The story of the transfiguration and the demonised boy, that the disciples couldn’t help, appear in three gospels, Mathew, Mark and the passage we had read out from Luke today. In each gospel these two events follow each other, they belong together not only because they follow each other in Jesus ministry but because it tells us the two go together in life… “the glorious mountain top experience, and the valley floor where stubborn demons shriek and sufferers weep.” While some people would prefer neither extreme in life, the passage tells us that as we seek to know Christ more and more he will reveal himself to us and as we are more open to the Glory of God the more we are opened to the pain of the world. The reality is that we will encounter Jesus on the mountain top and when we come down again: In the midst of life’s great joys and deep sorrows, the words that help us to follow Jesus are the words that came from the cloud that day in galilee “this is my son, my chosen one, listen to him”.
The passage starts with a temporal connection to what hasgone before. It was eight days after Peter’s confession that Jesus was indeed God’s messiah, his chosen one. It was eight days since Jesus had told the disciples that he would be betrayed by the elders, high priests and scribes in Jerusalem and he would suffer and die and on the third day he would rise again; that the road of the kingdom of God leads through the cross. It was eight days since Jesus had told them and us that to follow him meant that we too would walk the way of the cross, giving up our lives for Jesus and in doing that we would find life. Now some of the disciples, John, Peter and James catch a glimpse of the reality of who Jesus is.
Once again the context is prayer. They had gone up the mountain away from other people, away from distraction and pressing demands to seek God. In the Old Testament going to the mountain was associated with seeking God for fresh revelation. Two relevant examples spring to mind, Moses going up on Mt Sinai, in particular in exodus 34 where Moses face shines because he has spoken with God. The other is Elijah on Mt Horeb, in 1 Kings 19 who seeks God for encouragement and direction. In the gospels we often have Jesus going off to pray, we are aware that he comes back with a new sense of direction or encouragement, but in this instance there is a reality for the disciples of Jesus relationship with God. It’s like our own prayer life, or our worship life, we seek God, and there are those times when God manifests himself, we are aware of his presence in a new and powerful way and others when it just seems to be going through the motions, but in both we trust in God’s promise that he is there and he is with us. Psalm 30 was part of my devotional reading for Friday and in it David gives thanks for God’s lifelong presence and in the midst of that also acknowledges there were times when he was distressed because God seemed absent.
This is one of those times when the glory of God manifests itself in a very real way. The disciples see Jesus face and clothes begin to shine. They see him standing with two figures they recognise as Moses and Elijah and they hear Jesus speaking to them about Jesus departure his exodus. Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets in the Old Testament and in this experience we can see how those are going to be fulfilled in Jesus death and resurrection. The use of the word exodus here or departure gives us insight into a way of thinking of the cross that just as Moses had lead the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus was going to lead God’s people out of slavery to sin and death.
The disciples don’t know how to react to this experience, you get the sense they are struggling with it, they are tired and wondering if it is a dream. Peter, always the spokesman for the group, asks whether or not they should build a shelter for each of the three, there on the mountain. In response to this experience he wants to do something. When we have a powerful experience of God it is a natural human response to want to stay there in that place, to keep the experience alive, or build something so we can capture what we have experienced. It maybe that we associate closeness with God or a special revelation with a particular place or activity or action, or worship style and music and we build a shelter out of that. A lot of our traditions and how we do things in church spring out of a particular revelation or move of God that we have enshrined. A lot of what happens in our worship service comes out of the reformation, a move of God through which many people rediscovered the wonderful truth of salvation by faith, the centrality of scriptures: the praise and worship format for services came out of the charismatic renewal, as people encountered Gods presence in a new way in extended times of singing. At a minister’s association meeting it was suggested we have a half day of prayer, because when another group of ministers did that there was a real revival that started in their city. It is easy to want to hold on to that encounter and experience.
It’s interesting that the passage says that Peter didn’t really know what he was saying. He’s very human and he is overwhelmed by this experience. I’ve had experiences like that where you are fully engaged both emotionally and physically and intellectually you just can’t process it. Spiritual experiences, mountain top times are best dealt with through reflection. There are times when I doubt my call to ministry, and I’m sure there are time when you doubt it to, often in those times I am drawn back to spiritual encounters that I have had in the past. Turning up with dreadlocks and not having bathed for a week at Orama Christian communities’ summer conference and the key note speaker pointing to me in the middle of a meeting (I thought he was going to throw me out) but rather had a profound word of encouragement for me about taking up Christian leadership. That call to leadership has been tested by the church in our training and call process and often now that expereince helps me in testing times… In 2 Peter 1:17 as peter is wrestling with people who would deny Jesus coming again in glory, he affirms that we can rely on the fact that the word of God says it will happen and also he thinks back to what he saw on the mountain of transfiguration and says he knows it’s true because he has had a sneak preview. He’s heard God’s affirmation of Jesus as his son.
