Thy Kingdom Come
(Series on Lord’s Prayer)
Romans 1, Revelation 11
March 11, 2018
Today we are continuing our series on the Lord’s Prayer with the second of the three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. We looked at the first petition, “Hallowed Be Thy Name” last week. e saw that to hallow God’s name has three practical consequences. We hallow God’s name when our beliefs about God are consistent with God’s nature and character. That’s right belief. We hallow God’s name when our lives point others to God. That’s right witness. We hallow God’s name when we are engaged in some form of action to help bruised and bleeding people. That’s right service.
Well today we come to the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” Whenever we hear the most majestic piece of church music ever written, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” we sing part of it in what is called in musical circles “piano,” which means “very softly.” The kingdom of this world. Can you hear it…..the kingdom of this world is become…and then, there is a great explosion, a crescendo, the basses coming in at an octave higher, and the sopranos an octave and a third higher, and everyone sings “Fortissimo” –which means “at the top of your lungs.” “The kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.”
Handel had a profound glimpse into the nature of reality here. He was affirming the vast difference between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of our Lord; he was affirming the utter superiority of the kingdom of our Lord; and was affirming the fervor with which human beings must sing and pray and work for the coming of the kingdom, because, God knows, it has not taken over yet.
Let me ask a question which is on everyone’s mind. How can we pray Thy Kingdom Come in a world where the kingdom appears to be not coming at all? How can we pray “Thy Kingdom Come” as another school shooting occurs in Florida? How can we pray “Thy Kingdom Come” when two million people have been killed in Syria’s civil war? ? How do we pray “Thy Kingdom Come” when so many people just don’t care. As a CNN journalist says in the movie “Hotel Rwanda” after shooting footage of the genocide. “After they see this people are gonna say ‘my god that’s terrible’ and then go on eating their dinners.”
How in this kind of world can we continue to believe that God’s kingdom is coming?
The only way I can answer this question for myself is to picture in my mind’s eye two intersecting lines. The first line is a descending line, and indicates that human beings are constantly living farther and farther away from God. As Mark Twain said, “Man was created a little lower than the angels, and he has been getting lower ever since.”
Or as Senator Sam Ervin once said, Sam Ervin that irrepressible and distinguished Senator from North Carolina and served in the U.S. Senate from 1954 to 1974. Sam Ervin was debating a bill in the North Carolina legislature, which would have prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools–teaching that monkeys and human beings were somehow linked together. Sam Ervin said, “I can’t see but one good thing about this bill, and that it would greatly gratify the monkeys to know that they are absolved from responsibility for the conduct of the human race.”
Well, the very first story we read in the Bible is the prototype of the kingdom of God. Adam, the Hebrew word for man, and Eve, the Hebrew word for mother of all living creatures…Adam and Eve (representatives of human kind) begin their lives in paradise, in fellowship with God. But they rebel, assert their own stubborn self-will, and are expelled from Eden. What begins as individual sin continues as collective sin as Cain kills his brother Abel, and the sin snowballs, becoming a tumultuous avalanche of destructive behavior.
This is the descending line I am speaking of–people moving further and further away from God.
In the first chapter of Romans this startling statement occurs three times: “GOD GAVE THEM UP.” The first statement is, “For this reason God gave them up to the lust of their hearts.” The second statement, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” The third statement, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and improper conduct.”
God gave them up. Life is consequential. Life away from God is a downward spiral into darkness. We do not so much break God’s laws as we are broken on them. Life is not only consequential for us as individuals….we reap what we sow…life is even more consequential for the nations of the world, who are still living under the talion law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, thus failing to learn from Gandhi’s prediction that such policies inevitably leads to the whole world becoming blind and toothless. If we do not learn to become meek, will there be any earth left for anyone to inherit. We must learn to be merciful in a world where we live at each other’s mercy.
So the first line the Bible describes is a descending line, a descending line of decay, a line which runs away from God, a line that ends in the terrors of a world which knows no reference beyond itself.
But alongside this line is another line. This line is an ascending line, and it represents the coming of God’s kingdom. Mysteriously and paradoxically, while people turn away from God and wallow in their own misery, God’s dominion on earth continues to take root and grow. The manifestations of God’s will are emerging evermore clearly and conclusively in the very midst of decline and decay.
