Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year C
February 9-10, 2013
Here are the readings.
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
In today’s readings we hear about two extraordinary events that take place on mountaintops. In the Bible, mountains are where many people have experiences of God. In the Old Testament we find Moses descending Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, the Law that God gave to Moses to help the Israelites know how to be in communion with God and with each other. Note that this is the second time Moses has had to go up to the mountain to get them--the first time he comes down with them, he finds the people worshiping a golden cow, and becomes so upset that he throws the tablets on the ground, destroying them. God, at Moses’ urging, has given the Israelites a second chance, and this time when Moses comes down, the people have behaved. But Moses has changed. His face is glowing, reflecting the light and glory of God. He is altered by his experience of God.
Luke tells us that Jesus also encounters God on a mountain. A few days earlier, Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who is going to restore Israel to its former glory. But Jesus immediately redefines what his role as Messiah means. He will not be marching triumphantly to take his place as ruler of Israel; rather he will face suffering, rejection, and death before being raised up again. Now we find him on the top of a mountain with his inner circle of disciples (Peter, James, and John), praying to God. All of a sudden Jesus’ face changes, and the disciples see him talking with Moses and Elijah! They chat about Jesus’ approaching death. Are they giving him instructions? Encouragement? Whatever it is, Peter is really impressed. As he and the others rub the sleep out of their eyes, Peter blurts out, “This is awesome--glad we’re here to see it! Let’s mark this occasion by setting up three tents so you guys can stay here.” At this point they are surrounded by a cloud, and God speaks to them from the cloud telling them to listen to Jesus, God’s Son, God’s Chosen One. The cloud departs and the four of them find themselves alone and speechless.
How many of us have had mountaintop experiences? Times when the world and God and our lives make sense, when we feel like we are connected, safe, confident of our purpose on earth? Perhaps we feel this way when we are out in nature, when we leave our busy lives of work or school behind and take some time to just be. Maybe we feel this way when we play a sport or exercise or make music or paint. For me it often happens when I go on retreat or vacation or to camp. It can be so tempting to stay in those moments, to pitch tents and plant our feet and refuse to leave. But at some point, we have to come down off the mountain. Back to work, back to school, back to reality. Jesus comes down the mountain knowing that it will lead to his death. But I think talking with Moses and Elijah gives him courage to continue along the path. Maybe mountaintop experiences give us clarity of purpose and strengthen us to face whatever lies at the foot of the mountain.
Seasonally, we are preparing to come down the mountain. At Christmas we celebrate Christ’s birth into the world, which is followed by Epiphany, the season of light. We are leaving the mountaintop of Christmas and Epiphany and entering into the desert. This coming week will mark the beginning of Lent, the season of self-reflection, discipline, and penitence. Many people use this season to give up things that distract them from God and/or adopt practices that bring them closer to God. At All Saints this Lent we will be focusing on issues of social justice. We’ll read what the prophets Amos and Hosea have to say about injustice. We’ll listen to speakers describe the issues facing the neighboring communities. With the calendars and the mite jars we’ll have the opportunity to reflect each day upon the blessings we’ve been given and how we can share these blessings with others. This Lent we are coming down the mountain to focus on the mission of the Church: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” by “promot[ing] justice, peace, and love” (BCP 855).
I recently had an experience of coming down the mountain. As many of you know, I just got back from about a month-long mission trip to South Sudan. While it was an incredible experience and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity, I must admit that it was a challenging trip for me. The living conditions in the village where we stayed are not good. Every day is a struggle to eke out an existence in a land still recovering from war and violence. Faced with so much poverty and suffering, I was overwhelmed. I wondered if my presence there was helpful or hurtful. Wouldn’t it have been better if I’d stayed home and donated the money I spent on flights, hotels, and food to the community so that they could get back on their feet?
But looking at their smiling faces and witnessing the joy of the community at our coming, I realized that while they do need assistance and money would be really helpful, what we brought to them was hope and this was much more powerful than just bringing money because it showed them that they were not alone, that they were not forgotten, that people halfway around the world cared about and were praying for them. And they in turn showed me that joy can be found in the midst of suffering, that you don’t have to be wealthy to be generous, and that every day you are alive is a gift. I went to Africa to try to share the love of Christ with my brothers and sisters but I found that this love had preceded me. You see, the funny thing about coming down the mountain is that God is already there.