It is unusual to have a week between Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent. Generally, we have Thanksgiving on Thursday and then begin Advent on Sunday. This week is what I am calling the “in-between time.” Thanksgiving is past, and Christmas is coming, but not yet. I sometimes think that Thanksgiving is not given adequate attention because of the commercialization of Christmas. In stores, it seems odd to me to have Halloween costumes replaced by Christmas decorations.
The season of Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas Day. Because of the way the calendar falls this year, Advent begins on December 3. Christmas Eve, December 24 is the last Sunday of Advent. During this week, our Sanctuary will get decorated to look festive for the Tour of Homes. Some decorations will be removed prior to next Sunday morning’s worship service, because we have the Hanging of the Green Service next Sunday night.
So today, we find ourselves in-between two great holidays: Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Last Sunday was a great day with a thanksgiving theme for worship. But today, we find ourselves in-between.
That is where we find ourselves most of the time. Some live for the weekend, drudging through the workweek so they can “live it up” on the weekend. Others live for the next trip or vacation, thinking that life is a bore until then. Christians face up and down times. There are spiritual highs and lows while on this journey called discipleship. Sprinkled along the path are memorable worship experiences, moving music presentations, unforgettable mission or service opportunities, and inspiring natural vistas. But those opportunities are not daily. We cannot live atop a mountain peak; times in the valleys provide strength to reach the mountain tops. Living the day-to-day, walking through the valleys of our lives, is what makes the journey possible.
A little boy was out in his backyard, throwing a ball up in the air. An elderly man passing by asked the boy what he was doing. He replied, “I am playing a game of catch with God. I throw the ball up in the air, and God throws it back.”
Now I am in no position to comment on God’s ability to play ball, but I do know that whatever goes up must come down. The process is so predictable that you could refer to it as the scientific law called gravity. The same process applies to our religious lives. It is a good thing to “go up” to a great experience with God, but we will become greatly disillusioned if we do not remember that eventually we have to “come down” again. The coming down can be called the in-between times.
Today’s New Testament Lesson is Luke’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ is also described in Matthew 17:1-13 and Mark 9:2-13. It is when Jesus went up Mt. Tabor with his disciples Peter, James, and John and was transfigured before their eyes. Moses and Elijah appeared beside him, all three men clothed in dazzling white. The transfiguration is an important event because it not only predicts Christ’s future glory, but also includes a divine declaration of his Sonship.
“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my chosen Son; listen to him'” (Luke 9:35). This event would be considered a “spiritual high” in the lives of Peter, James and John. It was a time when they felt the presence of God in a significant and profound way.
Every worship experience cannot be the best. Worship is not intended to wow the participant every week. Some worship services are more exciting than others. Every worship theme is not upbeat. World hunger awareness or stewardship emphasis are not intended to electrify the congregation…motivate yes, electrify no. Our lives are also not intended to be “up” all the time.
We find in Job 38, after Job’s continual questioning of God, that God spoke out of a whirlwind. But God doesn’t always speak so loudly. We also read that in I Kings 19:11-12, “And God said to Elijah, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”
There are times when God speaks loudly as in a whirlwind, an earthquake, or even a fire. But God is not limited to those media; God also speaks in a still, small voice. The voice of God is not limited to the extraordinary experiences. God can also be found in the in-between times. Because the mountain-top experiences are less frequent, I contend that God can be found more regularly in the in-between times, because we are not always on a mountain top either.
When we have one of these mountain-top experiences, we, like Peter, respond, “It is good for us to be here.” How we hate to come down off that mountain! We want to hang on to that moment for as long as we can. “Let’s just stay right here, and let the rest of the world go by for a while,” we say. But to freeze that one moment in time shuts off the possibility of the next moment. And that is where I want to focus today. How do we come off of the mountain without having a crash landing? What keeps us awake to what the next moment in our journey can teach us?
Luke’s account is different from Mark and Matthew in that Luke records that while Jesus was being transfigured, Peter, James and John were weighed down with sleep and then became fully awake. With their heads in the clouds, they drifted off into an unconscious state.
