Comfort and Crisis

Comfort and Crisis

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 24, 2019

3rd Sunday in Lent

Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9

 

God loves us, and in turn, God yearns to be loved. Love is the main reason Jesus comes to the earth and love is at the center of today’s text—although at first glance—it may not appear so. Jesus has been teaching his disciples and others gathered around. He has been warning folks about the danger of hypocrisy, about the dangers of storing up treasures on earth rather than treasures in heaven, and about the need to be watchful for surely the hour of judgment is nigh.

 

In the midst of Jesus’ teaching, certain they know what his message is all about, some in the crowd bring up recent news of murder in the temple. The implication is that “they” must have sinned. It’s an age-old assumption: When bad things happen to people, it’s because they have done something wrong and so they are just getting what they deserve. It was a common notion among the people of Israel. In too many circles, it is still a common notion.

 

“So, Jesus, how about the bloody, vengeful act by Pilate against Galileans at worship in Jerusalem? Surely such a dreadful thing would not have happened without just cause.” Jesus refutes their interpretation, perhaps foreshadowing Paul’s later teaching that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[i] Those Galileans were not more terrible than other Galileans. But Jesus warns, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

 

Then Jesus offers another example—eighteen people who died when the tower near the pool of Siloam collapsed on them—they were no more guilty than other citizens of Jerusalem. Yet, again he says, “I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

 

This passage from Luke, found nowhere else in the gospels, demonstrates that while Jesus is compassionate, he is not indecisive.[ii]  He demands that sinners repent before it is too late. While God is a God of love and mercy and grace, only a cotton candy gospel promises us that God meets us where we are and is happy to leave us there—wherever “there” may be!

 

Jesus wants his followers to understand the harsh reality that anything can happen to anyone at any time. It’s not necessarily because “those people” are being singled out, it’s because that is the nature of the broken world in which we live. Tragedy comes, sometimes by the hand of an angry assailant, sometimes through natural disaster… That being said, it is best to get things right with God and others now—not tomorrow—but now.

 

Turning from this harsh reality, Jesus, the great storyteller, segues into a parable. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I have found none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

 

There is comfort woven into this parable because it shows us that God is a God of love and second chances. But there is also a prediction of potential crisis—for one day, judgment will come. Will our hearts be right with God and with others when it does? Truly, God wants to give us more time. We see the delay of God’s judgment repeatedly in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.[iii] One example is provided in 2 Peter 3:8-9, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

 

St. Francis of Assisi speaks of the wondrous love of God:[iv]

 

May the power of your love, Lord Christ,
fiery and sweet as honey,
so absorb our hearts
as to withdraw them from all that is under heaven.
Grant that we may be ready
to die for love of your love,
as you died for love of our love.

 

In the parable of the fig tree, it is commonly understood that the owner of the vineyard represents God. The gardener in the story is Jesus. And the dire situation is this: God’s chosen people, the people of Israel, have had chance after chance to fulfill their God-given task to be a light to the nations. Time has passed and now time is running out. If they fail to change their ways, there will be dreadful consequences. Jesus knows full-well what a disappointment this fig tree is, but the head gardener still has hope growing inside him—hope that refuses to die. So, in essence, he says to the owner, “Let’s give it one more chance. I will do all I can and then, if nothing good comes of it, you can cut the fig tree down.”

 

One scholar offers a helpful word of warning as we try to interpret the parable rightly.[v] While the owner of the land and the gardener in the parable represent God and Jesus, we push the parable too far if we slip into the error of thinking this means God is hard-hearted and bent on the tree’s destruction, while Jesus is the kind-hearted one, bent on saving the tree. Such an understanding is nothing short of bad theology. Instead, what we have before us is a divine paradox—God is pleading with God to be patient with these stubborn, wayward humans.

 

Does this seem ridiculous? Well, don’t you sometimes talk to yourself, especially when you are trying to work out something difficult? I talk to myself when I do something as simple as try out a new recipe. Or you might be like the person in the Facebook meme who proclaims, “Sometimes I talk to myself because I need some good advice.” Sure, most of us talk to ourselves from time to time. So why shouldn’t God the Father and God the Son be in dialogue with one another? Isn’t that what the Trinity is all about? A truer understanding of God and Jesus in this parable might be: The compassion of Jesus is God’s compassion. The love, patience, and hope of the gardener is the love, patience, and hope of the owner.

