Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Down from the Mountaintop? ... Up from the Mountaintop? ... Out from the Mountaintop?: a sermon (Luke 9: 28-36)

For many of us, it happened in our youth.  A camp or a youth conference makes the faith dramatically real for the first time for some young person.  The first stirrings are seen of a deep personal identification and commitment with the faith.  I can remember my own faith – and my sense of identification with the Christian church – being deepened as a result of participating in Methodist youth events in New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s.  Here in Australia, here in Tasmania, are many people whose Christian faith was deepened as a result of their involvement in such youth events as the Uniting Church’s NCYC and the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day.

While this deepening of faith as a result of a single event is often associated with events for young people, it is not exclusively an experience of youth.  Adults have had similar faith-deepening experiences at a range of events.

·         Dr. Billy Graham’s missions in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s had a profound effect on many people who are still active in churches in Australia today.

·         At a very different point on the theological spectrum, the visits to Australia of Bishop Jack Spong in more recent decades have also challenged many people in the churches to take their faith much more seriously.

·         For those who’ve had an opportunity to travel overseas, visits to communities of Christian renewal such as TaizĂ© or Iona have also had such an impact.

·         With the ecumenical movement, our growing opportunities to experience the worship and spirituality of other churches have been such a transforming experience for many.  To give a personal example, my own experiences as a student of the awe and wonder of Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox worship had a profoundly positive effect on the development of my own faith.  Without these experiences, I really doubt if my Christian faith would have survived my undergraduate years.    (Actually, when some of my “evangelical” friends ask me to talk about my “conversion experience” or when I was “born again”, I tell them about a Catholic Mass I attended during my first semester as an undergraduate.  They’re usually more worried about the state of my soul after I tell them this story than they were before.    I can live with that.)

Such events of a profound deepening of faith are often called “mountaintop experiences”.  And in this phrase is a link with today’s gospel lesson. 

And now, we’ll have our readings from scripture.

Exodus 34: 29 - 35

Luke 9: 28 – 36

“Down from the Mountaintop? ... Up from the Mountaintop? ... Out from the Mountaintop?”

Let us pray. 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Jesus took the core group of his disciples: Peter, James, and John; up a mountain to pray.  In the experience of the disciples, a dazzling light began to shine.  They saw two great figures of Jewish history . . . Moses, the liberator and law-giver, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets ... appearing, and speaking with Jesus.  A thick, almost smoky, cloud enveloped them all.

Peter was focused on the experience: ... the light ... the smoke ... the big-time historical heroes.  He was so impressed by the whole experience that he wanted to make the experience a permanent thing:  “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”  It had the implication of “Do we really have to go back home?”  He suggested building shelters for them, so as to encourage Moses, Elijah, and (presumably) Jesus to hang around with the disciples up there on the mountain for ever.  But:

·        Moses and Elijah vanished into the cloud;

·        the cloud faded away;

·        the lighting began to be more, well, normal; and

·        Jesus led the disciples off the mountain

Peter’s suggestion about building shelters to make the “mountaintop experience” permanent may resonate with our own reactions to our closer experiences of God’s reality.

But in any event, Jesus led the disciples down from the mountaintop.  … Or was that up from the mountaintop?  … Or perhaps that could have been out from the mountaintop?

“Down from the Mountaintop?”

Jesus led the three down from the mountaintop.  He led them back into the real world with all its struggles.  Christ today challenges us to bring the light of his presence into all the difficulties of life.  There are many who resist this challenge to come down from the mountaintop:

·         Some resist coming “down from the mountaintop” because they have a very mystical, otherworldly faith and they do not want the secular world to interfere with the way they experience their faith.  They want to keep their faith “pure” and “uncontaminated” by worldly concerns.

·         Others resist coming “down from the mountaintop” because they don’t want their faith to interfere with the way they live their lives in the world.  They don’t want their faith to overly influence how they behave when they earn their living ... or when they spend their money ... or when they vote.  They have a “firewall” between their life as a worshipper and their life in the world of work and the wider community.  It’s far too inconvenient, they believe, if our faith was allowed to impact on such things as our attitudes toward race, or economics, or human rights, or business ethics.

Both groups resist the challenge to come down from the mountaintop.

Jesus still led his disciples down from the mountaintop, bringing the fruits of their encounter with God into the struggles of everyday life.  He calls us to come “down from the mountaintop” as well.

“Up from the Mountaintop?”

The danger also existed for the disciples, that the dramatic experience on the mountain would become the big thing, instead of the reality of God that lay behind it.  So Jesus challenged the disciples to look up from the mountaintop and to realise the main thing was:

·        not the dazzling light;

·        not the smoky cloud;

·        not the presence of big-time historical heroes;

but God who lay behind it all

Jesus also challenges us to look “up from the mountaintop”; away from the “special effects” of the faith to God’s main plot.

