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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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 Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9

 It is Good For Us To Be Here

Mount Hermon

Unless you have personally visited an area, descriptions of the cities, mountains, and rivers do not mean very much. How can you adequately describe the rumble of Old Faithful unless you have heard it? Words do not fully capture the beauty and splendor of Mount Rainer. A narrative may report the location of the buildings in our nation's capital but it does not generate the sense of pride and awe we feel when our eyes see these great landmarks. The same also applies to description of the geography of the Biblical lands. We hear the names, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, the Jordon River, the Sinai Desert but the names do not mean much to us. We cannot picture the scenery. We cannot feel the intense heat of the day or the saltiness of the water. Often our lack of familiarity with the Holy Land does not matter. We can still understand the intent of the message. We can still listen to the words of Jesus and apply his teaching to our lives. However, today's story is somewhat different.

Mark's description of the journey and the topography is rather brief but very important and we should not overlook it. He only records, “After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain...” Unfortunately, the disciples did not have a GPS to record their precise longitude and latitude so we must take an educated guess. There are four possible mountains that Jesus could ascended with Peter, James and John. However, Mark, Matthew and Luke tell us that the disciples were at Caesarea Phillippi just before Jesus decided to take the three disciples on a mountain trek. Caesarea Phillippi is where Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” If Jesus began his hike up the mountain six days later Mount Hermon is mostly likely peak because it is the only one located close enough to Caesarea Phillipi. It has both agricultural and religious importance.

The mountain actually consists of three distinct summits. The highest of which stands at 9232 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. It is located along the northern border of Israel. It is the most important resource in the area. Its height forces the winds off the Mediterranean Sea to drop their moisture. The mountain is snow covered throughout the year. The melt water seeps into the rock channels to feed the springs that form the Jordon River.

The mountain also played an important role in the religious life of the area. In legend and myth, its high places were nearer to the heaven. The Canaanites used the summits for their religious rituals. The Book of Enoch records that angels descended to earth and swore that they would take wives among the daughters of men. The disciples would have understood Jesus' intent when he instructed them to follow him up the mountain.

The ascent to the summit would not have been a leisurely walk. I have hiked several mountains using well defined trails and wearing comfortable leather boots to protect and support my feet. Those excursions all required several hours of strenuous hiking. Even when I am in good physical shape, I am always relieved to reach the final destination. Without the availability of SUVs, minivans or sports cars for transportation, the primary means of transportation in Biblical times was walking. The disciples would have been in better shape than the average person living today. However, their travel up the mountain would still have been a difficult climb. I cannot imagine walking over rough terrain wearing nothing more than sandals. Peter, James and John would have arrived on the summit exhausted. The strength of their muscle spent with their feet and lower legs torn by the sharp brush. To understand the story, we must feel their exhaustion, soreness, thirst, and hunger.

Once on the summit, Jesus began to pray. Mark does not mention what the disciples did. They may have collapsed against a rock to regain their strength. Luke tells us that their weary bodies eventually succumb to sleep but Jesus kept praying. I admire people who can pray for long extended hours. My mind wanders and I often fall asleep like the Peter, James and John. It is a difficult and demanding exercise to pray for an prolonged period but Jesus had trained himself to endure. His persistence was rewarded. All three gospels tell us that while he was praying, Moses and Elijah appeared before him. These two men represented the cornerstones of the Jewish faith. Moses was ordained to receive the Law of God and Elijah was the first prophet who called the people to obedience to that Law.

The Goodness of Being

After Peter woke up, he was amazed by what he saw. There was Jesus in the splendor of his holiness. Standing before the disciples was the supreme Law giver and the greatest prophet. What a wonderful moment. I can understand why Peter would say “It is good for us to be here.” Preachers, myself included, often criticize Peter in sermons on the transfiguration because of the fisherman's desire to embark on a building campaign thereby neglecting his first exclamation. However, in his opening words, Peter understood the significance of the moment. That was more than James and John did. They remained silent, perhaps they were so dazzled by the experience that they could not put into words what they were thinking or feeling. John did not even attempt to capture the event later when he wrote his gospel.

