Fifteen years ago, I travelled to Newmarket to preach for the first time at Holy Cross Lutheran Church. It was Transfiguration Sunday and I was preaching for Call. I knew that the following Sunday the Congregation would gather to vote on whether or not to call me as their pastor. I’ve been serving as the Pastor of Holy Cross for almost fifteen years and over the years the people of Holy Cross have nourished and challenged me and transformed me into a pastor. What follows is a transcript of the sermon I preached on that long ago Transfiguration Sunday. Old sermons reveal our old selves. While my theology has changed over the years and I would not preach this sermon in the same way now, I treasure the memory of that hopeful candidate for call. To the people of Holy Cross: Thank-you for transfiguring me! Shalom!
When I was a teenager, I was always in a hurry. I wanted to see and do everything there was to see and do. When I was nineteen, I knew that I just had to get out there and see what the world had to offer. So with nothing more than a backpack, a three month Euro-rail pass, and eight-hundred dollars in travellers cheques, I boarded an airplane bound for Amsterdam.
I was searching for adventure and I was convinced that Europe held the excitement I was looking for. Inside my backpack was the book that would make it all possible. Europe on Ten Dollars a Day. I was determined to make my eight-hundred dollars stretch the length and breadth of Europe. I was going to see and do it all! It wasn’t easy. In fact when I look back on it now, it seems like such a lot of hard work. Up early in the morning sightseeing all day long. Meeting new people. Fighting my way through the crowds of tourists. Searching for cheap places to eat and sleep.
After two months of travelling from one European city to the next, I just couldn’t face one more castle or museum. I figured that it was time to get away from the cities so I headed for the Alps. After a long train ride from Munich, I arrived in the Swiss town of Interlaken. There I boarded a coggle train that would take me to the Alpine village of Grunewald. The train was filled with tourists anxious to fill their rolls of film with pictures of the mountains, but it was overcast and there were no mountains to be seen.
When I arrived in Grunewald, I was told that the youth hostel was only about three kilometres from the station, so I and several other young backpackers that I had met on the train decided to walk to the hostel. What we didn’t know was that the hostel was three kilometres straight up the side of a mountain. As we trudged up the mountain we were embarrassed by the speed with which villagers three times our age passed us by. Despite our youth, the Swiss were much more adept at climbing than we were.
When we finally arrived at the hostel there was much complaining about how tired we were. We were exhausted. Tired of the demands of travelling. Too tired to be impressed by the fact that here we were, in a Swiss chalet in the middle of the magnificent Alps. It was only two-o’clock in the afternoon, but we collapsed onto our beds in the dormitory and promptly fell asleep.
I remember waking before any of the others in the room. From my bed I could see out the window. The sky was still overcast. But, I was too weary to even be bothered that I couldn’t see the mountains. I lay there blankly staring as the clouds drifted by. Then something seemed to flash by the window. Out of nowhere there appeared a magnificent snow-covered mountain peak. It hit me like a flash and then it was gone. It happened so fast that I wasn’t sure whether or not I had actually seen the mountain or just imagined it.
I knew that the Eiger Mountain should be just outside the window behind the clouds. I had seen pictures of the Eiger in travel brochures. I had even seen the movie the Eiger Sanction and marvelled as Clint Eastwood navigated the Eiger’s steep slopes. But had the clouds really opened up or had I just imagined the mountain It was only a moment. A moment alone. A moment that lingers still, to this day. Imagination or reality? It doesn’t matter. The effect was the same. That moment transformed me from a weary traveller into an energetic explorer.
The disciples had been travelling with Jesus for quite some time. They had walked the length and breadth of the arid Judean wilderness. They had listened as Jesus proclaimed that the Reign of God was near. They heard him declare good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. They watched as he healed the sick and drove out demons. They listened as Jesus told parable after parable that threatened to shake up the world as they knew it. They felt the sting of Jesus’ rebuke when they failed to understand. And still they followed this itinerate preacher as he trudged through the desert.
They felt the sweltering heat of the mob as crowds pressed in upon them, bringing their sick and lame to Jesus. They felt the penetrating heat of the religious officials who rebuked him. The pressure was on Jesus’ followers to produce proof that this Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter’s son, was really who he said he was.
