The Unexpected Cloud

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Transfiguration Sunday, March 2, 2014, Year A

Exodus 24.12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I was 20 years old when I experienced the most terrifying cloud of my life.  I was working at Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in Northwest Montana for the summer and one thing this camp did was send out 5-7 camp counselors on “recon” trips into the wilderness to make sure all was safe ahead of time before campers would come.  We would make sure there were good water sources on hiking trips, check out what changes to the river occurred for white water rafting trips, and make sure old forest service maps were accurate for mountain biking trips.

The terrifying cloud experience happened to be when I was on a mountain biking recon with six others.  One person was designated as a driver and would drop the rest of us and our bikes off at a sight in order to ride a number of trails and eventually pick everyone up at a pre-planned end of the ride, usually somewhere on the other side of the mountain.  We biked our way to the trail we had planned to ride on only to find that our forest service map had not been up-date for quite some time.  The trail was entirely grown in with bushes and trees.  Having no other option other than biking around the entire mountain for miles and miles we decided to bushwhack (literally push our bikes and our bodies through the overgrowth) for what was a mile or two until the map indicated another trail that would eventually get us to the van.

As we pushed our bikes on foot and got caught and scraped on tree branches we made our way through, but within a ¼ to ½ a mile in I heard a sound like I had never heard before.  It was a sound of the rush of a violent wind that took my breath away.  In one second a dark gray storm cloud engulfed us all. Growing up in ND I had seen storm clouds roll in and had looked up and seen them from below, but never in my life had I ever been literally in one.  Because of how high up we were on the mountain, we were in the cloud and we were terrified.

Being that our bikes were aluminum we separated ourselves from them because of the lightening, which was all around us and then we spread out.  A girl named, Michelle, and I huddled under a bush together.  The sound of the rushing of the wind and the thunder was deafening.  My hair stood on end and my heart raced.  I did not know if we would live or die as my body shook from cold and from fear.  The rain came from all directions making it hard to see and then the hail came.  It started making piles in the folds of my pants.  Michelle started praying over and over, “In Jesus name, let the storm pass.  In Jesus name, let the storm pass.”

It did not pass.  We knew we were in even more trouble when some of us were experiencing signs of hypothermia. The leader of the group made the decision that we needed to grab our bikes and continue on our way, even though the storm cloud was still upon us.  We did not even know if we would find the right trail, but as the thunder cracked and the dark grey enveloped us, we continued to push our bikes and our bodies through the brush.  There was no more time to be afraid.

After awhile, as quickly as the cloud came rushing in around us, it left us.  It left us soaking wet and silent.  I looked at the faces of my friends, wide-eyed and relieved, wondering what just happened.  The trees stood motionless too, beautiful and strong, as the leaves dripped water quietly onto the ground.  Our fear was gone, the cloud had passed, and look!…there was the trail we needed, perfectly kept.  We flew down the mountain on our bikes and made it to the van.  That night I laid silently in my sleeping bag, warm, dry, and safe, marveling at what had happened that day in the unexpected cloud.

Sometimes it is hard for us to hear stories like the one today in our Gospel reading and understand what is trying to be said, what meaning we are to leave with.  Perhaps we can relate to parts of it… Because of my own experience doesn’t take much imagination for me to understand the terror Peter, James, and John felt on the mountain with Jesus where it says, “they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear (Matt. 17.6).”

But other parts of the story are a little tougher.  Some stories, like the transfiguration, are so far out there and so different from our everyday life experience that they can go in one ear and out the other.  We have no idea how to relate or what a cloud, mountain, Moses, Elijah, Jesus shining, voice, fear, and raising from the dead story could possibly have to do with us.

It can be easy to get caught up on the questions of the transfiguration story in the Gospel: Why does Jesus only take Peter, James, and John up the mountain?  What does transfigured mean?  Why were Moses and Elijah there? What on earth was Peter nervously babbling about?  Why does a cloud represent God’s presence?  Why is it terrifying to hear the audible voice of God?  Why does Jesus want them to keep quite about the experience?  What does it all mean?

I could give you all kinds of theories and educated answers to these questions, which you would probably find interesting, but in the end none of them are all that important, nor would they have the capacity to produce faith in your heart.  Stories in Scripture are not like a code one needs to crack to unlock the meaning of something, but rather are about encounters with the living God in this world.  They are mysterious and sometimes unexplainable.  They can be messy and yet miraculous.  They can be mundane and even normal.