Peter’s train of thought, his rambling about building plans are interrupted in an amazing way, the mountain is shrouded in cloud. In Old Testament encounters with God this is seen as a theophany, God actually turns up, the Hebrew word shekinah the physical presence of the glory of God. In exodus it is the cloud that leads the people of Israel through the desert by day and is a fiery pillar by night, it settles on Mt Sinai as Moses receives the law. The disciples hear a voice from the cloud saying ‘This is my son, my chosen one, listen to him’. God points to the unique relationship that Jesus has with him, one so close it is expressed as son and chosen one… Peter had wanted to build three shelters to the three figures he had seen, but here God is pointing to the importance of Jesus above Moses and Elijah. In our time and culture there in the name of tolerance people want to put Jesus on par with other religious figures but we have God’s affirmation of Jesus unique status.
Secondly the voice reinforces what Jesus had been saying about saving faith in Jesus that we should listen to him. It’s not about enshrining our experiences or build structures and rituals around them but rather to listen… to hear what Jesus has to say and to put it into action in our lives. You may remember at the beginning of the year when I came back from holidays I sensed that the one word for us this year is ‘listen’ and here it is again. God’s call is to listen to his son, to listen to Jesus. Allow Jesus to speak into our lives, listening is not passive it is active, to hear and to put into action what Jesus is saying. That is saving faith, that is what it means for us as a church to grow as disciples of Jesus, which is at the heart of vision statement as a church… which is where our being a vibrant authentic sustainable community flows out of, where the inspiring of other to join us on the journey comes from.
It would be great to stay in the cloud and on the mountain top, but we have those words ‘the next day they came back down’. People often attest to the fact that after an important spiritual experience they have times when they seem to come crashing back to earth, when the reality of a broken and hurting world strikes home. And Jesus and Peter, John and James walk straight into it. There is the crowd waiting with all its expectations and demands. Amidst the crowd is a desperate man whose son is tormented by an unclean spirit. While the three with Jesus had been having a wonderful mountain top experience, the rest of the twelve had been facing defeat, a problem that they couldn’t handle. Just a week ago they had come back from their mission trip full of rejoicing that even the demons obeyed them and here they seemed powerless to help. Sometimes being church actually feels like that, we can feel powerless, our ministry just doesn’t seem to make a difference. Some people seem to be on the mountain top and we are stuck on the valley floor. We try but it just doesn’t seem to make a difference. But Jesus turns up.
Jesus words are rather stinging and challenging to the disciples and the crowd that they are a an ‘unbelieving and perverse generation’ there and our expectations of and trust in God maybe weak and compromised. We don’t know how the disciples went about dealing with the situation, in the other gospel’s Jesus said that there are some demons that will only come out with prayer and fasting. Maybe they gave up to quickly, put it in the too hard basket. Maybe they were full of compassion but were afraid to do what they had seen Jesus do or they themselves had done on their mission trip. But even here where the demons shriek and the suffering weep they encounter Jesus, and as he is prepared to get his hands dirty with the nitty gritty of life we see transformation and wholeness.
You know we don’t often have those mountain top experiences. In Jesus life this is really only the second time we hear God’s voice in such a way, the other was at his baptism. We can spend a lot of times seeking after them, when they happen they are wonderful and great. There are times when in our services there is a real sense of God’s presence, God is always with us, but sometimes it just feels like God just want to let us know it…They are there to encourage us and reaffirm of who Jesus is, maybe you also feel them in times of devotion or prayer as well, when you are ministering to other people. The great promise of the gospel is Jesus presence both on the mountain top and when we come back down, in those joys filled highs, where we are so overwhelmed by God’s presence you just don’t know what you are saying, and in the sorrow filled moments of struggling with innocent people suffering. In both we encounter Jesus Christ being with us, with a shining face or a rebuke or healing touch.
And we know on both mountain top or when we come back down, even on an over cast day here at St Peters the call for us as disciples is to hear God’s words “this is my Son, my chosen one, listen to him”.