Transfiguration Sunday, Year A

Transfiguration Sunday, Year A

Psalm 99

Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson


Mountains and mountaintop experiences… In the Judeo-Christian tradition, mountains and mountaintop experiences are extremely important. Mount Sinai, as we learn from our first lesson today, was the place where Moses encountered the Divine Shekinah (the Holy Presence and Glory of God) for 40 days and 40 nights; communing with God there and receiving the Torah. Mount Zion was the site where King Solomon built the Jerusalem temple; a holy dwelling place of God, where, in the Book of Isaiah, we are given a vision of Mount Zion as the centre of the universe—where all nations will come together to worship God in perfect peace. Mount Zion, where our psalmist invites all God’s people to worship in the presence of God’s holiness. Then, in the New Testament, we also learn of how important mountains are in relation to the life and public ministry of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus delivers some of his most important teachings, referred to as The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus entered Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives—which, according to Luke 24:50 and Acts1:9-12, is the location of Christ’s ascension into heaven. At the end of Christ’s life, the crucifixion takes place on Mount Calvary. In today’s gospel, Jesus takes Peter, James and John “up a high mountain,” where he is “transfigured before them.”


Mountains and mountaintop experiences… Many of God’s faithful people in biblical times, and in every age since then have encountered God on mountains and have had mountaintop experiences.


We’ve all had them, those high times when we’ve felt on top of the world, really happy, confident that we knew all the answers, could solve any problem. Or that we were close to God, really in the groove for his plan for us. Excited and alive. Everything new.

   It might have come with some exciting event in your life: graduation, confirmation, your first communion, your first kiss, your first job, your wedding, winning a prize of some kind, selling your first crop, buying your first car, having a baby, catching your first fish. It might be something really spiritual, like a week at a church summer camp, a retreat, or a convention. Or it might be something of a smaller, quieter nature, like a really intimate conversation when you feel that you have really been understood and that you really understand the other person in his or her innermost being, hopes, dreams, faith. 1


In today’s world, there seems to be a common litany: “Life is boring.” This litany reflects the state of existence of so many people—namely, that life is so full of the ordinary, the mundane, the routine, the trivial and superficial, that there’s little room for the extraordinary, the ecstatic, the exhilarating; the sense of deep mystery, wonder, awe, and vision.


In God’s world, however, wonder cannot be so easily suppressed. It is born again with each new child. It’s true that by the time a child has been in our school system for a few years we’ve usually managed to communicate some of our boredom to her. But when she is five, and is only just beginning school, she is open and receptive to the freshness of the world in a way that many of us have long since lost. She is like Zorba the Greek. “He is forever astonished, and wonders why and wherefore.” Everything seems miraculous to him. Each morning when he opens his eyes he sees trees, sea, stones, and birds, and is amazed. ‘What is this miracle,’ he cries. ‘What are these mysteries called trees, sea, stones, and birds?’” Zorba wonders. Every child comes into the world wondering.


Is this child-like wonder nothing but the effect of novelty upon ignorance? It was Robert Oppeneheimer who said, “There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.” Picasso said, “I could always paint like Raphael; it took me all my life to learn to draw like a child.” Children serve as examples in our midst of the appropriateness of wonder as a response to life. So do musicians and painters and poets. So does Lewis Thomas, former director of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York. In one of his columns for the New England Journal of Medicine, he wrote: “Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here at all is so remote that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”


These people do not put nature on the rack and dissect it like a frog. They peel back routine and superficial explanations and find mystery underneath. And though they all possess immense technical skill, they do not simply apply “technical know-how” to the problems of life. Instead, they allow themselves to be drawn into the heart of a mystery which, even after they have explored it, remains a mystery still. This mystery does not lend itself to their unravelling; even after their best attempts at explanation, it remains the occasion not for boredom, but for wonder, for astonishment, for awe. 2


In today’s psalm, first lesson and gospel, we are given that Divine Invitation to come into the Presence of The Holy; to “keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise;” to become the receivers of God’s vision which, “remains the occasion not for boredom, but for wonder, for astonishment, for awe.” Every Sunday hopefully is a Divine Invitation to become renewed and inspired with The Holy; to come to the mountain and receive a mountaintop experience.


All of us deeply long for a clearer vision of life. Those of us who have the privilege and opportunity to climb and reach the summit of a mountain have stood in wonder and awe at the beauty and splendour of creation. If it happens to be a clear, sunshiny day, we’ve been able to see into the far beyond or the world below us. Jesus and his disciples were given a glimpse into the far expanse too. When he was transfigured, he and his disciples were given the vision of his resurrected state. This mountaintop experience was preparing them all for the future events of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.


So too, our times away, on the mountain summits; our mountaintop experiences worship, of wonder and awe and vision prepare us to our future too. They give us the ability to live life more fully by seeing God present and active everywhere—working in and through everything and everyone. Whenever and wherever we worship God there is wonder and awe; our lives can be fully alive with the Holy Presence of God.


Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.


Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, … to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe. 3


May we, like Moses and Elijah, like Peter, James and John, like Jesus live with a deep sense of God’s Holy Presence at work in our world, in the lives of others and in our own life. May the mountains we climb and our mountaintop experiences fill us with wonder and awe. May we value life in all of its fullness for the marvellous gift from God that it is.


1 Cited from: Emphasis, Vol. 25, No. 5, January-February 1996 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 1996), p. 49.

2 Cited from: Bruce McLeod, City Sermons: Preaching From A Downtown Church (Burlington, ON: Welch Publishing Company, Inc., 1986), pp. 64-65.

3 Cited from: Samuel H. Dresner, Editor, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology Abraham Joshua Heschel (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), p. 3.


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