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Finding God

Luke 9:28-43

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

During this time of the year, many of us are thinking about planning for our summer vacations. Should we visit the East Coast or a trip to Hawaii? We may be thinking about adding a few days to a business trip such as for me attending the American Baptist Biennial meetings this June in Washington, D.C. After putting behind us 2006, getting the ministries in the New Year started and for those whose work is just about to become more hectic than ever preparing tax returns for people, the only saving thought in our busy lives sometimes is to dream about getting away.

Mountains are good, quiet, restorative places for Sabbath, for retreat, rest, and renewal. The Women’s Retreat in just a few weeks is held near Mt. Diablo. Later in April, our church will gather together for our All-Church Retreat Day in the Marin Headlands away from our everyday existence so that we might get away to find ourselves and God. The demands of daily life can be so consuming.

Going Up the Mountain

Today the disciples have gone up on a mountain. Jesus is forever leading his disciples to places that nobody much wanted to go. For the past eight chapters, the pace of ministry has been very hectic. Jesus performed many acts of ministry. He came down to Capernaum to cast our unclean spirits. He left a deserted place to preach in the synagogues.  He climbed into a boat to recruit his disciples. In Bethsaida, he fed five thousand people. And when he came down to a level place where a great multitude of people were, he preached about blessings and woes. Now, he and his chosen disciples head for the hills to get away from all of this.

But here, on this mountain, everything changes. The disciples’ solitude is intruded upon by two dead people. If Peter hoped to find himself on this mountain retreat, forget it. He was discovered by the two great figures of the faith, the law and the prophets, Moses and Elijah. There is a stunning, transfiguring vision, and an inspired conversation. Peter, now jolted awake, listens in on the conversation between Jesus and Moses and Elijah.

But sometimes, in getting away from it all, we are surprised when what was supposed to be a retreat becomes an engagement, an encounter. There was a man who wanted to get away from his daily and family responsibilities in order to find himself by walking the Appalachian Trail. He was on the trail for less than two weeks, came home saying it was one of the most disarming experiences of his life. Couldn’t take it. Why?

The man said, “I got out there alone, in the woods, no distractions, nobody out there but me and God. All the time in the world to think about all the things I usually avoid thinking about. I just about went crazy.” When we try to find ourselves, we can’t prevent God finding us.

The disciples have gone up on a mountain with Jesus to pray. If they think that prayer on the mountain is a good way to get away from it all, they are mistaken. When we pray, we are usually in the habit of piously closing our eyes. We close our eyes, shutting out the world so that we can better focus on God. But as we focus on God with our eyes closed, we are surprised that God finds us.

On that mountain and in prayer, the disciples have their eyes opened and they see who Jesus is. Their time on the mountain is a stunning moment of revelation—Jesus’ face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. The veil is pulled back and they see the glory of Jesus as the Messiah.

Finding God

We can witness God’s glory in our daily lives just as Peter, James and John were able to witness the transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain. And although we may very well, encounter God at a retreat or in Yosemite, God is finding us in our daily living.

Annie Dilliard in her 1974 book, “Pilgrim in Tinker Creek” tells about walking through the outdoors and rounding the corner of an outbuilding, catches a glimpse of a mocking bird diving toward the earth at thirty-two feet per second. It appears as if it were about to crash into the ground when it fans its feathers and steps off on the grass as if getting off an escalator. The old philosophical question comes to her mind: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?

Reframing that she wondered if she had not come around that corner at that moment in time, would the grace and beauty of that descent still have happened? She concluded it would have but added, “Thank God I was there as a witness.” Peter, John and James can thank God they were there as witnesses to the Transfiguration as you and I can give thanks to God when we witness the glory of God in our daily lives.

Titling this sermon, “Finding God” is a misnomer. We don’t go around thinking that with our human abilities we will be able to find God. Many years ago, there was a bumper sticker that read, “I Found It” referring to God. But than others came up with another bumper sticker that read, “I never lost it!” God was never lost. It’s just that we fail to recognize God in our everyday life.

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It’s like this. Several years ago, art lovers would visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They would come to enjoy some of the greatest works of art ever displayed. But only in late 1995 did art historian Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt notice the three-foot statue of a naked, curly-headed boy with a blissful expression and a quiver of arrows strapped to his back sitting in plain view directly across from the museum. The statue of Cupid has been there since 1908. That’s 87 years! She discovered that it was likely the work of Michelangelo.

Imagine museum experts and renowned artists passing it for years on their way to the art museum to enjoy the art but failing to recognize a work of Michelangelo on the street corner. I wonder how many people go to church to worship God but fail to recognize God in their everyday living?

C.S. Lewis in an essay entitled, “Meditation in the Tool Shed,” might explain why we so often fail to recognize God in life. Lewis was in a dark tool shed, with a beam of light streaming through a small crack in the roof. When he looked at the beam of light, he saw one thing, but when he changed his position to enter into the beam of light and look along it, or with it, he saw something quite different.

For Lewis, this becomes a metaphor for two different ways of knowing—observational, from the outside, and participative, from the inside. Regarding Christianity, we might know it by “looking at” Christianity. On the other hand we might know by “looking with” Christianity.

Our modern preference is that way of looking “at” Christianity. The assumption is that if we look directly at something, that this is the objective way, the scientific way of knowing its reality. Such observation undoubtedly tells us much about what we are looking at. But it doesn’t tell is everything about it. Moreover it is not the only way of knowing something. You have to step inside an experience in order to see it.