Have you ever had a moment in worship when all you could say is “It is good for us to be here?”.

Her pastor was urging her to come to church, to join the congregation in worship when she asked him a question so fundamental, so frighteningly basic that he stumbled.

"For the life of me, I just can't figure out what good it would do me to spend an hour or so a week down at a church singing and praying. Why worship?"

There are two ways of answering that question. You could answer such a questions by offing an intellectual response. You could explain that the term “worship” is from the Old English word which means “worthiness.” You could state that the acts of God prove his worthiness. He is the creator of the heavens and the earth. In his love he created women and men to enjoy this creation, their relationship with another and with Him. God is also worthy our honor and reverence because when we rebelled against him, he took the initiative to restore the relationship by sending his Son Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for our rebellion. You could then conclude your intellectual presentation by stating that God displayed his ultimate power through the resurrection of Jesus from the grave. Your argument could be very tight, and well thought out but after you laid out all the evidence, the person might still say, “So, why take the time to worship?” If God is so loving, why would he demand such a boring display of adoration?

That is the problem of the intellectual approach to a cultural that is obsessed with experience. Unless the argument touches the emotions, unless the idea excites the imagination; unless the theory generates energy and exhilaration within the soul, our culture says “so what?” But what would Peter's argument be? From his experience on the mountain, Peter would tell the person, “Why do I worship, I worship because it is good to be in the presence of God.”

Worship must be more than an intellectual exercise. It must move into the experiential and when it does you feel it within your soul. Such an experience is difficult to put into words. You struggle to identify the sights and sounds you hear because everything is moving so fast around you. You do not know why you are feeling the way you do but you know within your soul, it is good.

Authentic Mystical Experiences

In surveys over one third of the American population states that they have had a religious or spiritual experience. They claim that they have communicated with the dead or divine beings, visions of unusual lights and out-of-body experiences. Given the increasing reports of such experiences, we must consider how we determine if such an experience is an authentic mystical encounter or a fabrication of an imaginative mind. Marcus Borg offers several guidelines that he says were common in the experiences of the great mystics.

Ineffability: these experiences cannot be described precisely in ordinary language but only with the language of metaphor: "It was like . . . " Notice in Mark's description, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them..” How did Mark know precisely that the clothes were whiter than bleach could make them?

Transiency: the experiences are typically brief; they come and go. One does not live in a permanent state of mystical consciousness. While Mark does not give us an exact time line, his description implies that it was a brief encounter.

Passivity: they are received rather than achieved. Though spiritual practices may help create the conditions for such experiences, they are not under the control of the person.

Fourth, these experiences are noetic. People who have them say they involve a knowing, and not just strong feelings such as joy or awe or dread or wonder (though they frequently involve one or more of these as well). Mystics are strongly convinced that they know something they didn't know before. What they know is not another bit of knowledge or piece of information, but another reality: they have an experiential awareness of the sacred. Consider the other reality that Peter, James and John entered.

Importantly, such experiences are transformative. They transform a person's way of seeing and being. Mystics see the world differently. Rather than seeing the world as "ordinary," they frequently see it as "such-ness," as the playful and wondrous dance of the void. Moreover, mystical experiences also transform a person's way of being, leading to freedom from conventional anxieties and inhibitions and to compassion as a way of relating to the world. Peter, James and John may have stumbled the night that Jesus was betrayed but, they were different men when they came down the mountain. This is what separates many of the experiences today. We cannot remain the same after we have encountered the presence of God. We cannot accept what once was. We cannot accept what are lives once were. Everything is radically different. Once we have experienced the goodness of God, we know that we have been changed and must life out that transformation.1

My friends, have you ever been to the mountain? If not why not? We claim to worship a God who is living with us. We claim to worship a God who sends his Spirit to transcend the gap between the Holy Other and our mundane earthly existence. If we make all these bold claims, why hasn't God ever appeared to you on the mountain? Worship can be a very dry, uninteresting intellectual experience, unless you can affirm with Peter, “Lord, it is good to be here.”

May those words become a living reality in your life.

1Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, Two Visions [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999], pp. 61-62.

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