could change your life, too.
Because intercultural knowledge, something that our Olympic athletes are experiencing right now, leads us to understand that, whatever our faith journey, we are one big world family loved by God with responsibilities toward one another.
Then, there is the actual mountain top experience. Most of us have had such experiences. Climbing to the top may challenge us. But when we get there, if we are lucky, everything below is revealed to us in a new way. We sense the wonder of God’s creation. We are transformed.
In today’s scriptures, we heard about Moses’ encounter with God. Jesus and his disciples, as well as the Gospel writers, knew what had happened to Moses. He looked so odd after his encounter that he had to wear a veil so people would focus on the message from God.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all discuss the change of Jesus on the mountaintop as a unique event in the life of Jesus. Luke uses the word “change” and not “transfiguration” as Mark and Matthew do. This is the only miracle described in the Gospels in which Jesus himself is the one changed, the one who is glorified. The disciples are the witnesses.
But it’s difficult to be a witness to something incredible, if not downright incomprehensible, without being changed yourself, isn’t it?
Many of us continue to face difficult circumstances right now. Like the disciples, we feel the uncertainty of our times. Like them, we feel lost and vulnerable. We need encouragement. I believe this scripture gives it to us.
The disciples Jesus took with him up the mountain – Peter, James, and John – did not understand, despite what Jesus had told them, what their discipleship was going to cost. Not long after this amazing experience with Jesus, the disciples jockeyed over their future status in the kingdom. For them as for us, the servant nature of Christ’s kingdom is difficult to grasp.
Luke tells us that Jesus was wrapping up his conversation with Elijah and Moses when Peter, ever at the ready to take swift action, said: let’s stay up here and build little huts for you, Elijah, and Moses.
But that moment passed. Suddenly, they were in a cloud and scared to death, and a voice from the cloud gave them a simple message: This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to Him.
You may well be wondering how this relates to us?
Keep in mind that the Gospels were written to tell people the good news that they might believe in Jesus Christ.
And they are still fresh and new today so that we might believe.
For me, this passage from Luke helps us to answer two questions. The first question is:
Who is Jesus?
The point about Moses and Elijah is this. Moses represents the Law, which he brought from Mt. Sinai to the Hebrew people. And Elijah, running away from his people who did not want to listen to his message, became a great prophet. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
But Jesus surpasses Moses and Elijah. Hearing God’s words confirmed to his disciples who Jesus was. The experience would help them preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ after his death. This miracle on the mountain reveals Jesus in the glory to come. We too, as the disciples, can be confident that our Lord and Savior reigns forever
The second question is: What does this mean for us today? What difference does it make?
Here, too, Luke gives us an answer. The voice in the cloud said: Listen to Him.
Isn’t that the toughest part? It’s not enough to recognize who Jesus is. We have to listen to Him. And then change in accordance with his message and example.
Like Peter, we too may be attracted by the idea of just camping out on the mountain top. Why should we leave? It’s so wonderful there. It’s quiet. No crowds. No people to be healed or fed or comforted. No homeless people. No earthquakes, no hurricanes, no tsunamis, no refugees, no wars. No cellular telephones. No wifi. No Facebook or Twitter. Isn’t it easier to just get away where life is uncomplicated and stay there?
But like Jesus and his disciples, that’s not the path laid out for us. Yes, we need the mountain-top experience, just as Jesus did, often going to pray there. We Presbyterians have no monastic tradition. We have received the good news and must joyfully share it. We have to come down from the mountain to live with each other in Christian community and to serve in the world around us. Discipleship is often a very rocky path.
In the summer of 1999, my sister and I climbed a mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine. It was foggy all the way up, and it was foggy when we reached the top. We could barely see the path.
The fact is that, when our lives are clouded, we can easily end up confused or lost. We may not know where we are at all or how to get back down. Maybe we realize the ground we’ve covered only when we’ve returned to the bottom of the mountain.
Remember that after the disciples came down from the mountain, a man approached Jesus with his sick son, saying Jesus’ disciples had been unable to cast out the boy’s demon. The disciples were still powerless. Jesus had to step in for them. It’s fair to ask: had their mountaintop experience changed them or not?
I like to think there is a special message this text conveys to us:
Sometimes, the mountaintop experience, however awesome, takes awhile to sink in. It’s often only after reflecting on the experience that we realize what it means for our lives.
When we acknowledge our human frailty, as the writer of Luke did, we can hear the good news of Jesus Christ and act on it.
My friends, God is challenging us to go farther, to do more, to love one another regardless of our nationality, our faith, our gender, our ethnicity, or anything else which we use to put each other into categories.
And Jesus is right there with us. It may mean offering hospitality to those who are different, advancing world peace by learning hard languages abroad, as I suggested our youth can do, or going to Guatemala and Honduras as members of our congregation have done. Or just expanding all the ministries that appeared in our church’s 2009 annual report and our 2010 budget.
All of these are ministries of love. If you think about it, the Transfiguration experience, taken as a whole, is a Valentine from God. It tells us that God is present and active in our world and that we too can change.
God loves us through our shortcomings and our frailties. And in times of need, God reminds us of God’s presence. Whether we are on the mountaintop or here in northern Virginia, God never leaves us. We too can be transformed, if we listen . . . AMEN.