Matthew 17:1-9, Exodus 24:12-18
On the Mountain
This Sunday is the last Sunday in our series about goals for the church. On Wednesday, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, and our focus will change for a forty day journey. But today, the goal I want us to focus on serves as sort of a transition between where we are and where we’re going. This week, we’re talking about worship. One of our goals is to have meaningful worship that is relevant and powerful for people of all generations. Of course, as human beings, we are all so unique and different, and what is meaningful to me in worship may not be meaningful to you. As a church, we incorporate worshippers from infancy to older adulthood, and that means we try to make worship meaningful for children and teens, for young adults and young parents, for baby boomers and retirees. It is a challenge to find a balance in worship – we try to balance traditional hymns with newer music. We try to use different styles of prayer, different types of liturgy. We serve communion in different styles. We try to incorporate imagery and sounds into our worship and learning. We try to make things relevant for today’s world, while making sure that we pass on a faith that has been nurtured for thousands of years. We try to keep familiar practices while introducing new ones that respond to where we are now.
As it happens, our focus on worship this Sunday falls on a special day in the liturgical year. The last Sunday before the start of Lent is Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration Sunday celebrates the transfiguration of Jesus. And the transfiguration itself is hard to describe, but we might understand it as Jesus’ true nature – all his divinity, his godliness – momentarily being seen while he still walked on earth with us, revealed to Peter, James, and John. For a brief moment, Jesus is transfigured, or transformed, and his holiness is unveiled in a sense, and three of his closest disciples witness it. To be honest, this probably still doesn’t sound very exciting to us, does it? Maybe just more confusing than anything. And indeed, I don’t think reading about it will ever convey to us exactly what happened on that day, or what Peter, James, and John actually saw and felt. But I think we can study this passage and get a better sense of things, and learn to relate to their experience – and I think that’s what’s key for us.
The text opens with “six days later.” Six days after what? The previous chapter tells us it is six days after Peter both answered the question “Who do you say that I am?” with “You are the Messiah” to Jesus, and was rebuked by Jesus, who said to Peter, “get behind me, Satan,” when Peter didn’t want to hear about the suffering and death Jesus would soon face. So six days after this, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain. There he is transfigured, changed in some way, face shining like the sun, and seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, who represent the law and the prophets, the pillars of Judaism. The three disciples are afraid and confused, but yet Peter still offers to build dwellings so that they can all stay there on the mountain. But God speaks from the overshadowing cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Jesus, back to normal, and alone again with the three, tells them to get up, not to be afraid. And they return back down the mountain.
Our Exodus text has some similar themes today – we read about Moses going up the mountain where he receives the Ten Commandments and other law from God. We read, “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 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. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” Again, we don’t know exactly what happens “in the cloud” – but clearly a deeply spiritual holy experience happens on the mountain.
From texts like these we can easily see why we might talk about having mountain-top experiences. We generally use this phrase to describe a particular time when we feel close to God. I know with the conference youth I’ve worked with, they often speak of our events, our gatherings, as mountain-top experiences – these intense, spiritual times where it seems so much easier to see God, understand what God wants them to do. It’s how I used to feel spending a week at summer camp when I was little – I couldn’t wait to get there, and I couldn’t wait to go back when it was over. It seemed pretty hard to capture that mountain-top experience when in the real world. Something about being on the mountain-top helps makes God’s voice seem clear.
One of my favorite series of books is C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and one book in the series has a mountain-top scene that seems on task: in book four, The Silver Chair, a young girl named Jill finds herself on a high mountain, being given a task by Aslan, the Christ-like figure of the series. Though she likes being on the mountain, near to Aslan, she soon must travel down into the world to set about the tasks he appointed for her. As she is traveling into the world, he speaks these words to her. "I give you a warning," he says, "Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the Signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the Signs and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters."
So what does all of this, what does the transfiguration have to do with worship? I think worship is a time when we particularly seek to draw close to God. It’s like going up on a mountain, where we hope we will find God’s voice to be a bit clearer. And hopefully, like Aslan said to Jill in The Silver Chair, we can remember the Signs when we’re not on the mountain. In other words, we take our experience of closeness to God in worship and let it permeate our whole lives.
We worship because God is God and we are not! We worship because God is love and we seek to love in response. We worship because as God chooses us, creates us, we in turn want to say that we’ve chosen God above all else. It is God who we promise to love with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And because of that, and to show that, we love our neighbors, our fellow human creations. We worship because God is who God is. And we worship because we want to know this God, encounter this God, hear from this God, be moved by this God. In his book chapter about passionate worship, Bishop Robert Schnase writes, “People are searching for worship that is authentic, alive, creative, and comprehensible, where they experience the life-changing presence of God in the presence of others . . . Worship [is when] we gather deliberately seeking to encounter God in Christ. We cultivate our relationship with God and with one another as the people of God. We don’t attend worship to squeeze God into our lives; we seek to meld our lives into God’s.” (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, 33-34, emphasis mine.) We come to the mountain to seek God’s voice. We come down from the mountain and seek to share God’s voice in the world and let it shape our lives.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been giving you challenges – giving us challenges, concrete ways to live out our goals for ministry in the year ahead. I hope by now, you are getting familiar enough with them that you know them – hopefully you aren’t sick of them yet! - but hopefully you are starting to remember them well! Our first goal is about being welcoming and sharing the good news. Our challenge is to invite and bring at least one person to worship with you in the year ahead and hopefully help that person become part of the life of this congregation. I hope you’ve already started thinking about who you want to invite. Our second challenge relates to our commitment to mission and our belief that we see Jesus when we truly see one another. So our challenge is to engage in or go deeper with a face-to-face mission, a mission that is relationship-centered. And last week we talked about stewardship and our relationship with God – our task, easy or hard – is to give, every time we give, with a spirit of joy and thanksgiving, so that every time we give it is a celebration of God at work in us.
The challenge that I want to give to you this week is for you to commit to, to fully engage in worship in the season of Lent. Lent is a season that is just forty days long. Forty days. And during this season we begin with an Ash Wednesday service this week. We will have mid-week services all season where we’ll celebrate with a meal and communion and fellowship and conversation about mission. We have Holy Week services that are unique and special – from Palm/Passion Sunday, to Maundy Thursday with communion and stripping the sanctuary, to Good Friday and a tenebrae service or a time for prayer in the sanctuary, and finally, Easter Sunday. I guarantee to you that you will find Easter worship more meaningful if you have been part of the entire Lenten journey – you will appreciate the destination more if you know what it took to get there. If for some reason you can’t get here to worship during Lent, I encourage you to worship where you are, or to be intentional about your devotional life during the season of Lent.
If you are interested in talking more about worship and styles of worship and what makes worship meaningful, I invite you to join a small group conversation on Friday, March 25th, at 6pm. If you want to participate in worship – behind the scenes, up front, in designing worship, or leading worship, please let me or a member of the worship committee know. Worship is the work of all God’s people, and I want you to be invested in our time together with God.
On Wednesday Lent begins, and worship is at the heart of our Lenten journey. Come, let us worship. Amen.