 

And that’s the comfort the parable brings. But there is a word of warning, too. Opportunity may knock, but it will not always be so. If the tree does not respond to the care, the digging, the fertilizer, then there will come a time when it must be cut down. God’s grace pours down upon us like rain, but if we do not accept the gift, we, too, will be barren. And if we bear no fruit, what good are we to the land-owner? What good are we to the kin-dom of God?

 

Jesus looks out over the people and sees the fruitless lives many are leading. They are not fruit-bearers; instead they are barren down to their roots. While some will accept him with open hearts and minds, others will follow him in secret; and still others will out and out reject him. Nevertheless, Jesus the Bread of Life, looks with compassion on them for he knows what they are missing out on—the good news of whole, transformed, abundantly fruitful lives.

 

Here we are this morning, still on our Lenten journey. It’s the perfect time to examine the health of our hearts and minds and souls. How are we doing? How are we responding to God’s grace and love? Have we turned from sin? Are we bearing fruit? By the way we choose to live, can people tell we are followers of Jesus Christ? Do we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? If not, what areas most need tending?

 

In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus doesn’t tell us the end of the story—only, “One more year, and we’ll see…” God wants to give us more time so God will hoe and throw fertilizer and do the hard work, but we will have to do our part. A day of reckoning is inevitable. One day we will each breathe our last—from dust we came—to dust we shall return. It is prudent and wise to get things right with God and with others—and sooner is much better than later.

 

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Romans 3:23

[ii] The New Jerome Bible Commentary, 705.

[iii] Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation Series, 169.

[iv] St. Francis of Assisi, “For Love of the Love.”

[v] Rev. Bruce Prewer at www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C22lent3.htm

*Cover Art “Parable of the Fig Tree” via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain

 

I Will Be Confident

I Will Be Confident

2nd Sunday in Lent

Psalm 27

Luke 13:31-35

Jane Shelton, CRE; March 17, 2019 – First Valdosta

 

 

Have you ever had someone tell you, you need to have more confidence?

 

How do we respond to that statement, and do we really even know what the word “confidence” means?

 

Someone who has too much confidence, may be considered arrogant or boisterous, while someone with too little confidence may be considered timid or shy, or just insecure in what they know or believe about something.

 

So where is the balance?

 

The dictionary defines confidence as “full trust, or belief in the trustworthiness or reliability of a person or thing.”

 

So let’s think about this.  Why is it hard for us to have “full” trust of something in our lives?  Is it because we have been laughed at when we expressed an opinion or thought?  Have we felt scorned, judged or wrongfully accused?  Is it because we have been disappointed by someone or something that we fully trusted and that has now made us weary?  Perhaps.

 

But in today’s scripture readings, both in Psalms and in Luke, we meet two people who are fully trusting in what they know and believe.

 

First, in our Old Testament scripture, the Psalmist, believed to be written by or for David during his early reign as King, lays out a remarkable profession of faith in God.

 

He recounts his adversarial encounters, and then states, “yet, will I be confident,” and then another statement of a rising of adversaries, followed by an affirmation of what he believes:  I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

 

It is important to note in this Psalm that we can see in David’s lament and exhortation of his faith in God, faith and trust do not come without difficulties as God’s servants, yet we are also equipped by God with hope and courage, despite these difficulties.

 

Will we have light or will we have darkness.  Fear or faith?  Trust or doubt?

 

Over and over again we see the blessings or saving presence of God as light.  The psalmist affirms the desire and intention to live in God’s light…in God’s presence.

 

In his writing, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” Present Concerns, C. S. Lewis wrote:

 

“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.  They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

 

  1. S. Lewis was attempting to express upon his audience that when we surround ourselves with “Oh, the sky is falling” attitudes, we begin to believe that indeed it is, and everything around us becomes suspect.

These negative and fearful thoughts interfere with our Christ journey, causing us to look inward to ourselves rather than looking toward Christ for a new and positive direction.

 

Lent is a journey that causes us to look both inward and outward. 

