Lonesome Valleys

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho

Feb 19, 2012

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Each year, before we enter the Season of Lent, we spend some time looking at the texts of Jesus’ transfiguration—when he takes a few of his disciples and goes up on the mountainside. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell the story a little differently, but this year, the Lectionary gives us Mark’s account.

And for Mark, this story is about identity. Just previous to this section, Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying he is.

“Some say Moses, some say Elijah”, they tell him.
But who do you say I am?”
Peter says, “You are the Messiah”.

Awareness of Jesus’ identity is growing for the disciples, but they don’t fully understand this Messiah they are following yet.

Then we have the religious authorities, who have no idea who Jesus really is, but they’ve seen enough to decide they want to kill him, to silence his calls for justice and inclusion.

Jesus was transfigured before the disciples. He was changed. And it wasn’t just that his clothes looked different. The disciples didn’t look at him and say, “did you do something different with your hair, Jesus?” He was changed.  The Greek word for transfigured is “metamorphosis”, which is “a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one,”

So, this is more than a costume change from Clark Kent to Superman.

(Hope I didn’t just ruin anything for any of you. Clark Kent and Superman are the SAME PERSON.)

This is a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

And what was this transformation, exactly?

The short answer is that I have no idea. This is a story that has to live in some mystery. The gospel accounts describe the event, but not in a way that answers our 21st century questions. He was metamorphosed before them. His clothes were shining white in a way that no human bleach could manage. And then Moses and Elijah appear on either side of him, and the disciples see the three of them carrying on a conversation.

So, whatever the physics of this transfiguration, it is clear that Jesus is not like us. That the disciples encounter him in a form so different from what they thought they knew that it leaves them terrified.

This wasn’t a fear that you bravely overcome the way Indiana Jones conquered his fear of snakes. This was heart stopping terror.

And in every picture of the transfiguration that I was able to find, the disciples all looked just like this. One of them is turned away in horror. The other two are upside down, falling off the mountain almost.

And while I don’t doubt that seeing Jesus talking to two long dead prophets would terrify us all, I wonder if this moment of terror was connected to what had happened to the disciples before. Less than a week before this,
Jesus had told “them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

He had said to them:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

And they hadn’t liked it when he said those things. “What, Jesus? Surely not. Don’t say such things.”

But Jesus doesn’t have time for this.

He’s walking to Jerusalem. And he knows what will happen there. He will undergo great suffering. He will be rejected. He will be killed. He will rise again after 3 days.

This is his reality. It isn’t the storybook life we’re supposed to lead, whatever that looks like, but it is the path he is going to walk. And Jesus doesn’t have time for people who are in denial about this.

I see this often with families who are dealing with a terminal illness. They know the path they are on and as well-meaning as it is to say to them, “I’m sure everything will be fine. Don’t say such things”, it isn’t helpful.

Because when you are walking that road, you don’t want to be alone. You want to be with people with whom you can be honest.

This isn’t about giving up hope. This isn’t about throwing in the towel. This is about being honest about the path you are on. You want partners on the journey who will just sit and be with you in your grief and sadness without trying to pretend that the world hasn’t been completely changed and transformed.

Because life is completely transformed in those situations. For better and worse, a life looks different once you have dealt with tragedy. I think I have shared this before, but I have a friend who got a tattoo after his son was killed in a car accident. He told me that since his life would never be the same again, he thought it fitting that his body would also be marked so it would be clear that there had been a transformation.

And I wonder if that is why Jesus has a metamorphosis on the mountain top—to help the disciples see that he wasn’t kidding about what was to come, to help them break through their denial so they could be his companions as he walked his lonesome valley.

The old spiritual goes, “Jesus walked this lonesome valley. He had to walk it by himself. O, nobody else could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself.” And with all respect to the author of that hymn, I think it is only true to a point.

Yes, Jesus had to walk his own path. He couldn’t outsource that particular journey. And yes, we have to walk our own path too. Nobody else can walk it for us.

But we don’t have to be alone.

Surely, we have to walk our own journeys, and when we get to the lonesome valleys, certainly the casual friends will fall away, but we don’t have to be alone.

I was speaking with Carolyn yesterday. As many of you know, her father has been in failing health, and it became clear yesterday that the end of his journey is near. And we talked about this text and we talked about how the scary and transformative news of impending death, while it may never be the news you want to hear, ended up being a gift for her family. They have had the opportunity to drop the walls and be authentic with each other. They have had the opportunity to seek forgiveness, to offer forgiveness, and to speak of their love.
But at this point of the lonesome valley, the path is narrow. They are sending family members in to his room one by one.

Jesus did not take a crowd with him to witness the transfiguration. He didn’t even take all of the disciples. But he did take a few. Peter and James and John are there to see the metamorphosis.

And then they are told to keep it quiet until after the resurrection. The cynical part of me (who me? never) wants to say, “don’t worry, Jesus. Who are they going to tell they saw you super bleached and talking with Elijah anyway?”

I mean, really. Who would believe such a thing?

But I think it also speaks to the fact that there are times when large crowds are helpful and there are times when the path narrows and you can only journey with a handful of people.

This lonesome valley that Jesus will walk is a narrow one. After the transfiguration, the crowds will still follow him. But from here on out, he will save most of his instruction for the disciples. The time is past for a sermon on the mount.

So, as we approach Lent, which will begin with worship this Wednesday night at 7 pm for Ash Wednesday, I invite you to consider this lonesome valley that we’re being invited to walk with Jesus as he journeys to the cross.  Consider how the terrifying moments of change, transformation, or realization that we all encounter have led you down more authentic paths in your own life. Consider how we can be there for each other as we each have to walk our own lonesome valleys. Just because nobody else can walk it for you doesn’t mean you have to be alone. Thanks be to God.

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