mountains and valleys

Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday. It’s always a strange Sunday to me. It’s an odd story of Jesus being transformer-like and old dead guys appearing. And unlike many of the strange stories in the Bible which we tend to hide under wraps, we tell this one every single year. This year we also looked at what happened next, when they head down the mountain and everything falls apart quickly. Thoughts after the jump. If you’d like to listen, you can do that on the Bethany website.

Iordan Feodor "Transfiguration" - Don't you just love how superhero-esque this image is?

Iordan Feodor “Transfiguration” – Don’t you just love how superhero-esque this image is?

I’m guessing nothing exactly like this has happened to any of us. If it has, I want to hear about it. But I would wager that many, maybe most, maybe all of us have had moments similar to this, times we can’t explain, where the veil is pulled back and we catch a glimpse of holiness in our everyday lives.

Maybe it was dramatic—a loved one visited you after their death, or you experienced God’s voice in a concrete or perhaps audible way.

It seems that more often it’s subtle—in worship, or at a concert, or somewhere out in God’s good creation, or just a random Tuesday afternoon something shifts and the world glints and gleams, and it becomes abundantly clear, for a moment, that you are created, named, and loved, that you have a place in this good world, and that as one saint said, all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. Do you know what that’s like?

We don’t usually talk about these experiences. For one thing, the words never measure up. What could Jesus, Peter, John and James say that wouldn’t sound silly? How can we say, I was driving home on I-5 and the world broke open?

For another thing, it’s disappointing how quickly the world goes back to normal. We have what seems to be a life-changing experience, and then come back to reality and nothing seems changed at all. The temptation is to shrug and dismiss the experience entirely.

One of my first of these sorts of experiences was in the mountains of North Carolina, at a presbyterian conference center called Montreat. There’s a mountain there, a small one by west coast standards, about 4,000 feet. At the top, with the valley spread out below you and the blue ridge mountains of Appalachia as far as the eye can see, sometimes the veil lifts and you catch a glimmer of grace.

The first time I climbed that little mountain, I was a freshman in high school. My youth group and I climbed it at dawn on the last morning of a week-long conference that had shown me more about God and invited me deeper into faith. It all came together at the top of that mountain. I would never be the same. I had seen the holy, and I was going to live in that light every minute of the rest of my life. We came down and drove the five hours back to Wake Forest. My mother picked me up at the church, and we stopped by the grocery store on our way home. The checker bagging our groceries did something that, in all of my ninth grade wisdom, I was sure was not right. I mouthed off about it, insulting the checker and horrifying my mother. As she stared at me, I couldn’t believe it. What happened to never being the same? To being different? And holy? Did all that had happened on top of that mountain mean nothing?

Maybe you know how this goes. It seems like it was this way for Jesus and the disciples.

As soon as they get to the bottom of the mountain things fall apart.

A man’s son is ill. The disciples try to heal him. Jesus had given them the power to do so, but they can’t make it work. No matter what they try, the boy is still suffering. The man has to go over their heads and take him to Jesus. And Jesus snaps—he shouts at the disciples. Do I have to do everything myself? How long do I have to put up with you idiots? I can’t wait to be done with you.

If our only image of Jesus is of a mild-mannered very nice man, this is a good reminder that he apparently had a temper, an inclination to snap at people, and a tendency to overstate his case when he was mad.

Most of the time we don’t include this story of the disciples screwing up and Jesus losing his temper when we tell the story of the transfiguration. We usually stop while the afterglow is still lingering. But in every gospel that tells the story of the transfiguration, this story of the disciples’ inadequacy and Jesus’ irritability comes next.

Did anything real happen up on that mountain? Did it make any difference in their lives? Did it matter at all?

Apparently we’re not the only ones who can go from transcendent experience to disappointing real life in the blink of an eye. Apparently this is how it works.

God gives us glimpses of glory. We are privileged sometimes, for a few minutes, to have the veil lifted, to see what the world is really about. These revelations transform us.

But it’s not magic. The Spirit is no fairy godmother. No spiritual insight or experience turns us immediately and all at once into saints, no matter how much we might wish it worked that way.

The transfiguration didn’t change anything right away. But it was like a sign pointing the way forward, or like a window giving a glimpse through the pain of the cross to the dawn that would break on resurrection morning.

That glimpse, like the glimpses that we get from time to time, had power. It began to work on Peter, James, and John. Ultimately these three far from perfect disciples will lead the church, spread the good news, even die for their faith. I wonder if part of what sustained them through all of that, allowed them to keep getting up, dusting themselves off and moving ahead was what happened this afternoon on the mountain. I believe this experience even helped sustain Jesus through the horror that waited for him. It didn’t change everything all at once, but it was like manna in the wilderness—inexplicable, mysterious, and yet somehow just enough nourishment.

When we have these moments or seasons in our life, when we catch a glimpse of the love that over and around us lies, we can easily be tempted to dismiss it, when the shine wears off and the world and we go back to seeming tarnished and dull. But if we do that we miss out.

With time, with our own willingness, by the power of the Spirit, these glimpses can sustain us through all manner of hardship. They can transform us.

So watch for moments like these. And store them up in your heart. Trust them. Trust them even if everything falls apart immediately afterward. Because these glimpses of grace point us to the truth—that God is here, with us, among us, within us—joining us in this world. These glimpses remind us that if we have eyes to see, we will find that we are surrounded by beauty, love, and holiness in our everyday humdrum lives.

So the next time the world shimmers and breaks open and for even a moment you catch sight of glory, take heart. Treasure that glimpse in your heart. Let it work in you over months and years and decades. Let your eyes be opened, and trust that, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, by God’s good grace, we are being transformed, changed from glory into glory, until, at last, we find ourselves lost in wonder, love, and praise.

by Sarah W. Wiles
February 10, 2013
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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