Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
500 years before Christ, Rabbis called Mount Tabor “the navel of the world.” The peak rises abruptly, yet gently, from the plain like the belly of a pregnant woman. It is modest, covered in pine, about 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. It rises almost 2,000 feet above sea level. Today, a hiking trail leads to the top. It’s just three miles—about an hour’s walk. It would have been an obvious and inviting choice for Jesus’ early-morning climb. It’s the logical and probable setting for today’s gospel.
Jesus and the disciples had been walking for six days, nearly a week. They were moving south from Galilee, through soft, shallow hills that mark the beginning of the slow, steady climb to Jerusalem. Jesus left before breakfast. He took Peter, James, and John with him. They climbed a nearby mountain. There Jesus’ face shone like the sun!
The view from Mt. Tabor is famously beautiful. Local’s say it’s one of the best places to watch the sunrise. From Christ’s holy mountain heaven and earth are laid out at our feet. The barrier between the visible and invisible is broken. Now we see the two are connected and woven of the same fabric. The light God pours into all things shone out from Jesus.
Marilynn Robinson wrote a novel called Gilead about one man’s attempt to write down all the wisdom and understanding his one long-life-lived in God’s grace had illuminated for him, so he might pass it along to his young son before he dies. He writes at a small desk in a modest house somewhere in Kansas while watching his son play outside on a swing.
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?” (Gilead, p. 245).
St. Paul writes that God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 timothy 6:16). It is this light which illuminates the darkness of human minds. To the Romans Paul wrote: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God –what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). To the brothers and sisters in Corinth he explained, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Jesus has a job to do. He set his face toward Jerusalem. He is headed to the cross. It is deadly serious business. So, it is for that very reason, that now, he departs from the path. He takes some time to clear his head, center his heart, exercise his body, and explore a nearby mountain. Jesus took time to pray. Jesus took the sabbath time he needed to prepare himself and the disciples for the cross. True to form, Peter says the words people of faith repeat down through the centuries, “Lord, it is good for us to be here” (Matthew 17:4).
It is good for us to be here to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8). Sabbath is rest for the weary and hope for those who despair. Sabbath is the bridge that joins our love of God who calls us to rest with God’s love and concern for neighbor. (Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, p.17). Sabbath gives rhythm to our week and centers our hearts in grace. Sabbath was God’s antidote to a life of slavery under Pharaoh. We are not human resources. We are human. We are children of God. Even now, we are being transformed to shine with the unapproachable light of God in which heaven and earth are joined together.
You and I, just like the first disciples, do not always or very often know where Jesus is leading us. It is in the walking—in the following—that we learn who Jesus is. Here during sabbath time, at the altar, the font, in song, in the Word, and in prayer we discover again the true light of our lives. Here that Jesus uncovers the power of God’s grace already within us to heal and transform the world.
Scripture says that the church is like a city on a hill, enlightened to go into the world, bearing the light of Christ. We do not understand how it is that we do this. Often, we cannot see the light that we bear. Yet somehow we become a living-sanctuary of hope and grace. Take a moment this morning to read This is Us in your worship folder today. See the comments of neighbors who come each week for the play groups. They are Immanuel’s extended family. Yes Lord, it is good for us to be here!
When James Finley was a young monk at the monastery of Gethsemane, he shared with Thomas Merton (who was his spiritual director) his frustration at his seemingly inept efforts to experience God’s presence. Merton responded: “How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.” We are drawn to the Sabbath as living things respond to daylight. Let the light of God’s grace season, flavor and ripen you. Yes Lord, it is good for us to be here.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was interviewed about his daily practice of morning prayer. He said, “I have come to realize more and more that prayer is just being in the presence deeply [of the One who] Who loves you with a love that will not let you go. And so, when I get up in the morning I try to spend as much time as I can in the sense of being quiet in the presence of his love. And it’s often like saying I want to be sitting—it’s a cold day and I’m sitting in front of a warm fire. I don’t have to do anything. The fire warms me. All I have to do is to lay in front of the fire. And after a while, I may have the qualities of the fire change me. So, I have the warmth of the fire. I may have the glow of the fire. And it is so also with me and God. That I just have to be there. Quiet.” Yes Lord, it is good for us to be here.
Sometimes the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. On the mountaintop or in the valley, right here, right now, just the way you are, sabbath makes us one again with the one who loves us. Oh, wonderous image, Oh vision fair, by grace we see Christ’s glory face to face.