It's A Wonderment
"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer."
"It's A Wonderment"
Have you ever said something really dumb? Have you ever opened your mouth and stood there one legged like a flamingo, with all the grace of an elephant on roller skates with your other foot stuck firmly in your mouth? I remember one time when I did. About ten years ago I was serving the little United Methodist Church in Eureka, Texas. We were in the middle of building a new Sanctuary. The pews from the old Sanctuary were solid oak and over a hundred years old. Money was tight and we couldn't afford new ones, so we decided to refinish the old pews ourselves. We told everyone what we were going to do and that we were going to need lots of volunteers for several Saturdays in a row until we got them refinished.
That first Saturday came and 42 people showed up. We worked until two o'clock and all but about three people stayed the whole time. It was great. The next morning during the worship service I was bragging on how many people showed up to work. I said, "It was great, we had 42 people up here stripping, yesterday." People laughed but I didn't think anything about it. But then I corrected myself and said, "No, it was the women who were stripping, the men were all sanding and doing the heavy work."
About that time the whole crowd just busted out laughing. At first I didn't know what I'd said. And then, after I realized what I'd said, no matter what I said to try and fix it only made matters worse. I finally just shut up and let the song leader lead us in a hymn.
Today we see that Jesus' number one draft pick, Peter, pulled the same kind of stunt. Peter, the one who just a few days before had opened his mouth and uttered a deep expression of faith by claiming Jesus was the Messiah, now turns and is eaten up with a bad case of the dumbs. Mark tries to let him off the hook by saying it was caused by fear. But Mark's attempt only reinforces Peter's reputation for opening his mouth only to change feet. Let's face it, Peter's remark wasn't the brightest thing he could have said.
I. ON THE MOUNTAIN:
A. Six days after Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus takes His inner circle Peter, James and John up a high mountain to spend time alone. It may have been for a leadership conference or simply for prayer. But he took them to the mountain top, in more ways than one. And there the most extraordinary thing took place. There on the top of the mountain, Jesus was changed, right before their very eyes. He and his clothes glowed brighter than any soap or bleach could ever get them. Clorox, Tide, Bold, Wisk, none of them could hold a candle to the whiteness of Jesus and his robes. It was as if he had suddenly become light itself.
Peter, James and John stood there in utter amazement and wonder. Their jaws dropped in surprise and their eyes bugged out in astonishment. Jesus was transformed and stood there in all of his heavenly glory. It was a wonderment to behold. And if that wasn't enough, suddenly standing with him were Moses and Elijah, the two most influential and respected people of the Old Testament. They were the culmination of the Law and the Prophets. The disciples started shaking in their shoes with excitement, awe and fear. It was a holy moment if there ever was a holy moment.
And what does Peter do? In his fear and trembling, Peter opens his mouth and says, "Boy, Lord, it's a good thing we're here. We can build three shrines; one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. That way we'll never forget this moment." It was more than a Kodak moment and Peter wanted to capture it for all eternity and never leave.
But just as quickly as it began, it was over. A cloud descended on them and a voice from the cloud, the voice of God spoke and said: "This is my beloved Son, listen to him." Peter, James and John knew it was the voice of God and they hid their faces both in fear and in awe. And when they finally peaked out again, Moses, Elijah and the cloud were all gone. All they could see was Jesus.
B. Can you imagine how excited those three men were? Their hearts were racing. Their blood pressure was up. Their adrenaline was up. Their faces were glowing with grins and good feelings. They were pumped and ready to go tell the others what they had witnessed. First Jesus wouldn't let Peter build the shrines and then He told them, "tell no one about what you've seen, until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead." Now what was that supposed to mean. Whatever that meant, it took the steam out of their mountain top experience.
Peter's words really weren't that dumb. SURE, Peter's style as chief disciple in training seemed to be open mouth, insert foot, blush, crawfish, remove foot, open mouth insert other foot. Peter was one of those persons who never knew what to say but always felt led to say something. He spoke before thinking. But he really spoke from the heart. His words were spoken out of both fear and excitement because of the situation. You and I probably would have done the same. And if the significance of the event hadn't struck us like it did Peter, we might have just gone running off, screaming in fear. Peter just wanted to preserve the moment.