Way back in 1934 the Baptist preacher Clovis Chappel wrote:
“For what are we asking when we pray for the coming of the kingdom? We are asking, of course, that God take the throne of our individual hearts. But we are asking for far more. A kingdom implies subjects. This is a prayer for others, for a society where the will of God is recognized as supreme. It is a prayer….for a social order in which Jesus would feel at home. In praying this prayer, we are asking for a community into which Jesus would fit. We are asking for homes in which he could be entertained without embarrassment. We are asking for churches upon all whose ministries he could look with approval. We are asking for a city whose streets he could walk without having his heart broken. We are asking for places of business into which he could go without burning indignation. We are asking for schools that measure up to his demands. We are asking for amusements upon which he would smile. We are asking for literature that he could read without having his eyes blurred by tears.”
Well, this quote is very dated, 1934, but the gist of it still holds. God’s kingdom is coming even now, wherever righteousness speaks, wherever justice is accomplished, wherever fair play is upheld, wherever the least and lowliest human being has a chance. God’s kingdom is coming, that’s the ascending line we are speaking of today.
Now I know as we hear the news and read the headlines, the descending line is what gets our attention. Bad news always outdraws the good. It’s sensational and titillating and it sells. It’s more fascinating to read about a baseball player who takes steroids than some young, nameless kid who is trying to break through from AAA to find a spot on the roster of the parent club. It’s the descending line which grabs our attention, the bad news which dominates our consciousness.
But in my despair about how bad things are, God begins to work on me. God says, “Terry, you look out at the world and conclude my kingdom isn’t coming. Has it ever occurred to you that My Kingdom isn’t coming precisely because of you? How can you expect to prepare the way for it when your own life is so full of roadblocks, barriers, and defenses against it, when you keep on putting an “off limits” on areas of your life you will never let me enter?”
And then I realize that the point of this second petition is supremely a personal point. We are praying this prayer personally, individually. The coming of God’s kingdom has to begin with us. We will not be able to solve the problems of Iraq or Afghanistan or orth Korea, but there are problems here in our community we can attack. We will never get to be ambassadors of reconciliation on an international level, but we can be ambassadors of reconciliation in our school, in our business, or in our homes.
When we pray this petition, we are above and beyond everything else asking that God’s kingdom come in us, that God use us for his beachhead in the world. This is not just a prayer that something will happen to the world in which we live. It is a prayer that something will happen in us. For if God’s kingdom doesn’t come in our personal lives, it will never come at all.
THE LORD’S PRAYER II: “HALLOWED BE THY NAME”
March 4, 2018
I have begun a series on the Lord’s Prayer for Lent. Last week we saw that that Jesus taught us to address God as Father. In so doing, Jesus bridged the gap between the transcendent and the immanent. He took the distant and remote God and made God “up close and personal.” By putting the words “Our Father” on the human tongue, he taught us that God is not only up there, but he is also in here. God is not only above us, God is supremely with us.
And now today we turn to the first of the three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be thy name.” Although we don’t use the word “hallowed” in everyday conversation it has a long and venerable history in the English language. The oldest English translation of the Bible by John Wycliffe in the 14th century finds the words, “Halewed by thy name.” The word “hallowed” was continued in Tyndale’s translation in 1525, in Coverdale’s translation in 1535, in the Great Bible of 1539, the Geneva Bible of 1560, and the King James Version in 1611. In modern times “hallowed” was included in the Revised Version in 1885 and the Revised Standard Version of 1948. “Hallowed” has such a long and honorable lineage, that even the most respected modern translators have felt that there is nothing better.
In the Greek text the word translated as “hallowed” is “hagiazein,” which is a form of the Greek now “hagios.” “Hagios” is usually translated as “holy.” The English word “hagiology” is derived from “hagios” and hagiology means literature about the lives of the saints.
The basic meaning behind the word “hagios” is the idea of difference. That which is “hagios” is different from ordinary things; it belongs to a different realm; it has a unique quality. That is why Leviticus calls God “holy,” for God supremely belongs to a different sphere of being.
What “hagios” means becomes clear when you see other ways it is used in the Bible. The fourth of the Ten Commandments is to remember the Sabbath and keep it “hagios”—keep it holy. That is to say that the Sabbath day is to be regarded and observed differently from any other day of the week. When a Jewish priest is consecrated, he is considered “hagios”—set apart from other persons for special and sacred work.
