TEXTS: 2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9
And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2b-4)
A story is told about a meeting where the treasurer of the group handed the secretary an envelope. Everyone saw the secretary remove some papers from the envelope—but nobody noticed what he did with the envelope. Later in the meeting, the chairperson asked the secretary for some information. The secretary replied that he did not have that information. At that point, the treasurer rose and said, “Yes, you do! It was on the envelope I gave you.”
The secretary replied, “Oh, I didn’t know what that was … so I threw it away!”
Hearing that story, we laugh—perhaps because we’ve all done something just like that ourselves at one time or another. Often—when we encounter something which we do not know or understand—we throw it away. Or, at the very least, we ignore it. We put it on hold. We dismiss it.
So it is with stories like today’s readings from Scripture. We hear about visions of chariots of fire, of water being parted to reveal a path across a river, and of a man being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind—and what do we do?
Many of us shrug our shoulders and dismiss these stories as idle tales. Or perhaps we place them in that mental file called “Bible stuff”—and never think about them again. We hear about how Jesus was transformed upon a mountaintop, so that he shone as bright as the sun; and about how he was visited by two men—long dead—and we say to ourselves: “That’s all very well, but what does it have to do with us?” And then we go on about our lives as if these things had never happened—as if they never could happen!
Most sermons I have heard on today’s gospel text ignore the experience that the disciples witnessed Jesus undergo. In fact, I have to admit that I’ve preached sermons like that—saying very little about the overwhelming brightness of Jesus’ appearance, very little about the fact that Peter, James, and John saw Moses and Elijah talking with Christ and heard a voice from heaven. Quickly passing over the wonder of the experience, preachers like me have emphasized that Christians are called to come down off the mountain and serve in the valley below.
Having listened to so many sermons like that, it’s no wonder that most of us scorn the prophet’s ecstasy, the dreamer’s vision, and the worshipper’s conviction that he or she has heard God speak.
Most of us are convinced that our faith is about doing good things, about showing love and care for one another—and that’s true enough; that is what our faith is about. But our faith is also about the yearning to see God and experience his power. Our faith is about being touched by the Holy Spirit, and being moved by the voice of God whispering in our ears.
Our faith is so rich—our God so good—that it makes no sense at all to limit what is possible for us to the dry bones of what we should or should not do each day. Our faith is about entertaining angels—every bit as much as it is about seeking to comfort the afflicted and to heal the sick. It is about seeing visions of a new heaven and a new earth—every bit as much as it is about seeking justice and resisting evil. It is about being refreshed by God, as much as it is about refreshing others in God’s name.
Now, I am reminded of another story. It goes like this:
THE LITTLE BOY AND THE CIRCUS
Long ago, there was a little boy who lived far back out in the country, on a farm. He had reached the age of 12 and had never, in all his life, seen a circus.
You can imagine his excitement when a poster went up at school that on the next Saturday a travelling circus was coming to a nearby town. The boy ran home with the glad news, and asked his parents if he could go.
The boy’s family was very poor, but his father sensed how important this was to him. And so he said, “If you do your chores ahead of time, I’ll see to it that you have the money to go to the circus.”
Come Saturday morning the chores were done, and the boy stood ready in his best clothes by the breakfast table. His father reached down into his overalls and pulled out a dollar—and gave it to his son.
Now, in those long-ago days, a dollar was a lot of money. In fact, it was the most money the boy had ever had at one time!
So the boy set off to see the circus. He was so excited that his feet barely touched the ground all the way into town.
When he got there, he noticed people were lining the streets. The boy worked his way through the crowd until he could see what was going on. There, off in the distance, approached the spectacle of a circus parade. It was the grandest thing that the lad had ever seen! There were exotic animals in cages, and huge elephants and dancing bears and bands and acrobats—all the things you would expect to see at a great circus.
Soon, everything had passed by where the boy was standing. Then a circus clown—with floppy shoes and baggy pants and brightly painted face—came by, bringing up the rear. As the clown passed by where he was standing, the boy reached into his pocket and got out that precious dollar. Handing the money to the clown, the boy then turned around … and went home!
Too often, we are like that little boy. We mistake the circus parade for the circus! The mistake that the boy made is the same mistake we can make in our spiritual lives; we can end up settling for less than the real thing—for a portion instead of the whole. That happens because we either do not believe in what God can do—or because we do not look at or understand what we have been given: “I did not know what it was, so I threw it away!”
I believe the most common problem faced by modern Christians is not that they spend too much time seeking spiritual visions and revelations—thereby neglecting the important truths and duties of everyday life in Christ; rather, it is that they do not believe in—and therefore are not open to—the special moments, the special touches, that only God can give.
Some say that people have no energy for living the Christian life because they do not get fed by the church. I think that some of us are out of energy because we fail to recognize the food that is set before us—because we fail to take and eat what God seeks to give us.
My friends, I cannot explain out to you what a holy moment is—nor can I tell you just how special and sacred events come to pass. Neither can I promise you that you will have such a moment if you only do this or that; but I can tell you that these moments are real, and that they come to us most often when we put ourselves in the way of them. As another preacher once put it: “You can’t have a mountaintop experience if you don’t climb the mountain!”
Elisha had his experience because he followed his teacher Elijah around the country despite Elijah telling him not to! He actively sought a double portion of the spirit that filled Elijah and was patient to receive it. Peter, James, and John were obeying Jesus when they witnessed his transfiguration; they had climbed the mountain with him as he went to pray.
The sacred experiences that are recounted in the Bible, the experiences of the divine that are recorded there, are still needed today—and they still occur today!
Some catch sight of God in the beauty around them. Some glimpse him during a close encounter with death. Some meet him in a special way during a period of suffering—and others, while they are praying at special gatherings or at worship.
Don’t throw away those strange and mysterious experiences that have happened in your lives. Don’t let go of those things that you do not understand or cannot explain. Instead, I tell you: meditate on them, delight in them, and use them as a source of strength for your time of service in the valleys below.