Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sermon: A Psalm of Dependence

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 28, 2016, Lent 3C
Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9

A Psalm of Dependence

Who do you depend on?
Earlier this week, I was able to attend the NEXT Church National Gathering, an assembly of teaching and ruling elders, seminarians and scholars and community workers in the PC(USA) seeking to catch a vision for the future of our battered but still vibrant denomination and its churches. One of the keynote speakers was Allan Boesak, a onetime clergyman in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, and also a member of the African National Congress there. In his clergy role, Boesak played a major part in the writing and adopting of the Confession of Belhar, which has been approved by the presbyteries of the PC(USA) for addition to our Book of Confessions, pending final approval at this summer’s General Assembly.
It was a powerful address, well worth the registration fee for the conference alone. Perhaps the most striking moment in that speech, though, was one of self-criticism, both of himself individually and of his party and church. As Boesak noted, black clergy in South Africa could easily and readily draw upon the resources of their faith when struggling against that country’s minority-rule white political structure. Scripture and theology provided plenty of resources for critiquing the regime, many other churches across the globe (including Presbyterian churches) provided moral and ethical support, and frankly it was easy when the group practicing oppression on him and his people looked obviously different.
After the dismantling of apartheid, though, something changed. When it was members of the ANC in charge, critique became harder to do. It became harder or less palatable to speak out when the corrupt folks in charge were people he and other clergy had once supported. As Boesak put it, it was easy to speak out when the Pharaoh was Afrikaans, but much harder to do so “when the Pharaoh looked like us.” Boesak called out himself and his own for relying on human power, rather than remembering their dependence on and allegiance to the God who had sustained them in the dark days.
Who do you depend on?
You might have noticed that we’re having our own presidential campaign these days, one which has taken on some rather unusual qualities. One of those candidates (I’ll not give a name, but I’m guessing you might figure out who) has been trying to woo  self-identified Christians with some rather familiar-sounding promises. A few weeks ago this candidate made the promise that , were this candidate elected president, “Christianity will have power.” Then, earlier this week, the candidate in question returned to this theme with the claim that (were this candidate elected president) “your church will be full.”
I acknowledge the way that must sound here, in a sanctuary that is not full.
The particularly concerning part is that I know ministers and members who are falling for this. They declare their support for this candidate so that Christianity will have its “rightful place” in this country, whatever that means. And one could even say it is a biblical promise in a way, since in Luke 4:6-7 we do read the similar promise that “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.
The trouble with that is, of course, that the quote above is from that story we know as the Temptation of Jesus, and the quote is from the mouth of no one other than Satan himself.
Who do you depend on?
We don’t like the word “dependence.” We think of it as a negative, here in our land of independence, of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and “self-made man” and all those things that make us sound more than we are.
The psalmist will have none of that.
The psalmist may not like the word “dependence” either, but what this psalm sings of is full of dependence on God. From the very first verse the psalmist is singing that “I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you.” Far from being ashamed on being so dependent, the psalmist praises God: “my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.” The psalmist’s soul is satisfied, the way one’s body is satisfied after a great feast. Then the psalmist returns again to praise to the God on whom the psalmist depends for life itself, for sustaining and maintaining; “my soul clings to you.”
We don’t like the word “dependence,” and we don’t at all like being dependent on anybody. In today’s gospel reading Jesus faces a curious crowd asking what seems to us a curious question. It’s a curious story, anyway; for a few moments we seem to be eavesdropping on a conversation about current events, circa first-century Palestine. Hey, Jesus, did you hear about the Jews Pilate had slaughtered in the Temple? Jesus then turns the subject into what today we’d call a “teachable moment”; neither the victims of state-sponsored violence in the Temple nor the victims of another headline story, a collapsed building that killed eighteen, were somehow more sinful than anyone else.
Wait, what? But notice what’s going on underneath. Note the unspoken thought: they must have been bad people for that to happen to them. I’m not a bad person. Threrefore, I should be o.k. I’m good enough. I’m good enough.
Jesus shoots that down in the following parable, in which an unfruitful fig tree is about to be destroyed by its owner, only to have the gardener step in to plead for time to nurture it into fruitfulness. In case it isn’t clear, we’re the fig tree, and Jesus is the gardener; we depend on him to be preserved. We don’t save ourselves or preserve ourselves.
It’s like Martin Luther put it in that stalwart hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”: did we in our own strength confide,/our striving would be losing/were not the right Man on our side/the Man of God’s own choosing. We don’t save ourselves. We don’t. And the moment we let our economic theories or our political affiliations or our craving for security and safety or whatever human system we claim cloud our self-knowledge of our reliance and, yes, dependence on the God who creates us and provides for us and sustains us, we are lost.
The psalmist has learned this – perhaps the hard way, we don’t know. Whatever the case the psalmist will not let shame or pride or any other thing get in the way of acknowledging the God in whom all power and providence really reside, the God on whom we depend. And only when we can, like the psalmist, not only acknowledge our dependence on God but claim it, even rejoice in it, can we truly live as the disciples, the followers of Christ, the imitators of Christ we are called to be.
For dependence on God and God alone, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from PH ’90):
#181                   Come Sing to God
#198                   O God, You Are My God
#78                    Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed
#557                  O What Shall I Render?