 

We look with deliberation at our spiritual lives.  We ask ourselves:

 

– How can we further our relationship with God?

 

– How can we deepen our connection to God and grow the ministry of Jesus?

 

– Where do we find new direction to give our lives more meaning and hope in the promise of a risen Christ?

 

– How can we expect to grow Jesus’ ministry when we don’t take the time to grow our relationship with God?

 

– How can we find ways to grow spiritually?

 

It could be that while we are searching for new ways to bring new energy and direction to our lives, that we can participate in ways that God has set before us here at First Presbyterian Church Valdosta, such as Centering Prayer on Wednesday evenings, Generations of Faith Sunday School, a First Friday Contemplative Service, or a Christ Walk study during Lent.

 

These are ways we can learn to grow spiritually, both individually, and with one another, if we are only willing to risk a new way of life, a new experience with God.

 

We find it so hard to change our habits and learn new ways to explore our relationship with God, yet this is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples.

 

Jesus brought a new and exciting way of thinking about God, something beyond just the written law of the Old Testament.  A new way of thinking that caused people to feel loved and accepted.  Something experienced in the heart.

 

As we turn our attention to the Gospel of Luke, we see two pronouncements in our scripture:   Jesus will not die out of season, and he will finish his divinely appointed mission in Jerusalem.

 

We see the Pharisees characterized as those who “rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”

 

In this scripture it is not made clear whether Herod and the Pharisees were working together to run Jesus out, but it is hard to believe that with all the other stories of the Pharisees’ dealings with Jesus that they were here to advise him of any favors.

 

I’m guessing they wanted Jesus to be gone as soon as possible from their sight so they could get back to things as normal.  Their normal, with them in control rather than having Jesus teaching people to think for themselves, to think outside the norm of control by the law, as taught by the Pharisees.  A norm to benefit their rule and the rule of Herod, not the kingdom of God.

 

Herod, the “fox”, as Jesus called him.  Herod, the sly, cunning and destructive character on the scene along with the Pharisees certainly saw Jesus as a threat to their control over the people of Jerusalem.

 

However, in his divine faith and confidence in his mission given to him by God, Jesus does not let Herod deter him from completing the work set before him.  Jesus continues to cast out demons and heal the sick – acts that show the divinity of Jesus and his connection to the kingdom of God.

 

Both Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his death there will be controlled by his faithfulness to God’s redemptive purposes, not by Herod.

 

In Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he remains obedient to God’s direction.

 

His reference to a prophet not being killed outside Jerusalem, is a direct statement of fact in how Jerusalem has consistently killed prophets sent to Jerusalem to save God’s people, yet they turn away from these prophets again and again.  They turn away from growing their relationship with God.

 

In Jesus’ statement, “How often I have tried to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you are not willing!” shows his frustration with their ignorance; their inability to see the obvious.  Their unwillingness to see the direction of God for their lives.

 

My mother used to use a phrase to emphasize how mad someone might be as, “they were as mad as an old, wet settin’ hen.”

 

Growing up with chickens at our home, I knew exactly what she meant, because you never wanted to disturb a hen that was setting upon her eggs, or one that was guarding her baby chicks under her wings!

 

It is the ultimate example of protection of the love of a mother over her young.  Jesus uses this example to show the extent of his love and the love of God for his people.

 

Today, we ourselves, do not want to miss the efforts of those who are trying to gather us under their wings, to protect and save us from those who wait to devour, those who lurk behind the scenes with gossip and words that tear down rather than build up the kingdom of God for their own selfish gain.  We must ask ourselves, do we want to be a Pharisee or a disciple of God?

 

We, too, must be careful who we allow in our hen house, in our Jerusalem.  Do we want a fox, sly and cunning?  Or the loving and protecting wings of God?

 

Jesus’ divine confidence leads us to look toward the one who loves us, the protector and savior, the one who covers and shields us from the ever present dangers of evil.  Our adversaries lurk around us, sly and cunning like a fox working its way into the hen house, but we can be confident and obedient to God’s direction in our lives.  We can have the same confidence as Jesus, not arrogant or boisterous about what we know, but committed and faithful to God’s direction in our lives.

