Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Yr. C. February 10, 2013. (Text: Luke 9:28-36)
Luke’s version of the Transfiguration story says Jesus invited Peter and John and James to go on a hike with him up a mountain to pray. However, he also tells us that when the four of them reached the mountaintop, only one of them was still awake enough to pray. And that was Jesus. The other three were knocked out from the climb.
I think this touches a bit on the hard work of serious prayer that many of us have experienced ourselves. I mean: we can start out trying to follow Christ on the upward path of prayer, eager to be with him, but wear ourselves out in the effort and end up almost comatose. Some of us forget that we need to prepare to pray, if we are to pray well.
And—by the way—my definition of prayer is “anything we do intentionally to turn ourselves toward God. Prayer can involve words, or it can be wordless. Prayer can be a specific activity. But it has to be serious and undertaken deliberately.
I see the disciples’ hike up the mountain with Jesus as a metaphor for the spiritual life of a Christian. The Lord asks us to come with him on a journey of prayer. The object of this journey is to get so close to Jesus that we become like him and begin to share the intimacy of his union with the Father. (And who wouldn’t want that?)
I say it’s a metaphor for our own spiritual experience because, like Peter, James and John, you and I often find the journey of serious prayer steeper and harder than we expected it would be. The disciples weren’t wearing heavy back-packs, the way mountain hikers often do today, but in our own climb up the mountain with Jesus, I think we often weigh ourselves down with needless burdens, while neglecting some of the important things that could help us be awake and attentive if and when we reach the mountain top.
Bear with me, and let’s explore this metaphor a little. Let me ask you: what do you think might be some items of useless baggage we ought to leave behind when we “start up the mountain” to be with Jesus in prayer? [Members of the congregation offered answers.]
In my personal opinion, one major item of excess baggage is our uncritical acceptance of this world’s value system, in which personal independence is the highest goal in life, material security is the only real salvation experience, and the approval of others is treated as sure evidence of a “success.”
That kind of thinking is junk! And we can’t haul a lot of junk with us if we expect to be able to follow Jesus up the steep trail to union with God. Paul said: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed inwardly by the renewing of your minds.” Old habits of “junk” thinking are a burden we can’t afford to carry. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to repent. And “repent” means to change the way we think.
Ash Wednesday is this week, and Ash Wednesday is about recognizing the ways we need to change our old habits—both habits of thinking and habits of behaving—as Lent begins.
OK, sticking with my metaphor, if there are things we ought to leave behind when we start up the mountain with Jesus, are there some other things, important (but not heavy) things we should not forget to take along? [Members of the congregation offered answers.]
Water, for sure. Like flatlanders visiting the mountains, who often start out on a hike with only a little bottle of water (which they drink during the first half hour), some of us start our hike imagining we can go with Jesus to the mountain top without having what the Bible calls the “water of life,” the Holy Spirit. That’s like trying to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen, or drive from Sheridan to Missoula on three gallons of gas. Without inviting the Holy Spirit into our hearts, none of us can follow Jesus very far up the trail. He tells us, “The Spirit alone gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer.”
There’s something else we also often neglect: high energy, concentrated food. We try to follow Jesus to the place of prayer and transfiguration without taking along the spiritual equivalent of “Power Bars” to give us strength for the journey. I’m talking about the nourishing daily bread of God’s Word. Jesus said “the words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life” and “we live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Sometimes we behave as if it’s enough just to hear a few Bible verses read aloud at church once a week. That won’t get the job done! Could you live on one meal a week, much less be strong enough to climb a mountain?
So: if we’re trying to follow Jesus up to the mountain-top place of serious prayer without having prepared in advance for the hike, we’re likely to give up from exhaustion far short of our destination. —But there’s still hope! And it’s found in today’s Transfiguration gospel.
God is merciful and generous, even when we’re foolish and headstrong. If we’ve followed Jesus up the trail in true love and willing obedience—even if we’re on the verge of passing out from exhaustion he won’t give up on us. He wants to reveal his glory to us and through us.
Notice this: in the story of the Transfiguration, the three disciples are awakened by their vision of Jesus in glory, and then they hear the Voice of God saying, “This is my beloved Son…. Listen to him.” But Jesus doesn’t actually SAY anything to them there on the mountain. It’s not until they’re back down in the valley, back in the ordinary, daily work of discipleship, that Jesus begins to talk to them.
And you know what happens? They start to listen to him a new way. They start to hear his meaning, for the first time, with their hearts and not just their heads. Then they ask him to teach them to pray, and he does.
You and I don’t just encounter God during once-in-a-lifetime mountain top experiences. Once we’ve learned how to find a place where we can “see” the Lord’s glory, we’ll start to recognize his nearness and hear his voice all the time, even in the midst of our busy lives and distractions.
This Lent, Jesus will invite each of us to come away with him to a quiet and private place, a place with no distractions and no diversions. It might even be a real mountain top. Or it might just be a quiet morning alone at your own kitchen table. Or a chilly afternoon sitting right here in this church.
It doesn’t matter where he wants to take you. When the invitation comes, go with him! Don’t let what looks to you like “pressing business” make you say, “No thanks. I can’t do this today.” The devil has a way of making anything that distracts us from God look like the most important thing in the world! But there’s really nothing more important than going wherever Jesus takes you and waiting there with him for your moment of revelation.
Be patient. Pray. Rely on the Spirit. Trust that the glory of the Son of God will be revealed to you and the Voice of the Father will speak to you. And when Jesus is ready, let him guide you down the mountain back into your everyday life. You won’t be sorry. And it will be a transfigured life!