Sermon: "Can't I Just Stay?"~Luke 9:28-36
Note: This sermon was preached on October 29, 2017 at the morning worship service of Fairfield Presbyterian Church (PCA). You can find out more about them at http://fairfieldpca.org.
One of my favorite books is J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic, The Hobbit. It is the story of 13 dwarves who take with them a hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins on a perilous journey to the Lonely Mountain to retake their glorious kingdom from the dragon Smaug. In the first chapter, the dwarves sing a song to Bilbo, explaining their quest: “We must away, ere break of day, To claim our long-forgotten gold.” Our text today tells us of Peter also climbing a mountain, looking for the long-forgotten glory of God.
Peter looks up the domed incline of Mount Tabor, trees obscuring his view of the peek. He can see Jesus just a few feet ahead of him while his dear friends, James and John, walk next to him. As he looks up at Jesus, he can’t help wondering, “Who is this man?” Only a few days before, he had said Jesus was the Christ, but Jesus responded with talk of dying. Peter still had no idea what he had meant. All he knew was he had pinned all of his hopes on this man. He had heard the stories. He knew the prophets, his heroes had talked about the person who would bring God’s long-forgotten glory back to Israel. He went up to the Temple faithfully as every good Jew did, but as impressive as it is, he is not so sure God dwells there. The glory of God had left it long ago and has not returned. God is still absent, and Israel in exile. He had said that this man was the Christ, but God still feels just as far away as he always has.
As they come up the winding path to the top of the mountain, Peter doesn’t even bother looking at the vast fields that lay under him. He collapses to the ground, panting in exhaustion, ready to sleep. Before he closes his eyes, he looks up at Jesus but finds himself unable to look away. Jesus is dressed in the purest white Peter can imagine and his face shines in a way it never has before. Peter is no longer thinking about sleep. This looks like the long-forgotten glory he had always imagined coming down on Solomon’s Temple. And then he notices next to Jesus, Moses and Elijah, his childhood heroes, talking to his master, right in front of him! Is this it? Might God finally be returning to Israel? Moses and Elijah begin to turn away, but Peter knows he can’t let them leave. He’s waited too long for this sight! “Master, it is so good to be here,” he blurts out. “Let’s stay. Let’s set up three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Can’t we just stay? Can’t I just stay?”
“Can’t I just stay?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself recently. As part of my seminary education as a distant student, I ascend to Grand Rapids, MI for a week of on-campus classes at Calvin Theological Seminary. In fact, I was there at the peak just two weeks ago. For one week, I sit in classes on Scripture, preaching, and Hebrew. I have the opportunity to sit-down face-to-face with all of my professors. Finally, there’s a built-in support group for Hebrew, ready to make sense of this strange language together. I have the privilege of listening to all of my classmates preach the Gospel. There’s the opportunity to slip into a disabilities ministry and be there with these dear people without being responsible for the even. We spend hours with our formation group mentor, eating meals, going out for drinks, talking to him about our hopes, fears, and dreams in our new ministry callings. He is always ready to speak words of great wisdom from his 30 years as a pastor. A church is only a 5-minute walk from campus rather than the hour commute I typically perform. For one week, I am not running in and out of Christian school classrooms as a substitute teacher, or dealing with the parade of needs the homeless community brings into our church building every Saturday. Instead, I can just be a student, being with God before His Word and with his people without bearing the weight of ministry. “Can’t I just stay?”
We all have our “Can’t I just stay?” moments, those times on the mountain when God feels closer than ever and the troubles of our daily life are left behind. Can’t I just stay at this marriage conference rather than go home to something far less than happily ever after? Can’t I just stay with my family during our devotional time instead of running to doctor’s appointments which take up far more of my retirement time than I expected they would? Can’t I just stay in this church service rather than go back to a job on Monday which feels meaningless? Can’t I just stay at this prayer meeting instead of returning to a child who never fails to make the wrong decisions? Can’t I just stay?
