02.26.2017 Preaching Text: “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’” (Matthew 17:9)
A week ago Saturday we held a memorial service for our friend, Libby Damon. When I sat down to put my thoughts to paper in preparation for my meditation, I went over the scripture readings the family had provided for the occasion.
To say I was impressed is an understatement. I later learned that Libby had personally chosen these words herself. I half-joked that she could have been a theologian, so appropriate and profound were her selections.
But of course you don’t have to sit in an ivy-covered office or a pastor’s study to do theology. And she did it well.
She began with selected verses from Romans 8, the ones having to do with suffering. In verse 8 Paul writes: “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
I was struck by the word “glory.” It is, after all, an antiquated and mostly forgotten word today. We rarely speak of it. Yet in the past it served as one of the most important and most discussed words in scripture.
But what does Paul mean by “glory”? Well, Libby answers the question. Her next reading came from Revelation 21, where the author relates his mountaintop experience (the mountaintop being the traditional meeting place of human beings and God).
There John receives a divine revelation, a vision. The vision is that of the future, specifically the time following Christ’s anticipated return. As part and parcel of this era, he describes a holy city of God coming down from heaven “adorned as a bride for her husband.”
He calls this the “new heaven and the new earth,” the first heaven and first earth having “passed away.” John says, of this “new Jerusalem,” that there shall be “no more sea,” no more of the turbulence and unrest born of mortal existence.
He adds, further: “Death shall be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”
Libby then moves deftly to Revelation 22, which further describes this “New Jerusalem,” a place, we understand, that one day shall be ours. An angel shows him “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”
In this golden city, John testifies, “there will be no more night;” and its residents shall require “no light or lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
Finally, Libby sums up the entire matter, the whole gospel, in fact, with a closing reading from John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world,” it begins, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
This is the gospel in miniature, premised on God’s ironclad promise that through the resurrected Christ his glory shall be ours also. Thus faith in the hope of this glory serves as the sole basis for Paul’s (and Libby’s) confidence that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory of God’s kingdom to come.
This means we can put up with anything in this world, for nothing can “separate us from the love of Christ”. Paul elaborates on this, saying that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In today’s Matthew reading for this Transfiguration Sunday, we encounter another mountaintop moment. There God breaks into time and transfigures Jesus. It’s a spiritual revelation, a bright, holy vision, and a momentary glimpse of the fullness of God’s glory yet to come, the very same resurrection glory to which we’ve been referring.
It’s so glorious, in fact, that Peter, the ever-impetuous Peter, wishes to stay there forever. He even offers to build a few permanent dwelling places.
Jesus, however, declines his offer and announces that they all must return down the mountaintop and back into the very “stuff’ of ordinary life. More to the point, he now has “set his face” toward Jerusalem and the cross. This will mean not luxuriating in this momentary glimpse of future glory, but moving toward suffering, pain, and, eventually, death on the cross.
The subtext of all this, of course, is what comes last, resurrection’s glory. Jesus descends from the mountaintop to go back into the “valley” of suffering, suffering not unlike what we experience, at least from time to time. For we, too, shall one day die. This momentary glimpse of glory serves as but a foretaste of that which is yet to come in full. It sustains us for the journey.
On the mountaintop the disciples are shown the reason why they do what they do, and why they must endure the suffering to come. For God knows the time will come when they will need the assurance of this moment. For they will be tempted to forget this, God assurance, as they face adversity and loss, in those moments when God’s presence will seem wholly absent.
How this applies to our own lives should be patently obvious. When we experience life’s trials and tribulations, as we will, it’s so terribly easy to forget that God’s steadfast love and grace continue to surround and uphold us. Thus God’s sure promise of eternal glory can place our current sufferings in their proper context.
For we know that God does not promise Christians a carefree, problem-free life, but a life marked by God’s unyielding, indefatigable presence, both in this life and the next. God will never abandon us. We are never alone. Even in our forgetfulness.
Consider the sun. On a cloudy or stormy day, it’s easy to forget that the sun is still shining brightly high above, in all its glory. It’s just that it’s obscured momentarily by a darkening sky.
In such moments, we are called upon to remember our mountaintop moments, those visionary times when we were assured of God’s unshakable strength and peace.
Yet it’s even more essential to remember what is yet to come. As Jesus leads his band of followers down the mountain to face cruelty, hardship, and death, he remains confident that at the end of this journey comes eternal glory – the same glory we have been afforded but mere glimpses in this life.
Strangely, though, we rarely talk about this, not the momentary glimpses of glory, nor the fullness of that which is yet to come. Not even in our churches. We seem to focus almost exclusively on this-worldly concerns, which despite their obvious importance leave us largely bereft of comfort when faced with life’s inevitable suffering, loss, pain, and, yes, death.
It has been said, rightly, that “the problem with natural man is that he has a supernatural ending.” In other words, our focus ought to be on heavenly things.
I recently imagined that when I’m lying on my deathbed, it’s unlikely I’ll be focusing on who the president is, but on who my Lord and Savior is.
In the final analysis, Jesus is telling us that though suffering and hardship shall surely will come upon us, even death, God fortifies and sustains us not only by the promise of the eternal, resurrected life, but in the momentary, sometimes fleeting glimpses granted us throughout our lifetimes.
Fortified by this knowledge, we can take to heart Jesus’ words to his disciples as they prepare to descend the mountaintop: “Get up,” he assures them, and us, “and do not be afraid.” Amen.