We sometimes know that light of God only in its reflection. For the past few weeks, you have heard me praying for the unity and vitality of our church. I know that you have also been praying for our church and for one another. I know in the bottom of my heart that some of you are hurting caused by how our church has described our understanding of a very controversial and difficult matter. Just like a physician wished that she can remove that pain from a suffering body, I wish I can do that as well for you. But I know that I can’t and that the only expectation that I can have from you is an understanding and maintaining a spirit of fellowship that can only come from God himself.

I think C.S. Lewis can teach us something at this time in the history of our church. We can definitely have an observational understanding about what we believe. We can look at ourselves and realize that we are in fact quite different and possibly even diametrically opposites. But Lewis also said that we can have a participative understanding when we can look along and look with each other. When we try to participate in Christ together, we might discover that we can also see Jesus in the midst of us with his faced changed and his clothes dazzling white.

The Chosen One

The Transfiguration of our Lord reveals to us an epiphany. In the midst of our everyday life, God comes and changes our understanding of the world. What happened on this mountaintop changed how Peter saw Jesus and how we know Jesus Christ today.

Just as Moses led the people of God out of slavery into the Promised Land, Jesus will depart to take a place in Jerusalem as the new Moses leading the people of God from the slavery of sin into the Kingdom of God itself. Like Moses passing through the Dead Sea, Jesus has already passed through the sea of baptism in his obedience to his Father.

Just as Moses took off his shoes on Mt. Sinai because it was holy ground, Peter realized the importance of the moment and place and wanted to build tents to preserve the holy moment and sacred ground. Yet, there is no need for a tabernacle when Jesus himself, the body of Christ is the true holy church.

Just as Moses and Elijah who were once the law and the prophets that led and taught the people of God in the past faded from the disciples’ view, Jesus did not fade away but his face was bright and his clothes were dazzling white. The full weight of God’s revelation points to Jesus.

Just as in Luke 3:22 when Jesus was baptized, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove and a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” now in Luke 9, from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” The three disciples are left speechless and in awe because they witnessed the presence of God on that mountaintop.

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We too may encounter God when we recognize God in our everyday life. On this Sunday, we stand on the threshold of Lent, that forty day journey with Jesus to the Cross. On the way, before journey’s end, there will be opposition, betrayal, resistance, cruelty, and death. Are we willing to listen to that Jesus for the next forty days? Are we willing to be led by him down from the glorious mountaintop to the valley of the shadow of death?

Our problem is that we have been to the mountaintop, we’ve heard the voice, we’ve seen the glory, and we are unsure if we have the guts to follow him from Gethsemane to Golgotha, from Bethlehem to Calvary, from inside this worship center to go outside into the streets, from Sunday to the rest of the days in the week. The Jesus who rescues us from evil turns out to be the one who leads us into confrontation with evil in the world.

There was a Christian man who lived in the southern part of China and was a rice farmer. His farm was located in the middle of a hill. In time of drought he used a water wheel, worked manually by a treadmill, to lift water from an irrigation stream into his field.

His neighbor below had two fields below his. One night his neighbor made a breach in the retaining bank and drained off all the water from the Christian’s field into his two fields. When the Christian notice the breach he repaired it and filled his field again.

This happened three more times.

Finally he consulted some of his Christian friends and told them what he suspected his neighbor of doing. He said to them, “I’ve tried to be patient, but is it right to continue to be quiet about this?”

After they had prayed together about it, one of them said, “If we only try to do the right thing, then surely we are poor Christians. We have to do something more than that which is right.”

The troubled Christian took these words to heart. The next morning, instead of repairing the breach once again, he first filled his neighbor’s two fields and then in the afternoon he filled his own field.

After that the water stayed in his field. His neighbor was so amazed at his actions that he began to inquire the reason and in due time, he, too, became a Christian.

On that mountaintop, Jesus was transfigured and in a stunning moment, we see who he is. But in a blessed way, his disciples were transfigured as well. They saw who they, as his followers, were. This Christian rice farmer saw the glory of Jesus and reflected that glory in his everyday life. He confronted that evil in his neighbor and transfigured it by leading him to Jesus his Savior.

Most of us climbed up Sacramento Street or Clay Street or California Street to come to this church. We know how to come to the mountaintop to be with God. But are we willing to come down from the mountain? When the disciples came down from the mountain and didn’t have the faith to heal a boy’s unclean spirits, Jesus stepped in and challenged them to have more faith. Are we coming down from this mountaintop of a church with the faith to heal, to feed the hungry, to help the poor, to stop the weeping, to stand up for justice, to be God’s people united in Spirit and in missions?

Christians are those who are able to absorb evil without passing it on. Just like these church windows, some of God’s glory shines through. We come down from the mountain, having heard the voice, having seen the glory, changed, determined, amid the great noise of everyday life to reflect God’s love in the world.

We may still want to go on vacation to rest or go on retreat for renewal. God will be there. But we don’t need to find God when God has found us. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Chosen One is with us today.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, we have caught a glimpse of your glory as God’s only begotten Son. We have been to the mountaintop and seen your majesty. Now, in our life in the valley, help us to move from vision to discipleship. Help us, having seen you, to now listen to you. Having opened our eyes, now open our ears. Help us to hear you and, in hearing you, help us to obey you. We are ready dear Lord to spread your love in this world that needs so much healing and forgiveness. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.

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