"My soul thirsts for you, ... as in a dry and thirsty land..."

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sermon: A Psalm of Trust

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 21, 2016, Lent 2C
Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

A Psalm of Trust

So apparently two lymph nodes turned up positive (what an ironic use of that word), which means I'll be going into a four-month course of chemotherapy--the real stuff this time, not the oral business like before. Get a port in some time soon and start two weeks from today, that's the current schedule. I am angry as hell right now, and anybody who tries to judge me for that or preach at me over it will be off my friend list as fast as the Internet will allow without even a goodbye.

That was me, on Facebook, on February 18, 2013, three years ago this past Thursday. After allowing myself to get my hopes up after cancer surgery that previous December, that was the day I found out that no, I wasn’t quite through with cancer treatment and would be going through chemo as described. This was, of course, in the midst of my second year at Union Presbyterian Seminary, meaning that I really would not get through any part of that second year of seminary without cancer treatment getting in the way somehow. At times, in more weary moments, yes; I did wonder if that was a sign. A STOP sign, to be specific.
I certainly don’t hold that moment up as a sign that I am somehow a person of great faith. At that moment, even in the middle of seminary, I don’t know that I would vouch for much faith at all. I’d been through a fall’s worth of radiation treatment and oral chemotherapy, followed by the aforementioned surgery. Recovery from that had been difficult at times but largely seemed to be successful; I was back in classes without too much discomfort, and while certain activities were beyond me, I really wasn’t too limited in what I could or couldn’t do. I wasn’t necessarily at full strength, but I was not feeling sick or weak either. And then that word – no, no, you’re not well yet, how could you be so silly as to think that cancer was through with you? And yeah, I was angry. I wouldn’t dare pretend otherwise.
In time, I could look back at that moment and see a person desperately in need of lament, something along the lines of what the psalmist expresses in today’s reading. At its beginning this psalm sounds a bit like last week’s reading, full of confidence and reassurance in God’s goodness and providence. Phrases like “whom shall I fear?” or “of whom shall I be afraid?” sound almost cocky. You don’t scare me. You got nothing on me.
But then the tone shifts, just a little. Suddenly there’s an enemy camped against the psalmist! Evildoers assailing him! And yet the psalmist doesn’t quite slip over the edge to despair. Still proclaiming confidence, the psalmist turns to one of the more beautiful passages in the whole book. Frankly, it’s worth hearing again:

