Sermon: “Mountaintops”

Table of Content

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on February 23, 2020 with the lectionary texts from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew.


From the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Exodus:

Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, and this is why that’s important. To transfigure here means to transform in such a way that improves and elevates, namely by being brought closer to God in space and purpose but mostly in spirit, and in so doing becoming more like God. It’s this becoming more like God that I think is the main purpose of life, and how we are able to enjoy a life of blessing here and now. If you want to know the point of the sermon, it’s that. It’s one thing to believe we are loved by God (and we are) but another to become more wise, more loving, more compassionate, more creative, more forgiving and so much more. In other words, to accept the inheritance we have as beloved children of the God who is. So I believe that we can, by grace and patience, grow in a God-like way.

Which makes the Transfiguration — the feast and the concept — very important. The passage we heard in the second reading is its warrant. It’s marked today in some Protestant churches: the capstone of the season following Epiphany. On the day of Epiphany, last month, Jesus’ divine essence was disclosed by the presence of a star and discerned by foreign sages, the “three Wise Men.” Now at the Transfiguration, the dim light of a star has become a light that is unavoidable and blinding, though seen only spiritually and not with the eyes. At Epiphany, we come as seekers, but at the Transfiguration we approach as trusted (if unsettled) friends. But the message is essentially the same: we will have more understanding, and that is what will guide us towards God. The wonder and amazement remain constant.

Today’s last-Sunday-before-Lent observance is a Christian minority opinion though. Catholics, Episcopalians and the Orthodox observe it on August 6, which you will recall is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. That makes me shudder. But perhaps reminds us that dramatic change can also be traumatic change, and that bright light and power can also utterly destroy. And yet that horrible coincidence, which chills the blood and might move you to tears, is also a reminder that change for the sake of change promises us nothing more than change. What we want is a change towards something better. And yet the Godwards life has no promise of happiness, or sweetness or creature comforts in the usual sense. There’s so much pain and hurt in our world. To both love the people and living things in it, and yet hope for something greater and eternal, will stress us, will tear us, will break our hearts.

And so being changed is usually unwelcome, often distressing, and sometimes painful. But it is not optional. To live is to change. How you change, and what you become, relies in part on what you choose to become. Growing into the likeness of God means taking God as your guide. There are other options, but I cannot recommend them. Becoming an indifferent person (say) with a callous soul is also a change and a path, but one where where others pay the price for your comfort.

Sometimes I complain that the recommended passages from the Bible are hard to preach. After all, in any number of lessons brought together by custom or committee, it’s sometimes hard to see the connection. Or there’s a bit of Iron Age morality that needs to be interpreted for the Silicon Age. But I’m not complaining today; the lessons lock together like puzzle pieces. Someone early on, hearing the passage from Matthew, might have thought, “I know where this is going.” And like any good story, you’re happy to hear it in a new voice or from a new angle. Even in Jesus’ time, the story from Exodus about Moses and the rest was ancient. Arthur and Merlin and Guinevere ancient. Moses took his key deputies to a high place, where God was made manifest to him in the others’ presence. And Jesus took his key deputies to a high place where they had a stunning, divine vision of Moses and Elijah. So Jesus made the connection himself, and it was obvious to the disciples, if overwhelming.

These are both hierophanies, manifestations of a higher power like God, but can also be legendary heroes, angels and the like. We can anticipate them or prepare for the to a degree —that’s part of taking a pilgrimage, say — but we don’t have control over them, and there’s no reason to believe that any of us will have this transcendent experience. But can try and understand experiences like those in the reading. And we do have moments in our lives on which we must pivot or chose, and very often we don’t have control over those either.

But what if we have experienced something. Moses experienced hierophanies, and one can say that Jesus was a hierophany. What makes a manifestation a manifestation? Perhaps you’ve had an experience that defies description, or didn’t demand an explanation: an experience where you were called by God without words, or were just pulled up by a sense — somewhere between grief and elation — to a new place where you understood something in a new way. And that leads us to the devouring fire atop the holy mountain. Its light reveals what we carry in our hearts.

On the mountain in the gospel reading, Jesus was also joined by a manifestation of Elijah, and Elijah also had a hierophany It was one of my preaching texts a few months ago, but I don’t expect you to recall the details. He had just slain the priests of Baal — that’s another sermon — and now was on the run for his life. From the first book of Kings, chapter nineteen (7-12):

And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

The New International Version translates the sound of God as “a gentle whisper” and the New Revised Standard Version as “the sound of sheer silence.”