One of the interesting things about this incident is that Jesus didn't let them build those shrines. Instead he lead them back down the mountain and back into the hard work of ministry. In the Jezreel Valley, there is a mountain that juts up out of the middle of nowhere called Mount Tabor. It's one of the places considered to be where the transfiguration took place. Scholars disagree but pilgrims all go to Mount Tabor to remember the transfiguration.. What's curious is that on the summit of Mount Tabor are three churches, not just small brush arbor tabernacles like Peter wanted to set up but three full blown Churches. Each one commemorates one of the characters of the Transfiguration: Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. The Church has accomplished what Peter could not.
II. MOUNTAIN TOP EXPERIENCE:
A. Everything about this passage is ambiguous and the focal point of theological and scholarly debate except for one thing. Everyone agrees that it was a mountain top experience. Peter, James and John came face to face with the holy and they were changed.
We really understand why Peter said what he said. We've all had mountain top experiences of some sort or another. Some are more dramatic than others but we've all had them. I had one just a couple of months ago. It came in the form of a phone call from my little brother, Scott.
Over the last few years Scott and I have gotten pretty close. We like the same kinds of music. We're both computer junkies. We both like to play golf but neither one of us are any good. We always consider it a good day if we find more balls than we lose. Anyhow, Scott called and right away I could tell that this call was different. Scott was upset about something. He called and asked for advice about a situation in his life. It looked like he was fixin to lose his job and he didn't know what to do.
We talked. I tried to lift his spirits a little and for the first time ever, Scott asked me to pray for him. Well, I prayed like I've never prayed before, not so much that he keep his job (though I did pray for that) but that God's will somehow be worked out in this and that Scott be given the strength to face whatever came his way.
Part of my prayer was answered with a "No." Scott lost his job. However, he left on very good terms with his boss. He got twice as much severance pay as he was expecting plus all the vacation he had built up; they kept him and his family on the health plan until he could find another job and it took three people to replace him. Two days later, before he had even begun looking for job, he ran into someone he had worked for about five years ago. The second thing this guy said after all the "Howdies!" was, "Hey, how much would it take to talk you into coming back to work for ME?"
The really interesting thing is that this guy was at the top of Scott's list of possible employers. Now I know that kind of thing doesn't happen for everyone. I thanked God but I'm not even sure my prayers had anything to do with it. The holy moment, the transforming moment for me was when my little brother asked me to pray for him. That was a holy moment for me. I saw the face of Christ in that simple request for prayer.
B. We've all had mountain top experiences and the one thing that they all have in common is that just like Peter we don't want them to end. We want to stay and live and relive the moment for as long as possible. When we have a mountain top experience we're like children who want every day to be Christmas. We don't want it to end.
Neither did Peter. Peter didn't want to leave but he wasn't allowed to stay on the mountain top and neither are we. The transfiguration wasn't meant to last, but it was meant to be remembered. It was given so that Jesus and the disciples could go back down the mountain with a renewed sense of purpose and a renewed strength for their ministry to the hurting and sick. It was given so that they could be strengthened for that long hard road to Jerusalem where Jesus would face the final conflict of his earthly ministry.
Unfortunately, the Messiah's mission could not be carried out from the mountaintop -- it had to be completed on a cross between two thieves on top of a garbage heap in Jerusalem.
III. THE HOLY BREAKS IN FOR A PURPOSE:
That's the thing about most mountain top experiences. They aren't given to be enshrined. They are given to transform our lives and to empower and energize our faith. God allows the holy to break into our lives for a purpose. Not just to lift our spirits, but for a purpose.
A few years ago, Dr. James Moore and the congregation of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston, took as their Lenten theme, "Forty Days of Love." That's where I got the idea and permission to use the program. Each week the members of the congregation were encouraged to show their love and appreciation in different ways just like we will be doing. The first week they were encouraged to write letters to people who had made positive contributions to their lives.
After the first service a man in the congregation wanted to speak to Dr. Moore. Dr. Moore describes the man as "kind of macho, a former football player who loved to hunt and fish, a strong self-made man." This man told him, "I love you and I love this church, but I'm not going to participate in this Forty Days of Love stuff. It's OK for some folks," he said, "but it's a little too sentimental and syrupy for me."
A week went by. The next Sunday this man waited after church to see Dr. Moore again. He told him, "I want to apologize for what I said last Sunday about the Forty Days of Love. I realized on Wednesday that I was wrong."
Dr. Moore was surprised and said, "Wednesday? What happened on Wednesday?"