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Again, one could almost be persuaded that this is a psalm of confidence again, like last week’s Psalm 91. And them comes verse 7. Finally the psalmist can hold the lament back no longer, and the tinge of fear that has been lurking in the background so far comes lurching into the forefront: Hear me, Lord! Answer me! Don’t hide your face from me! Don’t turn away! Don’t forsake me! Don’t forsake me… .
There is no one, not one person on this planet, who is not at some point in her or his life in need of a lament, who is not somehow moved to cry out with the psalmist, not in confidence or cockiness, but in something just a bit different: trust.
Trust is what happens when our confidence is shaken, but we cry to the Lord anyway. No longer is this the psalmist from Psalm 91 instructing others in the reliability of God above. Now we have a figure who is shaken, who cries out in a moment of fear or even terror in this case, desperate to be reassured.
There is no one, not one person on this planet, who is not at some point in her or his life in need of a lament. As the gospel reading for today reminds us, that even includes Jesus.
At a moment when some apparently sympathetic Pharisees (that happened sometimes, in Luke’s gospel) sought to warn Jesus of Herod’s plan to kill him. Jesus expressed his opinion of Herod in no uncertain terms (to call someone a “fox” in this context is quite a statement about that person’s lack of moral character), and then perhaps by surprise Jesus turns his thoughts to Jerusalem, and laments their unwillingness to be gathered in to God’s care. The very protection that the psalmist sings about and cries out for, Jesus sees the people of Jerusalem rejecting.
It’s one of Luke’s more beautiful passages, one that music lovers might recognize as set by Felix Mendelssohn. It is unreservedly emotional. It speaks of great and tender care, wanting to gather in the children of Israel in the way a mother hen might gather in her brood. One might imagine these words being spoken with the beginnings of tears in Jesus’s eyes. And yet, Jesus was not at all deterred from moving forward to his Good Friday fate, in which all those children of God would be gathered in, anyway.
If Jesus was driven to sorrow in this way, you’ll never be exempt from lament. And yet, going back to the psalm, even in the psalmist’s heightened state of anxiety the poem returns to its original state – not unchanged, not necessarily confident, but trusting.
There are several psalms in the book that are given over solely to lament, and some of them get quite angry. One might compare this with Psalm 137. That psalm begins with one of the more beautiful songs of lament in all of scripture –

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

Beautiful, and maybe a little bit familiar to a lot of people of faith. Less familiar, though, and a lot less beautiful, is the end of that particular psalm:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

Rather less lovely, that.
The psalmist of Psalm 27 doesn’t go there, thankfully, no matter how much his fears and anxieties might urge her or him to do so. Rather, what follows is supplication to God – asking God for protection, for shelter, for comfort. Confident? Not necessarily. Trusting? Yes, oh yes.
We all have our confidence shaken at some point. It’s what happens in a fallen world. The psalmists teach us to cry out. The psalmists show us how to lament, to cry out even in our fear or anxiety or even anger. Jesus also shows us lament. But both the psalmist and Jesus also show us how to go forward even in a time of lament, to press ahead despite the fear or anxiety.
They show us how to trust.
For trust, in times of sorrow or fear, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “The God of Abraham Praise” (488); “God Is My Strong Salvation” (179); “The Glory of These Forty Days” (87); “Lord, Make Us More Holy” (536)

Detail from Edward Burke-Jones, "The Lament"

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sermon: A Psalm of Confidence

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 14, 2016, Lent 1C
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Luke 4:1-13

