Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I am told that there are advantages to getting older, but in spite of what my sons say- I am not old- yet. Getting older is when everything hurts and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work. Well, that’s not true for me. I know that two Aleve can take care of my pains for the day. Getting older is when the gleam in your eyes is from the sun hitting your bifocals. I am still seeing fine, as long as the room lights are turned up bright. Getting older is when your children begin to look middle aged, and I know that mine are still looking like they are in their 20’s. So I am feeling as young as I can -even if my barber offered me a senior citizen’s discount, and the waitresses at Perkins keep inviting me to look at the 55 plus senior menu. Of course, there is one advantage to age. You can look back at the past objectively and without passion, knowing that it has led you to the present.
Margaret Jang penned the verse, “To know your future, you must know your past.” It is reminiscent of the writing of the Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Along life’s way, we need mountaintops to see where we have been, and where we are going. That is the invitation this morning in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.
The Transfiguration of our Lord is one of the church festivals that occurs every year with its own particular set of readings, hymns and challenges. There are the fantastic elements to the story. As one commentators notes: “There’s the arduous trek up the mountain; a tightly knit company of friends on a pilgrimage together; the appearance of other-worldly figures in dazzling light; the transformation of Jesus into an equally dazzling figure; the command from a powerful voice from another dimension; and then a determined descent to battle those other powers back home with the admonition to tell no one of what has been seen.” Truthfully, it’s hard to know where begin, and so, the story can often leave preachers and congregations alike wondering what they are supposed to see.
Today, I would like to share with you two thoughts drawn this passage: first, in order to understand God’s calling for you must go to the mountaintop and look backwards, and second, from that same vantage point you must look forward and set your course for the future.
Let us begin, by looking backwards. Regardless of your age, for a moment, contemplate this simple question – how did you set the direction for your life? How you answer this, of course, should tell you something about your core values and beliefs. If you answered- I was directed by a teacher, a friend, or a parent – you would be stating something about those who have influenced you.
It is, however, easy to be distracted as we journey along life’s way and to lose focus. We know that we have been called to act as saints and stay the course. We have been created in God’s image to do his will. But sometimes we are stymied at the crossroads of life and as we move on from one place to another. We lose sight of our ultimate destination. Perhaps it is the restless night of the soul, when you wonder where your career will lead you. Perhaps it is the cheerless time, when a loved one dies and you wonder how you can move on. Or perhaps it is the distressing hour when you discover the broken faithfulness of a spouse, and you don’t know whether you can trust again.
And yet it isn’t simply in life’s tragic moments that we lose focus. We can also lose sight of our journey’s end in the pleasant and happy moments. Children have a wonderful way of distracting one’s course and focus. I’m reminded of a little girl who was diligently pounding away on her father’s computer. She told him she was writing a story. “What’s it about?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I can’t read yet.” You see, whether we live on open prairies, along wind tossed seashores, or deep within the forest, we need vantage points, mountain tops if you will, where we can look backwards on life in order to move forward.
No doubt, after three years of following in Jesus’ footsteps, the disciples themselves needed to look backwards as well. As they stood with Jesus on the mountaintop, they were encouraged to look around. They were challenged to examine the places where God had been present on their journey.
Unfortunately, many men and women assume that that mountaintop is their destination forward. The disciples certainly thought so. That is what they eyes were trained to see. But my friends, that is not what insight should tell you. Yes, looking down from the mountaintop, you will be exhilarated and refreshed, but do not be mistaken. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration reminds us that mountaintops are not the goal nor destination of a faithful life. Mountaintop experiences are meant to make you into something for the next stage of your journey.
Jesus 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. This scene of transfiguration, however, is a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. From this time on, Jesus’ identity would be unquestionable and his march to his death unstoppable. From the mountain of his glory, and its unparalleled vistas, he would descend back into the struggles of the valley. But he would do so with the affirming words of God ringing in his memory. 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, you see, loves you, and longs for you to live abundantly in his care. He loves you, and longs for you to enjoy his mercy and grace. 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.”
Now how should this story transform your life and mine? That is after all the reason that the story occurs every year. It is not to remind that you are getting older and that another Lent is upon us. But it is to remind us that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
My friends, the story of the transfiguration teaches us that you too must ascend to the mountain top and listen again to the one who knows both your past and your possibilities for the future. There is only one who will lead you up a high mountain apart by yourself, to look upon the patterns of your life. There is only one who will speak to you honestly and generously who knows with certainty the direction you should follow. And there is only one who will speak to truthfully when you have taken the wrong course. If you are searching for a new direction, trying to understand your life, or if you are simply longing to be reaffirmed in your journey, go up to the vantage point, look to the one who has accompanied you to this place and “listen to him.” It is there on the mountaintop in prayer and in meditation, in reading and studying his word, that you will be afforded the clearest direction and purpose for living.
But be prepared as well that that God is going to lead you back into the valleys. For that is where his heart is. In the most difficult times of life, we wish Jesus would take us away to a high mountain to be by ourselves, apart from our pains and sorrow. Yes, it is good to be there. But God won’t let us stay there. God, you see, has created you for the valleys. And he want us to learn from the mountaintops how to live in the valleys. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
When our sons Vitali and Alexei were young, and they were fast asleep, I would stare at them in their beds knowing that I was a perfect father. Of course, that’s not how it felt during the day. But when I allowed myself the time upon my mountain top at night to reflect on where we had been, I knew that I could begin again the next day. I was reminded by God’s gentle prodding that it was during the waking hours that they needed me. It was there in the valley that I could make all the difference. Even now as am growing older, and so are they, I know that do not need me on the mountain top, they need me in the deep valleys of life.
That is true for your friends and family as well. They don’t need you on a pillar or a mountain top, they need you to walk with them in the valleys. That is the assurance and hope that you can offer. It may be messy business. But the story of God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ isn’t about our perfect pilgrimage, but it is the story of Jesus coming down, descending all the way down into our brokenness, fear, disappointment, and loss. But it doesn’t end there. Christ also offers the assurance they he will lift you and all those who you love from the bleakest valley. That is the good news you are invited to share to transform the lives of those you love.
My friends, I may be getting a bit older, but I am also growing more confident. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” How have you set the course for the next stage of your life? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.