"I got one of those letters!" the man said. The letter came as a total surprise. It was from a person the man never expected to hear from. It touched him so deeply he now carries it around in his pocket all the time. "Every time I read it," he said, "I get tears in my eyes." It was a transforming moment in that man's life. Suddenly he realized he was loved by others in the church. That changed his entire outlook. "I was so moved by that letter," he said, "I sat down and wrote ten letters myself." (1)
The Holy broke in on that man. Receiving that letter was a transforming experience for him. It came from a mailbox rather than a mountaintop, but the effect was the same. God breaks into our lives and we are transformed.
God breaks into our lives with the holy, with the transforming mountain top events for a purpose. It's never so that we can stay on the mountain. Peter, James and John came down from the Mountain top with the Messiah energized and transformed for the work which lay ahead. They didn't know it but they needed to be strengthened for what was coming their way. God knows what we need before we ever know we need it. And God provides the mountain top experiences for a purpose.
I ran across a beautiful story, a true story, entitled "A Letter For Luke." It's about an eleven-year-old young man named Landon who stood in front of his Mom one day and said, "I wish I could write a letter to Luke." His mother could see the tears her son was holding back. Nine months earlier, Landon's friend Luke had died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage.
Landon's grief was deep, unreachable. His mother longed to ease his pain, though she could do nothing except hold him when he wept. She thought, maybe writing a letter was a good idea. She handed Landon paper and colored pencils. "Tell Luke how much you miss him and how much you love him. Tell him you haven't forgotten him."
Landon wrote the letter. A long one. The completed paper was a work of art. He wrote each line in a different color and carefully drew an elaborate border around the edge. It was a love letter . . . a message from earth to heaven.
Landon folded the paper carefully, and together they asked God to give Luke its message. But somehow, that wasn't enough. "What I really want to do is tie my letter to a balloon," said Landon. "I know it can't really get to heaven, but..." He left the sentence unfinished. His mother drove him to the store. There, Landon chose a neon pink helium balloon to carry his letter. Then they drove up a steep butte at the edge of town. It was peaceful on top, offering an endless view of high desert and mountains. A gentle breeze was blowing, and when Landon released the balloon, it instantly danced away from his fingers. They watched it climb silently up, up, up. It climbed quickly as if it knew the importance of the mission.
"I wish something would happen so I could know God got the letter," Landon said. His mother wished something would happen, too, but her practical side spoke,
assuring Landon that God would give Luke the message regardless of what happened to the balloon.
"I know," Landon said, "but I still wish I could see something..." The sky was covered with thick, heavy clouds, and the balloon grew smaller and smaller as they watched. Then suddenly, just as the balloon was leaving their vision, an opening appeared in the clouds and the balloon sailed through. They stood there speechless. "Did you see that, Mom?" Landon whispered reverently. "God got my balloon."
And as they drove back down the butte, his mother knew the message had been delivered. She felt what Peter, James and John must have felt as the cloud enveloped them on the Mount of Transfiguration. Or what the disciples must have felt when the risen Christ appeared to them in Galilee. She and Landon felt the comforting hand of God touch their lives and they were transformed. (2)
It energized their faith and strengthened them for their trip back down the mountain and back into everyday life. "The mountain tops are gifts to us. They give us perspective and they broaden our vision." (3) They empower and energize our faith. But the valley is where the people of God need to be.
We don't have to be on Mount Tabor or in the desert someplace. We don't even have to be seeking a mountain top experience for one to happen. God can reach out and transform our lives anywhere, any place, any time. All we have to do is open our eyes and focus upon the one who came to transform darkness into light, death into life, sin into forgiveness. It is a wonderment, all we have to do is keep our focus on the Son of God. But we can't do that on the mountain top because Jesus is already in the valley down below and calls us to be energized, to be empowered by the mountain top experiences of our faith but to come down from the mountain and follow him into the valleys and highways of life. And there be about the ministry and work of his kingdom.
This is the word of the Lord for this day.
1. James W. Moore, HEALING WHERE IT HURTS, (Nashville: Dimensions for Living, 1993), pp. 54-55.
2. Mayo Mathers, November, 1991 From FLIES ON THE CEILING OF THE SISTINE CHAPEL a sermon by King Duncan, Dynamic Preaching, J/F/M 1992.
3. Melinda J. Wagner, Preaching Through The Year, The Clergy Journal, Volume LXIX, Number 7, May/June 1993, p. 68.