Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Growing up in a pious Norwegian Lutheran church in southern Minnesota, we didn’t celebrate many frivolous pre-Lenten traditions. Mardi Gras dances were limited to the town’s Roman Catholic families. As for pancakes on Shrove Tuesday they were not a particularly special dinner fare. Our Catholic neighbors even had Lenten humor. A father took his young son to the Knights of Columbus Hall for Bingo. While they were sitting there, he asked the boy what he was going to give up for Lent. The boy replied, “I don’t know, Dad. What are you going to give up?” His father said, “I’ve thought about this a lot and decided to give up liquor.” Later in the evening, the beer man came by, and the man ordered a beer. His son objected, “Hey, I thought you were giving up liquor!” His dad answered, “Hard liquor, son. I’m giving up hard liquor. This is just a beer.” To which the boy replied, “Well then, I’m giving up just hard candy.”
Since my childhood, Lutherans have grown more ecumenical and worldly. We actually do use ashes on Ash Wednesday now. And though, we may not have begun eating fish on Fridays, we do spend a bit more time with the great fisherman St. Peter, and so the story of Jesus’ transfiguration atop the mountaintop with Peter, James and John present is now always read as the gospel for this Last Sunday of Epiphany and it serves as a transition from the joy of Christ’s nativity to his suffering and passion.
I am sure the theological purpose of this shift was to keep the eyes of the faithful focused on Jesus’ glory and his gaze to Jerusalem, rather than imminent time of penitence, but regretfully, the story also makes poor St. Peter look a bit foolish. Of course, people enjoy seeing the humorous side of the great fisherman-especially Protestants. We like to hear that the eager disciple began to sink while walking on water, and that Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Get behind me Satan.” Instead of the preeminent apostle and martyr, the rock upon which Jesus built his church, we prefer to see poor Peter as the benevolent bouncer at the Gates of Heaven who welcomes in believers and sends away sinners and skeptics. For example, when a cat died and went to heaven, St. Peter said to the cat, “Is there anything I can do to make your stay here better?” The cat answered, “I’ve been sleeping on a cold floor and I’d love a warm pillow to sleep on. St. Peter gave a pillow to the cat, and the cat headed off to bed. Later, some mice came to St. Peter. They wanted roller skates to get around faster so St. Peter gave them their skates and the mice went off. The next evening St. Peter checked in on the cat. “How was your night last night?” The cat gushed, “That pillow you gave me is really nice, but what I like the most about heaven is the Meals on Wheels.”
Many would like to dismiss St. Peter’s declaration too atop the mountain as silly and naïve attempt at worship as well. After all, while he was still speaking, he was silenced by a voice that came from a heaven. For many critics, that certainly would appear to be God putting Peter in his place. But my friends, this morning I would like to challenge you with the thought that Peter was actually right. “Lord, it was good for him to be there.” Oh, yes, he may have had cold feet, but that mountaintop experience changed him and allowed him to travel through life’s darkest valleys.
Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days of your life, are the day you were born and the day you find our why.” 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. But as Christians, we also 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. It is the why of our lives. That is what we strive for and hope and pray for our families, but then come those dreaded learning experiences. Like me, you’re tired of reading lines like, “A Hungry Stomach, and Empty Pocket, and a Broken Heart Can Teach the Best Lessons.”
Scriptures tells us that in the face of life’s challenges, we are supposed to be tenacious, diligent and persistent. But that doesn’t always guarantee success either. Sometimes, regardless of your good efforts and energy, you can become so stymied on the long, empty stretches of life that you lose sight of how God has invited you to live and of that glorious destination calling you. Life happens. Disappointments come your way, and you wonder why God doesn’t answer your prayers for those you love. You wonder why he seems so distant. Life can be disheartening. Yes, in those awkward times, we all can make poor decisions, or perhaps no decision at all. That’s when we struggle most to make sense of life’s valleys. It is precisely, in these moments, when we need a mountaintop vista to put us back on the right path and headed in the right direction.
Of course, we don’t know why Jesus only chose only Peter, James and John, three of his disciples to go with him up the mountain alone on that day of his transfiguration. Why not all twelve. Obviously Jesus intended for the vision to strengthen their faith. It was an amazing vision of God’s glory. But the vison didn’t really serve its purpose for the trials that lay ahead of the three in Jerusalem? Peter still denied Jesus, and the other two deserted him. But there would come a day, when that vision would take hold of their lives again. That is the hope and promise the transfiguration hold for us.
On the day Peter saw something and he knew that “It was good to be there on the mountaintop.” Indeed, in the vision of the transfigured Jesus, the disciple saw the meaning of life, the why of his life flash before his eyes. In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter could see the humanity of Jesus emboldened with the eternal glory of God, and in that moment, Peter glimpsed the mystery of faith and purpose: God became human so that humanity might one day become like God. That is the good news for you and me. God has a place and a purpose for us and he will not let us go.
Peter did not forget his experience at Jesus’ transfiguration, though he may not have understood it at the time. Thirty years later, while preaching in Rome, Peter was arrested and imprisoned during the reign of Emperor Nero. He could have fled, but he chose to stay in the city. According to tradition, he wrote his last will and testament in an epistle called 2 Peter. The transfiguration still has a prominent place in his memory, and so he mentioned that in his epistle, “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” For Peter, it was good to be there, and to remember being there. In fact, according to Christian tradition shortly after its writing, Peter would be crucified upside down on a cross. But the meaningfulness of knowing and experiencing the why of life at the transfiguration and the importance of his work made everything – even his martyrdom – worthwhile.
My friends, the transfiguration on that holy mountain, must remain in our memory for us to make sense of life’ dark valleys and the empty stretches as well. The vision continues to teach us that patience, hope and confidence are never misplaced. God simply has a why for your life that has not yet be revealed. God will do all things in his time. In the meantime, wait patiently and live purposefully. Live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in your lives and let the world see Jesus in you. Above all, cast aside all doubts. As difficult as that may be- and listen to Jesus. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.