By The Rev. Sherry Deets
Last Sunday after the Epiphany (The Transfiguration) – February 19, 2012
Surfing is a sport that confounds popular wisdom. Most of us outsiders can marvel at the beauty of the ocean and the obvious joy that riding waves brings to surfing enthusiasts. But at the same time, most outsiders view surfing as inherently too dangerous.
The most common question asked of surfers is: “Aren’t you afraid of getting attacked by a shark?” Most surfers will laugh at this question. Of course, no surfer desires to experience a shark bite. Most would prefer to not even see a shark! But the bottom line is this: Surfers don’t worry about sharks because they are in the water to ride waves.
If you interview a few surfers, you discover the secret of these aquatic daredevils. They will tell you that catching their first wave was a life-changing event. From the moment they caught their first wave, they were forever thereafter transformed. When catching a wave, surfers have a mystical experience in which they become one with the ocean. The board lifts up, the wind rushes past the ears, time stands still, and the surfers feel as though they are flying. This initial experience keeps a surfer coming back to the beach for more.
Our biblical text this morning describes a life-changing, paradigm-shifting, high-altitude encounter with the divine that forever shaped Jesus’ disciples into world changers. It gives us a glimpse into the future resurrection of Jesus. Christ’s followers remember this moment as Transfiguration Sunday.
Our text follows on the heels of Jesus’ sublime conversation with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. There, the disciples started to grasp the identity of Jesus. They also listened as Jesus told them about the necessity of his death and resurrection to bring wholeness and salvation to humanity.
There is a true story of a truck driver by the name of Larry Walters who was sitting in his lawn chair in his backyard one day wishing he could fly. For as long as he could remember he had wanted to fly but he had never had the time, nor money, nor opportunity to be a pilot. Hang gliding was out because there was no good place for gliding near his home. So he spent a lot of summer afternoons sitting in his backyard in his ordinary old aluminum chair – the kind with the webbing and the rivets. One day Larry hooked 45 helium-filled surplus weather balloons to his chair, put a CB radio in his lap, tied a paper bag full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to his leg, and slung a BB-gun over his shoulder to pop the balloons when he wanted to come down. He lifted off in his lawn chair expecting to climb a couple of hundred feet over his neighborhood. But instead he shot up 11,000 feet right through the approach corridor to the Los Angeles International Airport. When asked by the press why he did it, Larry answered: “Well, you can’t just sit there.” When asked if he was scared, he answered, “Yes…wonderfully so.”(1) Larry Walters will never be the same again after his trip to the mountain in his lawn chair. He has seen things and felt things that will shape the way he lives the rest of his life.
It was the same with Peter, James and John. Up on that mountain they had been given nothing less than a glimpse into the future. They saw past the suffering and death of Jesus which the Master had predicted a few days before; past their doubts; past their fears. For one brief shining moment God had cracked the door to the end of time and they had seen how history would be worked out, their own and the whole world’s.(2) And they would never be the same again, having taken that ride.
What do you think? When you have seen how everything turns out in the end, will it affect how you view the present?
One of my cyber-friends moved from full-time hospice work to full-time parish ministry. Brice Hughes has been at the bedside of many persons who have had experiences of “seeing past the veil.” He writes, Among our hospice, we frequently explained this with the metaphor that as one nears death, the boundary between this life and the next becomes thinner, more permeable…We have had our patients report lots of visits. Several of them have reported visits from Jesus; others have visits from passed-on family members. A fascinating number (men and women) have reported feeling the presence of babies in their bed. (Wonder what the meaning of “babies” is?) At any rate, after over three hundred deaths in our hospice, all of the Near Death Experiences have resulted in an increase of the sense of peace. One patient I became particularly close to had a typical experience. While in the hospital, (he was not a hospice patient), his heart stopped. Aggressive intervention returned his heartbeat. When I came on-shift the next day, he had been moved to ICU. As I entered his bay, his face broke into a big grin. The first words out of his mouth were: “I’ve seen the light.” He described a fairly typical Near Death Experience: bright light, overwhelming sense of peace, etc. The upshot of this…was that he insisted his doctor issue a “Do Not Resuscitate” Order. To get his doctor to make him a No Code, he practically had to twist the doc’s arm. He was THAT convinced by what he had witnessed. (3)
I wish we all could have that WOW experience. I am reminded of a “Murphy Brown” episode (remember that show?) in which for some reason she asks the staff about their thoughts or feelings about God. There were different responses from different characters – one was an agnostic, one was a Baptist, and so on. But the response of the character Jim stands out. He said he was a Presbyterian and went to church every Sunday with his wife. He said something on the order of, “I haven’t had any experience of God. I go because it is obvious to me that the people who attend are experiencing God, and I am hoping that one day I will too.” (4) Sound familiar? I wonder how many real-life “Jims” there are waiting…waiting. Plenty, no doubt.
No great mystery. After all, life is lived in the valley, not on the mountain top. Things are different between the two. If you read ahead a bit in Mark’s gospel, the contrasts are stark. [Read Mark 9:14-24]
On the mountain, we encounter almighty God;
in the valley, there is an encounter with the demonic.
On the mountain we encounter our faith’s heritage;
in the valley, we encounter those who consider questions of faith as occasions for battle.
On the mountain, God’s calming voice is heard;
in the valley, human argument is heard.
On the mountain, disciples are in a mood for worship;
in the valley, the disciples are spoiling for a fight.
On the mountain, the glory of God is revealed;
in the valley, the power of sin and unbelief is revealed.
Notice, that Jesus came down. Down into the valley of everyday life. Jesus came down.
Why is this important? Jesus’ downward movement from his rightful place in glory to embrace our lot and life out of love is, in a very real sense, the essence the gospel. Second, and just as importantly, I also have a hunch that, deep down, most of us think Jesus is a little too good for us. That, truth be told, our job is to try our darnedest to become more like him. While that’s a good impulse on one level, on another it can prevent us from being honest. Because no matter how hard we try to be like Jesus — to be, that is, perfect — we know that we fall dreadfully short. As a consequence, we may feel that the most broken parts of our lives are the ones that keep us from being like Jesus and therefore are the farthest things from him.
But this isn’t a story about our going up, it’s a story about Jesus coming down, all the way down into our brokenness, fear, disappointment, and loss. And, of course, it only gets more so, as we will soon watch our Lord travel to the cross, there embracing all that is hard, difficult, and even despicable in life in order to wrest victory from death itself that we might live in hope knowing that wherever we may go, Christ has already been and that where Christ is now, we will one day be. Amen.
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