 

Recently in our Generations of Faith Sunday School Study, we covered a chapter on Loving Self.  In this study, the writer, Brian McLaren, wrote:

 

“You have this self.  What you do with it matters a lot.  You can be self-absorbed, self-contained, self-centered, selfish, self-consumed — and your closed-in self will stagnate, spoil and deteriorate over time.  Or you can engage in Spirit-guided self-examinations, self-control, self-development, and self-giving — and your self will open and mature into a person of great beauty and Christ-like maturity.”

 

McLaren went on to say, “God isn’t a divine killjoy.  God wants to love you the way God loves you, so you can join God in the one self-giving love that upholds you and all creation.  If you trust your self to that love, you will become the best self you can be, thriving in aliveness, full of deep joy, part of the beautiful whole.  That’s the kind of self-care and love of self that is good, right, wise and necessary.  And that’s one more reason we walk this road together: to journey ever deeper into the beautiful mystery of the Spirit’s love.  There we find God.  There we find our neighbor.  And there we find ourselves.”

 

When reading this, I couldn’t help but think about Jesus as he journeyed ever deeper into the beautiful mystery of the Spirit’s love.  There, he knew he would find God.

 

Why do we find it difficult to journey there?

 

How do we find the confidence that that the Psalmist had, that Jesus had in knowing God’s divine purpose for their lives?

 

Risk taking is often difficult, yet often rewarding.  If you haven’t been to Centering Prayer or First Friday Contemplative service, risk to be there to commune with God among friends.  It may feel strange or odd at first, but God will be there to give you comfort.

 

The Psalmist knew how to get self out of the way so that he experienced God’s divine purpose.  He was not deterred by adversaries and woes of life, not that he did not experience them, but he was so focused in knowing that God was ever present, confident that God would lead him, protect him, and love him no matter what life brought his way.

 

In his response to Herod and the Pharisees, Jesus teaches us to trust rather than fear.  When we turn our attention in the direction of God, we find light, life, strength, and courage.  We find confidence in one that never leaves us alone.

 

We find God in the presence of our lives.

 

The Psalmist told us “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”  The Gospel of John (1:5) tells us “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

 

In the light of God, we find both faith and hope that give us life and peace.

 

Jesus displayed this in the confidence with which he walked and in what he taught his disciples and others around him.

 

Waiting for God is active, and the season of Lent is a reminder for us to be active in waiting for God.  Active in our study of scripture, active in our time for prayer, and active in recognizing God’s path for us.  Trust and not fear.

 

Jesus followed a “divine timetable,” and in so doing, he followed the will of God according to God’s schedule.  Jesus had work to do, and he was confident in his journey with God.

 

Just as Jesus was confident in his mission, we are called to be confident in our relationship with God and to follow his will for our lives.   Jesus has given us the example…..Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Shall we be confident in our journey?

 

 

 

Jesus Leads the Way

Jesus Leads the Way

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 10, 2019

1st Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

 

“From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” For those who gathered for our Ash Wednesday service, these are the words you heard as you were marked with the sign of the cross: “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” As Maggie Dawn notes so well, “The ashing ritual is a symbol of the fact that we are quite literally made of dust—billion-year old carbon from burnt out stars, as Joni Mitchell sang in the 1970’s.”[i]

 

The Season of Lent is a time of preparation. It’s a time to walk the earth more gently and more wisely. It’s a time to step out of the rat race of life and face our own humanity squarely in the face. But must we really begin with words so somber, so gloomy: From dust you came and to dust you shall return? Must we begin with words spoken at a funeral? Is it necessary to dwell on our sinful, fallen, broken nature? Where is the gospel light in that?

 

Jesus enters the wilderness to face off with the devil. His fast of 40 days is not one of repentance, rather as one commentary puts it, “[It symbolizes] Jesus’ fullness of the Spirit and helplessness…and humbling of self before an omnipotent God who generously gives and sustains life.”[ii] Jesus, the Son of God, comes to earth to do the will of his Father, but he doesn’t just wake up one morning, roll out of bed, and start preaching. Even for Jesus, training is necessary. He is trained in Scripture. We know this because he uses it so often and so well. Jesus is baptized and is filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit accompanies him into the wilderness. (Jesus isn’t dropped off to fend for himself.) After a 40-day fast, Jesus is drained, vulnerable, and famished. So, of course, this is the opportune time for the devil to slink onto the scene.