The word “hagios” then, suggests an attitude of reverence, for reverence is the characteristic attitude toward that which is uniquely different, that which belongs to a higher sphere than our own. So the prayer can be translated, “Our Father, in heaven, may you be given that unique respect and reverence which your nature, your character and your personality demand.”
Now this leads on to a practical question: How do we in specific ways show reverence to God, hallow God’s name? As I try to answer this question, at least three different approaches come to my mind. First, we reverence God and hallow God’s name when our beliefs about God are accurate and in accordance with God’s nature as revealed in Scripture. Second, we reverence God and hallow God’s name when our life points others towards God. Third, we reverence God and hallow God’s name when we serve our fellow human beings.
Now, the first approach to this question has to do with what we believe about God. There is as much misunderstanding about God’s nature as understanding..
“In a short but readable book called YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL, New Testament scholar J. B. Phillips points out all the warped notions people hold about God. Some people see God as that GUILT-PRODUCING-VOICE-OF-YOUR-CONSCIENCE. (“Terry, you shouldn’t do that! Bad! Bad! Bad!”) Other people worship the God who is thy ALLY of the Nation. The leaders of the nations try to baptize their politics with the blessings of God. The Nazis were big on this and some Americans think that God blesses every single act of national policy, right or wrong. Book Title: The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusions of a Manageable Deity.
Then there are the people who believe that God visits humanity with disease, with suffering and with natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. (“Oh, it’s terrible, but whatever happens is God’s will, and God knows best.”) I suppose there is some comfort in this convoluted logic, but it’s sore comfort at best.
To allow such misrepresentations of God to walk into the doors of the church not only fails to hallow God’s name, but also is the reason why thousands of thinking men and women have been repelled by the church and its teaching. If this isn’t God, then what is God like? God comes into focus for us in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. If we want to really know what God is like, we start out by learning what Jesus Christ was like. As the Scripture says, God was in Christ. . .” So, the first approach to hallowing God’s name is by expanding our view of God. Is our God too small?
And second, we hallow God’s name when our daily conduct glorifies God and points other people toward God. How does the old line go, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”
When we were in Israel in the early 1980’s most of the people I traveled with were for the first time thrust into a Muslim culture. Even though Israel is a Jewish state, the Muslim influences are strong. And of course one of the cardinal practices of Islam is prayer five times a day. A Muslim’s day is punctuated by these disciplines of prayer, so that if you are a Muslim, your life is lived between intervals of prayer. It occurred to me that I would be a far finer Christian if I had a similar discipline. At any rate, we were all impressed by this Muslim regimen. Our bus driver, Omar, and our guide, Mohamed, were both Muslims, and we really struck up a friendship with them both. We gained a profound appreciation for their faith and for their people. One of the songs our own group sang over and over again during our trip was that beautiful chorus that goes “Alleluia.” We sang it everywhere—in Jerusalem—by the Sea of Galilee, on the shores of the Jordan River. And wanting to include our Arab friends in our group, I made up a chorus, substituting the words “Allah Akhbahr” for the words “Alleluia.” Allah Akhbahr means in Arabic, “God is great.” So we sang “Allah Akhbahr” and afterwards I asked Mohamed if Muslims knew the song and he said they did, and I said, “How do you sing it?” And he answered, “We sing ‘Alleluia.’”
So our daily conduct can be a means of glorifying God and showing reverence to his name. And what’s more, our daily conduct directs others either toward God or away from God. Our friends and our neighbors are daily evaluating our faith and our values.
If you will pardon an out-of-season illustration, each Monday morning during football season teams in the NFL sit down in their film rooms to view the film of the previous day ‘s game. Missed assignments and bungled plays show up large and clear. Now, bear in mind that this is a silent movie. The players have no chance to reach for a microphone to explain away why they did what they did. The only voice heard in the room in the voice of the coach who might say to the projectionist, “Let’s back up and run that play again. Let Randy see how the rest of the team was running a screenplay right, while he was running a screenplay left.” So, there you sit. What you meant to do on the busted play you never did because you thought you heard a whistle and stopped, or maybe you slipped on the astro-turf just as you were pulling out of your stance. But you can’t say it. No mental reconstructions are allowed. You just look on and watch as the action is played back and forth. This is the way our neighbors measure the quality of our Christian lives—the story of our lives minus speech.
What would it be like if someone watched a silent movie of our lives? Would there be any difference in our behavior from our neighbors? Any difference in the way we spend our money from the way they spend theirs? Any appreciable difference in the way we spend our time and the way they spend theirs? Any discernable difference in the causes we give yourselves for and the causes they are involved in? God’s name is hallowed when our own lives so honor God that our neighbors are drawn to faith.