And so seems to me that the violent storm surrounding Elijah, the “devouring fire” on the top of Moses’ mountain or even Jesus’ sure crucifixion mentioned in his disclosure to his disciples that a hierophany isn’t made up of troubles and tumult, violence and strife, but that they surround and perhaps hide it.

And one thing is sure: you don’t return from the mountaintop the way you came. The experience changes you. And even as we live, we are not exactly the same people we were. We do have some choices: to grow or to wither; to learn or to ignore; to take on a greater likeness to God or withdraw and betray what we might be.

Hierophanies give an experience of great and holy things, but not the means to interpret them to others. That is what we add to our experience of the holy. But direct language fails, even though we have vocabulary and concepts the people living millennia ago didn’t. We can speak meaningfully (if partially) of the working of our minds, of language, of various religious experience, of economics, of the natural world in the micro and macro scale and much more besides. Little wonder we turn to figurative descriptions and the arts to help. Little wonder we relive them though ritual. Preaching is supposed to help explain or at least describe sacred encounters, but can only go so far with the words and gestures we have in common.

Nevertheless, once we have experience of the Holy (if we have it) and once we have some interpretive means for understanding it in our lives — and this interpretation will take on new meanings over the years — you have to do something with it. Growing into a greater likeness with God has responsibilities.

Universalists have not, historically, made much of the Feast of the Transfiguration. An exception is Edwin Hubble Chapin, long-time minister of the church now known as Fourth Universalist in New York. He described a painting in the Vatican by Raphael depicting the Transfiguration, and what its moral implications were.

Writing in his Living Words (1860), he had to paint his own pictures in words of what he saw. The first thing you would see is Jesus is blazing white garments, lifted up as if swimming in the air.

But [Rafael] saw what the apostles at that moment did not see, and in another portion of his picture has represented the scene at the foot of the hill, — the group that awaited the descent of Jesus, the poor possessed boy, writhing, and foaming, and gnashing his teeth, — his eyes, as some say, in their wild, rolling agony, already catching a glimpse of the glorified Christ above; the baffled disciples, the cavilling scribes, the impotent physicians, the grief-worn father, seeking in vain for help. Suppose Jesus had stayed upon the mount, what would have become of that group of want, and helplessness, and agony? Suppose Christ had remained in the brightness of that vision forever, — himself only a vision of glory, and not an example of toil, and sorrow, and suffering, and death, — alas! for the great world at large, waiting at the foot of the hill ; — the [280] groups of humanity in all ages: — the sin-possessed sufferers: the cavilling sceptics; the philosophers, with their books and instruments; the bereaved and frantic mourners in their need! (pp. 279-80)

Raphael tied the scene of the Transfiguration with the next passage in Matthew, where Jesus healed the boy with epilepsy and scolded the faithless around him. Chapin carried the point in his own ministry in New York. The experience of God demands a change, and that change demands positive action that shows that each of us are heirs to God, whether we know it or not. And it shows God that we have heard and seen.

Now, if you know your Moses, Elijah and Jesus, you’ll recall a span of forty days. It’s a biblical convention for a long period of time. Elijah survived forty days on the divinely provided food he ate. Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. And Noah had his forty days of rain and flood when all the earth was destroyed.

Friends, starting this Wednesday, we are beginning our own forty days with the coming of Lent.

In our society, Lent has become something between a self-improvement opportunity and a running joke, if it is known or understood at all. This is fine, so long we see the forty days as a preparation for a persistent change in our lives. We wouldn’t give up cruelty for Lent, only to re-adopt it for Easter. At its best, Lenten discipline changes you for the better, putting your steps in a Godwards direction. So I charge you not simply to do better but to be better. If you choose a Lenten discipline, make it something practical than will stretch you, but you can accomplish. Tie it to the direction that you feel God leading you towards. If you do not have a clear sense of how God is directing you, make your discipline an act of discovery. Review your life, so as to get a better scope of your life. Learn from the example of others who have gone before you, both to test your self-examination and to encourage you.

And with renewed focus, you can be better by adopting those habits of love and mercy that the logic of this world can not readily understand. Or if it does understand it, it is through the evidence of our lives made glad, living in a way that honor loving kindness.

In short, we will be known by our love for one another, with love to spare and overflow.

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