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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Travelling in Russia and the Baltic States these past two weeks, I was struck with the variety of traditions marking the last days before Lent. Ancient folk practices and the arrival of spring are closely tied with preparations for Lent. In Estonia and Latvia children were praying for snow so that they could go sledding on Shrove Tuesday eve, the day before Ash Wednesday. According to pagan tradition, an ancient spirit for the growing of flax once came riding across the snow on a sleigh. To this day they sled and eat Lenten buns filled with whipped cream and jam in hope that the flax will grow longer this year. In Lithuania, children were preparing for their Uzgavenes bonfire. First they will go door to door in costumes begging for pancakes and money, and then they will gather around the fire and burn a straw effigy of the winter witch Morana. The ashes of the burned effigy will be spread on the fields to fertilize the soil. In Russia, the entire week was known as Maslanitsa or Butter Week. Thin pancakes called bliny were being served everywhere in restaurants and homes covered with honey, preserves and condensed milk.
Of course, growing up in a pious Norwegian Lutheran home in southern Minnesota, we didn’t celebrate many frivolous Lenten traditions. Mardi Gras dances were limited to the town’s Roman Catholic families. As for pancakes, they were not particularly special dinner fare. On the Last Sunday before Lent, we didn’t even have the fancy the liturgical Sunday called Transfiguration. In the Lutheran churches in the 50’s and 60’s, we were still using the historic Latin name for this day- Quinquagesima Sunday, the Fiftieth Day before Easter. The gospel lesson was always the same. St. Luke’s gospel, the 18th chapter. Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled… and the disciples did not understand any of this.” There was no mention of reveling in foods or drink, or of fasting and penitence. The message of Lent was about a journey that we were all being invited to take- a journey to Jerusalem where we would discover the meaning of what the prophets of old had spoken.
Life is often viewed as a journey through uncharted valleys. We move between places we call home, between one career or another, and between one child’s school activity and another. Every one of us here is on the move. As Christians, however, we trust that there is something more to this life and to this journey. You and I believe that we have been created in God’s image to dwell with him in his eternal home, and we have been called to live a holy life along the way. But sometimes we are so stymied at the crossroads that we lose sight of how we have been invited to live and of that glorious destination calling us. Instead, we make poor decisions, or no decision at all. In these moments, we need a mountaintop experience to put us back on the right path and headed in the right direction. That is the intent of the season of Lent and this Transfiguration Sunday.
This morning let us meditate on the theme “Making Snes of Valleys and Mountaintops.” For a moment, contemplate this simple question – how did you set the direction for your life? How you answer this, of course, tells you a lot about your priorities, values and beliefs. If you were to answer a teacher, a professor, a friend, a parent, or a specialist- you would be stating something of the authorities in your life. You trusted that someone had a clear vision for your possibilities. Personally, I’m always a little nervous about this. I once had an old parishioner state that I’d make a nice pastor. “I can see that you’re not bothered by people sleeping when you’re talking.”
If you were to answer that the direction for your life was based on economic studies or the projections of a vocational analysis, you would be stating that you trusted a more academic, empirical authority. Pastors are never concerned with a projection of needs. Even in the most passive Christian communities, we are kept busy with, “Hatching, matching and dispatching- baptisms, weddings and funerals.” And if you were to answer that the direction for your life was determined by the potential for economic livelihood, you would be stating that you had yet another set of authorities. But frankly, neither your strongest supporter, confidant nor friend, neither the most thorough nor accurate study, not even your own personal desire, can project for you your journey’s end. Our reading today reminds us that there is only one who will lead you up a high mountain apart by yourself, to look upon the movement of your life. There is only one who knows with certainty the direction you should follow. And there is only one who will speak truthfully when you have taken the wrong course. Jesus’ disciples discovered this to be true. . “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.”