Finally, we hallow God’s name when we are engaged in some form of service for hurting people. The God of the Bible is a God who is a partisan for the poor, an advocate for the marginalized. And when we are engaged in helping those who cannot easily help ourselves, we are allies in God’s cause.
The Quakers have so much to teach us in this area. “Holiness” is emphasized in the life of Quakers, but holiness for a Quaker always comes down to holy deeds. Through their service arm, the American Friends Service Committee, holiness is demonstrated in concrete action. When the last World War ended, there were five army dumps in France, filled with machinery of many kinds and all conditions of usability—too good to throw away but not good enough to haul back to the United States. The Quaker relief units, which had been working France, came forward with a proposition: They would give 200,000 francs to the U.S. Army for the machinery and supervise the cleaning up of the five dumps, each as large as a small truck farm. The army officials were ecstatic to have one less responsibility and accepted the offer.
Then the Quakers approached the French government. If all these thousands of partly damaged spades, saws, axes, hammers, trucks, ambulances, tractors, and motorcycles were sold to the French people who so desperately needed them, would the officials give free transportation on the railroads?
Much red tape, of course, but finally permission came. Then one more request: Could 200 German prisoners be spared to help distribute the goods? Yes, the prisoners could be used, but only if they were guarded. But guns were an anathema to Quakers, and so they suggested that if one man escaped, they would return the other 199. The French government gave consent: There were, after all, advantages in having 200 less prisoners to feed.
So the prisoners were set to work, and not one failed to turn up when the project was completed. And the machine-starved French people gratefully bought the junk material at a fraction of its value. Even at those prices there was a net profit of 2,000,000 francs.
The Quakers took the profits from this project and did two things with the money: They built a hospital at Chalons, which they presented to the French government; second, they gave wages for the prisoner’s faithful work. They couldn’t pay the prisoners directly, for the prisoners had to return to a dreary wait in prison until repatriation came; but the wages were taken to the German prisoners’ families, accompanied by a personal visit by a Quaker to the men’s home in Germany. Service is the mark of the Quakers and should be the identifying characteristic of your life.
Our Father, who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name. God’s name is hallowed when our beliefs about God are consistent with the picture of God as painted by Jesus Christ. That’s right belief.
God’s name is hallowed when our lives point others to God. That’s right witness.
God’s name is hallowed when human life is hallowed. That’s right service. To answer our original question, how do we hallow God’s name? With right belief, right witness, and right service.
Now, there’s only one other thought that remains. How do we pull it all off—how do we cultivate that kind of interior life to make right belief, right witness, and right service flow from our lives naturally and spontaneously? The answer lies in one of those paradoxes that seems to be characteristic of all spirituality. For nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer is there a petition to God to make us more sanctified—to make us more devout. Not a single phrase asks God to help us make progress toward spiritual maturity. It’s not “hallowed by my life,” but “hallowed by thy name.”
The paradox is that if we want to be better persons, we shouldn’t begin with ourselves, but rather begin with God. Everything depends upon that relationship. For if the center is correct, the circumference will be correct. If the relationship with the Father is right, then our interior lives will be set right.
Martin Luther boiled this thought down with this image: “No one,” Luther says, “needs to command a stone which is lying in the sun to become warm; the stone becomes warm quite of itself.” If we place ourselves in the sunshine of God’s presence, then the kind of life we want comes of itself. Right belief, right witness, and right service will then flow freely from us.
Psalm 121; Matthew 6
February 25 2018
Today I am beginning a series on the Lord’s prayer, a prayer without equal in all the world. We begin with where Jesus began, “Our Father.” We are so accustomed to hearing that address that we miss the remarkable contribution Jesus gave us to shape our thinking about God. In the Old Testament you only hear that word “Father God” whispered seven times. But Jesus took that word and put it on our tongues, so in the New Testament you find it 275 times.
Jesus gave us this image so that when we think of God, we don’t think of a Being who is remote, aloof and disinterested. No, Jesus said, God is like a good father, close and real and personal. In that simple human word “Father” we find gathered up all the yearnings of our hearts, all the hopes of our years. In that word “Father” is the key to unlock the mysteries of our faith.
