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Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We’re all about experience. Everything is about the experiences you have. If you buy or do anything, or go almost anywhere, you might get a survey on the phone or in your email, and much of the time it will ask you one question: how was your experience? How was your travel experience, your flying experience, your car rental experience, your hotel experience? How was your purchasing experience? We even have taken this over into the church and we talk about the “worship experience.”
And if you wanted to talk about impressive experiences, there are hardly any others more impressive than when the cloud of God’s glory covered Mt. Sinai and when Jesus appeared, transfigured, before Peter, James, and John. Think about what it must have been like to be standing at the foot of the mountain of Sinai and seeing the glory of God, concealed by the cloud, but like a consuming fire on the mountain. Or even better, to be Moses or Aaron, Nadab or Abihu, or any of the seventy elders of Israel who were invited to go up the mountain. They saw God through some kind of pavement of sapphire, and He did not stretch out His hand against them, to kill them. It says they beheld God and they ate and drank. An incredible and amazing experience. Five stars on the post-experience survey.
And what did the people do after that experience? Moses had told them that if they had any problems or disputes, they should go to Aaron and Hur and tell them. So that’s what they do. They go to Aaron and they say, “We don’t know what’s happened with Moses. He’s been up on the mountain for 40 days, and maybe he’s never coming back down. Make us gods to go before us.” Aaron thinks he can redeem the situation a little by calling the golden calf the “gods who brought you up out of Egypt,” and having a feast to Yahweh. So they offer sacrifices and eat and drink and “play,” but I don’t think they were playing with toys. That’s what happens after the experience of seeing God’s glory on Sinai; that’s how quickly they forget that “experience.”
And what about for Peter, James, and John after the experience on the mountain, where they saw Jesus appear in something of His divine glory, and speak with Moses and Elijah, who hadn’t been seen on the earth in thousands of years, and heard God the Father speak to them from the same cloud that appeared on Sinai? Peter says it’s good to be there, and they should build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But God interrupts him and knocks them on their faces. And when Jesus raises them up, there is no more glory, no more shining, no more Moses and Elijah, no more cloud of God’s glory—just Jesus, as He was before they went up on the mountain.
And when they come down from the mountain, what do they find? They find that a man has brought his demon-possessed child to the other disciples, but they weren’t able to heal him. And Jesus says, “Bring him to Me. O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to bear with you?” Sounds like something Moses might have said after he came down from the mountain. He ground up the golden calf into dust and made the people drink it. But before that, he might have said this. Faithless and twisted generation, how long do I have to bear with you?
Not a good track record for the most glorious experiences with God. We think of experiences as one-off events. Each event is an experience. But the original sense of the word is not connected to individual things in themselves, but to a series of things. It is testing and trying and coming to conclusions based on all of those things together. It’s not coming to conclusions about things based on individual events in themselves. We are not meant to have these spiritual experiences, spiritual highs, spiritual “mountain-top” experiences, and judge everything else according to them. Because then what do we conclude? That those events, those experiences, were when God was near to us, or when we felt God’s presence, or something similar, and at other times, God is more distant, or we don’t feel as near to Him.
But is that what He says? In the midst of that glorious experience on the mountain, God did not say to Peter, James, and John, “Look at Jesus in His glory and remember that. That will keep you going until your next great spiritual experience.” He said, “Listen to Him.” Not look at Him; listen to Him. Because that’s what Peter had not been doing. When Jesus predicted His suffering, death, and resurrection right before they went up on the mountain, Peter said, “God forbid that this should ever happen to You!” The Father says, Listen to Him. And so when they go down the mountain, Jesus tells them again that He’s going to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. Listen to Him.
Where do the Scriptures give us a promise attached to experiences? You won’t find one. You will, however, find promises attached to Jesus. Listen to Him. Does He say that He is close to you only when you feel good or spiritual or have strong emotions? No; listen to Him. He says He is with His baptized disciples all the days until this age comes to its completion. Does He say that His word works only when you feel something? No; listen to Him. He says things and they happen, regardless of whether anyone believes them, because they’re the word of the living God in flesh. Listen to Him: whatever sins you forgive, they’re forgiven. Listen to Him: this is My body and blood—the blood of the new covenant, in accord with all these words. The same body and blood of the same Jesus who appeared in divine glory on that mountain—eat and drink and see your God by faith there. Listen to Him: baptize all nations in My name, that I share with the Father and the Spirit.
And all of that, whatever Jesus says, is completely irrelevant to what we normally call experiences. It is not attached or dependent or real based on anything you experience. It is true and real because Jesus says it. And then the long experience of the Body of Christ and the experience over the lifetime of each member of His body will match the experience of Jesus. First death, and then resurrection. First suffering and then glory.
What happens to Jesus immediately after the Father spoke these words the first time, at His baptism? He was taken out into the wilderness for 40 days and nights and tempted by the devil. So it’s no accident that the Church Year goes from Transfiguration on the mountain, immediately into the 40 days of Lent. And the first Gospel reading we hear on the first Sunday in Lent is Jesus’ temptation. The Church is always being formed to the true experience of Jesus.
His word is not dependent upon anything in this world that we see or feel, least of all how we experience our lives in this world. Even Peter, who was actually there for the transfiguration, says in his second letter: we were eyewitnesses of all of that, and heard the audible voice of God. But we have something more sure—more sure—the prophetic word. The Word. And for Christians that is a comfort, because the glory of Christ in this world is always hidden to us in suffering and cross. Our individual experiences are better or worse; our lives go up and down, but Jesus doesn’t. Our experiences may be ambiguous, but His word is not. So listen to Him. He is faithful and His word will never fail. Listen to Him.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/21/20