Everybody likes Shiny Jesus. Everybody can find God up on the mountaintop. But what about down in the valleys of life? What about down here in the Shenandoah Valley? What about on the cross?
Worship was canceled on Transfiguration, February 15, due to bad weather. But watch here for Pastor Evan’s sermon and E-Worship service on YouTube:
Transfiguration of Our Lord (Year B) – February 15, 2015 – Mark 9:2-9
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Shiny Jesus” – Pastor Evan Davis
Moses climbed a mountain to talk to God. Peter, James, and John followed Jesus up a high mountain, by themselves, just them, to have a religious experience, a spiritual encounter with the God revealed in shiny Jesus, dazzling white Jesus up on the mountain. So it makes complete sense to me that when I was in my formative teenage years, I climbed mountains to find God too. I grew up Presbyterian and so every summer I went to Montreat (Presbyterian Mecca, essentially) for a worship & music conference. It’s just outside Asheville, North Carolina, and I can’t really describe how beautiful it is. How close I felt to God there, climbing the hills, singing in the huge choirs, taking part in all the Montreat traditions that were like a rite of passage for each youth in my church. The place is so important to me that I drove a couple hundred miles out of my way to stop there when I went to go visit my brother in Alabama, just so I could drive into the mountain town, park my car, and climb up to the summit of Lookout Mountain. There wasn’t any shiny Jesus up there, but he may have well been there because I felt I could reach up and grab the pearly gates. I climbed these mountains, all around us in the Valley, in the Boy Scouts. Whenever I wasn’t sure about all this God stuff, and that happened a lot when I was in high school, the view from these ridges, the grandeur of the Valley, the way my heart beat as we climbed uphill, God’s mountain demanding respect from each of us….there was God.
Most people can find God on the mountaintop. I am willing to bet most of you can tell me about a few “mountaintop experiences” in your lives. I had another one when God brought me back into church, but this time into the Lutheran church. I couldn’t wait for Sunday to come every week. I would walk into church and just be overcome with this sense of holiness, of God’s presence…from the moment confession began through every word of the liturgy, and when I went up to take communion. God was right there, being broken and poured out for me, personally. I started devouring books about the Christian faith and Martin Luther…like I read 5 books in a month, which is a lot for me. I was on the mountaintop.
You know, it doesn’t always feel like that anymore. Sometimes, but not always. You too? Everybody wants to find God on the mountaintop. Peter, James, and John were no exception. And God surely finds us there. Surely God wanted Peter, James, and John to have an amazing, transfiguring, life-changing experience of God’s glory in Jesus up there on that mountain. God wanted them to know, “this is my Son, the Beloved!” God wanted them to be in awe of shiny Jesus, dazzling Jesus. And yet….it’s not the shining that matters. It’s not the Transfiguration itself. It’s the voice – this is my Son, the Beloved…and here comes the most important part…listen to him!!
Listen to what? Well, how about what Jesus had said right before this little mountaintop experience. They were back down in the valley, and Jesus had asked his disciples, “who do you say that I am?” Peter had gotten it right – “you are the Messiah,” he’d said. But then, Jesus “quite openly” told them “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter rebuked Jesus, and Jesus rebuked Peter right back, and told him “get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind on not on divine things but on human things.” Hmm. He went on, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
We humans love the mountaintop. We love glory. We love shiny Jesus. But just like Peter, we don’t like beaten, mocked, suffering, crucified Jesus quite as much. Especially when we are his followers, and he says to us “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Because following Jesus means to follow him back down the mountain, and sure enough, that’s where Jesus heads directly, down to God’s sick, suffering, sinful, dying people. That’s where Jesus goes.
We sometimes get tripped up too by Jesus’ strange command that the disciples tell no one the truth that he is the Messiah, and no one about the Transfiguration. Aren’t we supposed to be spreading the gospel? No. Apparently, Jesus doesn’t want the wider world to know him, yet, as the powerful, transfigured, shiny Jesus the Christ. No, he wants to be known as the one who goes back down the mountain, into the valley, where a father immediately runs to Jesus with his son convulsed and made mute by a demon (that’s the very next story). Where 5,000 men plus at least as many women and children need to be fed. Where God’s people crowd in, hoping against hope to be healed. Jesus wants to be known as the man who knew full well people were waiting in Jerusalem to murder him, and went anyway. He wants to be known as the one who would never repay evil for evil, but loved people until it killed him; as a man whose glory was weakness, suffering, vulnerability, pouring himself out for the sake of the world.
As the glow from my spiritual mountaintop began to fade, I started looking for God in different places. Well, you might say, God chose different places to find me. I used to love walking the streets of DC, even late at night, just alone, sometimes listening to music, seeing all the different people out for the night. I worked at a restaurant until about 10 or 11, and then I’d walk down a busy street filled with restaurants, bars, shops, little pizza stands, to the Metro to ride home in an almost empty train just before the system shut down for the night. In seeing all those people, some healthy, some not, some up to good, some up to no good, most somewhere in between, and knowing that God so loves each and every one of them, I felt the presence of the God of the Valley…the God who comes to you and to me, with love, with healing, in all the darker, low-lying places of human life.
And now here, in the Shenanadoah Valley, down here, not just up on the peaks of the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies, but down here in the Valley, our Lord shines. Not just in the reflection from the snow. Not just in church, in the light that through our beautiful windows, but the Lord who shines in the eye of the guest at the food pantry, the soup kitchen, in the children and parents of Mercy House, in the residents at Open Doors and the Salvation Army shelter, in the random encounter on the street…..in all these places, God finds you. But I want to hear your stories – where has God found you?
If your life ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, that’s ok. It isn’t always shiny Jesus who comes to us down here below. Don’t get me wrong, shiny Jesus is important – we have this whole day of the church year devoted to him. We’re going to sing a praise song here in a moment because this mountaintop moment is worth celebrating. You will have your mountaintop experiences. But God comes to you also in silence, just to sit with you in pain, in grief, sickness and death. God does not leave you alone in frustration and disappointment, in failure, in sin, or when everyone else does. That’s why we don’t only sing praise music in church – we need songs of lament, of sadness sometimes. Sometimes of hope against hope. Sometimes of confession, of desperate prayer, because Christ is with us in those holy moments, those “valley of the shadow of death” experiences too.
Down here in the Valley, though, remember what you saw on the mountaintop. Hold on to it. I hold on to my Montreat and my mountain peak moments all my life. Because most of the time we don’t see God so clearly. Shiny Jesus is with us ever so briefly. Remember through Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the great days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when all we see is ash, death, betrayal, suffering, cross….that this is the Beloved Son of the Father. Yes, even when they put him on a cross. Even when we put him on that cross. Even then, God is up to something. God is not done with us. Even then, Easter will be coming, when the risen Christ will shine with the victory of life over death and love over sin, when Moses and Elijah and Peter, James, and John, and all those who have come before us will bask in the light of Jesus shining before them once more, and forever.