Matthew 17: 1-9
Did your mind go to the beautiful Christian song by the same name when you read the title, “I Can Only Imagine?” Before 1999—when Bart Marshall Millard of the group MercyMe wrote it, that was just an expression. Now the words engage my imagination, and maybe yours. The song was addressed to Jesus:
I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk, by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me
I can only imagine
I can only imagine
Surrounded by Your glory
What will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus
Or in awe of You be still
Will I stand in your presence
Or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah
Will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine
I can only imagine
That is an invitation to imagine something spectacular! Here is another one:
President Reagan quoted part of it as the Space Shuttle Challenger tragically exploded just south of where we sit now. I was in the back-parking lot and witnessed the horror. But in a desire to bring comfort to the nation, the President quoted these words from a poem called “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things ….
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Our imaginations see what eyes often can’t; they form images that our hands can hardly handle; and they inform and comfort our souls. Today as we hear that Peter, James, and John went up a high mountain with Jesus, we can only imagine what it was like, but on that mountain, through the mist of clouds and the piercing rays of light, it sounds like a mystical experience. Mystics, we learned two years ago in the year-long class I taught, were persons who tried to connect with God or with Christ in ways that engaged their imaginations; and mystics are still around today. You may be a bit mystical regarding the way you think about or approach God. In our Bibles, images from Mt Sinai in Exodus and or Mount Tabor in Matthew or of heaven in Revelation encourage us not to take biblical images literally, but take them seriously, inviting our imaginations to feed our souls. This is what Bart Millard did, and John Gillespie Magee did; and there were plenty others before them. Let’s talk today about transfiguration as a mystical experience.
Wonderful historic author Thomas Cahill, in his book about Christianity called Desire of the Everlasting Hills, said this: “The Christian life is an alternation of two activities, prayer and kindness, feeding each other. The plight of those in need sends me to prayer; prayer strengthens me to help those in need.” [Doubleday, New York: 1999, p. 190] Today I suggest that in the transfigured daily life of Jesus, he modeled those things for us. Through the ages we have been aware of those who have been both Christian mystics and Christian missionaries. Some days we go to a mountain, or a lonely place, to connect with the Holy One of God; and other days we move into the valleys in mission, having been recharged by prayer. Listen to some mystical ways people have connected with God. Today we have just heard that “Jesus took with him Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (17:1-3) Soon afterward, the voice from the cloud announced the Heavenly Father’s pleasure over his son, words reminiscent of the words from the cloud Jesus heard at his baptism. Jesus had made a divine connection. Another man named John lived centuries later in 1564 and counted on a connection with God for his survival. His name was St. John of the Cross. I first studied him in 1999 and used his story for much of my doctoral project. John was tortured for more than eight months and went into hiding for two years after that. He was a mystic, a Carmelite Monk whose involvement with the reform of another monastic order led to his arrest and eventual banishment from the monastery. He was kept in a dark cell without any human contact, being fed only bread and water. During his captivity and exile, he had frequent visions of God and composed many mystical poems in his mind. Two of his greatest ones were “The Living Flame of Love,” and “The Dark Night of the Soul.” He described feeling a sense of happiness, joy, and love in his soul. He called it a love affair with God. In his commentary he wrote this. Picture Jesus on the mountain as you hear it:
If the soul shall obtain the highest degree of love, the love of God will then have wound it in its inmost depth or centre, and the soul will be transformed and enlightened in the highest degree in its substance, faculties, and strength until it shall become most like unto God The soul in this state may be compared to a crystal, lucid and pure; the greater the light thrown upon it, the more luminous it becomes ….”
Have you had an experience like that? Jesus did not bring Peter, James, and John to the mountain to dazzle them. Among other things, he brought them to say: “This is your strength. Stay connected with the Father in prayer.” But Peter, James, and John seem to miss the point. They were dazzled by the specialness of that day and of their leader. Perhaps we would say they are enamored with Jesus and were thinking about staying on the mountain, checking out of their work as the first missionaries.
As we begin the season of Lent this Wednesday, we are called back to the source; the one who created us and loves us. Mountaintop experiences were times when Moses, Elijah, and now Jesus heard a voice from heaven. They gained strengthen, then they came back down the mountain and into the valleys of life. Today we are on the mountain. But starting Wednesday, we will be called into the valleys of the shadows of death, anguish, or need. We’ll be called into desert times where the devil will have a crack at our fortitude as he did with Jesus that we’ll hear about next week. If you have dreams and seek to remember them; or you have visions and try to recall them, your soul may be open to a mystic sweet communion with Jesus. Nurture that connection; invite yourself to be open to it. There are people who wish they had such insights and yet none have yet appeared.
Remember too that whether you have mystical connection with Christ, or whether you just have a regular prayer life, there is a purpose to them both: strengthening your soul, and sending you out in mission; spreading the gospel of Jesus to others with words and actions. Again, the event described today was not just to dazzle. Jesus instead heard his baptismal words again, which blessed and commissioned him again. An accurate description of that day was captured effectively by Professor Thomas Troeger. In his Yale Divinity School journal, an essay by Ray Waddle was called: “Thomas H. Troeger: Between the Life of the Imagination and the Life of God.” Waddle says he called it that because “[Troeger] received a double theological blessing. His mother would read from the Bible to him, and he’d listen with his father to Bach, Handel, and Haydn.” Troeger wrote the words to the hymn, “Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory” which we will sing in a moment. Listen to verse one:
Swiftly pass the clouds of glory heaven’s voice, the dazzling light;
Moses and Elijah vanish, Christ alone commands the height!
Peter, James, and John fall silent turning from the summit’s rise
Downward toward the shadowed valley, where their Lord had fixed his eyes.
What magnificent writing coupled with an unforgettable tune! Jesus is giving his disciples his best guidance: he turned his face from the peak of the mountain to the valley, where he chose to meet human needs again, not just revel in a mystic sweet communion. There was work to be done. There still is. Even though people always think of Lent as a time of “giving up something sacrificially,” Dr Donald Macleod, has said beautifully that “Lent consists of doing something, not just doing without something.” [Presbyterian Worship: It’s Meaning and Method, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.] You have until Wednesday to decide not just what you might do without as a spiritual discipline, but also what you will do. Over the next month our Outreach Committee, and today our Youth Group, will give us concrete ways to bring Christ and his message to others. Pick one, or pick something else. But do it. Together Christians can cause a 2020 revival.
Let us pray:
Ah. Here we are dear Jesus. With you, in a sanctuary apart from the turmoil and needs of the world. We might want to stay here, near to the heart of God. But you say, “Go! Help! Make disciples!” And so we will go. Guide us in the ways we can bring your light and love to others. And regarding your wonderful face, one day we’ll see you face to face. Until then, we can only imagine. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 23, 2020