Enjoy the Mountain, Live in the Valley
Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; Matthew 17:1-9
The word 'Lent' although we quite properly associate it with fasting and penitence means literally 'spring'. When we consider the coming of spring we think in terms of growth and new life. Despite the cold, already around us are signs that say that spring is on its way. Daylight is coming earlier and staying longer. Whether we see it or not the earth is warming up and preparing for the growth that marks our spring weather. I know that we consider Lent as a rather dreary time in the church year, a time of giving up, a time of penitence, and dreary hymns in minor keys. However, Lent, as the springtime of the year is a good way for us to consider the season, for this is a time of spiritual re-awakening and growth. It is a season of great hope.
If Lent is a season of hope it is also a time to reflect on change and transition in our lives. When our lives change we are often faced with a new awareness of how attached we are to our old ways. We find it difficult to put down new roots and grow in new directions. To do so takes more trust than most of us can muster.
Abraham's story is an important one for us, for it is not only a story of the great faithfulness of God, but also of our human ability to put our trust in God through all the changes and transitions of life.
God called Abraham to begin a new life in a new place. It was a call, not only for Abraham, but also for the people of Israel. It is the beginning of their history of salvation – a moment of transition in their lives. God calls Abraham to leave his homeland and set out to a strange place. God makes a seemingly impossible promise to Abraham that his descendants will become a great nation with a territory of their own. It is on the basis of God's promise that he leaves the familiarity of his life and sets out to live as an alien resident, far from his roots. It is a story that touches us as part of our human heritage. Being uprooted and displaced, whether by war, disaster or choice is the experience of millions of people in our own time. Consider the story of the Syrian family that the River of Hope is sponsoring in our community.
The wonder of the story is not only that Abraham was obedient to the call of God. It is that he trusted so implicitly in God's ability to accomplish what was promised. Wouldn't our human tendency be to take control, to try to orchestrate things so that God's promise came about through our own efforts? Abraham didn't raise an army and march on the Canaanites. He didn't enact laws and find people to enforce them. He didn't get himself a crown. For Abraham, faith meant believing in God's promise and trusting that God would make it happen in God's own time, in God's own way, through God’s grace.
Speaking for myself, I find that kind of faithfulness to God's promises very difficult. In my head I know the promises that God has made to us; in my heart I find it difficult to simply trust. I know intellectually that God's grace is free and abundant. Yet I find it impossible to give up my own need for control and let God work in my life.
That is one of the themes that I find in the Transfiguration passage in the Gospel. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain. There on the mountaintop, Jesus is transfigured, changed. He appears before them in dazzling white, a sign of God’s presence. They witness Elijah and Moses talking to Jesus.
During that encounter, Peter feels led to build three tabernacles, three altars as memorials, shrines to his sacred experience. What could possibly be wrong with doing exactly that? Whenever Abraham found signs of God’s presence on his journey, he built an altar and called on the name of God. It is part of our human nature to do so. We build churches. We want holy places in which to worship God. We think that by memorializing God we will somehow capture the holy. God will surely be with us.
But as God would have it, Peter will not build altars on the mountaintop. Altar building will take place in changed lives in the valley below. The vision ends as quickly as it began, like a bursting bubble. The disciples are transported back to the valley. It is in the valley, after all, that they are called to serve lovingly and faithfully. It is in the difficult arenas of the world that their ministry will unfold.
That does not mean that the experience will be forgotten. Mountain top experiences change our perceptions of God and of ourselves. The disciples will carry that experience with them. Later when they look back on what has happened it will help them to face the difficult days ahead, days of loss and confusion.
We tend to think of "mountaintop experiences" as being ecstatic experiences, emotional highs. That is because true revelations are very difficult to express to other people. They are uniquely personal experiences. It is meaningful to the person within his or her own context. And so we search for the right words to describe our experience of God. It is that inexpressible quality that leads us to call those deep revelations "mountaintop experiences".
Those of us who live a normal Christian life spend most of our time with both feet firmly on the ground. We try to live the Christian life. We participate in worship. We give our time and talents to the work of the Church. We spend time in prayer and study. We try to live a good and moral life.
Life is not an easy journey. We all experience wilderness times in our lives, times of frustration, pain, suffering, difficulty. Sometimes it seems as if there will be no end to the wilderness time. When one thing after another happens to us, we ask the age-old questions. Why is this happening to me? Why must I suffer? Our faith comes into question. It is at those times that we call on our mountaintop experiences, those times when God was revealed to us in some inexplicable way that gave us a glimpse of glory.
It is those deep experiences of God that make it possible for people facing deep tragedy not only to sustain their faith, but to continue to affirm that God is a God of love, that God is there for them. When I look back over my life I become aware of many such moments. They are often just fleeting glimpses of the grandeur of God. The easy ones to express are times when I have experienced God through a great piece of music, a walk in the woods, a stimulating conversation with a friend, a synergistic moment when the right story or the right word came at exactly the right time. I have to say that some of them I would have great difficulty even beginning to explain to you. There have been moments of great clarity when I knew that God was with me. There have been times of prayer when I felt a deep connection to God. There have been times of danger when life was spinning out of control, and yet I knew that God was there.
I consider the Camino to be one of those mountaintop experiences in my life. I find it difficult to explain exactly what it entailed. I am without words to name it, other than its impact on my relationship to God. I am at just as much a loss of words to express the experience of praying on the beach at St. Columba’s Bay in Iona. In fact, the whole Iona journey is another of those inexpressible experiences that have brought me into closer relationship with God.
They are not experiences that we can go looking for. They are ways in which God chooses to be revealed to us. It is about letting God lead us. It is about opening ourselves to God. It is about letting God come into relationship with us. And especially it is about allowing ourselves to return to the valley. It is the changed lives that take place in the valley that are the tangible results of the mountain top experience. Jesus’ immediate act on descending from the mountain was to heal a young boy suffering from epilepsy. That boy, Peter as he becomes the ‘rock’, the foundation of the Christian faith, the lives of all of the faithful, the Church, the body of Christ; these are the living altars that proclaim the glory of God. That is pure grace.
Let this Lent be a time to reflect on change and transition in our lives. Let it be an opportunity to grow in new directions, to come into a deeper awareness of God's grace at work in our lives and to know God's abiding presence in our lives and the life of the world. Let it be a time to experience God’s grace at work in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Amen.
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