“On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.” Luke 9:37
I sometimes ask people what their favorite Bible story is. People often talk about the Christmas story. It’s a familiar one even to folks who don’t read or hear the Bible much, and who doesn’t love a good birth story? Other people will tell me about a healing story and how it gave them hope. One of the variations of the Easter story will sometimes get a mention too. I’d love to know what your favorite Bible stories are and why.
No one – and I mean no one – has ever told me that the Transfiguration was a favorite.
I suppose we like the version of Jesus who spends time with his friends, who eats, who prays, who takes care of people – the Jesus who does relatively normal things in a way that inspires us.
But every so often Jesus turns gets dramatic on us. He pulls out all the stops and serves up a moment that out-Hollywoods Hollywood.
Usually when I read this story, I like to imagine myself on that mountain with Jesus. It all seems so glamorous up there, like something that should have won an Academy Award for technical achievement.
There are costumes – the dazzling white clothes of Jesus mysteriously illuminated.
There are guest stars – Moses and Elijah – two pillars of the Jewish faith who chat with Jesus and leave Peter, James, and John a little starstruck.
There are the visual effects – the cloud that overshadows and terrifies the disciples.
And of course there are the sound effects, the most dramatic of which is God’s voice declaring, “This is my Son, My Chosen; listen to him!” It echoes back to the baptism of Jesus when that same voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I like to imagine myself on that mountain in the midst of such strange goings-on. I know I would have been just as misguided as Peter, wanting to savor the moment, build some places to live, and stay. What a great story it was already, and how much better it would be to stay with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah for more than a few fleeting moments!
Meanwhile, back down the mountain, things aren’t so shiny.[i] There’s a desperate father whose son – his only child – is sick. The child has seizures, and no one – not his terrified father, not the rest of Jesus’ disciples, not the members of the community – can figure out what to do. The father’s despair is palpable: “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son…I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus heals the boy, although he seems a little grumpy about it. Perhaps he was hoping that the other disciples might have proven a little more competent in his absence.
When I consider these two different encounters with Jesus – one removed and glorious on the mountaintop and the other messy and difficult down in the valley – I realize that it’s the second story that seems much more familiar.
Most of the time I don’t encounter God on a mountaintop. I’m usually more like the disciples left down below, surrounded by so much need in the world and feeling inadequate in the face of it all. Sometimes I’m on the receiving end of an accusatory finger: “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” “Pastor, you’re supposed to have the answers. Why is this happening?”
Could the people down below see the mysterious cloud up on the mountain? Could they hear the voice of God? Or were they just left to wonder when Jesus was coming back – if he was coming back?
Life often feels like being at the bottom of the mountain, where demons are raging out of control and brokenness and illness surround us, and we feel powerless to do much about it. But God is there too. The signs can be more subtle; it’s easy to miss the presence of God down here on the level ground.
In my own life Jesus shows up far more often in the messiness. Earlier this week I was at a retreat with pastors from New Jersey and Pennsylvania whose congregations, like ours, are participating in the Leadership for Faithful Innovation project with Luther Seminary. There was a moment when we were asked to get in groups of three to share some work we’d been doing individually. The idea was that we would give each other feedback and help push each other’s thinking. I sat down with two colleagues, and before we proceeded, one of them asked if we could pause for a moment. She had just gotten some difficult news from home, and she was feeling unsettled. She asked if we would pray with her. So of course we did. We stopped right there in the midst of the conversations buzzing around us, reached for each other’s hands across the table, and we prayed for the situation she had shared with us.
There were no flashing lights, no booming voices from a cloud. But God was there.
God is with us in so many ordinary moments. In the pancakes and stories shared this morning with our youth. In laughter over silly jokes. In the mischief of a snowball fight. In conversations on the elevator or the train. In the everyday needs and sorrows of our friends and neighbors. In the prayers we offer for them and in the ways we show up to help.
God is here in the ordinary stuff of worship. We hear words from scripture and ponder them together. We sing and share in beautiful music. We pray for the world and for the church and for each other. We share in the holy meal – the bread and wine – so ordinary, in fact, that it’s a flattened, tasteless wafer and really cheap wine. The ingredients of this meal are more Shop-Rite than Whole Foods. And yet Jesus is here. Jesus is always here with us in the meal, in the prayers, in the music, in the words, in the silences.
And Jesus is with us as we go out from this place, urging us to see the world as he sees it – a place where great love is possible in spite of all evidence to the contrary. A place where he can transform despair into hope. A place where we can be changed and can participate in changing things for the better.
This week we begin the season of Lent with our observance of Ash Wednesday. Lent is a wonderful time to practice noticing where God is showing up in our lives and in the world around us. The ringing and singing and mountaintop moments of Easter beckon in the distance, but for now let’s savor simplicity and attentiveness. Let’s look around. Let’s look inward. Let’s look for the Lord in our midst.
Maybe we’ll be surprised that we don’t need the mountain as much as we thought. We already have what we need. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]As I have so often in recent weeks, I thank Debie Thomas for helping me see the juxtaposition of these two stories in a new way: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2100