 

Essentially, the temptations are not invitations to do bad things—the devil is much too sly for that. No, the temptations are tests to see whether even good things will lure Jesus away from God’s will.[iii] First, there is the obvious test—Jesus, fully divine, is also fully human—so he is hungry, and wouldn’t a piece of bread be mighty tasty right about now? Perhaps if we listen very carefully, we will hear an echo in the air of another man famished who succumbed to temptation—remember Esau who, driven by his appetite, gave up his birthright—all for a bowl of porridge? But when a similar temptation is set before Jesus, he will have none of it. Can’t you just see the devil smiling, “How about it, Jesus—with the snap of a finger you could set up your own bakery right here in the wilderness?” Jesus quotes from the book of Deuteronomy and refuses to let his physical needs control him.

 

With the second temptation the devil offers authority and power over the kingdoms of the world, but Jesus recognizes the lie that pours from the devil’s lips—for nothing belongs to the devil. And any power he has is borrowed for a time—until that day when evil will breathe no more. Again, quoting Scripture, Jesus refuses to be led astray.

 

Finally, the devil assails Jesus from another angle, tries to beat Jesus at his own game, so as a last-ditch effort he pulls out a few words from the Psalms. It appears the devil can quote Scripture, too. It just isn’t something he lives by! Nevertheless, Jesus is not swayed. Defeated and out of ideas to bring Jesus down to his level, the devil slips away until an opportune time presents itself. Oh, it won’t take long. In fact, throughout Jesus’ ministry the powers of evil show themselves because they know full well what is at stake. Their time of rule upon the earth will soon come to an end and it will happen through Jesus, who will not be outwitted by that liar of all liars.

 

With our modern-day sensibilities, we may perceive Jesus’ time out in the wilderness as simply dreadful. But what happens, during those 40 days and nights, gives Jesus the strength he needs for the journey ahead. There in that quiet, desolate place, Jesus is being formed. Jesus—Emmanuel—God with us—has come to do the Father’s will—not his own. Because of this time of preparation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, the new Adam, vanquishes the powers of evil. Through his trust and faith in his Abba Father and his reliance upon God’s word as his weapon against evil, Jesus shows us the way ahead. He is our model because he is our brother and he has gifted us with the Holy Spirit, too.[iv] Great is the mystery of our faith. During Lent we look our mortality in the face. It is a good time to consider who we are and whose we are. It is a good time to consider what we are doing with this one life we have been given.

 

Twenty years ago, I was beginning to feel God’s call to vocational ministry. Our eldest son, Samuel, was a freshman in college.  In his second semester, tragedy struck when a dear friend of his died in her sleep. It was Valentine’s Day and Blakely did not wake up. A beautiful, bright, talented young woman, who loved God and all God’s children, went to her heavenly dwelling, leaving behind a gaping hole where once she stood. The funeral was held in a church that seated well over a thousand people—still, it was standing room only. Instead of a traditional service, there was lots of music and singing, liturgical dancers and readings from Scripture and from Blakely’s prayer journal. The theme of the evening was God’s love for Blakely and Blakely’s love for God. In the midst of a most somber and sad occasion, the light of God broke forth like the morning sun and all within its rays were blessed beyond measure.

 

As for me, I left the service pondering life—Blakely’s and my own. How could such a young soul hold so much love? How did she become so wise in her short 19 years on this earth? While she had made an impression on me during her life—it was the witness she left behind that remains with me still. Because of her, I began keeping a prayer journal as a spiritual practice. Oh, sometimes my writings are less like Blakely’s and more like my own version of holy whining. Yet, the discipline has helped me to start the day gazing toward God. Often, it has allowed me a place to examine how I am living this one life I’ve been given.

