God gives us perfect mountaintop moments of faith through grace, not to stay on the mountain, but to be perfected for the valleys below.
Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. ~Matthew 17:1b-2
I had a rare opportunity to preach two Sundays in a row during our Pastor’s recent vacation, and so I tried to see how I could make a “mini-series” of related sermons. It was interesting to see how the United Methodist Church lectionary readings shifted from Matthew 5’s “be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” to Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountaintop in Matthew 17.
It’s a fast-forward story-wise, from Jesus’ description of a life of Christian perfection, to God providing a preview of God’s perfection on earth in the transfigured Christ, as he and his disciples prepare to move on towards Jerusalem, where Jesus would experience betrayal, humiliation, crucifixion and resurrection.
In the first sermon, I talked about how we need to give up our family portrait world of human ideas of perfection and to rely on God’s picture of perfection, which is about growing in grace. For this sermon, I wanted to focus on how this “perfecting grace” comes to us not to give us “mountaintop moments” for their own sake, but to prepare us for serving and loving God in the valleys of our lives.
I couldn’t help but to think of one of the final moments from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life that exemplified that faithwalk. To me, his words show us how perfecting grace merges social and personal holiness into God’s perfect holiness. Sermon below, and in PDF format here.
Good morning. Here we are again, what a joy, what a grace! I love worshiping with you, and I love being part of the “us” that is this beautiful church. In this unlikely place, we come together to seek out God’s mountaintop moments in our hearts, filled with the promise of God’s hopes, seeking the dreams that God has dreamed already for us.
How much we yearn for God’s mountaintop! How much we want to claim the heights of closeness with the God of our hearts. How much we want to be with God in a safe, secure home, comforted, and sure in God’s love. How much we want to capture those moments like the family portraits that I mentioned last week, as we looked at God’s idea of perfection. But there is only one way to find such perfection, and that is to be perfected by God. And to be perfected by God is to accept that our lives in Christ lie beyond our mountaintop moments, in everyday places of extraordinary grace. Would you pray with me, please. [PRAYER]
The morning of April 4th, 1968, was dreary, damp, and cold in the suburbs of Chicago. I turned on an old radio in my room, and as the vacuum tubes warmed up, I did not hear the sound of Top 40 music that I expected to hear. Instead, I heard an ongoing news report about the shooting of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was in shock. The world was in shock. We are right to grieve for so many lives lost to violence, both on the stage of world history, and in our own lives, but it is difficult to describe the singular and piercing loss that this one shooting placed upon our nation.
Dr. King was no stranger to violence, and the valley of despair that gives birth to it. As Pastor Barbara described two weeks ago in her sermon, Dr. King knew that the violence of angry intent lurked in northern states as much as any place else. But on that day, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee, pausing for a breath of fresh southern air outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. He had seen the despair born of violence that hurt the sanitation workers of Memphis, and he had tried to offer them hope beyond human hope the night before.
As they crowded into a stuffy hall at the end of a frustrating day, Dr. King gathered the remains of his broken and tired heart, and he lifted them up to the Lord. Human words had failed them. Human actions had failed them. And so, as Dr. King reflected on the many years of struggle that had led to that evening, on the struggle of the Israelites against Pharaoh, on the promises of scriptures against oppression, on his own survival of a near-fatal stabbing in New York City, his rally cry began to fade. Or so it seemed. \
And then, when the darkness of his valley seemed ready to overtake him, Dr. King offered a vision from the depths of his soul, and said: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Dr. King was not a perfect man. The civil rights movement was not a perfect instrument of peace and justice. Dr. King knew this, and so, in this moment, he found in his heart the vision of a God who comes to us not to make us perfect or other people perfect, but to help us to be perfected by God. Dr. King saw that where he would fail against evil, only our complete surrender to God’s perfect love and God’s perfect hope could succeed.
Jesus’ story in Matthew today invites us to another mountaintop, the mountaintop of his transfiguration, from the essence of Christian living in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, in last week’s lectionary, to the essence of the God who leads us in Christian living. We see Jesus inviting Peter, the rock of his disciples, James, the just disciple, and John, the beloved disciple, to witness a mountaintop preview of God’s perfected presence on earth. Like Dr. King, Jesus knows that the evils of the world are lurking in the valley below.
