I so clearly remember the day my seminary professor asked me what I planned to do after graduating from seminary. I said, “Well, I guess I’ll become a pastor.” And he said, “Fine, but don’t neglect your academic side.” Heck, I didn’t even know I had an academic side!
That brief conversation changed my life. I had no idea at the time what kind of an anointing that would be for me. It is a kind of baptism story for me – the professor pointing at me, saying in effect – “You need to go into that wilderness for a while.”
I remember my ordination at the First Presbyterian Church in Winchester, Virginia. My parents beaming with pride – oh my. I was now Rev. Dr. Lentz. People started treating me differently. People started to watch their language around me. I had a new identity. I didn’t appear with Moses and Elijah – but all of a sudden folks in my home church were saying, “You are the next Dr. Docherty or Rev. Peter Marshall.” That was heady stuff. It was a transfiguration moment.
I also remember when Deanne’s and my first child was stillborn. We were transfigured in the garden of grief. But we discovered the presence of a loving God that was real and personal. We were loved and supported by a church that to this day it is hard to put words too.
We all have these “baptism or start-up stories.” Some are “confirmation stories” – when we walked into the light of an identity – and some are “garden stories” – where we stood alone and wondered about the presence or absence of God.
I think of Chanae and the first time somebody told her, “You know, you have a nice voice!” And now, she’s standing before the Prince of Wales as an elite artist. (I have to tell you I spent most of last night’s recital in tears of joy at such beauty.) I am sure she has already been through some “stuff.” And there will be more to come. But it is all good, all holy.
I am reminded of the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 139: “Where can I go from you spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence. If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there… If I say ‘surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
You see, God is present in every stage of your life: in every crisis, every triumph, every disaster, every sadness. At your coming out, at your transfigurations, and at the grave. There is no place where you can go where God is not present.
Embedded in this gospel story today of Christ’s transfiguration – a story that informs your and my story – is this promise that God is God of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Jesus takes Peter, John and James up the mountain and Jesus turns all radiant and glowy. Peter get all befuddled. Peter wants to build shrines – but you can’t enshrine God, you can’t box God in. Peter doesn’t know what he is even talking about.
The disciples are terrified as you and I would be terrified if we would have a full-bore experience of the divine!
Who knows how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus. Don’t get tripped upon the details, be open to the subtleties. This is the way of divine encounters: you see things you usually don’t see and know things you usually don’t know.
The point is this. As Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets, Jesus is the chosen one, the anointed, the Messiah. Jesus gets confirmation of his identity – an identity that he has struggled with – an identity he had to go through the wilderness for, that will lead him into the depths of the shadows of hell and into the eternal light of glory!
Luke is telling the first readers and hearers of this story and is telling you and me: Jesus can be trusted: past, present and future; yesterday, today and tomorrow. The Christ of God can be trusted in your life: whether you are on the mountain top of revelation or if your bed in Sheol.
Look again at the passage in your bulletin. Look at verse 32: “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.” Where else in the gospel do you have a passage where the disciples are weighed down with sleep? (In the garden of Gethsemane – the night before Jesus died.)
Look at verse 35: “Then from the cloud came a voice that said: ‘This is my son, my chosen; listen to him!” Where have you heard something like that before? (at the baptism!)
So here on the mountain top of revelation Jesus gets the answer to that which he wrestled with in the wilderness of temptation: Who are you, Jesus? The answer: You are the son, the chosen one!
But in this experience of revelation, of identity, there is a foreshadowing of the abandonment in the garden, or having to ask his disciples, “Why are you sleeping?” As well as a flashback of the freshness of the first experience of baptism, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased!”
You and I need to hear this again and again and again:
Yes – God was present at your baptism when you were fresh: at that moment, you are beloved, God is pleased with you!
Yes – God is also present at the moment of clarity of call –those moments of insight, those moments when you dazzle.
And yes – God is also present in the dark gardens of discontent, even death. God is present when you are wandering in the desert. God is present when you are carrying your cross. God is present even when you have forgotten your belovedness, and done stupid things.
“O love that will not let me go! I rest my weary soul in thee. I give thee back the life I owe, that in thine ocean depths its flow may richer and fuller be.”
When you trust this truth, it changes your life!
This message is for you and for me on this Sunday before Ash Wednesday when we claim blessedness in mortality; that even the most robust body will turn to dust. Lent is our turn to contemplate and meditate and wonder about who we are and whose we are; and are we willing to walk the road that is before us?
If you are at the start of something good and rich and full of wonder – immerse yourself in it, go deep, take the risk, explore, don’t behave! God loves believers more than behavers!
God is there! Remember when you were fresh and it was all before you; maybe when your eyes first saw your beloved.
If you are on the mount of revelation – and you see maybe for the first time the great possibilities of choices made; others might think you are crazy, but you know – you have been through some “stuff.” It could be anything: a new identity, you are out and proud; or you have had to end something; let it go, finally. Coming to identity is not easy but you glimpse who you are meant to be. Oh, what a holy moment. Here I stand! Here I am!
If you are in the garden of despair – and you feel lost, and alone, and lonely and desperate for the cup to pass, and you don’t know any more if there even is a God and you have to take that step into the “lonesome valley”. Maybe you’ve just heard from the doctor. Or the addiction is overwhelming and the pit looks tempting.
This is holy too, even in its hellishness – even if you only feel the presence of God’s absence.
Jesus has been there. Jesus is with you. “Nothing separates you from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
For those who are struggling, it is up to the rest of us to witness to Christ’s grace, mercy and love.
God is present.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow, God is present.
This helps me in this time of uncertainty and unrest in our nation’s history: when we get lies for truth, and a declaration of an emergency when there isn’t one, and our leaders are chasing the “better angels of our nature” off the playing field and selling their souls; equating power with fear, and faith with ignorance. And we remember the life of an innocent black man shot by the police: Stephon Clark.
You and I have been given the identity to be Christ in the midst and not give up or give in!
Today’s communion reminds us of God’s presence: so eat and drink; come to the wedding feast where there is a place at the table for you and everyone…no matter what stage you are on in your journey. Lay down your burden and come. Because none of us is worthy enough to be here – that takes the pressure off!
God is God of yesterday, today and tomorrow: “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come!” Let this promise bring you through and lead you into the waters, and up the mountain and down the path towards the shadow of the cross and then to the edge of the empty tomb.