 

In a meditation on this season of the church year, Maggie Dawn offers words of encouragement:

 

Pausing to contemplate our mortality [and our true nature during the Season of Lent] is not for the sake of making us bleak, but to startle us into an awareness of the gift of life. We’re neither perfect nor immortal; we are merely and yet wonderfully human, and we need to know who we are in our imperfections as well as our gifts in order to live every day as if it counts for something. The call to repentance isn’t supposed to leave us dour or morbidly obsessed with our failings. Instead, it’s a call to turn away…from what keeps us from God, alienates us from other people and stops us from living well. Lent [offers] a challenge to clear out the mental and spiritual clutter and so discover how to live life to the full.[v]

 

Jesus has a short but full life, with a ministry that lasts about 3 years, yet the impact he has on people in his own time and the impact he still has today is beyond comprehension. With lying lips, the devil offers the false hope of dominion and power—over the physical, political, and spiritual world. But Jesus will not waver. He will keep his eyes on his Father. He will life his life pointing to the Father with every fiber of his being.

 

The temptations offer Jesus an opportunity for instant gratification. But Jesus does not settle, and he will give his life so that we do not have to settle either. All this, and much more, Jesus endures and for what? For us…lowly humans who are often better at giving God a hard time than anything else. But Jesus wants us to have it all—abundant life—here on this earth and in the life to come.  Jesus’ whole life and ministry demonstrates the bigger picture of God’s plan for as one scholar puts it,

Though he refused to turn stones into bread, he does feed the hungry. Though he refused political power, the proclamation of God’s empire of justice and peace is the focus of his preaching and teaching. Though he refused to jump off the temple to see if God would send angels to catch him, he goes to the cross in confidence that God’s will for life will trump the world’s decision to execute him.[vi]

 

Being faithful to God day in and day out isn’t easy. But if we choose the Lenten journey, if we choose to make ourselves available to the grace of God, “we will encounter a faithful God who leads us not only into the wilderness, but through the wilderness.”[vii]

 

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Maggie Dawn, Giving it Up, 13.

[ii] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 688.

[iii] Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, 47.

[iv] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 688.

[v] Dawn, 15.

[vi] Ringe, 49.

[vii] Jeffery L Tribble, Sr., Feasting on the Word, 48.

*Cover Art “Spiritual Warfare” Ira Thomas; Catholic World Art; used by permission

 

A Glimpse of Glory

A Glimpse of Glory

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 3, 2019

Transfiguration of the Lord

Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12-18, Luke 9:28-36

 

It seems like Moses is always trekking up or down a mountain!  Our reading from Exodus puts us in the midst of a fascinating story. Earlier, when Moses is up on the mountain getting the tablets of the covenant, God sees the Israelites doing the most astounding thing down below and God is furious. Moses hightails it down the mountain with the two tablets in his hands—the word of God for God’s people—and when he reaches the camp and finds the people dancing around the golden calf that his brother Aaron has made, Moses is so mad, he throws the tablets and breaks them.

 

When Moses cools down, he does what he so often does—intercedes to God on behalf of this stiff-neck people. Afterward, God and Moses spend time together, talking of weighty issues. But then, Moses asks an extraordinary thing of God—he wants to see God’s glory. Surprisingly, God has Moses stand in the cleft of the rock, so that Moses can see God passing by. Later, God tells Moses to make two new tablets and come up the mountain again. Moses does as instructed—goes up the mountain—but he returns with more than the new covenant. He returns with his face glowing so brightly, it frightens the people. Turns out, these mountain top experiences changes Moses. Seeking God’s face, talking and listening to God—gives Moses the wisdom and strength to do the task set before him—to lead God’s people forth.

 

Elijah has quite a different mountain top experience. He appears in the Bible during the reign of Ahab. He’s the one whom God commands the ravens to feed with bread and meat in the morning and the evening. A great drought comes upon the land; in fact, it is Elijah who announces that it will last for a long time. (It doesn’t make him too popular, but then when have prophets ever been popular?) At this time in Israel’s history, they have taken up with Baal, the Canaanite god for storm and rain—but Yahweh will show them just who controls the rain.

 

In the end, God demonstrates power in mighty ways and God uses Elijah to kill all the prophets of Baal. As a result, Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, is furious. She sends a message to Elijah that he is about to die! So how does this mighty prophet of God respond? He takes off running into the wilderness. But God leads him to a mountain and tells Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain because God is about to pass by. There is a great wind—but God is not in the wind. There is an earthquake—but God is not in the earthquake. There is a fire—but God is not in the fire. Then comes the sound of sheer silence—and out of the silence comes the voice of God.