A Psalm of Confidence

The Psalms are a fairly constant presence in the life of the church. Certain individual psalms are irreversibly locked into the memory banks of the body of Christ – Psalm 23 most notably, but there are others. Musicians come to know Psalm 150 very well, as well as Psalm 100. Individual verses from particular psalms also stand out as well.
Presbyterians, taking a cue from their heritage in the Reformation as inspired by John Calvin, have given particular emphasis to the inclusion of psalms as a regular part of worship. It wasn’t always a good thing, mind you; the song of the church would be infinitely poorer if, as under Calvin’s control, psalms were the only songs that could be sung in the church’s worship. But consciously including psalms in worship is a good thing. It was a relief to me to see, upon arriving at Grace a little over a year ago, that psalms were regularly included in worship in the form of the responsive reading. Mind you, the musician in me can’t help but feel that’s not quite as good as singing them, but it’s still good.
I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t also acknowledge that there is risk in such regular hearing of the psalms in such a fashion, as there is with anything that is repeated on a regular basis in worship or any other part of our life together. We can become so accustomed to hearing the psalm in worship that we forget to listen to it. The risk is present that it becomes merely background noise. Again, that can be true of many parts of worship – the choir anthem, the prayers, any of the scripture readings, even (shudder) the sermon.
This would be a shame, because Psalms is unique in the Bible as the one book in which we are given models for a human response to the revelation of God.
Now before anybody gets in a theological panic, let’s be clear here: Psalms is just as much a book of divine inspiration as any other in the Bible. But note how many of the psalm texts are composed from a decidedly human point of view: “The Lord is my shepherd…” or “Create in me a clean heart, O God” from Psalm 51, “O come, let us sing unto the Lord” from Psalm 95, just for a few examples.
Another way in which individual psalms model a human response to God is found in today’s reading from Psalm 91. Here the psalmist offers testimony to the faithfulness of God directed to his (or her) fellow worshipers. It’s a pretty simple effect: the psalmist has known and experienced the goodness of God, and testifies to that goodness to others, expressing confidence in the God who has shown goodness and graciousness to all of the children of God.
The psalmist proclaims God’s protection, speaking of God as a “refuge” and “fortress.” Perhaps the psalmist has known God’s deliverance from great trouble or distress. Or possibly the psalmist is creating this expression of confidence as an act of devotion, given for the corporate worship of the people of Israel.
In either case, we are witnessing the psalmist wrestling with the perennial challenge of God’s people: how do we express our devotion to a God who is beyond expression? What words do we, word-bound creatures as we are, use for a God who is beyond words?
It would be a mistake to assume that a passage like this one has to become a fixed text. We are not going to find our way to a most effective expression of worship or prayer or anything by taking verses like these first two and turning them into inflexible and rote mantras we repeat mindlessly. That’s not what these psalms are meant to be. Rather, we take these psalms and let their language shape and inform and inspire our own hearts in our own language. We learn to speak confidence not by turning the verses into a repeated formula but by taking them into our hearts, learning confidence as we live with the guidance of the Spirit in the body of Christ. Let the psalm teach you how to praise.
There is, of course, a risk to all this confidence. We humans are pretty good at taking such confidence and becoming jerks with it. We take such words as this psalm offers and, instead of learning how to live and give praise and be in the body, turn them into weapons. Confidence in God too easily becomes pride in our own righteousness. We get tempted to flaunt that confidence, to act as if we have somehow earned that refuge or that shelter or that fortress by our superior faith. Or we are tempted to use that confidence as a means to wield power.
This is the crux of the temptation Jesus faces in our gospel reading. The outlines of the story are familiar. Jesus, after being baptized, is led by the Spirit out into the wilderness. He eats nothing for those forty days, and faces temptation from the devil. First, appropriately enough for someone who hasn’t eaten for forty days, Jesus is tempted to use his power to turn stones into bread. Jesus refuses, using the words of Deuteronomy 8:3. The second temptation, a temptation to claim ultimate power in turn for allegiance to the devil, Jesus turns away with words from Deuteronomy 6:3.
Then comes the kicker: it turns out, as Shakespeare would say many centuries later, that the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. If Jesus is going to keep quoting scripture at the devil, well, two can play at that game, and the devil does exactly that, pulling out a couple of verses from today’s psalm.
Sounds like checkmate, huh? I can quote scripture just as much as you. So there. But there’s a big difference between being able to quote scripture and knowing it. At minimum, this should be a reminder that the person quoting scripture at us isn’t always the nice guy.
Our call isn’t to become a quote machine. We can memorize all the Bible verses we want, but if the message of that scripture doesn’t sink into our minds and hearts and inform the very way we think and act and speak, it’s not all that useful. Certainly Jesus knew the psalm the devil quoted, but Jesus also knew that the devil’s use of that scripture was a twisting and distorting of its message. The psalmist didn’t talk about angels guarding you from dashing your foot against a stone in order to encourage you to jump off tall buildings to prove your faith or to prove that God likes you best. The psalm teaches confidence in God’s refuge, not putting God to the test – which of course Jesus answers to the devil, using one more passage from Deuteronomy, 6:16.
Let the Psalms be a teacher for these next few weeks, particularly in this season of Lent. If the great challenge of Lent is to examine ourselves and know our need for repentance, these psalms help us to find that language of confidence in God, as well as such things as trust, dependence, wisdom, repentance, and many more responses to God with which we modern followers of Christ so often struggle. Let the words of these psalms be more than just words; let them be wisdom, “wisdom in my secret heart” as Psalm 51:6 describes. Take in these verses and let them help you form a language for self-examination, for looking into those darkest corners of the soul and seeing what God sees in you, both the good and the bad.
For scriptures that help us pray and reflect, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH 90): “O God, Our Help In Ages Past” (210); “Within Your Shelter, Loving God” (212); “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” (81); “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” (540).

