Mountains, Valleys and Clouds

Sermon by:
Rev. Terri Thorn
delivered on:
February 26, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 17:1-9
Exodus 24:12-18

Every year, this final Sunday before Lent is designated as the Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday.  Every year the lectionary gives us some version of the same stories to use in worship:   Moses on the mountain, Jesus being transfigured on the mountain, and an epistle reading related to the acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah.  And every year, preachers are puzzled by how to interpret this very strange story. 

Each year it is fraught with more questions than answers.  Take for example, the appearance of Moses and Elijah?  Is it symbolic of Law and Prophecy coming together in Jesus – is it God’s way of saying Jesus fulfills both of these?  Or, is it that Moses and Elijah are there to coach and encourage Jesus for the road ahead?  After all, they know first-hand how difficult it is going to be.  Could it be that they represent the "living and the dead" all under the care of the Lord...in that Elijah represented life, because he was taken up to heaven but never actually died and Moses did die?  Does their presence at the transfiguration represent a foretelling of eternal life?    

How do we know the correct answer?  Is there just one?  Could it mean something altogether different?  Actually all of these are theologically-sound interpretations. Still, at the end of the proverbial day, they are still just that - interpretations.

That’s the challenge of this whole story…we cannot be certain about what was going on and why.  We weren't there...and Jesus doesn't explain it.  He only says, "Tell no one."

So, I suppose we could take the easy way out.   Since Jesus said that the disciples shouldn't say anything about it, then maybe neither should we.  How about we all admit we don't know what transfiguration means and go home? As my friend Rev. Buschkill said, “the congregation might like it if they all got to go to lunch early.”

Well...as tempting as that is...and it is tempting...I'm wondering what if having more questions than answers is actually part of the purpose of the story?   Perhaps the reason we observe Transfiguration Sunday is to preserve the mysteries of our faith...to remind us that there is so much that we don't know...and that it is really OK that we don't.  What if instead of interpreting and assigning meaning to the story, and trying to explain what happened and why, we just accept the story as is...at face value?  What, then, does this story teach us?

I believe to take the story as it is written teaches us that God is present in our knowing and our unknowing...in our moments of complete  clarity and in our moments of total confusion and uncertainty.  God is with us in the holy moments of worship and the mundane walk of life and work.

You see, regardless of what the transfigured glowing Jesus actually looked like or why the other folks were there...without interpreting any of that...we know that this story is about encountering God’s presence.   That part is clear.  It happens on a mountain - the very place where people went to meet God. It is where God speaks.  It is a baptism-like moment, when God claims Jesus as his own.  And, it is an epiphany moment -- when Jesus' identity as the Messiah is revealed by God.  We all agree that God is definitely present in this story.

Interestingly enough, liturgically, it is also the last epiphany story before we enter the Lenten season.  That makes it a pivotal point between the season of celebration and light...and the season of repentance and self-denial.  In Matthew's telling of the gospel, it marks the last thing before Jesus and the disciples begin their journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  It seems to be that "one last chance" for the disciples to experience the ultimate "ah-ha" moment of reassurance about who Jesus is before they travel with him on that gut-wrenching, dangerous, self-sacrificing road that lies ahead.

No wonder Peter wanted to stay there. 

It's safe to say that mountaintop experiences like this one, or that of Moses, are extremely rare.  In fact, most of us would be hesitant to admit if we did have one.  Still, we need those glorious moments when we know that God is present and at work in a situation, don't we? It is that inexplicable sense of awareness, confidence or trust in God that gives us hope and keeps us going.  Sometimes the mountaintop is a very emotional or exhilarating experience…such as a special celebration or worship service.  Sometimes it is a quiet, peace...a contemplative moment...and we want to linger there because it feels so right and good.

Either way, it doesn’t last.  Like the disciples, eventually we wake up, and realize that we’re back to the day-to-day experiences of life.  And to be quite honest, it’s never quite as exciting in the valley as when we have scaled to the mountaintop.  On the mountain we get a glimpse of the whole big holy picture…but in the valley, not so much so.  Of course it doesn't mean we don't encounter God there...after all, Jesus came down off the mountain with the disciples. It does mean, though, that we may have to look a little deeper to find him. 

Instead of a glowing or booming presence of light...we discover God in the woman who says to the young mom, "Let me hold that baby while you rest."  We discover God in the man who shares a meal with the homeless, not to just offer food, but to be the ears that will listen and hear their stories.  We encounter God in the hard work of reconciliation and justice....and in the church that give voice to the voiceless and stands with the oppressed.  It may not feel sparkling and dazzling, but for all who have served others, we know that God is always with us in Christ's ministries of compassion and forgiveness.

