2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9
Extraordinary happenings — what since Dr. King’s speech the night before his assassination have become commonly known as “mountaintop experiences” — are a part of our human existence.
Jesus and his disciples are on the top of a mountain when suddenly Moses and Elijah appear, and then Jesus, well, he seems to glow. Clearly, the disciples are as uncertain… let’s be honest: confused as they usually are. And we often are… Still, whether or not they knew what was going on or what it could possibly mean, they couldn’t quite miss that that in all the glory, it had to do with God… Not of their own deserving, somehow they’d ended up closer to God.
The other of our two spotlighted readings, technically, isn’t a mountaintop experience. Elisha tagging behind Elijah knowing full well this is his last day with his mentor and wishing to be present to the end.
This didn’t happen on a mountaintop, but in the Jordan Valley, even if the whole event was about Elijah being lifted up. One might say that it could have been a mountaintop for Elijah, as he was swept into heaven. But for Elisha, I suspect his wasn’t one of those “feeling lifted up to a place closer to God” kinds of experiences. More likely, he was feeling left walking the valley of the shadow of death by himself.
But whether one’s rejoicing in the warmth of God’s presence or stumbling on to God in a cloud of grief… there are different ways to feel near God, various places where we can get the big view, or hear more clearly.
For most of us, I suspect, those ways of feeling or places for hearing and seeing God… I’m not sure why, but for most of us they don’t happen often enough, no matter how much we long for them. We live life firmly planted down here on earth, and heaven is usually too far a reach over our heads.
Here’s some good news: our failure to perceive God’s wondrous, transformative power on the move in the world doesn’t leave God powerless. However, our noticing and ultimately participating, I think, makes God’s work easier.
And yet, we go through life missing much of what is most important and going on around us all the time. In her book, “Teaching A Stone to Talk,” Annie Dillard makes the observation familiar to this congregation that if we really understood what was going on here on even the most typical Sunday, the ushers would pass out life preservers and ladies would wear crash helmets instead of church hats.
But Dillard said something else, that’s quoted less, I think because it’s more direct: she writes that Christians are often like “cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute.”
Perhaps it’s reassuring then to read that for Peter, James and John, the Transfiguration is a moment of drama, if not clarity. Despite its stunning power, its meaning eludes them. We can understand that. One of you said to me this week, “Transfiguration Sunday, oh, yeah, that’s the week we get a glow in the dark Jesus.” We may not be sure what it all means, but at least let’s notice that something must have happened to engender this account.
The text says about Peter, “He did not know what to say.” Peter, who has seen demons expelled, the paralyzed walking, the blind restored to sight! The disciples were expecting a mountain top experience. They have high expectations for the Messiah, and suffering and death aren’t on their list.
Though Peter couldn’t find the right words, at least he wanted to respond somehow, to do something to whatever it is he knew he just experienced. Of course, it turned out that what Peter wanted to do — build booths and fashion some temporary dwelling for God’s glory on this earth, like the Israelites’ home in the wilderness — wasn’t the right course of action or response. But life is like that! We have an inkling, and try to act before we have a fuller understanding. The disciples wanted to see booths raised, not a cross. They longed for a mountaintop experience, just not three crosses on a hill. Things weren’t fitting together for them: the expectations, the glimpses they were getting of the reign of God, and this talk of Jesus about suffering and death and, most perplexingly, his resurrection. As the saying goes, they couldn’t get their minds wrapped around it all.
But let’s give them their props: this time, the disciples didn’t miss the revelation — even if they still couldn’t put it all together, they recognized the sights and the sounds. Jesus told Peter, James, and John to keep quiet about what happened, until they got the whole story, the big picture that includes suffering, death, and resurrection.
But I’m proud of the guys for just noticing. For not falling asleep. Or, as often could be said about how we live, sleeping through the whole thing…
One of you was teasing me recently, saying, “Michael, the weirdest things happen to you.” I can’t remember the extraordinary event in the long line of them that occasioned this response. Another of you, in earshot, piped in, “Yeah, I’ve noticed that too.”
It reminded me of something my ex-wife had once said when I’d returned from the latest adventure of note, “You know, Michael, your life is like Lucy in “I Love Lucy.” Ah, yes, my life is like driving the wrong way in the Holland Tunnel, or getting in a wrestling match while stomping grapes, or eating all the chocolates when I can’t keep up with the conveyor belt…
I’ve wondered sometimes if it’s not pastoring — all the exposure to and involvement with people –that puts me in unusual, often times delightful, and admittedly sometimes awkward situations?
But most of the time, I just figure; these kinds of things happen to everyone. But we often don’t notice them. We even fail to notice the mountaintops. And those valleys, we aren’t taught enough to celebrate them.
Friday night, I was having dinner downstairs with the Shelter. One of the guests came up, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’m sober tonight.” As I wished my friend many more sober nights, Tina, the shelter night supervisor, caught my eye, winked, and mouthed the words, “It’s about time he try something new.”
Later I was thinking, “Maybe every day each of us should try something new.”
That reminded me of the passage from Alice in Wonderland, where Alice laughs and says, “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” To which the White Queen responds: “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Beloved, it’s almost Lent. Our season of preparation for Resurrection. Some of us will give up something we enjoy. Others will take on a new commitment or practice.
Maybe some of you will join me and others from the Philadelphia Association for a special Wednesday night worship — a different preacher and a different church each Wednesday through Holy Week.
Or maybe you will join us right there at Old First for the early morning prayer and communion service
we’re going to celebrate each Sunday morning right there at 9 o’clock.
One of you said to me recently that you needed to get back to a practice you’d taken up over a year ago — of articulating thankfulness for something each day. You hoped that might help you rebalance a life that’s been feeling negative.
Or you might try something new each day.
Or practice believing impossible things for a half hour each morning.
Or open yourself to the weird, surprising experiences that are going on around us all the time.
And may one of these “intentionalities,” or another of you own devising — whichever one you choose — help you keep looking up that we might more likely see God’s glory. Amen.