Before those words are out of Peter’s mouth, a cloud engulfs the top of the mountain. Peter isn’t sure what is happening. He looks to John and James and sees the same fear he thinks they must see in his face. A loud, deep voice echoes from the cloud. Peter places his hands over his ears which are ringing from the sound. It says, “This is my Son. Shut up and listen.” In a moment, the cloud dissipates. When Peter raises his head, he sees only Jesus, looking as he always did before. Ordinary, clothed in the same dust stained clothes he is. There is no trace of what he thought he had seen only moments before. And he is silent. The voice had told him to listen to Jesus, but Jesus isn’t saying anything now. But Jesus is silent because he has already spoken, if only Peter had listened. Jesus and Moses and Elijah are talking about Jesus’ departure, literally in Greek, his exodos. A greater deliverance, a greater exodus than the one Peter has always heard about, is coming.
There’s Moses, the author of the Law, filled with signs, symbols, and rituals that have always pointed to Jesus. There is Elijah, one of the great prophets, who always talked about the coming Messiah who would bring Israel back to God. Peter is seeing the stories he has heard about his whole life culminate now in Jesus.
If Peter had only listened, he would remember what Jesus said eight days before: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised….If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Eight days after hearing these words, Peter sees this sight. One of my favorite church fathers, St. Ambrose of Milan points out: “The resurrection happened on the eighth day.” Another church father, Ephrem the Syrian, said, “He, who gave his body a glory that no one can reach, is able to raise it to life from the death that everyone tastes.” Peter has seen a small glimpse of the resurrection that will defeat the death Jesus spoke about eight days before.
Right now, Peter does not understand this, but one day he will. Right now, Peter does not say anything about what he sees, but one day he will. Thirty years later, in 2 Peter 1:16-18, he will write: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
One day, Peter will understand what Jesus is doing. But for now, once the cloud rolls away, he’s left with the Jesus he’s always known. He could be disappointed. What happened to the long-forgotten glory? Can’t that glory come back to the Temple? Can’t God dwell with His people again? Can’t he just stay? But if he looks into that familiar, smiling face, perhaps he’d see something else. He would see God coming back, not in His glory, but much nearer. As he descends down the mountain, he walks down with Jesus, stepping away from that glory to set his face towards the city of Jerusalem, to be one with his children, to die and to rise to deal with the muck and mire of Peter’s day to day life. God’s presence has come closer than Peter could have ever dreamed.
As I begin my own descent in a blue, yellow, and red Southwest plane, my eyes are drawn to the Philadelphia skyline, particularly the spire atop One Liberty Place. Below the 61-story skyscraper is the parking garage I pull into every Saturday morning before walking to the next block where Liberti’s Center City building rests. On any given Saturday, 100 men and women walk-in for a meal to assuage the hunger they experience as a result of homelessness and food insecurity. It can become overwhelming to encounter such need every week, but I also can see Jesus present in that room, working in ways I might not expect and in ways all too easy to miss.
I think of one man we’ll call Seth. He came to Emmanuel Ministry, Liberti’s outreach to the homeless community, over a year ago. He was on the streets and was looking for a meal. He met our Pastor of Mercy Ministries, Vito, and was soon invited to church for the first time in decades. The next day, he slipped into a church service at Liberti. Fast-forward several months. By the time I join Emmanuel’s leadership team, Seth is volunteering every week, setting up tables and chairs. He has moved into a shelter run by an organization Liberti partners with called the Bethesda Project. After several more months, Seth is interested in becoming a member at Liberti and make a public profession of faith. I am privileged to sit down with him and help him write out his testimony as part of the process. By this summer, the Bethesda Project has been able to get him into his own apartment and provide permanent housing. He continues to walk with Jesus and to lead Emmanuel’s set-up and tear-down team. He has the potential to make a great deacon in the church sometime in the future. All this after coming every week to Emmanuel. Jesus is there, much closer than I could have ever dreamed.
Today, God says to you, “Shut up and listen. This is my Son, in whom I am well-pleased. He is present in your home of less than happily ever after. He sits beside you in the doctor’s office. He is with you in your workplace. He is much closer than you could have ever dreamed. He has become part of the muck and mire of your day-to-day life and has transformed it through his death and resurrection. You don’t bear this alone. He has, in fact, born it for you. You are here as witnesses of his presence. Shut up and listen. And once you hear, tell everyone about it.”
Fairfield church, this is the good news for you this morning. Jesus is not just present on the mountaintops, but in the valleys of our every day, alongside us. He has made us witnesses of his presence, making new the world around us. Jesus has come much closer than we could have ever dreamed.