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday meditation: Truth In the Inward Being

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 10, 2016, Ash Wednesday C
Psalm 51:1-17

Truth In the Inward Being

We don’t like to look at ourselves too closely.
It’s uncomfortable to look inside of our own minds, or especially our own souls. It’s dark in there.
Far easier, in the modern world, to distract attention from the darkness and fallenness of our own person. Easier to point and blame. Look at that person. Look how awful they are. Even better if that other person is famous somehow – a celebrity of some sort; singer, actor, athlete, politician. That way we can all gang up on them safely, without fear of being called, and especially without fear of having to look inside ourselves, examine our motives, see our own darkness.
The author of this psalm must have been in agony.
In most Bibles Psalm 51 carries a heading suggesting it was “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan had come to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” While the heading is certainly evocative, and the situation it mentions certainly is in keeping with the content of the psalm, there are two main problems with it. Historically, the heading doesn’t seem to have come with the psalm, originally; it seems instead to have been added at least four hundred years later, well after David was dead. That doesn’t necessarily mean the psalm wasn’t associated with David, but it’s a little troubling.
The bigger, more theological problem with the heading is that it surreptitiously encourages us to think that we don’t need to engage in the self-examination and repentance portrayed in the psalm unless we’ve just committed one big whopper of a misdeed.
And that’s a tremendous problem. We all have “fallenness” in common. Our need to cry out with the psalmist, as in verse 5, that we have been sinners since before we can remember is not dependent on having just been caught in a major infraction. We can and should always be able to acknowledge that, as verse 3 says, “my sin is ever before me.”
God sees this in us. As much as God loves us and longs to draw us ever closer, God never see us without that sinfulness in us, no matter how the psalmist might beg in verse 8. Because God loves us so, God wants us to see in ourselves what separates us from all that God is and wants us to have and to be. Thus, the psalmist cries out to God to be cleansed – no, more than cleansed; to be purged, to be purified, to be “de-sinned” – to have all that horror show of fallenness and separation extracted from us once and for all. But that can never happen until we see it; thus in verse 6 – a wholly remarkable verse – the psalmist hits upon this: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” That’s a curious phrase – “secret heart” – and the word actually used here warrants an explanation. We Americans are likely to see “heart” as a metaphor for the source of love, particularly aided by that other holiday coming up on Sunday. Hebrew thinking, though, understood the heart as the center of will, or of decision-making. The psalmist is asking to be made wise in the inmost and deepest part of himself or herself in order to live rightly, wisely, and truthfully – as in that earlier phrase “truth in the inward being.”
Truth in the inward being.” God desires us to be truthful – not merely in the sense of distinguishing facts from falsehoods, although that’s always a good thing, but in being true. Living true. The word goes much deeper than even such words as “faithfulness”; living in complete coherence and inseparability with the Source of all our living.
And then, when we have learned truth in the inward being, when we have been purged and “de-sinned” and made clean and had a “new and right spirit” put within us, then we will live in the joy of salvation, we will be the ones who show others how to live – not merely with words but with our lives – and we will sing our praise to God in a way that transcends even the most noble of sacrifices. The “broken” spirit – the one no longer hinged on our pride but on that truth in the inward being – is the sacrifice God loves.
But it starts with that “truth in the inward being.” It starts with self-examination and repentance of our fallenness, and of the way we cling to that fallenness. And sometimes that means we have to stop with the pointing fingers at others without looking into the darker corners of our own souls.
I’m not much for telling people they have to “give up something” for Lent. If we’re not careful it doesn’t necessarily help, and can even become a source of self-righteousness that accomplishes exactly the opposite of what we need in a season of self-examination and repentance. But here’s something I plan to do this year, and maybe some of you might find it helpful too. I’ve got verse 6 written down on a post-it note. It’s going to be on or beside my laptop at all times. I might also post it in my car somewhere (when I have one again), or any other places where I might be tempted to lash out at some other figure caught in public approbation. With any luck I’ll be challenged to engage in the self-examination and repentance I know I need in this season first.
If it works out, I may not have much time or energy to lash out at others. And maybe there will be something more like “truth in the inward being” and “wisdom in my secret heart.”