What is important in all of our readings today, particularly our mysterious Gospel story, are 3 things:

  1. Jesus is the beloved Son of God.
  2. We are to listen to him.
  3. The event on the mountain changed Peter, James, and John forever.

When Peter, James, and John made their way down the mountain with Jesus not much changed for quite a long time.  They had no way to make sense of what had happened to them and they continued to not understand what Jesus was saying.  They argued with one another, even over who was the greatest, and they all abandoned Jesus when he was arrested and hanging on a cross dying.  Peter even denied that he even knew Jesus.

Their time on the mountain with Christ, in the very presence of God, seemingly made no difference in their lives.  They had no way to make sense of what Jesus said to them on the way down the mountain, that they were to tell no one about the vision until after he has been raised from the dead.  They did not listen to Jesus because they did not want to hear what he had to say.  He kept trying to tell them he was headed to the cross and that he would be raised from death.  They could hear Jesus but they were not listening to him.  They had a different plan for Jesus and for their own lives.

So how did the event on the mountain change Peter, James, and John forever?  Well, life happened in between our Gospel reading and what we heard read in 2 Peter.  For one thing Jesus died, rose from the dead and appeared to the women and disciples.  For another, they were given the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus in them and working through them.  God’s presence was no longer in a cloud, but in their very bodies.

Ultimately, the seeds that were planted in Peter, James, and John on the mountain needed time to take root in them and grow.  We see them in the Gospel reading huddled in a fetal position overcome by fear, and then we see them in 2 Peter, boldly proclaiming what they had witnessed that day on the mountain. We were “eyewitnesses” they say.  “We ourselves heard” the “voice come from heaven, while we were with” Jesus “on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1.18).”

Transformation happened in them…it just took a little time and witnessing other events in Jesus’ life to make sense of what he was trying to tell them.  They were finally able to listen to him, to understand the meaning of the death and resurrection, and to understand that Jesus really was the beloved Son of God for them and for the world.

So what does this all have to do with us?  There are certainly times in our lives in which we know we are in the presence of God, things that happen that we cannot explain and we are changed and will never be the same, whether it happens immediately or slowly over time.  There are also the ways in which God gently and quietly plants seeds of faith in us.  These times can feel as if nothing is happening or that God is absent, yet we understand later that all this time growth was happening and God was very present throughout it all.

There are some people I have talked with who were at YCC who are now in their 20’s and 30’s.  They say to me, “I was so angry at being there and I was sacred at how my life would end up when I got out.  When I did get out I went back to doing what I wanted, but over time I started to realize that being at YCC was good for me and the people there helped me a lot through treatment, SPARKS, EQUIP, Grief and Loss, and school.  Now my life is very different and I realize God was with me every step of the way.”

I bring up this conversation to give all of us hope that no matter what situation we find ourselves in right now, God is present and working in and through it.  I’m not saying that everything happens for a reason, but that God works through all things.  Sometimes God gives us experiences in our lives that we cannot make sense of until later.  Sometimes our faith feels dead or it seems like nothing will ever change, but our readings today invite us to imagine the ways God is gently working in our lives to create deeper faith no matter where we find ourselves: fearful, confident, confused, hopeful, desperate, searching, or grateful.

My experience mountain biking is just one of the stories in my life where I had so much fear at the time, but I am grateful for it.  I had to trust that whether I lived or died I would be okay because it is what Jesus promises each one of us.

How might you be hearing Christ speak to you today?  Can you listen to him say:

“Get up and do not be afraid.  Do not fear the dark for I am the light and am with you.  Do not fear the diagnosis.  Listen to my voice of love and not the voice of self-doubt and loathing.  You are forgiven.  You are good enough.  I have died for you and I offer you new life. Through me all things are possible.  Suffering and death are not the end.  I will raise you up on the last day.  You are a temple of the Holy Spirit alive within you.  You are my beloved.”

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of the season of Lent.  The One who was transfigured on the mountain also died on the cross and rose from the dead for your sake and for mine.  This reality has the power to continually renew and transform us.  So may you be attentive to the ways God is working in you, in the situations around you, and giving you opportunity to deepen your faith, to grow, and be changed.