Holy Trinity, Danville–Luke 9:28-36
I grew up, as you may know, in northeastern Illinois, in the Chicago suburbs. And so I grew up thinking that it was normal for land to be flat, and that hills and mountains are an exotic exception. I was 17 before I saw anything higher than the Ozarks or the Appalachians. The Alps, the Rockies, and the Sierras all came later, and I, in fact, lived a large portion of my adult life with mountain roads being a fairly regular part of my experience. Now, Brenda and I have grown to love the big sky beauty of the very flat corn and soybean country of central Illinois. Yet, there is certainly something deeply and intuitively attractive—to all people, I think—about being able to acquire some altitude and look out over a hundred square miles of fields or forests or residential subdivisions.
This magnetism that height and view have for us becomes even more intense, I believe, when we’re travelling, when we’re on the way somewhere. The highway or the path that we’re following rises ahead of us and we can’t see but a few hundred yards down the road. We may feel just a little bit tense, just a little bit uneasy, although the discomfort is so low-level that we don’t even think about it.
Then, at last, we reach the crest of the hill, and our whole perspective changes.
We can see the next five, ten, twenty, or thirty miles down the road. And our unarticulated tension and anxiety give way to an equally unarticulated exhilaration. We feel just a little bit lighter, a little bit more buoyant— and why?
Because, from our vantage point on the top of the hill, we can literally see our future! We can see what it is we’re going to be encountering and dealing with during the next leg of our journey, and this knowledge pleases us.
The same dynamics of view and perspective apply to the metaphorical journey that we’re all on, the journey of life, the trip from God who creates us, and back to God who redeems us. The road that we’re on presents us with opportunities, from time to time, to take a long view, to take an expansive look at where we’ve been and where we’re going. I hope and pray that all of us find the resolve to take those opportunities when they come our way. If the road sign says “scenic lookout” or “historical marker” one mile ahead, that information is meaningless to us if we don’t pull over in one mile and look at the view or read the marker.
The decision is ours.
This Sunday, this Last Sunday after Epiphany, is one such sign, one such chance to look out and see what lies ahead for us as the people of God, the family of those who have been born again in the waters of Holy Baptism. Where are we? As individuals, of course, we’re in a whole lot of different places, as many places as there are people in this room. But as a people, as a community, in the walk that we walk together, we’re at one of those scenic lookouts. We’re just finishing the season of the year that takes its cue from Christmas, whose tone is set by the incarnational cycle of feasts and holy days: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.
Now we’re ready to look another direction, to focus on what lies ahead, the time of year that takes its cue from Easter, and whose tone is set by the mystery of the cross and the resurrection. Believe it or not, in a relatively few short weeks, springtime plants will begin to bloom and baseball season will be ready to get underway; spring training begins just a few days from now. So both in the church year and in our “real world” lives, we’re standing at the threshold of something new. But what we’re looking at immediately, of course, as a church community, is the imminent arrival of that time of year known as Lent. I don’t know what associative feelings Lent conjures up for you—good, bad, or indifferent. It mostly depends on how you were brought up. For the Eucharistic Communities across the Diocese of Springfield, it will mean a more penitential and subdued atmosphere in Sunday worship, and often an extra opportunity for liturgical devotion during the week. And that Hebrew-Latin exclamation that is so characteristic of Christian joy and praise—Alleluia—will be banished from our public vocabulary.
So we stand on a ridge, at the summit of a mountain, looking down into the valley of Lent, into which we will shortly descend. But we’re not alone on this hilltop. Jesus is with us, or, rather, we are with Jesus, because it’s his Transfiguration that creates and defines our mountaintop experience today, and his suffering and death that creates and defines the Lent that we look forward to. Jesus has come to a turning point in his “career”. It’s become clear to him that the time for his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee, the area of northern Palestine where he had been raised, has come to an end. The time for his journey to Jerusalem, the national capital in the south, to confront the evil powers that lay in wait for him, has arrived.
So Jesus takes the inner circle of the inner circle—Peter, James, and John—with him up to the top of a mountain for a retreat, before officially giving the word that he’s going to head south. There are indications that even Peter, James, and John—the inner circle of the inner circle—needed to process a good deal of confusion and a good deal of denial about what was going on. Jesus had not exactly kept them in the dark about what lay in store for him and for them.
He had openly predicted his own passion and death and resurrection. But sometimes when our ears hear a message that they know our heart doesn’t want to hear, they keep it to themselves, and never pass along the information.
It made absolutely no sense to the disciples: things were going so well in Galilee.
The crowds were getting larger; Jesus’s popularity was at an all-time high.
Why mess things up by going to Jerusalem where there’s bound to be nothing but trouble? So from our perspective, why bother with Lent? I don’t want to look at my sins just now. I know they’re there, and I know just where they are when I want to find them and look at them—later.
Peter, James, and John take their confusion and denial up to the mountain with them, begin to pray with Jesus, and then, “heavy with sleep”, St Luke tells us, they surrender themselves to slumber. And then, probably sometime in the dark of night, something totally wonderful and unexpected and miraculous happens.
The disciples awaken, and there’s light all around, but it’s not coming from the moon or the stars, it’s coming from Jesus. His face and his clothing are aglow with a divine radiance. The sight is indescribably glorious—words don’t exist to communicate the wonder of what Peter, James, and John—the inner circle of the inner circle—saw and felt that night on the mountain. And with Jesus, basking in the light, are two of the heroes of Israel’s past: Moses and Elijah.
And the three of them are talking about the very subject that so perplexed the disciples, namely, Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem and what awaited him there.
At first, Peter doesn’t get it. He thinks the whole event is about rubbing elbows with famous people. It takes the voice of God the Father coming out of a cloud to set him straight, but he and the other disciples eventually do get the message.
And the message is this: The light of the transfigured Christ that illuminates the mountain will also illuminate the valley. In fact, the light of the transfigured Christ shines all the way to the next mountaintop, to the destination of the journey, revealing that the trip through the valley is a trip from glory to glory.
Jesus and his disciples were given a “sneak preview” of what lay at the end of their road. And that knowledge, the knowledge of that glory, sustained them in the difficult moments they were yet to face.
Today, you and I share in a liturgical “mountaintop experience,” surrounded by all the tokens of festive corporate worship: white vestments, brass candlesticks, flowers, incense, and that ancient and glorious Christian expletive of joy— Alleluia! We’re about to enter the Lenten valley, the valley of recollecting our sin, our shame, and our failure. But the road we travel is a road that leads from glory to glory. For some of our number, the valley that we enter on Wednesday will not only be liturgical, but an actual and quite real spiritual or emotional valley. The rhythm of individual lives will happen to correspond to the rhythm of the Church’s corporate life. If you consider yourself to be in this group, remember that the same truth applies: the light of the mountain also shines in the valley. You may have Good Friday yet to face—you may be experiencing it already—but there is always Easter. There is always Easter.
My brothers and sisters, our invitation today is to enjoy this time on the mountain. It’s perfectly OK to bask in the light emanating from the transfigured Jesus. But our time in Galilee is about over, and it’s time to go down to Jerusalem. So on Wednesday, let’s gather back here—and, indeed, it will be us gathering; I will be back here with you—let us come together again and remember the light of the transfigured Christ, knowing that that light is with us every step of the way. And then we will step out and follow Jesus on the road that leads to the cross, his cross and ours, knowing that at the other end of the valley lies our destination, our home, the end of our journey.
Alleluia and Amen.