Remember the story of Rip Van Winkle? He fell asleep one day in a quiet spot on the banks of the Hudson River in New York, and he didn’t wake up for twenty years. When he went to sleep, the sign above his favorite tavern read: “King George III, King of England.” He was a subject of the British crown. When he woke up, King George was replaced by George Washington, and he was an American citizen. The tragic part was that he slept through a revolution. While he snored, oblivious to his surroundings, fantastic, earth-shaking events had taken place. This is what happened to the disciples. They were oblivious to all that was taking place.
But we can’t be too critical of the disciples at this point. Many times we have our heads in the clouds, enclosed in our own little world while losing sight of the larger world, and sleep through great events. How many times are we preoccupied with our own self-importance? We become the prisoners of our own little world of trivialities. Or we continue to want to recapture that mountain-top experience and the “feeling” that accompanied it so much that we miss the presence of God in the routine of our everyday living. We forget that God can be with us in the in-between times.
The disciples had to come out of the fog while on the mountain. They had to become fully awake to experience God in a profound way. How do we come out of the fog of our mountain top experience so we do not miss what we can learn in routine everyday living? How can we make the most of the in-between times?
The mountain top experience only lasts a short while, and we would probably not even appreciate it as much if it happened frequently. We would not recognize it as a mountain-top experience with all its significance if we did not have to come down, or if we did not remember what life was like before being on the mountain.
Being Christian does not mean endlessly searching for the next good feeling that our spirituality can bring. God never promised that our belief would produce a perpetual spiritual high. Being Christian means defining ourselves as followers of Jesus in whatever our lives bring, whether that be high times when we feel on top of the world or low times when we struggle to walk the valley of the shadow of death.
It means looking for God in simple but profound ways and believing in faith that God is a part of even the most mundane details of our lives, of even the in-between times. It means knowing that God will never leave us or forsake us regardless of our circumstance and that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. It means opening our eyes to the Divine. But we have to be awake enough to notice the gentle fierceness of God.
Coming down off the mountain is not the end of the story for our spiritual lives. On the mountain we learn of a force that is over and beyond us and overtakes us to a point that we know it has to be the hand of God. Mountain-top experiences teach us that God wants to provide for us all types of experiences from which we can learn. Mountain-top experiences can help us solidify our faith, but they cannot solely define our faith, because it is inevitable that we will come down.
We will have reality checks. We will have unexpected bills and illnesses and complex situations that we have to face head on. These things do not mean that God is not present. Maybe a lesson to be learned during these circumstances is that God is present. I once heard it said that the strength of a tree is not determined by how it stands when there is no wind, but how it stands when the wind is fierce. Mountain-top experiences refresh and renew us so that we can come down off the mountain and face some of the inevitable realities of our lives. And so we can face some of the inevitable realities of others’ lives that we touch and that touch us.
Events such as the Transfiguration somehow connect us with the mystery of creation and eternity. They assure us of the over and aboveness of a God who is very present in our lives. They give us hope that our lives have a greater meaning and purpose than we may have imagined. And they give us strength when times are tough.
For Jesus, being on the mountain was a time of confirmation and affirmation of his ministry. We must remember that he was just about to set out to Jerusalem and to the cross. He went to the mountain to pray, to seek the approval of God for what he was about to do.
As a result of the Transfiguration Jesus could set out to Jerusalem now, certain that at least one little group knew who he was, certain that what he was doing was the consummation of all the life and thought and work of his nation, and certain that God approved of the step he was taking. When Jesus came down off the mountain, he had strength for the difficult journey he was about to face, and that journey was his cruel death. So mountain-top experiences do give us strength for the journey and reassure us of an ever-present God.
Did you hear verse 37? The transfiguration story actually concluded with verse 36, but I read verse 37 to make a point. It reads, “And it came about on the next day, that when they had come down from the mountain, a great multitude met him.” The mountain-top experience was over; it had prepared them for the journey. When Jesus, Peter, James and John came down from the mountain-top, they entered the in-between time.