What’s a Father like? like? We could answer that in a lot of ways. At the time of death, I ask families to come to my office, and I always ask, “Tell me, what was your Dad like?” Oh, there are so many answers, and as the children began to describe their dad, there is always a tear or two. We could spend all morning talking together about the characteristics of a good Father, but I want to pick out just three characteristics of a good Father. I do so not to pick characteristics at random or out of the air, but because these were characteristics of the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ.
First, a good Father is patient. I remember trying to teach my son how to hit a baseball. He must have been about six or seven. I bought him a small bat, and tossed him a tennis ball on the front lawn. I would throw a slow lob, and he would swing and miss. Toss, swing, and miss. Toss, swing, and miss. Over and over again, until the day arrived when he would get a piece of the tennis ball, and then came another day after that when he could hit that tennis ball all the way across the street.
I must have lobbed a thousand tennis balls his way before he could make contact on a regular basis.
This is what we parents do. We patiently and tirelessly work with our children until they get it right.
And our most important work isn’t just getting them to hit a baseball, but teaching them good manners and social graces. Teaching them to say “yes sir” and “no sir” and to look people in the eye when they shake hands. And the most important lessons, teaching them values and faith and self-control.
There was father in the grocery store shopping and he had his three year old in the baby carrier part of the shopping cart. The kid was just a brat. He would reach out from the cart and grab something off the shelf sending it tumbling on the floor. And the Father said, “Kevin, control yourself.” The kid started screaming at the top of his lungs, and the Father said, “Kevin, stay calm.” Then the little urchin picked up a bottle of coke in the shopping cart and threw it on the floor, and it broke open and spewed out everywhere.” And the Father said, “Kevin, you have to restrain yourself.”
Oh the patience of being a parent, and oh, the patience of God. How patient God has been with me, and you too, I suspect. I don’t know why God doesn’t give up on us. We’re always falling back into our old self-defeating habits. But God sticks with us. It’s almost as if God says to us, “I will keep tossing you the ball until you get it right.” God doesn’t give up on us. God holds us even when we are hardly worth the holding, loves us when we are hardly worth the loving.
The patience of God.
What s a good father like? Patient and then provident.
A father is also provident. We don’t use that word much. It means one who looks out for our future needs. It is the root of the word “providence.” When we speak of the providence of God, we mean that God will guide us and stand with us, come what may.
I would like to tell you a little about my own dad. Jim Swicegood was a good man and a good father who died at 53, far too young. He worked during the day as an insurance agent, and in the evening he refereed baseball and basketball games to put food on the table. I never quite understood why he worked so hard until I became a father, and then suddenly I realized what he was doing. He had to work hard to pay for our mortgage, to buy our food, and to give me the things I needed to live. He wanted me to go to college. He had only completed the eighth grade. In a very real and tangible way, he lived and worked for my future.
Jesus talks about his heavenly Father in the same way. In his sermon on the mount he tells us that not a sparrow falls to the ground without his heavenly Father’s knowledge. And then he says, “Are you not of more value than many sparrows.”
God’s providence. We don’t always see it, especially when we are stuck in the muck and mire of life. God’s providence is never known in prospect, only in retrospect. Only in looking back can we see God’s providence at all our important turns of the road.
I know that there is someone here today worried about something, a health issue, a job issue, a family issue. I pass on to you the words passed on to me this week: “When we worry about the future, we must remember that we will meet God there.”
God’s patience, God’s providence, and last, God’s faithfulness. A father is faithful. My dad was faithful to me, to my mom, to my sister, to our community, to our church.
We know that God has been faithful to us in the past, and everything we have experienced suggests that God will be faithful to us in a future not yet seen. It may be that all that can be promised at the moment is that God will provide enough resources for us to make it through just for one more day. But that is enough. As the Psalmist frames it, “The Lord will guard our life; the Lord never slumbers, never sleeps.”
I have an app on my smart phone called “Flight Aware.” Flight Aware allows you to track any flight in this country. All you need, really, is the airline and the flight number, and if the flight is airborne, you can follow it.
Most of you know that our son, Jeremy, is a first officer with American Airlines. I like to follow his flights when I can. When he goes on a trip he sends us his schedule. So, for example, I will activate flight aware, type in the airline–“American”–and the flight number. And then “presto” the map comes alive and there is a little plane making its way across the country.
I can see where he is–over Kansas–or on his way to New York City. I can see the weather on the map, his flight speed, his altitude. It’s great to be able to keep up with him. I just wish I had an app like this when my kids were teenagers, because then I could know where they really were–and not where they told me they would be!
