A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
March 2, 2014
How good are you at keeping secrets? When someone whispers in your ear, does the message find its way out of your mouth?
When was the last time someone said to you, “Now don’t tell anyone I told you this”? You know what that means, don’t you? It’s almost a catchword for saying, “I know you’re going to broadcast this all over the place, but my telling you this gives me the privilege of disavowing it if it comes back to me.”
“I’m sharing this with you in confidence.” What does that mean? It usually means, “You didn’t hear it from me.”
When Jesus is coming down from the mount of transfiguration, he tells his trusted disciples – Peter, James, and John – “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Interestingly enough, as far as we can tell, that is exactly what they did. They told no one. I suppose it could be said that in this case Jesus was pretty safe. How could they tell this story when no one would believe them anyway?
After all, dead is dead. Remember, they haven’t come to Lazarus yet. How could Elijah and Moses come back from the dead? Why would they tell this story and risk the very real possibility that no one would believe them? It must have been a dream. Yes, that’s what it was… a dream. And didn’t Jesus himself call it a vision? And isn’t a vision a dream?
Moses and Elijah come back to life, if even for a brief moment as they confer with Jesus. Jesus’ face shining like the sun, his clothes such a dazzling white they would put all the Proctor and Gamble products to shame. What does all this mean?
Well, in the liturgical calender this is the final Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The season of Lent begins next Sunday. Yes, it really and truly does, believe it or not. But we’re not there, not quite yet.
The word epiphany refers to disclosure. We have an epiphany when an idea comes to us or we have an unusual, maybe once-in-a-lifetime experience… something we’ve not thought about or gone through before. We have an epiphany when something happens to us that changes the course of our life, leads us in a new and better direction, causes us to redirect where it is we are going in our spiritual journey. It is, more often than not, a good and positive thing.
When this happens to us, we don’t want the good feeling that often accompanies such an experience to go away. That was Peter’s inclination, wasn’t it? “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” What does Peter know of making dwellings? He was a fisherman, not a carpenter or a tentmaker! That was his way of saying he wants the experience, as well as the feelings that accompany it, to remain with them forever.
They don’t call it a “mountaintop experience” for nothing, you know. Everybody wants to stay on the mountaintop.
And it’s perfectly natural. For example, you’re gathered around the fireplace on Christmas morning. You’ve got your entire family there with you. You’re opening gifts or drinking egg nog. Family traditions kick in, and whatever is significant to you on Christmas morning is what you do. The main thing is you’re together, right? You know that eventually your loved ones will all have to go back to their respective homes and jobs and lives, but you don’t want to think about that. Not right now. Just for this moment you’re wishing it could last forever. But it doesn’t.
Christmas before last, our daughter Emily and her family came to spend the holiday with us. We were having a wonderful time. I baptized Matthew, the younger one, that Sunday before Christmas. Then he sang “O Holy Night” at the Christmas Eve service. Some of you may remember, perhaps.
Christmas morning we were all together… Tim, Kathryn, and Charley were there, our whole family. We exchanged gifts, ate a hardy breakfast, settled down to play board games. We really enjoy board games in our family. Everybody was together and I wanted it to last forever.
Then the rain came. Then the winds came, bringing in a cold front. The rain turned to ice, coating the trees and everything else that got in its way. Then we woke up the next morning to ten inches of snow… ten inches of heavy snow with ice underneath it. Then the power went out. For five days at our house. Remember?
We enjoyed it for awhile. I have a picture of the family gathered around the table in our den in front of the fireplace playing Sorry by candle light. But you know what? The longer the heat is off, the colder the house gets. So eventually we all crowded into Tim’s and Kathryn’s house. They still had power, so that worked… for a day or two. While our house was getting colder and colder, their house was getting smaller and smaller. So Emily and her family went back home to Georgia early. And we felt cheated. We had to come down from the mountaintop far too soon.
If we could only have frozen (excuse the pun!) that Christmas morning and kept it forever and ever.
But life doesn’t work that way. And that’s not the way epiphanies are. They come, then they go. They enlighten and they encourage, but only to the point that they lead us to work out the consequences of them by ourselves as we continue the journey.
Last Sunday, I had the privilege of leading the discussion in the Young Adult/Seekers Sunday school class. And when I say, “Lead the discussion,” let me tell you, it is not a lecture. Those folk really get involved in the conversation. We talked about what “Baptist” means, and I asked them to consider it in terms of a two-sided coin. There is a privilege to it (that’s one side of the coin), in that we are able to determine our own actions individually and as a congregation because of our strong belief in the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church. But with that privilege comes the responsibility of doing it right and doing it well, with strong intention and great grace. That’s the other side of the coin.
There are two sides of the coin when it comes to Jesus’ transfiguration. This is one of those moments when Jesus’ life and ministry are validated by God himself. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” The Voice comes down from heaven to make this proclamation at Jesus’ baptism at the outset of his public ministry. Now, at his transfiguration, when Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, God says once again, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” What a privilege to be endorsed by God like that! That’s one side of the coin.
The other side of the coin is that, seemingly, when Jesus needed his Heavenly Father the most, when he was agonizing over his impending crucifixion, Jesus heard nothing. Nothing. No validation, no voice, no epiphany, no face shining like the sun. Instead, his face is covered in tears, streaming down like blood.
What does this mean? I think it means that while in that garden, hearing nothing from his Father, Jesus could look back on this moment, this epiphany, this transfiguration, and remember. In the silence of that desperate, desperate moment, Jesus could know that if God had been there with him and for him before, God would – even in his silence – be there with him at the cross.
Hugh Redwood was a noted journalist in England. He was scheduled to give, what was to him an important speech. But he was distracted, wrestling with the need of making an important decision about his life. The speech was to be given in a city where he did not live, so he stayed in the home of a friend. Noting his restlessness, his friend suggested he go upstairs and spend some time alone. So he did.
There was a fireplace in the room, with a crackling fire. Next to the fireplace was a Bible opened to the fifty-ninth Psalm. Someone, possibly his host, had underlined the tenth verse. “The God of mercy shall prevent me.” The word prevent was an old expression that meant “go before.” “The God of mercy shall go before me.” Written in the margin of the Bible were these words: “My God in His lovingkindness shall meet me at every corner.”
It was like a light had been turned on in a dark room, he says. It was an epiphany straight from the heart of God. His burden was lifted, and he knew that no matter what decision he eventually made, God would be there before him to guide him and to strengthen him.1
We are told that at the transfiguration Jesus’ face “shone like the sun.” That happens when you know that God has gone before you. Do you feel that God has gone before you to guide you in your way? Well, as it says in the old Irish blessing, may the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. If that happens, you will know that God has gone before you. You will know indeed.
Lord, we ask you to go before us and hold us up when we get there, into your presence and your grace. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1adapted from William P. Tuck, “Sitting On Top of the World,” unpublished sermon, January 22, 1995.