This sermon is based on the Transfiguration story in Matthew 17:1-9.
The day starts just like any other day. The three heavy hitters of the disciples are heading up a mountain with Jesus, not anticipating at all that this day would be different. Suddenly, Jesus changed physically in a way that Matthew has trouble explaining. He glowed so bright it was like looking into the sun. His clothes became so white it was like you had washed them thirty times in bleach. Even more amazing two men appeared who Peter, James and John knew instantly to be Elijah and Moses, Old Testament heroes. They were talking to Jesus, right there in front of them.
Peter has a great reaction. This is too cool. Let’s stay here. Let’s stay like this all of our lives. We’ll start small with little huts, but soon we will be able to put a big church right here on this mountain. It’ll be great. He is talking so much, he is practically babbling. His excitement cannot be contained. God’s voice interrupts his nonsense, “Enough already, Peter, just enjoy the moment. This is my Son, the beloved. I like this one. Now, would you shut up and just listen to him?”
I don’t know this by experience, but according to the bible when God speaks in a cloud, it scares the pants off people. These three were no different. They fall to the ground, shaking in their boots. Jesus finds them that way. He taps them on the shoulder, “Get up guys, its over. Let’s go. By the way, wait a few weeks to tell anyone because it really won’t make sense until I have been raised from the dead.”
Have you ever had those cool moments that you can’t believe are happening? You just want to stay there and enjoy it? As a Minnesota Vikings football fan since I was a kid, I have certainly had my share. There were the three Super Bowl experiences of the 70’s, the 98 season where we got within a kick of the Super Bowl, ten years later where we were within a first down. But, all great seasons end on one Sunday or another, and you have to get up and go to work the next day. It is so exciting. The game has all your attention. Your life is somehow entwined with this team, who you are has changed. Then boom, it’s over, and you are back to work, teaching kids, selling freight, or serving communion. Get up, it’s over. It’s time to go.
Sometimes church feels that way for me, too. Everything clicks, just right. I don’t mean as a pastor, I mean as a worshipper. I’ve had moments where the preacher has completely grabbed me like a good one can, the special music has swept me away into its rhythm or a familiar song has caused me to lose myself with loud, wonderful singing. Then it’s over. At times that moment is lost before the worship service has even ended because my kids are hitting each other. Maybe, I leave on a cloud, but descend quickly when I get into the car and notice I am on E and gas raised thirty cents a gallon while I was in worship. Whenever it happens, though, it always happens. God seems to tap me on the back saying, “Get up. Let’s get going back down the mountain.”
Not to let you in on any trade secrets, but church leaders spend a lot of time trying to create those kinds of moments for you. Week in and week out, I work hard trying to plan worship that will get all of us to the top of that mountain. To do this well I read a ton of books. By authors that guarantee to get us there on any given Sunday morning.
I went to the Large Pastor’s Conference a month or so ago. I am sorry I always say that wrong, the Large Church Conference. It was in beautiful Cincinnati. Creating mountaintop moments like these in our churches is always somewhere near the center of the conversation. Crazy ways to draw people in, bigger signs, flashier crosses, friendlier Jesus’, you name it and someone is doing it. At the end of the day, my head is spinning and I am feeling the pressure to bring home the bacon to you on a Sunday. I’m starting to realize I can’t do it.
A couple of years ago, a guy about my age started to come to church here. After one of the Sundays that he attended, I got in a discussion with him. He told me about this horrible car accident that he had been in where he nearly lost his life. He said that he didn’t see God in a vision or anything, but he just had this powerful presence of God. I remember, he said, “I just knew God was there.” I like that, “I just knew, God was there.” He started coming to church that next Sunday.
That guy taught me two things. First, there is no planning mountaintop moments. They come to us completely unexpected. We are driving down the road one minute and the next, the presence of God. Boom just like that, a mountaintop experience. Peter, James and John were just walking up the mountain on the sixth day, a day like any other. Boom a mountaintop experience. I was just singing How Great Thou Art on a Sunday like any other. Boom a mountaintop experience.
As pastors we can’t plan these experiences for our people. “Okay, right here between the kyrie and the prayer of the day, let’s work a mountaintop moment in.” As believers, we can’t manufacture these moments for ourselves. It is not as if you are going to hang around the highway tonight to see if God shows up as he did for that visitor. Moments like these just happen. They are pure gifts from God meant to be savored and celebrated.
I haven’t seen that guy in church for years. He probably came every Sunday for a while, a month I guess, then gone. I am not sure why he left. My guess is that he never experienced God here as powerfully as he did along that highway. Maybe, he is mad at God. God called him, he answered and God didn’t show up when he went.
But, his absence has given me this second lesson. These moments strengthen our faith, but they don’t create faith or sustain it. Peter even after that day still denied Jesus in a crucial test of faith. Jesus points beyond the mountaintop moment to one even more defining down the road. This is where his words become important. You won’t understand until after I am raised from the dead. People, he is talking about the resurrection.
Faith is a pure gift, but it is not created in the dirt of mountaintops, but in the waters of baptism. In these waters we are resurrected, reborn. This is what those three needed to wait for. You won’t understand until the resurrection. In those waters we are not only given faith, but also a new prism to understand all of the gifts of faith, including mountaintop moments. Outside of faith in God, they are just creepy times where we felt really weird.
And our faith is sustained not by the frenzied moments of ecstasy where we wonderfully brush close to God. Faith is sustained in the day to day, week to week gathering of a resurrection community, the mundane sharing of a life together of the baptized, lived in the body of Christ the Church. Those mountaintop moments are good gifts, but they are not as good a gifts as you are for me. I hear God’s voice in the cloud daily in the love shared here with each other. It may not send us to our knees shaking like it did those three disciples, or cause us to babble like idiots, but when we gather as church to worship God, encourage each other, serve each other, and love each other, God is here. We are a resurrection community. And Jesus said, you won’t understand until the resurrection.
I wish I could manufacture Mountaintop Moments. One Sunday afternoon for my Vikings like Pastor Thadd had after the last Super Bowl. One moment for all of you this morning like Peter had on that mountain. Just one moment in worship in the month that visitor came and maybe he would have hung around long enough to trust the resurrection lived here. I can’t control those things. What I can help create is a church, a resurrection community. This will sustain us until we all move permanently to that mountaintop. Alleluia. Amen