On and Off the Mountain
People say that we live in a secular age. But what do we mean by that? When we speak of a secular age, some have in mind an understanding of how the public square has changed the way in which public discourse and political organization is no longer connected with faith in the way it was, say, in 16th century Europe. Others have in mind the falling off of religious practice and belief that can be seen in various statistics of church attendance and religious affiliation.
But according to one of my favourite writers, Charles Taylor, we should understand the present secular age as one in which the conditions of belief have changed. In our society, belief in God is no longer automatic. Put simply, there are options. And that means that even for people of faith, even for those of us who do believe, we do so in a context of doubt and uncertainty. We know that there are intelligent and reasonable people who think differently from us. And often we have our own doubts and questions.
It’s not easy living in the messy world of doubt and questions. I know that. You know that. And so what do we do about it? Well, one thing that we often do is to search for something we can hold onto, something that gives us some certainty, something that acts as an antidote to our doubts and the doubts around us. For many of us that means that we want to experience something. We want to experience God.
Maybe that’s why you’re here today. Perhaps you look to worship as a place where we can have an experience of God. Perhaps the music moves you. Or the sense of belonging that comes with gathering as a part of this community. Maybe, as we talked about last week, God’s image really is reflected in us, we become the image of God for each other and we get a glimpse of God in the love that we show for one another, however imperfectly we do that. And today is a special day, today we get to celebrate baptisms and to be strengthened in our faith by the commitment that our friends are making.
Whatever it is, however it happens, when we gather together like this, we yearn for a glimpse of God’s glory, a tangible experience that we can hold on to and that provides a sort of antidote to the doubts of our lives.
The disciples, Peter, James and John, at the beginning of today’s gospel reading are in the grips of doubt. In fact, it’s more than doubt. They are in the midst of a full-fledged crisis of faith. You remember that Jesus had called them as they were fishing months before by the sea of Galilee, and they left all they had to follow Jesus. And during those first months as Jesus’ followers, everything had been incredible. They had been witnesses to Jesus’ great acts of power, the miracles and the healings. Jesus had taught them with a wisdom that surpassed any other wisdom, and they’d even become minor celebrities, traveling with Jesus from town to town, welcomed by huge crowds wherever they went. What’s more, Jesus had commissioned them with power and authority, and had sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. And they had, curing diseases and doing amazing things wherever they went. Soon, their expectations of what Jesus would do, and what their roles would be as his closest followers must have been sky high.
But then, a reality check. In the passage just before today’s gospel reading, Jesus asks them “who do you say that I am?” Peter, their spokesperson, answers “You are the Messiah of God.” God’s anointed one, the one chosen and sent by God, the one they expected to be a great political and military leader who would overthrow the Roman empire, save his people from oppression and restore the Kingdom of Israel.
So it must have come as a shock to these disciples and their sky high expectations when Jesus told them for the first time that victory, at least in the conventional sense, was not part of the plan. Instead, Jesus told them that he would undergo great suffering, and be rejected and would be killed. And his disciples wouldn’t get to march at the front of any victory parade: they too would suffer and lose their lives.
And so they were shaken. Their faith was shaken. Is Jesus really the one sent by God? Perhaps this would be a good time to quit, to go back to fishing, before their leader, who seemed determined to take a path that would lead to death, takes them any further down that road.
For days, Peter, James and John wrestle with their doubts.
Then, on the eighth day, Jesus takes them up the mountain. To the place, in Jewish thought, where God is encountered. In our first reading we heard that the mountain is where Moses went to encounter God, to hear God, to receive guidance. And so Jesus, knowing that his friends are in deep need of reassurance and guidance, takes them to the mountain top. On the mountain, Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigured. The appearance of his face changes, and his clothes become a dazzling white, and they see him speak with Moses and Elijah, the two great figures of the faith of Israel. Peter and his companions are reassured, reoriented and renewed. They see his glory.
And Peter wants to stay.
Can you blame him? I mean, why wouldn’t he want to stay? This is pretty awesome! Imagine the relief that Peter feels in that moment as his doubts are swept away by his experience of the glory of God. Of course he wants to stay. He offers to build three dwellings, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – anything to capture the moment, anything to stay on the mountain.
But Jesus leads them down off the mountain, back down into the messy world of uncertainty, doubt and suffering that they came from. Immediately great crowds swarm them, and demands are placed upon them. “I beg you, heal my son.”
I imagine that Jesus would have liked to stay on the mountain a little longer too. He even seems to voice frustration with the messiness of our world, crying out “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”
But Jesus leads them down off the mountain, back into the messiness and suffering of our world, and into our world he brings healing and freedom from the forces that oppress us. The boy is healed, and all are astounded, and here too we catch a glimpse of the glory and the greatness of God.
Because what Jesus has seemed to grasp is that the whole point of the mountain top experience, the whole point of the transfiguration, is to get us ready for the mission that awaits us when we come down from the mountain. Despite our desire to stay and bask in the glory, to savour the certainty that banishes our doubts, despite how important it is to be reassured, reoriented and reenergized, our task at the end of the day is to go back into the world and bring God’s love and healing to those who need it.
Our worship here together is intended to be an act of transfiguration. It may not always be a mountain top experience, but it is meant to be a transfiguration that prepares us for the mission that we are called to in our everyday, messy, doubt-filled lives. There is a three part movement to our worship every Sunday: we gather, we are transformed and we are sent.
This is a place where we hear God’s voice. The place where we listen to Jesus. The place where we spend one hour a week being reassured, reoriented, and reenergized so that we can do God’s work the other 167 hours of the week even in the midst of whatever our lives throw at us.
Last Wednesday we had our final session of baptism preparation, and I asked our group how they imagined baptism, what they thought it would be like. One answered that she imagined baptism as the top of a hill. A mountain-top experience. A moment of transfiguration, a moment of glory that renews and reorients and reenergizes us so that we can be sent once more down the mountain into the messiness of life and bring God’s healing to our world.
May you hear God’s voice, may you see God’s glory, so that when we leave here, we are renewed and ready to go, ready to do the things that God is calling us to.
Homily: Yr C Last Sunday after Epiphany, Feb 7 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Exodus 34.29-35; Ps 99; 2 Cor 3.12-4.2; Luke 9.28-43
Image by postscapes, Creative Commons