This was the message that I presented at the Neon UMC (Neon, KY) on Transfiguration Sunday, 14 February 1999. This was also Boy Scout Sunday. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 24: 12 – 18, 2 Peter 1: 16 – 21, and Matthew 17: 1 – 9.
A Scout is Reverent – the twelfth point of the Scout Law.
He is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties and respects the convictions of others in matters of custom and religion.
Today is a very special day for me. For it was on this Sunday, Scout Sunday, in 1965 that I joined the First Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado, and became a Christian. Later that spring, I completed the work for my God and Country medal.
And while I may not have realized back then, it was the process of getting the award, the training I went through, and what I learned that has kept me alive during the times I was in the wilderness of my early years. And like Peter was to be the rock upon which Christ would build the church,
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will note overcome it. (Matthew 16: 17 – 18)
So would the church be the foundation upon which I could build the foundation for my life.
But it was not the training and what I learned so many years ago that made me a Christian; it was that I knew in my heart that Christ was my own Savior and that he came to save me from my sins that made me a Christian.
As the writer C. S. Lewis expressed it,
… Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of a map. But the map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God – experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you or I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion – all about feeling God in nature, and so on – is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map. (From The Joyful Christian by C. S. Lewis)
What Lewis is saying is that without the real experience of God in one’s life, it is impossible to turn book learning into real Christianity. We might feel that we are Christians because we have studied the Bible and know about Christ. But until you experience Christ as your own personal Savior, all that training and study are no more than what Peter called the “cleverly invented stories”.
John and Charles Wesley spent all of their college studying and preparing for a life in the ministry. They came here to America in 1736 convinced that they knew what it took to be servant of Christ. Yet two years later when they returned to England, they felt that for all that they had done, they were failures in their missionary work. Though they understood that there was no peace in life without Christ, neither brother felt that they had truly found such a peace. That peace came only after they trusted Christ with their lives. As Wesley was to write later, describing what we have come to know as the Aldersgate moment,
I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. And an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and save me from the law of sin and death.
But it is also impossible to have a real experience with God unless you understand what Christianity is all about. Lewis pointed out that there were those in his time who sought a religion of God without the church; who claimed to feel God’s presence in the world around them. I am not sure of the date when Lewis wrote that (sometime after World War I, I think) but it is still true today. We hear many people say, “I don’t need to come to church because I see God around me all the time.” It is true that God is a part of our everyday lives, but unless we understand why Christ was sent for our salvation God cannot be a true part of our lives.
The evangelist Philip can tell you about the need to understand why Christ saved us.
But as for Philip, an angel of the Lord said to him, "Go over to the road that runs from Jerusalem through the Gaza Desert, arriving around noon." So he did, and who should be coming down the road but the Treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the Queen. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, and was now returning in his chariot, reading aloud from the book of the prophet Isaiah.
The Holy Spirit said to Philip, "Go over and walk along beside the chariot."
Philip ran over and heard what he was reading and asked, "Do you understand it?"
"Of course not!" the man replied. "How can I when there is no one to instruct me?" And he begged Philip to come up into the chariot and sit with him.
The passage of Scripture he had been reading from was this:
"He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb is silent before the shearers, so he opened not his mouth; in his humiliation, justice was denied him; and who can express the wickedness of the people of his generation? For his life is taken from the earth."
The eunuch asked Philip, "Was Isaiah talking about himself or someone else?"
So Philip began with this same Scripture and then used many others to tell him about Jesus. (Acts 8: 26 – 35)
What this passage for Acts tells is what Peter also pointed out in the Epistle reading for today, that the words that we read are nothing unless we are open to the presence of the Holy Spirit as well.
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love’ with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the scared mountain.
And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
That is still true today. What we know about Christ only comes true when the Holy Spirit is present in our lives. For without the Holy Spirit the words that we write are just words, without true meaning, but we must be able to write the words that explain what the Holy Spirit is about. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit that gives a meaning to our lives, as Peter wrote, “ a light shining in a dark place.”
This day is about discovering God in our lives, about letting the Holy Spirit be a part of our lives.. There may be times when we might think that God is not here, that he has left us alone in the wilderness. As C. S. Lewis wrote on another occasion
…in order to find God it is perhaps not always necessary to leave the creatures behind. We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake. (From Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C. S. Lewis)
We might think that God has forgotten us but we have to remember that, as Lewis wrote, God is here and we only have to look for him.
Even while wandering through the wilderness during the Exodus, the Israelites knew that their God was never far away. As noted in Exodus 13: 21 – 22
By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13: 21 – 22)
And God was there in the cloud, the fire, and smoke when He renewed the covenant with Moses that He had first established with Abraham. When the three disciples saw Moses and the prophet Elijah standing next to Christ on that mountaintop, it was to show them that the old covenant, promised to Abraham and renewed by Moses with the Ten Commandments, was to be renewed and begun anew with Jesus.
The Transfiguration of Christ served to help the three disciples know that what they felt in their hearts was true, that Christ was the Son of God. Through our reading, we know that Christ is truly the Son of God but we often don’t understand it because the Holy Spirit is not a part of us.
It is that way for us. The presence of Christ in our lives is a transfiguring moment for us. It is that moment when the Holy Spirit comes into our lives and changes our lives.
Peter Jenkins wrote a series of books depicting his journey across America and his own personal journey. As he passed through North Carolina, he came to understand why he had begun the walk. But it was not until later, in Mobile, when he attended a revival, that he felt the presence of God in his soul. As he wrote,
I was going to die. The deepest corners of my being were lit with thousand-watt light bulbs. It was as if God himself were looking into my soul, through all my excuses, my dark secrets. All of me was exposed in God’s searchlight.
When the question ended its roaring echo, I decided for the first time to admit I needed God. This must be the God I had been searching for, and the same One they worshiped back in Murphy (NC) at Mount Zion. (A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins)
Just as John Wesley knew that he could trust in the Lord, Peter Jenkins came to the understanding that Jesus Christ had died for him. With that understanding Peter accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior. That same understanding allowed him to appreciate how the Holy Spirit could guide him through life.
In the dark in downtown Mobile as I walked home, I felt the smile on my face and the glow of heaven around me. My soul had been like a wavering compass needle, but now it finally pointed to true north. I had found my lifetime direction. (A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins)
Just as Peter Jenkins felt the smile on his face and the glow of heaven in his heart and John Wesley felt his heart warmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, so to we can know the meaning of Christ in our life.
What is your first memory of Christ in your life? Do you remember when it was, like Wesley, that you knew that you could trust Him? If there ever was one thing that I want you to take away from this service today, it is the memory of when you first came to know Jesus as your Savior, for that day is very much what we read about in the scriptures today.
And if you are not sure if Christ is a part of your life, then the invitation is made to open your heart and allow Him to enter into in, transforming your life and allow a light to shine in the darkness.