In the middle of all this, Jesus took time out. Jesus took Peter, James and John and together they left the demands of the anxious crowds behind and they climbed up a high mountain, by themselves.
On top of that high mountain, something hit them with a flash and was gone. They seemed to come out of nowhere, and before the disciples could focus and draw it all in, they were gone. Was it really Moses, and Elijah too, that they saw there with Jesus?
They all agreed that they had seen the same thing. And that voice — or was it thunder?– that exploded from the clouds and left their ears ringing. “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” As they descended the mountain, the voice still echoed in their ears, “Listen to him…listen to him…listen to Jesus.”
It was only a moment away from the press of the crowds, but it was a moment that would linger in their minds and hearts forever. A mystical moment. An intense and vivid encounter with the holiness and radiance of an epiphany. And the voice from the cloud echoed in the disciples’ ears, Listen.
Breakfast tastes incredibly good when you eat it in a Swiss chalet surrounded by friends you have only just met. People from all over the world with just two things in common: youth and an incredible thirst for adventure. There was only one thing for us to do. We had to get a closer look.
So about a dozen of us decided to climb to the top of what was called the Oberaletschgletscher so that we could get a better look at the Eiger. We had been assured by the hostel manager that we could easily walk to the top of the glacier that lay adjacent to the Eiger and from their the view would be magnificent. So right after breakfast we set off; new found fiends from the farthest reaches of the earth. Canada, South Africa, Tokyo, England, Finland, Australia, New York and California, and there wasn’t a real climber in the bunch.
The first part of the journey was pleasant enough. The alpine meadows were delightful and the conversation was playful. The switch back trail was a bit more of a challenge as our calf muscles began to feel the strain. But when we reached the cliffs, I wondered if we were up to the challenge. Before us lay a series of cliffs into which the Swiss had embedded a series of wooden ladders. My fear of heights began to surface. But I was determined to give the first cliff a try. So one by one we began to climb. Each rung of the ladder was a challenge and I resolved never to look down. As I climbed hand over fist, step by step, I kept my vision firmly fixed on the butt that was up ahead of me and I forced my self up the cliff one rung at a time.
When all of us had safely negotiated the first ladder, several people suggested that perhaps we were overreaching ourselves. Maybe the Oberaletschgletscher was more of a climb than we could handle. But the keeners in the group encouraged us to go on.
After we had slowly made our way up about half a dozen ladders, there was more dissension in the ranks. But we had come this far and so we headed towards the next ladder. It was a doozy. We moved ever so slowly. I resolved that I had had enough. Once I got to the top of this ladder, I wasn’t going to go any higher. As I scrambled to the top, I was relieved that my climb at least was over. My legs were a little shaky as I straightened up and took a look around. It took my breath away. There we were on top of a plateau opposite the Eiger. We had made it to the foot of the Oberaletschgletscher. The view was magnificent. I was awe-struck.
Our once talkative little group was silent as each of us tried to take it all in. I found a spot of grass and sat down. The air was fresh and clear, the sun burned bright, and the snow glistened as though it were a sea of diamonds.
Over-whelmed by the beauty, no one spoke a word. I wish I could share the wonder of that moment with you. It was a glimpse of God’s creative power and majesty. Everywhere I looked I saw the evidence of God’s grace. It was truly a once in a life-time mountaintop experience. One of those rare moments when you are totally conscious of the presence of God. One of those moments that has the power to transform you.
In some ways it was easier for Jesus’ followers. They were given a glimpse of God’s power, majesty and grace that I envy. God’s glory was revealed to them in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Theirs was a first hand experience. To them was given a vision. A vision in which Jesus was transformed and God revealed that this itinerate preacher from Nazareth is indeed the Christ; the one sent to proclaim the Reign of God. They heard the voice that spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” They heard Jesus declare good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. Their vision made it absolutely clear to them just who Jesus was and the voice from the cloud made it absolutely clear just what it was they were supposed to do: “Listen to him!”
