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Holy EncounterExodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-8

The season of Epiphany begins with light–the light of the Bethlehem Star leading strangers to new birth. It ends with even greater light, the light of Jesus’ transfiguration described in the Gospel today. This mystical experience happens in a time of crisis in Jesus’ story. The tensions and conflicts in Jesus’ ministry are growing. Jesus has just told the disciples that he knows he is going to die. Not a message they want to hear. Indeed, an experience they want to run from. Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up a high mountain. I wonder if Jesus is trying to regroup and prepare himself for what lies ahead.

Many powerful events in the biblical story happen on mountaintops. In Israel people felt closer to God on mountains. They were places where the veil between the Holy and the ordinary seemed to become thin. Indeed one of the common names for God in Hebrew scripture is El Shaddai, sometimes translated, God of the mountain. On a mountain top you get a different perspective on life, see the bigger picture.

There they have a powerful sacred encounter which links them with the core traditions of their roots, and with the baptismal promise that Jesus was God’s Beloved. It is clear this mystical experience of holiness; of otherness was seen in terms of Jewish tradition. Moses and Elijah were two key figures from that tradition who had come into direct contact with God and were transformed by that experience. So in telling the story, this whole tradition is being called up for the listener.

Peter, in his fear, doesn’t know what to do, so he suggests building a house…and staying on the mountaintop. Create a safe fortress for the holy experience. Seems a very human tendancy to want to contain and control sacred experience.

And then it is over. The unusual light, the spiritual presence of the ancients, the voice from the cloud…gone, and the three are back in normal human dimension. And then comes the task of returning to the world down below, where bright lights do not always shine, where one has to struggle with the promise of God’s presence. On the way down the mountain, Jesus tells them to tell no one. But somebody did, or we would not know the story.

What are we to make of such stories? Do we write them off as crazy ancient tales? Do we take them literally, as historical fact? Or as just a story told so that the listener would link Jesus with the ancient stories of Moses and Elijah, forerunners in the faith.The Dalai Lama says in a book The Good Heart, A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus that this story is an example of a visionary experience, the emanation of a spiritually highly evolved being, Jesus.

Another way of looking at the story is through our own experience of Sacred encounter? Deep spritual encounter, when the veil between the sacred and the earthly becomes very thin are not limited to biblical time. Nor are they limited to people who name themselves religious. When they happen, and when we dare to speak of them, it is difficult to find the language. The experiences are hard to put into normal linear language. They can sound a bit odd to ears unaccustomed to spiritual depth. And so many of us never find the place to share our spiritual experience.

And yet they happen al the time. In a time of crisis, a dream will clearly point the way; a person will come to us in silent times and we know that we need to be in touch with them, only to find that they had been expereincing some trauma at the time.

I know a woman in a time of deep crisis, for these times oftem come in crisis don’t they, who heard/saw/ sensed the presence of God on the waters beside a lake. The message was “Do not be afraid. I am with you” This happened not as an external person speaking these words. It was more as if they were written on the lake; yet not there at all, But it was a profound encounter that was life-transforming, and that enabled her to make a decision she had been unable to make.

I know a man, who on entering a church one day for the first time ever, “just to see”, as he put it, had a profound knowing that he was meant to journey with the particular minister of that congregation. He had a knowing moment that this was the person God had chosen to teach him. He is now ordained.

I know a young boy, who lived with emotional abuse and fear. One day God came to him while he was on his way to an exam, and filled him with energy and power for life, a knowing that he was loved by God. He has a sense of God very near to him, giving him the strength to be the best human being he can be, and he can trust life because of that. At 10, he prays many times a day to a Presence he feels very close to.

I know a woman who at a meditation service in this church, experienced powerful light and the presence of her father delighting in what was happening. Her father was Victor Rose, former minister of this church.

I know a girl who sitting on the side of a mountain, back against a tree looking out at a lake, suddenly knew that she was connected with everything that was–that every cell of her being was related to the cells and energies of the tree that supported her, the earth and water around her. She experienced a Oneness with Creation–in a profound and holy way that led her to committing her life to working to protect and care for the earth. Not out of a political awareness, or from a “ should” place. But out of a sense of covenant/ or relationship/ of being called by the Creator.

You know these kinds of people too–because you ARE these kinds of people. People who have been open to experience the holy. Sometimes it is dramatic as in our scripture. Sometimes it is subtle, a nudge; so subtle we dismiss it as just our imagination. Sometimes we are afraid to acknowledge that it might be real. What would it mean to encounter the presence of God? What would people think? How might it change my life? What if I’m nuts? Who do I think I am anyway? What if I’m just making it up?

I used to teach a group called Healing Your Relationship with God, and I dealt with some of these kinds of blocks to sacred experience. We reminded participants that, yes, we need to use discernment as we deal with such experiences, but that instinctively and intuitively we have a sense of when something was of God, and when it was our overactive imagination. When we asked people collectively what some of the marks of knowing were, here are some of their answers. They are not exhaustive, but a pretty good start.

There is an “of lifeness”, “of livingness” quality about them.
They are connected with love, even when they are painful.
There is a quality of knowingness about the experience that is different from other ways of knowing just with the mind.
There is a quality of surprise, of otherness, or fresh insight that did not come from the rational process of figuring things out.
They turn things around/often upside down to the way you had been thinking
They help you be more of your core sacred self, rather than less. They call you to the truth of who you are beyond your ego ie. your belovedness of God.
They are transforming—you are changed, you experience yourself and others differently.
There is a sense of wholeness, of Oneness, of connection with life in all its fullness for you, for others, for the earth.
They “make sense”—that is, they connect with other people’s experiences of God that we know both from Scripture and from community.

We need to savor and share with one another these experiences of the holy, because they help us through the times when we do not feel God very near. Remembering such experiences can change who we are when we are back in ordinary time down in the valley.

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