The other day he was flying from San Francisco back to his home base in Charlotte. I watched the plane just after it took off, and during the day would look at the app and see where he was. It was a six hour flight so I had other things to do and could only watch him from time to time. But I did watch the plane as it approached Charlotte and landed safely. It always makes my little heart happy when he’s safely back home. I didn’t know it at the time, but he told me last weekend that he, not the captain, was flying that particular leg.
You know, it’s been for us. Even when we aren’t aware, unseen eyes from on high are watching over us, caring for us, concerned about us. And those eyes have been following us since the day we were born, and will watch over us until that day when we arrive safely home.
The World Is Charged With the Grandeur of God
(Transfiguration Sunday) Feb. 11, 2018
This is one of the most remarkable and puzzling experiences in all of Jesus’ ministry. All three of the Synoptic Gospels–Matthew, Mark and Luke–tell this story with a great deal of consistency.
The story begins with the words, “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter, James and John and went up on the mountain to pray.”
Eight days after these sayings….What does that mean? Eight days before Jesus had told them that he would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the leaders of the Jews, and be killed.
I think Jesus goes up on the mountain top to confirm his decision to make his way on to Jerusalem. As you study the life of Jesus, you see that there are many turning points, and he has to struggle and pray at each of these defining moments to discern the will of God. So when we are peering out into the murky future, wondering what’s next, wondering what decision is good for us and our loved ones, wondering what decision would meet with God’s approval, it’s comforting, I think, to know that Jesus also struggled with the same uncertainty. He wasn’t some pre-programmed robot, destined to follow a certain course his entire life. He came to many forks in the road, and each time he would go off by himself to meditate and pray about which road to take.
And as he was praying, the appearance of his face changes, Luke tells his, and his clothes became dazzling white. When Moses went up on Mt. Sinai, and returned with the Ten Commandments, it is written that “he knew not that his face shone.” To enter, as Moses and Jesus did, into the presence of the Holy One of Israel, to stand in the white, windy, presence of eternity, to hear the Word of God directly and personally, is such an enlightening experience, that a person’s face must reflect a radiance as never seen by human eyes.
The old American preacher, Jonathan Edwards took this as the basis for pastoral care evaluations. He would assess from someone’s countenance how much they had been impacted by the beauty of God in Jesus Christ.
And Friedrick Nietszshe, who was a preacher’s kid and knew the church up close, knew precisely that this was clearly not happening. “Christians,” he said, “ought look more redeemed.”
But before we leave this point, we ought to note in passing that Christians like Mother Teresa literally brought people back to life and health just by looking at them through the eyes of Jesus.
Back to our story: While Jesus is in prayer, his disciples fall asleep. The poor disciples. They are always portrayed in the most unflattering light. They never get who Jesus is. They are competitive, selfish, and dull. Here in one of the most dazzling moments of their life, they are fast asleep. So take courage, if you are like me, having slept through and missed some of the greatest opportunities to see and know God
But they are awakened by an uncanny voice saying, “This is my son.” When they looked uphill, there was Jesus dressed in the purest white and standing in the midst of Moses and Elijah, Moses the supreme lawgiver of Israel, and Elijah, the greatest prophet. Jesus and Moses and Elijah are in conversation. James and John, known for their blunt excitements…Peter known for being brash and outspoken, are totally speechless.
Moses and Elijah began to fade. And though his clothes and face were still shining unbearable, Jesus walked toward the three. He was still not himself–not the man they had known, yet each of them privately came to believe what they would tell one another after his death. When Jesus reached them, he held out his hands, still streaming light and they must have thought, “We will never be gladder than this.”
And whatever else this mountain top experience means, what it meant to Jesus is clear to see. It gave him strength to go on to Jerusalem, Gethsemane, the Judgment Hall, and the Via Dolorosa.
And the disciples were transformed by this mountain top experience as well. Oh, not immediately. It came much later for them, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but they realized–looking back upon this day, that is was one of the most glorious experiences of their lives.
