It’s Better Higher Up!
By Pastor Curtis Tilleraas
“The American evangelist Dwight L. Moody told the story about a Christian woman who was always bright, cheerful and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of an illness. She lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, run-down building. A friend decided to visit her one day and brought along another woman – a very wealthy woman. Since there was no elevator, the two women began the long climb upward. When they reached the second floor, the wealthy woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place!” Her friend replied, “It’s better higher up.”
When they arrived at the third floor, the remark was made: “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply: “It’s better higher up.” Finally they reached the attic level, where they found the bedridden woman of God. A smile on her face radiated the joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and flowers were on the windowsill, the wealthy visitor could not contain herself about the stark surroundings and blurted out: “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this!” Without a moment’s hesitation the shut-in responded: “It will be better higher up.” She was not looking at worldy things. With the eyes of faith fixed on the eternal, she had found the secret of true satisfaction and contentment.” (Traditional, from esermons.com) She had been transformed because of what she knew was yet to come.
In one-way or another this woman had seen the light. She was lit up from within so that she could see with her heart, soul and mind what her eyes, or what other eyes, could not see. Perhaps her experience was similar to that of Simeon, the old layman who was led by the Holy Spirit to enter the temple the day that Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to be dedicated. Simeon looked at the baby Jesus and started to praise God for fulfilling his life-long desire to see the Messiah before he died. He saw what his eyes alone could not have seen; and yet he saw the Lord’s Messiah in the baby Jesus with tremendous clarity.
When one sees what is real, but what is not obvious for anyone else to see, there is a kind of strength that comes with it – a kind of power. This was the kind of power that allowed St. Paul to sit in prison, with broken legs, awaiting his execution, as he sang praises to God and filled the terrible prison he was in with joy.
In today’s gospel there is a new twist to the kind of experiences I have just been talking about, except for the experience of Paul. In those other experiences – the woman in upper room & Simeon in the temple––there was still an external reality that stood in sharp contrast to the deeper reality that could only be seen through the eyes of faith and by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s gospel tells us of a time in the life of Jesus when the power that was usually known only through its effects, was made visible – in a flash. The power that could heal people for days on end – the power that could feed thousands from a few loves and fishes – the power that could hang the stars in the heavens and set planets in their orbits, was revealed. It lit him up. It was like he burst into flames, flames that burn but do not consume.
It happened on the mountain called Tabor, five miles east of Nazareth and 12 miles west of the south end of the Sea of Galilee, at the juncture of the territory of Issachar, Zebulun, and Naphtali. We can only wonder if this is the event that led to the biblical statement that the people of Zebulun and Naphtali have seen a great light.
“There is a story told about Napoleon during the invasion of Russia. He somehow got separated from his men and was spotted by his enemies, the Russian Cossacks. They chased him through the winding streets. Running for his life Napoleon eventually ducked into a furrier’s shop. Gasping for air and talking at the same time he begged the shopkeeper to save him. The furrier said, “Quick hide under this big pile of furs in the corner.” Then the furrier made the pile even large by throwing more furs atop of Napoleon.
No sooner had he finished when the Russian Cossacks burst into the shop. “Where is he?” they demanded to know. The furrier denied knowing what they were talking about. Despite his protests the Russian Cossacks tore the shop apart trying to find Napoleon. They poked into the pile of furs with their swords but did not find him. The eventually gave up and left the shop.
After some time had past, Napoleon crept out from under the furs, unharmed. Shortly after Napoleon’s personal guards came into the store. Before Napoleon left, the furrier asked, “Excuse me for asking this question of such a great man, but what was it like to be under the furs, knowing that the next moment could surely be your last?
Napoleon became indignant. “How dare you ask such a question of the Emperor Napoleon?” Immediately he ordered his guards to blindfold the furrier and execute him. The furrier was dragged out of the shop, blindfolded and placed against the wall of the shop. The furrier could see nothing but he could hear the guards shuffling into a line and preparing their rifles. Then he heard Napoleon call out, “Ready!” In that moment a feeling the shopkeeper could not describe welled up with him. Tears poured down his cheeks. “Aim!”
Suddenly the blindfold was stripped from his eyes. Napoleon stood before him. They were face to face and Napoleon said, “Now you know the answer to your question.”