For the pain and cleansing of repentance, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns "O For a Closer Walk With God" (PH 396); Psalm 51 (PH 196); "Jesus Knows the Inmost Heart" (GtG 427)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sermon: Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 7, 2016, Transfiguration C
Exodus 34:29-45; Luke 9:28-43a;
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain

Mountains often figure into the stories of religious traditions – not just the Judeo-Christian tradition, but others as well. Not surprisingly, mountains often figure as the location for an encounter between the human and the divine, or possibly as a retreat for a person seeking contact with the divine. Such is the commonality of this connection that it shows up fairly often in popular culture – say, any number of comic strips in which people are climbing a high mountain to seek the council of the guru perched atop it. Even in the current blockbuster movie rampaging though theater box offices, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, the final scene of the movie takes place on a mountaintop, as a young woman seeks the long-absent last of the Jedi Knights. To bring the mountain references full circle, that scene itself was filmed on a mountaintop on an island off the coast of Ireland that had, until the 12th century or so, been home to a Christian monastery, a place where monks had sought to live closer to God, and more closely with God.

Moses went up a mountain.
The Hebrew people came to a mountain, Sinai, out in a wilderness. Moses went up that mountain to receive law from God. Receiving the law, first from the finger of God; then the awful rebellion of the Hebrew people; Moses pleading to God not to destroy the people God had just delivered from Egypt. Moses up the mountain again, this time to carve God’s commandments onto new stone tablets.
Exodus tells a strange story at this point. Moses comes down from the mountain, back to the people, after having been forty days with God receiving the commandments. Evidently Moses didn’t notice (though the people did) that after so much time in the presence of God, his face was glowing. Not in the way we speak of a pregnant woman or a new mother “glowing”; Moses’s face was literally shining.
Maybe surprisingly, or maybe not, the people were afraid of Moses. It’s not as if the Hebrew people hadn’t already seen plenty of strange things – the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the sea, the fire and pillar going before them – but this one was too much; too strange, or too close to home, somehow too much for the Hebrew people to bear, and they were afraid of Moses. Eventually Moses had to put on a veil, to keep the people from being fearful or freaked out by his shining face – though he would remove the veil when he went back up the mountain, to the presence of the Lord.