As a mountaineer, I’m interested in mountain top experiences, both figuratively and literally. There’s something awesome about standing on top of a mountain. I have a friend, a mountain climbing buddy named Dick Miller, whom I have climbed with many times. One day, as we were sitting on the summit of Mt. Hood in Oregon, after a long and grueling climb, this is what Dick said:
“When the mountaineer returns to a low-world occupation on Monday morning, associates often believe they are in company with a lunatic. Face swollen from sunburn, feet tingling with frostbite or sore with blisters, muscles and mind limp from fatigue, eyelids heavy from lack of sleep, what is the answer to the question, “Did you have a good weekend?” Says the thick tongue, still dry and swollen, “Very interesting climb!” ON the following Friday, when the same mountaineer becomes lost in maps and weather forecast, it is no wonder that associates, who are planning a picnic at the beach or an exciting day watching hydroplanes race, look at one another and slowly shake their heads. The mountaineer is unquestionably insane to those of the low world, but sanity is relative to time and place.
In the high world it is raving madness to talk about sewer taxes, the late movie, and presidential ejections. Who can think about mowing a lawn and pruning roses while walking through meadows beyond the skill of the massed energies of every garden club in America plus all the Bonsai artists of Japan? Who can be agitated by the high cost of living while trying to start a fire in a downpour or rig tent in a July blizzard? Who can lay waters on the world Series while listening to the winds, and the silence, of high altitude? Once you have been startled by the brightness of stars or even frightened by the realization they are points of fire in a space that extends around and below, as well as above the world; once you have stood in the sunshine on a rock summit above an ocean of moving clouds, you can never again be entirely sane by standards of the low world, nor will you ever want to be.”
What have been your mountain top experiences? If you would answer, not many, I mainly live in the flat lands, that would be true of most of us. But, if we think about them, there are many mountain top experiences, experiences of glory and grandeur that we miss because like Peter and James and John, we sleep through them. The Jesuit priest, Gerard Manly Hopkins contented that the world is charged with the grandeur of God.
And who on this spring morning, with Bradford Pears lining the road way, daffodils asserting their yellow heads above the earth, and forsythia beginning to wear a yellow coat, can deny that? Who can deny the glory of the world, the glory of human beings, the glory of every moment of every day.
Whenever we travel to Holland I nearly always visit the Van Gogh museum. Two hundred and fifty of his seven hundred and fifty paintings are on display there. Van Gogh began painting at the age of 27, and by the age of 37 he was dead, a suicide. He battled depression his whole life, and to compound his depression, his art was not well-received. He tried to hurt himself by cutting off one of his ears.
And yet this mad genius gave us some of the wildest paintings imaginable. He lived with a burning desire to “grasp life at its depth.” One night he looked out his window, and the sky was spinning with glory. His painting “The Starry Night, is composed of vivid indigoes, yellows, golds, greens, blues and blacks. A tree of the left ripples up like flames. Chimney smoke from village houses connects with the stars. And the sky! The sky is filled with mammoth stars that whirl across the canvas like living things.
That kind of glory is around us, if we can open our sleepy eyes to see it.
One last story, told by my friend, Susan Andrews, a Presbyterian pastor. It happened when she was spending a summer of Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. One of her wards was a medical/surgical ward where the patients were both mentally ill and recovering from life-threatening illnesses. Most of the patients were poor, black, and victims of addictive behavior.
It was not a pleasant place to behold, for a young woman, young in years, young in ministry. One morning there was a new patient in her ward–a man in isolation–all alone in his room–suspended between life and death. Both legs amputated, but gangrene still creeping through his body . She could smell the stench of decay even before she entered the room. The man moaned and sweated in miserable delirium. For an hour she wandered up and down the hall, seeing other patients, resisting going in to see him, nauseated by his disease and at a total loss as to what to do. What could she, a 25 year-old white woman, possibly do or so to ease this man’s situation.
Finally, she walked into the room, took the man’s hand, and prayed the Lord’s prayer. And that’s when it happened, when the holy broke into the human, when God took over and grace flowed through her. The man stopped moaning, his eyes stopped rolling, his body stopped shaking. He looked at Susan and began repeating the Lord’s Prayer with her. For a moment, all was still, and a peace that passes all understanding filled the room. A few minutes later, after Susan left the rom, the man’s suffering ended. He died, finding peace at last.
I can’t explain moments like that any more than I can explain the transfiguration. I can’t explain why Moses’ face shone every time he was in the presence of God.
But I do believe those experiences happen, even though I don’t fully understand them. They happen on the mountain top and down on the plain. They happen in high moments of our lives and in moments of deep sadness. If we stay awake, if we pay attention, we will find that grandeur of God, which electrifies the entire world.