The lesson here is obvious: How can you describe a near death experience? You can’t. It has to be experienced. Jesus’ transfiguration is in the same category of events which cannot be described. I think that is why Luke says that they kept it to themselves and told no one what they had seen. How do you describe it? It had to be experienced.” (Rev. Brett Blair, www.eSermons.com, 2004. Adapted from a story by Rev. Richard Hayes Weyer)
In today’s gospel, Peter, John and James are given a glimpse of the divinity of Jesus, and nothing in their previous experience compares to it. It was the kind of moment that re-defines all other moments – the kind of moment that changes one forever, and they were filled wonder, awe, & utter amazement. We might think of the person who has said, “I will never allow myself to fall in love again,” and suddenly they look at this new person in their life and say to themselves, “Oh oh.” Or think of the young woman who discovers, for the first time, that she is pregnant; and along with this discovery she cries out, “Oh my God.” The prayer issues from her lips just as she realizes that there is this new power in her life, this new life has entered into her body, and it’s been there for awhile, but now she knows it, and she knows that this new life has the power to change her entire life.
In a sense, the disciples had been pregnant with the knowledge that there was something very different about their Master. They had experienced many of those “oh, oh” and “oh my God” moments before––but today was the day that the veil was lifted from their eyes and they beheld the glory of God – the glory that was no longer hidden. For however long this moment lasted, the Son of God was no longer hidden in, with, and under Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus’ true identity was there for his disciples’ eyes to see––and they were also able to hear the voice of God, giving shape and meaning to this strange and heavenly event/person their eyes were seeing. “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to Him.”
The closest many of us will come to this kind of moment is when we come forward to see the Son of God in the Lord’ Supper. For many, the Son of God is hidden, in, with, and under the elements, the bread and the wine. But as Martin Luther wrote in his great essay, the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church”: “Not only is the body of Christ in the bread, but the bread is the body of Christ.” Just as the disciples heard the voice of God declare, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to Him,” we also are given the privilege of hearing the Son of God say to each of us, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” When we come to the altar for the Lord’s Supper, it is as if we were right there with the disciples, beholding the Transfiguration of our Lord. Like Peter, John and James, we too must come down from the mountain, or arise from the altar rail, and re-enter the world – for the Transfiguration of Jesus is not followed by His ascension into heaven. It is followed by his descent from the mountain and His entrance into Jerusalem. In other words, the cross is being prepared for Him, on the other side of the mountain.
Like the vision the disciples had on the Mount of Trans-figuration, which would sustain them through the terrible days to come, the days of the Lord’s crucifixion and burial – the Lord’s Word and the Lord’s Supper sustain us with the promise that we will be raised up with Him in the Resurrection. “It will be better, higher up,” the paralyzed lady said, her face radiant with the love of Jesus.
In today’s gospel we find that Moses was finally able to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land, through the revelation of the glory of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The Israelites had also believed that Elijah would return before the final judgment to restore Israel so that she would be ready for the Messiah. This is why the people kept asking John the Baptist and then Jesus if they were Elijah. Now, after God has announced, once again, who Jesus is, the cloud lifts and both Moses and Elijah have disappeared – or, we might say, they have entered into Christ and found their ful-fillment in Him, just as the Law and the Prophets find their fulfillment in Him. We, too, might think that our own fulfillment is to be found in ourselves, in the actualization of our own hopes and dreams, but in our baptism we were joined to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and so our fulfillment can only come through Him, through obedience to Him and through faith in Him.
With their human minds, Peter, James, and John could not have known the depth of suffering that was in store for their Savior. Jesus had told them that he would suffer and be rejected, but they didn’t want to believe it. Like many of us, Peter especially was in denial and he wanted this beautiful moment to last forever. Like Elisha who wanted to cling to his Master, Elijah, until the very final moment, Peter did not want to move on. “It is good that we are here,” he said, meaning every word of it. “It is good that we are here.” But the mountain does not exist apart from the valley, and there comes a time when we, like Peter, James, John and Jesus must move on and return to the valley below.
All of the disciples except two (Judas and John) would eventually be martyred because of their faith. We may not be martyred, but when we were baptized we were baptized into our Lord’s death as well as his resurrection. The gift of our Lord’s Word, as well as the gift of His body and blood, sustains us through the deepest valleys in our lives – through those times when the mountain seems like little more than a dream we have left behind. The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration reminds us that we too are being transfigured, and one day we will see and experience our transfiguration fully. As Paul says, “(A)ll 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 Cor. 3:18) When we partake of the body and blood of Jesus, we are also partaking of His Divine Light – and we carry His Light in our flesh wherever we go. This brings to mind the song we sang as children, and which children are still singing: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
“It is better higher up,” the bedridden woman of God said in her ghetto apartment, but the smile on her face told all of her visitors that it’s better, wherever we are, when Jesus is right there with us.
Copyright 2004 Curtis Tilleraas. Used by permission.