It was thirty years ago or so when I experienced something I could call a transfiguration story. It was thirty years or so ago when I could relate deeply and truly for the first time to what Peter is going through and saying in the gospel for today. Peter’s experience was on a mountaintop face to face with God and recorded for all time in the Holy Scriptures. My experience was by the side of a lake, face to face with Bible camp counselors and imprinted only on my heart. But it was no less a time when God became very real to me and I, just like Peter, wanted to stay in that moment and that feeling forever.
I tell this story so often because it is so fundamentally a part of the story of me. I was fourteen years old and at my church, like here, a requirement before confirmation was to attend a week of Bible camp. I did not want to go, I had no desire to go, and I went kicking and screaming in my own quiet and passive-aggressive way. I was painfully nervous and shy at that age, I had no idea what to expect. A week full of strangers? What would be fun about that? A week full of church? What did I need with that?
But out of respect for my pastor and the requirements of my church and the demands of my parents, I went. And it is no exaggeration to say that I saw God that week. Through the words and actions of counselors who daily took time with us and shared the word of God with us. Through the songs that sang of simple wonder and joy and peace. Through that place and time set apart for growing in spiritual community. Through a sudden and growing sense that God had a purpose for me, for all of us, and the conviction that even in my own middle-school worries and wonderings, God cared about me and always would. That week changed everything for me – I heard the gospel I had heard my whole life in a new way, in a way I could understand and feel to my bones. I could see the glory of God shining through everything.
So, whenever I read the story of the transfiguration and how Peter and James and John are up on the mountain to pray with Jesus and Jesus is transfigured before them and his face is glowing and his clothes are dazzling white such as nothing on earth could bleach them and then Moses and Elijah appear with him and they are talking – Peter says to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three dwelling places: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” My first reaction is to think that Peter wants this moment to last, to stay there forever, and that makes sense to me – because isn’t that human nature to want to stay in those moments that touch us and move us deeply? Whether it is a deeply spiritual time, or the summer you first fell in love, or when your kids are little and so adorable, or when all feels good and well and right with the world.
But, wait a minute, the dwelling places aren’t for Peter and James and John along with Jesus and Moses and Elijah – he proposes to build dwelling places for just Jesus and Moses and Elijah up on the mountain top. What? He wants to keep them there? While the regular people go back to regular life? He wants to keep them Set apart?
It seems to me we might understand this as well. Or do we never reserve parts of our Christian life for only Sunday morning? Do we pray daily or keep it largely at church? Do we read the Bible at home or is it mostly something we do when we read the scripture lessons at church?
I can’t tell you how many times over my years as a pastor that I’ve run into people around town and they’ll say something to the effect of, “Oh, pastor – I didn’t recognize you without your pastor robe on.” I think to myself, do they think I just hang out here in my robe all the time? That I don’t leave and go do other stuff? But I remember I used to think the same thing when I would see my hometown pastor out and about – “Oh look, Pastor Vetter is out of the church! He’s in the bank! He’s walking to the post office! He leaves the church?” Well, of course he did. But in my mind it made sense that Pastor Vetter went with the church – we all like to compartmentalize things. Chips and Dip go with Superbowl Sunday, roses and candy go with Valentines day, Pastors, prayer, Bibles go with churches. I think that is why Beer and Hymns gets people’s attention – because it is a pairing of things that we don’t think of together. It makes some very uneasy – but for others, it just makes it interesting.
To Peter, Jesus hanging out forever on a mountain top – shining and talking with Moses and Elijah in their designated dwelling places high and far away – that made sense. Keep the holy stuff and holy moments together.
But of course, Jesus won’t be compartmentalized. Never for a moment would he stay set apart. He comes down off the mountain and into the messiness of life down below because a shepherd needs to be with his sheep. Surely life would have been easier for him if he had stayed up on the mountain, but he would only have fulfilled a fraction of his purpose. What good is it to be shiny and glowing on a mountain all the time? Shiny and glowing Jesus high on the mountain wouldn’t have been much good to the man who came to Jesus in the village down below needing desperately for him to heal his son. Shiny and glowing Jesus set apart high and far away on the mountain wouldn’t have been much good to any who needed to hear his teachings or experience his grace.
While Peter is still talking a light-radiant cloud envelopes them and they became very aware of God’s presence – and a voice emanated around them saying, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
Obviously, if you are going to listen to someone, you need to be around them. You can’t keep them perched far away on a mountain and be actively listening to him. Peter and the others knew that no matter how extraordinary that moment had been, and no matter what reasoning Peter might have had for wanting to build those dwelling places, the moment drifted away with the cloud and Moses and Elijah as well. All they were left with was the command from the voice of God’s own self, “Listen.”
It seems to me that word is much at the heart of the church season we will soon be entering. Lent begins in just a few days when we gather here on Ash Wednesday to hear the Word, to confess our sins, to receive the ashes on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and to share in Holy Communion. On Ash Wednesday and each week during Lent we gather for church on Sunday and also have the opportunity for worship on Wednesdays to set this time apart, to give ourselves space to listen for God’s voice and to reflect on the discipline of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love. These become the specific occasions and opportunities for spiritual renewal during this season of renewal.
Repentance is turning from sin. It is turning 180 degrees away from sin to walk toward God. We participate in repentance when we join together in the confession on Sunday mornings and Lenten services – particularly Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.
Fasting comes to us from Judaism and was recommended by Jesus. It is a practice that is designed to strengthen the spiritual life by weakening one’s attractions to pleasures of the senses. Thus fasting is always coupled with prayer and spiritual preparation.
Fasting does not necessarily mean giving up all food for a day. More frequently it is the giving up or limiting of a particular food or food group (sweets, desserts, chocolate, butter, fat, eggs, etc.) Abstinence from some activity (such as television, internet, movies, entertainment, etc.) on certain days, at certain hours or throughout the season is another way to observe the Lenten fast. This is designed to give more time for prayer and spiritual work.
Prayer is when we are drawn closer to God in contemplation and communication. Prayer is our half of a conversation with God. That means that prayer is not only speaking, but listening as well.
Finally, works of Love – this can be anything we do for someone else – generally someone outside our family. Examples of works of love are as varied as your imagination: shoveling the sidewalk for someone else, visiting homebound people, bringing a meal for someone who is going through a difficult time, writing a letter of encouragement. When doing your work of love, meditate upon Christ’s words, “As you do it for the least of these, you do it for me.”
After making your choices and beginning your discipline, it is not necessary to share your choices or your acts of love with anyone else. In fact, anonymity is regarded as better (Matt.6:1-7, 16-18).
Don’t be too hard on yourself, too rigorous, or too legalistic. The idea is to have a discipline that moves you spiritually closer to God, not one that focuses you solely on your discipline.
There’s nothing about the discipline of Lent that is a shiny and glowing mountaintop experience of God. The grand alleluias get put away and we tend to the work of Lent for us here in the valley below – practicing at being God’s people. Working at it. Letting the turning of the season and the giving of ourselves over to it transform us. Giving something more each week of our time, and our attention, and our selves. Trusting that as we journey through this season quietly and listening, and staying awake with Jesus, we might arrive at Easter morning with renewed spirits.