 

And this brings us to another mountain top experience—this time for Jesus and his inner circle—Peter, James, and John. Jesus leaves the noise and distraction of the world behind and goes up on the mountain to pray. While in prayer, his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear, and they begin talking about the glory of Jesus and his departure, which is to happen in Jerusalem.

 

Exhausted and befuddled, when faced with the glory of God’s son, Peter, James, and John are nearly overcome. And Peter does what Peter does best—he opens his mouth. He offers to build three shelters (a reference to the Feast of Tabernacles—one of the three biblically mandated feasts for the Hebrew people). Although Peter has good intentions, he has most assuredly not been listening because Moses, Elijah, and Jesus have been talking about Jesus’ departure. If Jesus is leaving, a place to dwell is a non-issue. Could it be that even though Peter has seen Jesus break down barriers time and time again, he still wants to put Jesus in a box?

 

Notice what happens next.  With Peter still talking, a cloud overshadows them and God interrupts Peter, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” Listen to him—God says. Maybe learning to listen will be Peter’s first step toward spiritual maturity.

 

While poor Peter makes an easy target, is it really any different for us? Are we any better at listening? Does God have to interrupt us while we chatter away endlessly, even in our prayers? Do our prayers sound like a laundry list of requests rather than a holy time of communing with God?

 

In Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer, Richard Foster writes about our wandering minds—how we are so wired into noise, media and technology—but all this is really a symptom of a deeper problem—distraction. Foster notes,

 

Distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day…The fact that our schedules are piled high and we are constantly bombarded by multiple stimuli only betrays that we have succumbed to the modern mania that keeps us perpetually distracted. The moment we seek to enter the creative silences of meditative prayer, every demand screams for our attention. We have noisy hearts.

 

Furthermore, Foster recognizes that even our Christian worship services have become productions that distract rather than draw us into the presence of God. What are we to do?

 

Over the past couple of years, here at First Presbyterian Church we have incorporated moments of silences in worship—the First Friday Contemplative services, for sure, but also in morning worship. We have a moment of silence after our Music for Preparation and after the sermon. Silence is incorporated into our morning prayer.  In addition, silence is key to Centering Prayer—a meditative practice that is offered each Wednesday. Silence allows our hearts and minds to settle down so we can truly be present and listen to God instead of rushing in and chattering away. Maybe if we are able to silence our religious chatter, we, too, may come away blinking from a glimpse of God’s glory.

 

The movie, “August Rush,” tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who is tragically separated from his mother at birth. Both his parents are gifted musicians—but they are unaware that a son, who has inherited their gift of music, is even alive. Even though August grows up in an orphanage where he is bullied, he refuses to deny his passionate belief—that his real parents want him and will find him with the help of music. Driven by the sounds of the music, he runs away from the orphanage in search of a new life with his family. At one point in the movie August says, “Sometimes the world tries to knock it out of you…but I believe in music the way some people believe in fairy tales…music is in the wind and sky…can you hear it? Open your heart and listen; you’ll believe too.”

 

As a Minister, I see another layer of meaning in the movie for my passionate belief, my faith, is in the power of God to change lives—but sometimes the world will try to knock that faith out of us. Still, God is all around, and if we listen, truly listen, we just might believe and be changed.

 

While praying to his Abba Father, Jesus’ face is changed. Sometimes prayer changes circumstances. Sometimes prayer changes us. In our spiritual journey, a trek up a mountain may not be necessary—but we still must make an effort to come away from the noise of the world—to sit in silence and listen. Otherwise, how can we truly know our Lord?

 

To capture the miraculous event of the Transfiguration, poet and novelist, Madeleine L’Engle has written these words:

 

Suddenly they saw him the way he was,

the way he really was all the time,

although they had never seen it before,

the glory that blinds the everyday eye

and so becomes invisible. This is how

he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy

like a flaming sun in his hands.

This is the way he was—is—from the beginning,

And we cannot bear it. So he manned himself,

came manifest to us; and there on the mountain

they saw him, really saw him, saw his light.

We all know that if we really see him we die.

But isn’t that what is required of us?

Then, perhaps, we will see each other, too.

 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Cover Art: “The Transfiguration” by Carl Heinrich Bloch via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain