March 6th, Last Sunday after Epiphany
* Exodus 24:12-18
* Psalm 2 or 99
* 2 Peter 1:16-21
* Matthew 17:1-9
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Late in the 19th Century the Marshall family of St Paul, Minnesota, decided to take a vacation. They had heard about the Brule River Valley in northern Wisconsin; that it was a good place to fish and camp. They knew it was out there in the north woods someplace west of Ashland. And so they took the train to Ashland, and there they found a local guide.
-- Oh, sure, I know the Brule. I can take you there.
So off they went. Into the wilderness.
After a while it became abundantly clear that the 'guide' knew nothing about the Brule - he did not know where they were.
So he got demoted. The father of the family had been in the army during the Civil War and learned some orienteering skills. It was time to put them to use. He led the family to the highest point around. There they were able to see where they were, and get their bearings. He plotted a route out. So when they plunged back into the forest, they knew where they were going. And he led them back to safety and civilization.
They did eventually find their way to the Brule, known of old to the voyageurs who used it as a route from the Great Lakes to the the Mississippi River Valley and to the LaPointe band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and to the Brule Sioux. With the help of these local people they got to the Brule River and camped. And they found the trout.
They liked it so much they still go there to fish and camp.
What Mr Marshall had done for his family - leading them to a high point where they could see where they were and get their bearings, then leading them out to safety - was a gift. They got the lay of the land - and with that they knew what to do.
Moses received a greater gift when he went up the mountain, first with the elders of the tribe, then alone. He was alone up there for forty days.
He received the gift of the law - a letter of agreement, if you will, solemnizing the covenant that God had made with the people of Israel.
The gift of the Torah, the Law, did not show them the bearings or the map coordinates for their passage through life, but it gave them the compass they needed to find their way.
The Torah told them who they were and where they were going - by showing them the ways in which they were to go.
And it assured them of God's presence all along the way.
What they had was a covenant relationship; the gift of the faithful presence of God.
They received more than a compass bearing, more than a GPS device; more than anything they received the gift of the presence of the holy one.
They got more than they expected.
For there on the mountain - it was who was revealed on the mountain, who chose to be revealed, that mattered.
From then on, they knew their way.
After that, they plunged back into the wilderness. It was still a long road - a long road from Exodus to freedom, from bondage to liberation, from sorrow into joy. It was a long road to the land of promise - as it is for all of us. We are still on the road.
And we still have the presence of God to guide us on our way.
When Jesus and his friends went up the mountain - when he took Peter and James and John with him and led them up to a high point, they were on a journey into the presence of the holy. And they got more than they expected.
We all have images of God, and of Jesus - of who Jesus is. And so we can treat the Gospels like a historical Jesus coloring book.
We have a sketch outline, like a coloring book, and we fill it in with our favorite colors - the ones we have and know.
To put it another way, we see a figure, white like a movie screen, and we can project images onto it - like the screen from a projector, we use Jesus as a place to show our own images of what God is like, what life is like, and how we are to live.
Then we encounter the reality.
His face shone like the sun and his clothes dazzled them with unearthly brilliance.
Brighter than any screen, sharper and clearer than any familiar image we can project - more gracious and greater than any we could conceive - we see Jesus transfigured.
God is present.
Peter started to get the idea and had a practical religious response. He suggested the building of tabernacles, booths, for three holy men of God - Moses and Elijah had been to the mountain top before, and now Jesus had joined them.
Is Peter trying to comprehend the infinite - to enshrine it, to find a limit to it, so that its meaning becomes finite? Its challenge manageable? Just a little bit familiar?
Then the voice spoke out of the cloud.
This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased. Listen to him.
The voice of Sinai, the voice of the desert, the voice of the mountain top glory - the voice once still and small - and yet irresistibly great - spoke to them.
John the Baptist had seen it before them, when he baptized our Lord - and he knew who was with him. Now the disciples heard the voice and they knew. In Jesus, the living God was present.
And then the command came - from One they knew:
Get up and do not be afraid.
Get up and make your way back down the mountain. You have your bearings now. You know where you are. You know the way. I am the Way.
He is the Way, and the One you are to follow. From here on - from the moment on the mountain top - you have something better than a guide, better than a map, better than a compass: you have God's living presence. And you have his love.
His love is shown in the gift of life - in the gift of his life, his death.
His glory is revealed anew in the Resurrection - the Ascension - and Pentecost.
Moses was on the mountain for forty days - as Jesus was in the wilderness forty days.
And we are about to enter the season of Lent - a yearly observance, forty days long, of a season of preparation. For this mountain top experience, this high point at the end of Epiphany, is not the end of the journey. We are still on the road. We are still making our way toward God and the land of his promise. On the other side of Lent are -
still greater things: the gift of Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. The gift of God's atoning work - and the experience beyond death of the resurrection.
The disciples witnessed the Ascension - and then received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
All this, every year, we remember - as it lies before us, ahead of us, in the coming year, it is what we already know - and are sure of - the loving presence of God.
How are we to deal with this? How shall we respond? Shall we build three booths? Shall we fall on our faces, overcome by fear, knowing we are in the presence of the holy? Or shall we - taking him at his word - find courage in his touch, and walk with him again?
Down the mountain the disciples walked with their Lord - and plunged back into the wilderness of life, with a long road to follow - but now they knew the way.
Be with us Christ every step of the way. Shed your light - be with us, before us, behind us, above us: renew us in the breaking of the bread, the pouring out of the wine. Be with us in the sharing of the sign of peace, and the offering of our selves to you. Be with us as we go out the door, to love and serve you. And reveal yourself to us - not only shining on the mountain, but in the gift of each other and the world you came to save.