There are days when I wish that it could be just as clear for us. I wish that we too could see God’s glory revealed just as clearly as Jesus followers did. I wish that we too could have a vision and that a voice would tell us just what to do. Not many of us will ever have it spelled out so clearly. But as I remember my own mountaintop experience, I realize that the voice from the cloud continues to rumble and pound and echo down through the centuries and that if we listen we can hear it today. But in order to hear it, we must take the trouble to listen. To have the mountaintop experience we must first climb the mountain. Like the followers of Jesus we must set aside the demands of our life in the world and follow Jesus.
Today, more than ever, we need to leave our work behind, put down our paperbacks, turn off our TVs, shut down our computers, get away from the demands of our lives and listen. Stop and listen to the voice of God. Take the time, clear our calendars and pause. Be still and know God. The disciples were indeed fortunate to have Jesus in their midst. But we too are fortunate. God revealed God’s self to the disciples in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And we can look to the Gospel to hear the Word as it was revealed by Jesus. But God’s revelation didn’t end with Jesus. The revelation of God’s grace continued through the resurrection of Christ. And by the grace of God, Christ comes to us through our sisters and brothers. Today the voice continues to echo from the cloud. God is here, in this place, present with you and with me in worship and in prayer. God comes to us in Word and in Sacrament. Be alert and ready to listen.
Don’t miss an opportunity to see the beauty of creation in the faces of the Creator’s daughters and sons. Be alert and ready to listen. Don’t miss an opportunity to hear God speak through the Scriptures. Listen to the prayers. Listen to the hymns. Listen to the voice. Listen. And remember that listening is not a passive activity. To listen to someone, really to listen, means to enter into a loving, caring relationship, where our actions are faithful, where what we do comes from what we hear, where we respect and value the insights and ideas of another, where we listen to another’s wisdom and foolishness, to another’s pain and joy. And when we refuse to listen, the relationship is soon broken.
Listen and hear the voice of God. God’s Word comes to us with power and with authority. When Jesus speaks to us through the Gospels, it may come to us as a great revelation, as if spoken for the first time, spoken only to you. Listen to Jesus! Hear God’s word of grace and comfort and forgiveness. Hear God’s word of challenge and commitment. Hear God’s word of law and command. Hear Jesus’ passionate words of love and acceptance spoken clearly to you. Be alert and ready to listen. Be watchful and attentive. Be ready to absorb all the sights and sounds of Gods grace and mercy.
On a mountaintop in Switzerland, the warmth from the sun woke me from my slumber. My eyes tried desperately to adjust to the vivid colours. Before me stood the Eiger. I looked out across picture post card Switzerland and I marvelled at the glory and majesty of God’s creation. Slowly I became aware of my travelling companions.
We had gathered together just a few hours earlier. We came from the farthest reaches of the earth and each of us felt the wonder of the moment. There on the top of a mountain a rag tag group of travellers was transformed by a glimpse of God’s glory.
Without words we began to dig around in our daypacks for something to eat. With little or no preparation we created a feast from what we were able to scrounge together. Out of one pack came two apples, out of another a crust of bread, an orange, a banana, a few Swiss chocolate bars and even the remains of a bottle of red wine. In silence we passed around the ingredients of our feast.
I was conscious of God’s presence with us as we enjoyed this holy communion. Together we held on to the splendour of those moments. I don’t think that any of us wanted it to end. God’s glory was revealed at the transfiguration and the disciples received a glimpse of the power and majesty of God. It was a moment that transformed the disciples forever.
Glimpses of the divine splendour of God come to each of us in different ways. These glimpses of Gods power and majesty are not confined to mountaintops. Some glimpses come to us in a moment of prayer, or through a word of Scripture, or in the midst of music or praise. Still other glimpses come to us through a tender word from a friend, a gentle touch of a lover, a word of praise from a parent or a grateful look from a child.
God’s revelation of God’s love comes to us in all sorts of moments. Be alert and attentive. Be ready to draw in the moment and make it your own. Be alert and listen. Enjoy and be nourished by these moments, because just like the disciples of Jesus we too must come down from the mountain. Because the one to whom we listen to in these moments is the one who, proclaims that the Reign of God is near. The one who we listen to has anointed us to bring good news to the poor. The one who we listen to sends us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. The one whom we listen to nourishes us on the mountaintop and walks with us down into the valleys. The one whom we listen to transforms us into the beloved children of God. This sisters and brothers is the Gospel of our God. Amen.