“Out from the Mountaintop?”

It could all have been terribly in-group up there on the mountaintop.  There were just the six of them up there: Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John.  The six of them could have become a nice, tight, little ‘holy club”.  A group of six people was smaller than most families were in those days.  It would have been cozy, very cozy … far too cozy.

In the scriptures, the story of faith is also the story of the expansion of God’s community from smaller to larger circles of people:

·         from a solitary individual to a family,

·         from a single family to a nation,

·         and, in the New Testament. from a lone nation to two great world-wide religions.

And now, I believe, this expansion still continues:

·         from two closely-related religions to all humanity and even to all life.

We are living in a time when many Christians - and many other people of faith - are being challenged to come to grips with an expanded view of the scope of God’s love and concern.  I strongly believe that it is God who is challenging us to this broader view.

Just as Jesus challenged the disciples to look wider than the cozy little circle of six, Jesus challenges us to ensure that our transforming, faith-deepening, experiences expand, rather than contract, the scope of our concern, to reach “out from the mountaintop”.

Down from the Mountaintop?

Up from the Mountaintop?

Out from the Mountaintop?

On the mountain, Jesus shared a moment of profound significance with his disciples.  We have such opportunities as well.  As with the disciples Jesus continually challenges us:

·        to come down from the mountaintop;

·        to look up from the mountaintop; and

·        to reach out from the mountaintop.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Friday, 8 February 2019

“What happened in church?”: a sermon (Isaiah 6:1-8)

I’ve given my sermon the title “What happened in church?”  Interestingly, one of my Princeton Seminary professors, the late Dr. Donald Macleod, had a sermon with the title “Something happened in church”, based on this same passage from Isaiah.  These are two very different sermons, and I didn’t consult Dr. Macleod’s sermon in preparing this one.  (Actually, I don’t even own a copy of that particular sermon.)

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

I may be about to make a very strange – and, perhaps, dangerous - admission, particularly at the beginning of a sermon. 

But here goes anyway. 

I often “zone out” when I listen to a sermon in church.  If you talk to me on Sunday afternoon and the conversation turns to that morning’s church services, “What was the sermon about?” is a dangerous question to ask me

It’s not because of advancing years.  If you asked me this question back when I was in my mid-twenties, I’d have been as vague on the homiletical content of the typical service I attended then as I would be now in my mid-sixties.

A better question to ask me would be “What happened in church?”  I could comment at length about the scripture lessons, the hymns and other music, and the liturgy.  I’m mentally engaged during the bulk of the service, and always have been.  But I freely admit to letting my mind wander during sermons …, and during children’s talks …, and particularly during the notices.

I don't think I'm alone here.

A big part of this has to do with the assumption – an assumption I consider to be a false assumption - made by many congregations and by many worship leaders:

-- regardless of their denomination,

-- regardless of their theological emphasis,

-- regardless of their worship style,

-- regardless of their musical tastes.

This assumption is that the average person sitting there in the congregation is there because he or she wants to learn things about religion.  As a result, the parts of the service in which information is conveyed to the congregation (sermon, children’s talk, notices) are treated – in practice, at least, if not in theory – treated as being much more important than the rest of the service.

I think that assumption is a rather large mistake to make.  I believe the typical person who shows up at a worship service, whether a regular worshipper or an infrequent one, is there because she or he wants to experience a relationship with the God worshipped by the congregation, not because they want to learn information about religion.

The fact that so many congregations and worship leaders don’t “get” this – particularly in churches with a middle-of-the-road, teaching-learning worship style such as the Uniting Church – is (in my opinion) one of the main reasons why churches like ourselves have been clobbered in recent decades in areas of membership and attendance:  a far more important reason I believe for the emptying of the churches than questions of theology, biblical interpretation, or sex.  People want to experience God when they turn up in church, rather than merely learning stuff about religion.

We need to remember that  the typical person who shows up at a worship service, whether a regular worshipper or an infrequent one, is there because she or he wants to experience a relationship with the God worshipped by the congregation. 

Thus, we need to be aware that the “main course” of our worship is what we do when we gather around the Lord’s Table to celebrate the presence of the risen Christ.  The part of our worship we’re doing now is the appetizer.  I want to make it as good an appetizer as possible, but nevertheless the appetizer leads up to the main course.

Looking at our lesson from the book of Isaiah, the prophet was in the Temple, the place of public worship.  He spoke of his experience of worship.

-- He was caught up into the cosmic praise of the Living God involving all creation.

-- He was confronted with his own shortcomings, yet also heard the clear word of God’s mercy, grace, and transformation.

-- He experienced God’s call to service, and responded with a clear, “Here am I, send me!”

For Isaiah, worship was not merely something cerebral.  (Nor was it something merely emotional.)  For Isaiah, something happened in worship:  something real, something genuine.

So may it be for us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.