If you are searching for direction, a new direction or if you are simply longing to be reaffirmed in your journey, let me offer this invitation the Lenten season. Let Jesus become your way. A young man was passing through a rural town. Within minutes he had lost all sense of direction. The first stranger he met gave him detailed instructions how to find the local address. “Take the first right, and a block later turn to the left, follow the road past the church, and immediately veer to the right. Then turn on the fourth road to the left. You can’t miss it.” Five minutes later, he questioned, someone else. Their answer was quite different, “Come, I’ll take you there.” The second person was the way, and visitor could not miss his destination. That is what Jesus will do for you. Let, Jesus become your way through life’s valleys. He will not only give you advice and counsel, but he will take you by the hand and lead you; he will strengthen and guide you, personally, every day. He will not tell you about the way. Jesus is the way.
Second, let Jesus become your truth. As a life long learner I have known many great men and women who have taught me about truth, but seldom has anyone ever embodied the truth. You see, there is one important thing about moral and ethical truth which is different than all other truths. A professor’s character doesn’t really affect the teaching of algebra or science. But if an instructor proposes to teach moral truth, character makes all the difference. A greedy person can not teach about generosity; an embittered person cannot teach about love of beauty; a person hungering for power cannot teach about humility, and a self-centered leader cannot teach about self-restraint and sacrifice. No teacher has ever embodied the truth he taught – except Jesus. As a pastor, I may teach you about the truth. But Jesus is the truth. Let his moral and ethical truth guide you on your life’s journey.
Third, let Jesus become your life. I would dare say that everyone of us is searching for life. We are not searching for this knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge. We are searching for life, so that our own lives may become richer and fuller. We are searching for that life which will makes our life worth living. That, my friends, is what trust in Jesus does. Life with Jesus is life indeed. This Lent, let Jesus become your Way and Truth and Life, so that you may be assured of your destination. That is what you are invited to discover on the journey.
But my friends, once you have reached that vantage point, that mountaintop experience where Christ becomes your way and truth and life, you must be prepared to go back down again. We can enjoy and celebrate life’s high point, those moments of profound clarity, when it seems that we can truly understand the meaning of the past and the future. It is no wonder that Peter suggested that the disciples stay with Jesus on the mountaintop, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” But God never allows us to stay there. Why, you may be wondering? The reason is simple. God has created you for life in the valleys. Mountaintops are for views and vistas, for vision and inspiration. But the fruit of your labor is found in the valleys below. When my sons were young, I knew that when my boys were fast asleep, that I was a perfect father, but that’s not when it mattered. It was during the waking hours that I made all the difference
It is after all in the land below the mountains, in the valleys that the majority of the people of the earth walk and work and live. Every so often, I imagine myself living in a nice, secluded cabin on the picturesque shore of Lake Superior. It is my mountaintop retreat. It doesn’t take very long before I hear a little voice whispering deep within, “And Pastor Haug, what do you expect to do in this secluded place?” You and I, we simply can’t be true to our divine purpose and calling as children of God if we avoid the shadow of the valley and the people who dwell there.
Jesus himself could have avoided life’s darkest valleys. As he stood atop that lonely mountaintop transfigured before his three disciples, Peter, James and John, he could have turned his back on the world. He could have gone on alone and ascended into heaven. But instead, he came down from the mountaintop into the valley. He left his seat of glory, to serve at the feet of the weak and lowly. He left it all atop the mountaintop, to journey to another hill called Calvary.
Why would he act so foolishly and selflessly? Why would he so willingly die upon a cross? Why? you may ask. For one reason. Because of his great love for you. This Jesus loves you, and longs for you to live abundantly in his care. This Jesus loves you, and longs for you to enjoy his mercy and grace. This Jesus loves you and longs to comfort and console you now and in his eternal kingdom. All this he does because he longs for you to live life to it fullest and for you to share that life with others. And nothing will prevent Jesus from following his course, not even his transfiguration on the mountaintop and the adoration of his disciples. And so Jesus “ordered them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
My friends, this coming Lent, let Jesus set the course and direction for you and your life. Let him give meaning to both your valleys and mountaintops. And may you discover anew what the prophets of old spoke of this your Savior. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.