Elijah went up a mountain, too.
Even though the story isn’t included in today’s lectionary reading, Elijah had his own mountain encounter with God. 1 Kings 19 tells the story of Elijah’s flight from Queen Jezebel, who had threatened his life after his victory over the prophets of Baal. Despite seeing four hundred and fifty prophets of a false idol destroyed, and God miraculously devouring with fire an utterly drenched altar, Elijah reacted out of fear of the human monarch rather than trust in the God of power he served. And he ran.
He ran all the way to Horeb, the mount of God, which in Moses’s time had been called Sinai.  There God hid Elijah in the cleft of the rock, where Elijah witnessed God not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence.”
But even in the very presence of God, Elijah reacted with resignation, with fear, and with hopelessness, repeating the same mantra he had repeated all through this journey: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.“ As a result God sent him down from the mountain with a commission to set apart a new king for Aram, a new king for Israel, and a new prophet … to replace himself. Not every mountaintop turns into triumph.

Now Jesus goes up a mountain.
This wasn’t uncommon. More than a few times Jesus would, throughout the four gospels, go off to a mountain to pray. The passage actually says “the mountain,” a definite article as grammarians would say, though it clearly wasn’t Sinai or Horeb. But it was the mountain, one they knew.
This was a little different, though, because Jesus took a few of his disciples with him. And it got even more different when a couple more people showed up, and something started happening to Jesus. His face changed. His appearance became dazzling bright. Shades of Moses’s shining face.
To their credit, the disciples didn’t react in fear, at least not immediately. Peter started babbling nonsense, about building three booths, but Peter babbling nonsense is just Peter being Peter, really. But then a cloud started descending on all of them, the three disciples as well as the three transfigured figures, and then some fear begins to set in. And frankly, for a good Hebrew, that kind of theophany (a fancy seminary word for “manifestation of God”) should be met with a little fear. The real trouble didn’t start in this case until Jesus and the disciples came down the mountain, when the rest of the disciples had been unable to heal a sick child. Coming down from the mountaintop isn’t easy, and things don’t always work the way you think they should after you’ve been on the mountaintop.
Three journeys to holy mountains – always they were as holy as any place God created, but here made holy by the manifestation of God, to Moses, to Elijah, to the disciples in Jesus. Here the Transfiguration becomes a bookend to Epiphany, when God was made manifest in the child Jesus to those magi who came from far away. God is made manifest in Jesus, God is made manifest in the body of Christ as Paul has been teaching us these last few weeks.
But there’s one more mountain left, actually.
Besides looking back, the mount of transfiguration also looks forward. Luke refers to this in verses 31-32, when Moses and Elijah were speaking to Jesus about his departure, “which he was soon to accomplish in Jerusalem.” There Jesus would be led up one more mountain, upon which would be performed perhaps the most unholy act in human history.
And yet Golgotha, too, is a mount of transfiguration. Only there, on that mountain,, we are the ones being transfigured.
Paul helps us here, in 2 Corinthians. Look at 3:18: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
At Epiphany, the magi see God in the child Jesus. At Transfiguration, the disciples see God in their teacher. But on Golgotha, at the other end of this approaching season of Lent, Jesus ascends a mountain so that we might be transformed, we might be changed “from glory to glory,” so that we might be transfigured into the Body of Christ, showing God’s love and justice to a skeptical and suspicious world.
One journey completed, we now take up another. A cross awaits at the end of that journey. Don’t let the old gospel songs fool you: it is a hideous, cruel, demonic cross. What happens there is the brutality of fallen and depraved humanity at its basest and lowest.
And yet…
Because of that one more mountain we are transfigured, are transformed. We are drawn in to God. Because God would not settle for our lostness, our separation, our fallenness, Golgotha, Good Friday, becomes a place of transformation for us.
Today we see Jesus transfigured, but then it’s our turn.
For transformation, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright” (474); “Jesus On the Mountain Peak” (74); “O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair” (75); “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (with tune BEECHER)

Ahem. (, again)