This is the text of the sermon I preached on February 10, 2013 at First Presbyterian Church, Nebraska City. The sermon text is Luke 9:29-43.
Have you ever had one of those moments you wanted to remember forever, you wanted something to remind you of that moment?
I have these rocks that I carry around in my briefcase, now they are little rocks, pebbles really. I got them from my trip to the Middle East in 2006. I had the pleasure of joining other seminarians on a trip that took us to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. The two rocks that I carry come from Mt. Sinai, or The Sea of Galilee or maybe the Pyramids. When I picked them up and put them in bag. I knew I would remember where they came from. The sad fact is they are just rocks, rocks that I carry around in my bag. When I look at them, I don’t remember all the amazing things I saw walking in the shoes of our biblical ancestors, I just get frustrated because I can’t remember where they came from. I should probably just put them in the yard or something; maybe really confuse some archeologists hundreds of years from now. How did this rock from the Middle East get in Nebraska? For some reason I can’t let them go, I’m stuck. I want to get back to that literal mountaintop experience but I can’t seem to find it again. So for the time being I carry around a couple of random rocks in my briefcase.
We do it all the time. We try to hold on to those moments, instead of holding onto the meaning of the moment, the lesson that we learn from experiencing that mountaintop.
In the 1730s, in the American Colonies we experienced what scholars call “The Great Awakening.” “It resulted from powerful preaching that gave listeners a sense of deep personal revelation of their need of salvation by Jesus Christ. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made Christianity intensely personal to the average person by fostering a deep sense of spiritual conviction and redemption, and by encouraging introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality.”
Some of the most famous preachers of this time in American Protestantism were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield. You may have heard or heard of Jonathan Edward’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of and Angry God.” Edwards was not known, as a great orator but still was able to attract a huge following. George Whitfield on the other hand was a known for his skills in preaching, so much so his reputation would precede him, the crowds would be huge, bigger than any church could hold. He would preach in parks and squares and wherever they could find enough room to fit the people. He was like the Colonies’ first rock star. He was like Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Justin Bieber all wrapped into one. One of his most famous fans was Benjamin Franklin; he devoted 45 editions of his Gazette for Whitfield’s writings.
The sermons those men were credited with, the religious fervor they were able to conjure up, the people they were able to reach from all accounts had mountaintop moments hearing them preach. They would preach then they would leave, on to the next town, and inevitably the religious fervor would fade, life would take over, that special feeling that you get when you know you are in the presences of God is harder and harder to recall and then what. If you come down from the mountaintop are you somehow less faithful?
This was one of the unintended consequences for the emotional nature of the sermons, many would be raised to heavenly heights but would come crashing down and lose faith when their world returned to “normal”. Many had no one to answer the hard questions of faith, many lost faith as quickly as they had found it. They knew how to stop; listen and they wanted to hold on to that moment forever but they did not know how to move on down the path of faith.
That’s not to say that we should not be emotionally connected to our faith, that we shouldn’t seek those mountaintop experiences. I know for my own faith journey, it is those mountaintop experiences that feed me for the journey that continues when we come down from the mountain. Whether those moments where at a retreat, summer camp, a worship service, or conference or whether those moments came in a hospital room, sitting around a table, or working in your yard those mountaintop experiences help to guide us on the long road of faith.
In our scripture lesson today, we read from the Gospel of Luke in a story often called “The Transfiguration.” In our passage, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the mountain to pray. Jesus’ face is transfigured and his clothes shine bright white and he was talking to Moses and Elijah. The scripture reminds us that the disciples were “weighed down with sleep”. Seems like they always are. They just can’t seem to stay awake can they? Peter realizes what is going on and he offers to build dwellings for you and your friends. Before he can even finish his offer a cloud engulfs them and they heard the voice of God and were terrified. Wouldn’t you be? The voice of God says, “This is my Son, Listen to him!”
Peter, James, and John see Jesus talking with the spirits of Moses and Elijah and instead of being told to build an alter or to create a temple, or even pick up a rock to remember the experience they are told, by God to Listen to Jesus.
I’m sure Peter, James, and John were dumbfounded by the whole experience, they wanted more, they wanted to talk to Moses and Elijah, pick their brains, figure out how it was going to all play out. All they got was listen to him! They were so dumbfounded they did tell anyone.
Isn’t that how it happens, we have an experience, I have a few stories, times when you were so astounded at what happened that you couldn’t explain it to anyone? Everything clicks, everything works out and things are perfect. We say things like, “If I could bottle that, I’d be rich.” “This is what church should feel like.” “I wish this would last forever.”
The sad fact, the reality is you can’t bottle it, church does feel like that sometimes, and nothing last forever.
Even for Jesus and the disciples as soon as the day after they come down the mountain, Jesus casts a demon out of a young boy. A boy they disciples couldn’t heal by themselves. Jesus says, “You’re not listening.”
Often we don’t listen.
We get swept up in the euphoria of God that we don’t do the work of God. Sometimes it happens that we get excited about a new calling we dive right in, then something happens, our call loses its luster then we think about quitting, then we quit. There are stories of you starting things, stories of you doing great work, stories of you sticking with it.
From all that I have heard the Best Flood Friends ministry is a time where the euphoria and the work met and this church was enlivened by the idea that you were worthwhile, that you were needed, and you not only had the ideas but the ability to implement those ideas. You were able to cast out demons of loneliness and grief, of hunger and abandonment. All were astounded by the greatness of God.
Our challenge is not to build dwellings to that moment in the life of this church. Our challenge is to learn from that moment as it leads us down the path of ministry. We learned that we are committed, we are equipped, we are capable.
Our next step is to put that knowledge to work. I asked you last night to think of the most audacious goal you have for the church. We will begin asking you to share those with us throughout the season of Lent. What is the next demon we can cast out? What is Jesus saying to us? Are we listening?
Those mountaintop experiences provide us with food for the journey. Let this meal we are about to partake in feed us, nourish us, and embolden us to take that next step out in faith.
Let us pray.
Dear God, we are full of questions, we are full of doubts, there are so many needs, so many ways to help, so many we can become paralyzed wanting to make a monument to past glory. Give us the strength to press on, to listen to your call on our congregation, to learn from the moments when we have seen your face. Dear God, we are listening, open our ears so that we may hear.