But Jesus also knows that the valley is where we need to be rescued from evil. Where Moses basked in the light of God’s grace on a mountain for forty days, Jesus, the Son of God, the source of our grace, pauses on a mountaintop to prepare his disciples to witness God’s perfect grace in the valley, where Jesus will die on a cross for us in the midst of unspeakable evil. We are about to enact that journey as our forty days of Lent, our invitation from God to allow the brilliant light of God’s perfected love to conquer our darkest evils.
I reflect on such human evil and Dr. King’s struggle against it as a son of the North and a son of the South; the son of ancestors who united black and white sharecroppers in Alabama for justice, and who argued twice for voting rights before our highest court, despite death threats and attacks; the son of ancestors who fought and died for American independence from Massachusetts to South Carolina. The evils of our nation are hardly unique in world history. Blood is shed by evil all over the planet. We are all sinners in need of grace. Nevertheless, let us acknowledge the dark and tragic evil that persists when people claim, in the name of Christian heritage in a free nation, that a lynching in the 21st century is a just a man who is hanging from a tree, or bomb threats against synagogues an illusion. Deep valleys of evil remain here, and await God’s coming.
Our faith in Jesus Christ is meant to conquer such evil in our hearts, not to sustain it. In Christ, the valleys of our faith are to be lifted up, and the mountains made a level plain. But this only happens when we allow God to perfect us on the mountains and in the valleys of our own lives, allowing God’s grace to grow in us into God’s plan for us. So, let us try to surrender ourselves to God’s perfect love in Christ, now, as we stand with Peter, James, and John in the brilliant light of Jesus’ mountaintop transfiguration.
The glory of God is shining intensely – a moment of awe and ecstasy! These three Jewish disciples of Jesus see a vision of perfection according to their traditions. This is why Peter suggests to Jesus that they build tabernacles, sacred tents, to honor the laws of Moses from the Father, the Spirit-filled prophecy of Elijah, and Jesus, their conquering Messiah. For Peter, this is not a “what do I say now” moment, it is a moment that lifts up his sense of everything he loves most about God!
But Moses and Elijah didn’t appear to perfect Peter’s family portrait of God, but to allow God to perfect God’s revelation on earth. This is a moment of transition, a “teachable moment,” as some say, and God is ready to strip away everything that is temporary, and reveal the one eternal truth. Peter, James and John are blinded by the light of God’s glory; all they can sense is the voice of the one true God, confirming Jesus as the Son of God, the one true and complete and beloved revelation of God on earth.
Moses and Elijah have vanished from the scene. They were temporary and incomplete human messengers of God’s glory. Jesus, the Son of God, God’s perfected glory, is the one true and eternal voice of God who remains, ready to lead God’s disciples off the mountaintop, into the valleys that offer condemnation, crucifixion, and resurrection hope.
God’s mountaintop preview of Christian perfection is complete. God in the person of Jesus Christ will not appear again before all nations until the last day, when all things and all people will be prepared for God’s final glory. In the meantime, God has perfected God’s glory in Jesus Christ to invite us to begin that perfect moment now, not later. We do this as a church and in our lives not by trying to build tents around temporary ideas and prophets of God’s perfection, but by surrendering our lives to Jesus, God’s perfect Way to the love and justice of God’s glory on this earth.
Even now, there are saints upon this earth, both prominent and humble, known to us, and unknown, who work tirelessly in Jesus to bring healing, peace and justice into their own lives and into the world. God is calling us all to be perfected into such a sainthood, to bring God’s mountaintop calling into the valleys of our everyday life, allowing our lives to be perfected by the extraordinary grace of God’s perfect love at work in us.
We may find such perfecting grace in the next moment that we offer healing instead of hurt; we may find it when we find the courage to say “no,” when it would be all too human for us to say nothing, or to mumble a frightened “yes.” We may find it when, like Dr. King, we surrender all of our shattered hopes for a better yesterday or a false future that vain attempts at human perfection offer us, give our struggles to the light and the glory of God’s perfecting grace in Jesus Christ, and say to ourselves, and even to the world, “God has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land!”
And in this transfiguration of our lives by God, may we finally look beyond the mountains, beyond the valleys, beyond the cross, beyond the grave, if but for a moment, and see that there is indeed a safe and eternal home for us in Christ, comforted, secure, and sure in God’s love, a moment that will make us ready to do the next right thing for God’s sake in this world, with the eternal comfort that God, and God alone, can, and shall, make all things perfect in God’s land.
We, as a people in Christ, have been promised this perfect land! And by God’s grace, may we, as God’s people, be perfected in our claim to it, now and forever. May our eyes see the glory of the coming of the LORD! Amen.