Again, without understanding what the transfigured glowing Jesus actually looked like, or why Moses and Elijah were there, or what they said to Jesus...or what Peter was thinking...without knowing or interpreting any of these things, the story still teaches us that, through Jesus, God was with them.  God was with them even as they headed back down to meet the crowds. 

Folks, whereas mountaintops represent the Revelation of God's Presence, valleys are the Revelation of God’s kingdom.  The work in the valley is where God's Kingdom is lived out by God’s people.  It is good news for us to know that in Christ, God joins us there.

But what about the cloud?  If the mountain represents where we find God's Presence and the valley is where we live in God's Kingdom, what about the cloud?   What is God's purpose there?

Well, to me, the cloud represents a place for discovering God's truth.  I mean, think about these stories.  Whether it was God giving commandments to Moses, or God pronouncing Jesus as his beloved son, or God instructing the disciples to listen…it always seem to happened under the cover of a cloud.  Clouds represented the place for Revelation of God's Truth.

And metaphorically, isn't this also the case with the stories of our own lives?   Think about a time when you've discovered or become confidently aware of an answer or a particular truth about God.  How often was it that there was some element of uncertainty or chaos in your life that really kind of forced you to seek God's guidance in the first place. 

Remember how the foggy mornings of this past week slowed down our driving?  Well, the cloudiness of life also makes us slow down, maybe even stop, to look and listen for God's truth to be revealed to us.  And, maybe more importantly, to trust that the answer will eventually come.

So rather than try to figure out why the cloud in these stories…or even what truth we’re supposed to take away from the cloud, what if part of being able to live life with the transfigured Christ in our heart is based on our willingness to enter into the clouds of life without fear or hesitation?

Moses was willing to go into the cloud…fully trusting that God wanted him there...even though he was unsure of what was going to happen there.

Elijah had multiple encounters with clouds in his life, including being taken up into one at the end of it. Each time it is safe to say he had no idea of what to expect but he went there expectantly.

In this story, Jesus and his disciples are enveloped in a cloud...surrounded by uncertainty about what was happening in the moment, much less about what would come next.   Notice too, that the first expression of the disciples' fear is when this cloud covers them.  Not when Jesus starts glowing and his clothes turn dazzling white.  Not when Moses and Elijah, both whom are long since dead, show up on the mountain.  No, the fear happens when the cloud comes over them.

It makes sense though, right?  Fear always seems to be greatest when the world around us is clouded with uncertainty... 

When our finances are cloudy and we don't know how we will make ends meet.  

When the path of our health is fogged over with concern and unanswered questions.

When our relationships are clouded with resentment, disappointment and conflict.

When we are not clear about what is right, what is next, what is helpful, what is true.

The reality is that much of life is cloud-covered at times.  Certainty often eludes us.  We can't always see what we need to do.  And we definitely do not have all the answers.   Nonetheless, the gospel tells us that God does not want us to live our lives in fear.   He sent Jesus so we would live with grace, love and peace in our lives instead.

God does not promise that life will always be a mountaintop experience, nor does God guarantee that our valleys will be easy to navigate either.  God not assure us a cloudless life, in fact, he seems to send them at times.  Still God does give us an assurance that, in the person of Jesus, his beloved Son, the promised Messiah, God is with us always.  

The Transfiguration story also teaches us that in the midst of the cloud, the disciple's job, our job, is to listen.  Listen for God's voice speaking truth to us.   Listen to what Jesus teaches us -- with his words, his actions, his ministries and his life.  Listen for the Spirit's leading.  The truth we hear will be all we need to lead us to the mountain, guide us in the valleys, and sustain us in the clouds.

Friends, American Christianity seems to be enveloped in a cloud right now.  So many different issues for which the church is struggling to see truth. Even more so, we are wrestling to separate that which is of human effort and decision-making, from that which of God.  Our responses to issues such as current immigration and deportation strategies, vetting and receiving refugees, equal rights and religious freedom, interfaith interactions...are clouded by our dual citizenship in America and in the Kingdom of God. 

To say that we're in a fog is an understatement. 

And it seems that more and more people are resorting the tactics of hate to express their fear and anxiety.   But this story...this Transfiguration story...tells us that even if we don't understand it all..even if the answers are not explicable at this time...even if there's stuff we cannot comprehend...even if we have our own personal experiences and perspectives that are different than others...we are in this cloud together.  Together with each other...and with God.  And that is all we need to know.

Life will have mountains.  Life will have alleys. Life will always have plenty of clouds.

God is in all of them.   Do not fear.  Just listen.