Sunday, February 19, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 21:59; sermon starts around 28:24)
(and just for funzies, watch the annual burning of the palms here)
I have to admit that I don’t really have a lot of experience with literal mountaintop moments. Like most – if not all – of you, I am from Nebraska: a state famously not known for its mountains.
I have only made it to the top of one mountain, and that was many years ago now. Back in the days when I was working as a camp counselor out at Carol Joy Holling, a bunch of the other summer staff and I planned this big backpacking trip at the end of my first summer. We spent about a week hiking around the Medicine Bow Mountains in southern Wyoming, and close to the end of the week, we climbed up to the top of Medicine Bow Peak itself.
I really enjoyed the trip as a whole, but I’ll admit that there were times that it became a bit of a slog. It was hours of walking every day, plus each one of us had a sixty-pound backpack on our backs. And even though we went in August, the mountain range we were in was just north of a Colorado range known as the “Never Summer Mountains” – so you can imagine how absolutely freezing cold it still was at night, sleeping on the ground inside our tents.
Also, it may shock you to hear that I have never exactly been the most physically fit or athletic person. I was a lot fitter then than I am now, but still, signing up for this trip at all, for me, was a huge stretch outside of my comfort zone. I was fairly well prepared for it after a summer of chasing around camp with a bunch of youth and kids. But I still struggled to keep up with most of the other folks on the trip, who were all a lot fitter and faster than I was.
I remember waking up anxious and intimidated on the day we actually climbed the mountain. I was so worried that I wouldn’t have the stamina to actually make it all the way to the top (I even briefly considered turning around and telling the rest of the group I’d meet them back at the van on the other side!). And it was pretty rough going at first. We made our way to the base of the mountain, and from there it was just immediately a whole lot of UP. I was struggling, and I started to feel really overwhelmed, wondering how on earth I’d be able to force my legs to carry me and this great big backpack aaaaaaaalll the way up this whole entire mountain.
But as we started to climb, I started to notice that all along the trail, there were these big wooden posts sticking up out of piles of rocks at regular intervals – they were trail markers, or guideposts, showing us the way. And instead of thinking about aaaall the terrain we had yet to climb, I started focusing on the posts – I didn’t think about making it to the top of the mountain; I just focused on mustering up enough energy to make my way up to the next post. And then I focused on the next one after that. And the one after that.
Slowly but surely, those posts led me all the way to the crest of the mountain. Each post gave me encouragement and assurance that I was getting closer to the top, little by little. Each post along the way built my confidence to keep going; it filled me with hope that I really was going to make it. And eventually, I did! 🎉
Our gospel reading for this morning takes place on a mountaintop. Granted, Matthew doesn’t tell us whether anyone in this passage struggled quite as much with hiking as I did; but it is a familiar story from the life of Jesus that happens to take place in a similar setting.
The story of the transfiguration has got to be one of the weirder stories in the gospel (and that’s a category with some stiff competition!) – as a preacher, I’ll admit that I find it kind of hard to know what to do with a story like this one. Jesus takes a couple of his disciples up a mountain and… glows(?) for a bit. God says some stuff. Moses and Elijah are there, because why not? Peter, as usual, says something stupid; and then the whole thing is basically over and they come back down the mountain again. It leaves me scratching my head, wondering: What was the point of all that?
There are echoes of other bits of scripture in this reading that I think point us toward some sense of understanding. As the disciples see Jesus transfigured and Moses and Elijah appear, they suddenly hear the voice of God thundering down from the clouds. And God’s voice declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
Well, that sounds awfully familiar. I feel like we just heard almost those exact words just a few weeks ago. Heh – anybody’s bell ringing? When did we read something similar to this?
This text – this whole strange episode – is an echo of Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus comes up from the waters of the Jordan, we hear God’s voice making the same declaration: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” In fact, the story of Jesus’ baptism and the story of the transfiguration basically function as two big bookends that begin and end the season of Epiphany. And likewise, if you look at where these two passages fall in the gospel of Matthew, both of these events occur at significant moments in Jesus’ life, almost like guideposts along the way: Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his ministry, and the transfiguration happens shortly before the end of his Galilean ministry and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
And it kind of leaves me wondering, as I read through these stories: Who is all this for? I mean, sure, there are a number of people who are gathered both times who see and hear everything that happens. But I also can’t help but wonder whether these events are actually for the benefit of Jesus himself. I wonder if slipping into a human body and a human life proved to be much more challenging and taxing than Jesus anticipated. Maybe he needed some encouragement; maybe he needed that reminder for himself of who he was, a reminder of the love of the Trinity of which he was part.
And even if it wasn’t for Jesus himself, I think these two incidents certainly serve as encouragement for Jesus’ followers – both in the first century and now in the twenty-first century. Sometimes we need that reminder that God is so much greater and weirder and more glorious than we can imagine or understand. Sometimes we need the reassurance that our faith and devotion to Jesus are justified. And I think these mountaintop moments are meant to remind us that Christ is so much more than some ordinary human teacher.
We are pretty short on mountaintops here in Nebraska. But regardless, I do know that many of you are sitting here at least in part because you’ve had some kind of experience of the Spirit, some glimpse of the divine that encouraged you or left you with a sense of awe and hope and wonder. And at its best, I think that that is what church has the power to be. Each time that we gather is an opportunity for us to experience little mountaintop – or at least hilltop – moments, moments that lift our heads above the smog of daily life so that we may be reminded of who we are and remember that we are loved.
And in that light, it makes so much sense to me that Transfiguration Sunday should be the last guidepost in the season of Epiphany, as we prepare to begin the season of Lent. Lent is a long journey of turning our wayward selves back to God with our whole heart. But before we even begin that journey, the transfiguration reminds us why we embark on it at all: it reminds us of the gloriousness of the God whom we worship, the God who gives us life and redeems us through baptism, the God who calls us beloved.
We need that periodic encouragement, these lights along the way. It isn’t easy to be disciples, attempting to live in imitation of Christ (I mean, I don’t know if you heard, but that guy is perfect!). It isn’t easy to live with perfect integrity, with hearts always open and eager to help our neighbor, with voices always lifted to advocate for peace and justice, with hands and feet always tirelessly ready to serve the needs of others. There are many temptations in this world that actively draw us away from living the life of faith to which we are called – and too often there is just the grinding, boring, unrelenting slog of daily life that weighs us down, that leaves our spirits feeling worn and dull, that numbs our awareness of the power of God at work within us and around us.
And so we need the support and encouragement and love that God so freely gives us. And here, gathered with the community of the faithful, is where we can most fully receive it. Here we are encouraged that, even as tedious and unimportant as our lives and our daily choices can seem, they are all part of a much greater story. Here, we are reminded that we, too, are beloved beyond all measure. Here, God reassures us that, little by little, we are learning to live like Jesus – that we are climbing, post by post, into the light of Christ.