There are times when we feel closer to God than at other times. It’s just the way it works. I don’t completely understand it, but I know that it’s true.
I remember the first time I felt like I really experienced God in a close kind of way. I was in 4th grade, with a fresh, summer buzz-cut that left me nearly hairless. My Mom and Dad loaded me onto the church bus for the 2 ½ hour drive to Bible Camp. I remember really not knowing anyone…I remember the nervousness…I remember wondering what my parents had gotten me into.
But I also remember that I discovered something that week. I remember that I loved being with the guys in my cabin. We had a blast together…and I remember that I got to pick what I’d eat for our meals…no green beans for me that week! I remember discovering that I loved canoeing, and wasn’t so big into Arts and Crafts. (I’m still not very good with glue and scissors.)
And I remember that I discovered for the first time, a very personal God, instead of distant or even invisible. At camp, God was obvious and clear. In our worships, and our campfires, in these faith-centered friendships, God felt so close. And I remember that I came home committed to that God, to that faith. And I was going to read the Bible every day. And I did. For awhile. Then life got in the way, and I got busy and things returned to normal. I had that experience, and it was great. But now it felt like I’d returned to “real life.”
And so I came to the only logical conclusion a 4th grader could make: God must live at Bible camp. Right? And so I went back the next summer, because I wanted to experience this community, and this sense of closeness again. And again. And again.
These were transcendent experiences that I’d had at camp: They were experiences that were “of God.” They were experiences that seemed to exist outside of the normal limitations of the rest of my life.
And there were other times that I’ve experienced this sense of transcendence, this sense of closeness with God: I feel that way often at the end of the day in the Boundary Waters, sitting by the campfire. I’ve felt that way at Westhaven Children’s Home in Jamaica when I’ve heard the laughter of the children who live there. I’ve experienced that closeness on retreats, at youth gatherings, or on Mission trips.
But then there are days when life feels “normal.” And “normal” means that God feels kind of distant again.
You see, while God is a constant, our relationship the relationship we have with God varies. We move closer, and farther. Sometimes it feels like there is a curtain that separates us from God. And sometimes, that curtain seems so thin…like we can almost see through it. But as often, it feels thick and heavy, and God can seem hidden.
Our Gospel text for today is a story of transcendence. The curtain feel so thin…even non-existent.
Just to set the scene: Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. And there, he is transfigured. That is, his appearance is literally changed right in front of them…dazzling white…so that while they recognize their Lord they also perceive his heavenly glory in a way they had not before.
And then, Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, symbolic of the law and prophets. It has been, when you think about it, an emotionally-charged time. The disciples were following Jesus, but they didn’t really understand the importance of what he was saying. And they were squabbling amongst themselves. The disciples all had to be kind of confused by what Jesus was saying, and uncertain about the future. And now, dazzled, perplexed, but also, excited to be at this place and time and witness this event, the disciples offer to make dwelling places for them. “This is amazing! Can we just stay here?”
Now, in all honesty, the whole Transfiguration event can be a little hard to interpret. It is a critical moment, the time when Jesus, revealed in glory as the Messiah, now turns toward Jerusalem. He is turning towards the cross. He is beginning the journey that will culminate in his death.
And in this moment, comes wisdom. Dr. David Lose, of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia identifies three critical phrases that are spoken out loud during the Transfiguration: The first, is God’s voice, speaking. And the second and third are the words of Jesus.
And if ever there were three words of instruction, command and promise that I need to hear right now, these are probably them. You can find them in verses 5 and 7, if you’d like:
- “Listen to Him”
- “Be raised up” and;
- “Do not be afraid”
Think about it: right now, the world we live in is filled with a variety of confusing and contradictory events; from congressional hearings, to rallies, to protests, to riots. We hear divisive rhetoric from all political sides, our nation and our world experiences increased tension, and an unclear picture of the future. Some dread what is happening; some find it exciting. All of us, I believe, sense the importance of this moment in our history as our nation wrestles with questions: What are our national values? What is our identity?
And amid all this, I find myself regularly drawn back to these three words of instruction, command, and promise.
First the instruction: “Listen to him.” I believe that in the days in which we live, we need more than ever to come to church and try to hear what God is saying to us.
And while we may not always agree on just what we hear, (that’s the challenge of living in a community) we can agree that the best way to understand God is to look to Jesus and listen to him; to pay attention to what Jesus says and does, to whom he reaches out, to those he gives attention and help.
Yes, we may not all agree. But if we all keep trying to listen to Jesus together, and trust that those who disagree with us are doing the same, we will get closer to what God intends for us.
Second, the command: “Get up.” Except it’s not just “get up.” The Greek verb Matthew uses here is the same one the angels declare to the women at the empty tomb when they say “He is not here; he has been raised!” So really, what Jesus is saying is: “be raised up.” Or even, “be resurrected.” What does it mean to hear Jesus call us to get up, be raised, even resurrected amid these confusing days?
Remember that God doesn’t give commands without also giving us the ability to fulfill those commands. So, we might hear in Jesus’ words a call to action. But that call also gives us the energy and the will to act, to make a difference, to be “raised up” and made new by God’s grace, and to be about the works of mercy and compassion.
Third, the promise: “Do not be afraid.” This sits at the center of the Gospel, words perhaps never more needed than now. We all experience different fears. We can be nervous about terrorism, about our jobs, the economy, the welfare of our kids, about our health; the list goes on. Fear is a part of the common fabric of our lives even though it manifests itself differently. And to all these different fears, the Gospel reply is the same: Because God is God of the past, present, and future, we need not fear. We need not fear. We may not know what the future holds; but we know who holds the future.
This is not the same as saying that we will have no problems, or that we will avoid all harm and hardship. Rather, it is recognizing that when we trust God for our individual and communal good and believe God is with us always, we need not fear.
Nor is this to make fear the mark of a lack of faith. We all grow afraid at times. Rather, it is to recognize that God did not create us for death, but for resurrection, and so God does not want us to be afraid but to move forward, even and especially in uncertain times, with courage and confidence.
- Be raised up
- Do not fear.
It’s important to remember that these words are heard as Jesus begins his journey from that transcendent moment on the mountaintop, back down again into the realities of the world and to the cross. There he will be tried, condemned, and crucified.
For Jesus…for us…this is a transcendent time. It is a time when the presence of God, whether we recognize it or not, is close. God’s love is right there…offered to us freely and within our reach. The curtain is not thick and heavy, nor is it thin. The curtain is torn, because of Jesus’ love, and he is right here with us. And this love reminds us that our transfiguration story today does not end with the crucifixion.
It continues with the promise that God raised this One from the dead so that all of us might have hope that there is more to this life than we can see, that God will be with us every step of our way, and that love and life are always stronger than hate and death.
Listen to God.
Be raised up, and;
Do not be afraid.
Thanks be to God!