“Awe for the Road

“Awe for the Road”
2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
February 19, 2023

Last summer I remember a strange moment.

I noticed on social media people of every kind of background…they were posting and talking about the same thing.

I saw scientists known for great attention to detail and data and not typically known for big emotional outbursts words suddenly at a loss for words and tears streaming down their cheek.

I remember an enormous section of Times Square where they light up the whole side of the building with advertisements – it had shifted from that to display part of what everyone was talking about.

Do you recall what it was that so captivated people for this brief period last summer?
The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope.


even for people hadn’t really been paying attention that these images would be forthcoming, even if the great reaches of space are not your thing

… Some many alike were amazed at these images of stars, galaxies, nebulas thousands of light years away shown in such profound and vivid color. Mind-bendingly, because of the way light travels, the telescope can looks back in time and observes distant stars and galaxies as they appeared 13.5 billion years ago. We are seeing the deep past, in the present.

And … I think the images proved so moving that they reminded us of something we actually long for quite deeply – and rarely experience.

Namely, awe.

Experiences or moments that are on some level inexplicable by way of words alone, and yet are profoundly true and moving and humbling.

I think last summer we reminded ourselves about this shared hunger we have for genuine awe.

Which is a significant part of the gift given us in today’s Scripture.

Of course, the passage does not begin in such a moment. Actually, it begins in a valley-of-the-shadow-of-death kind of conversation.

Just before our passage, Jesus begins making clear that he is not an over-powering political Messiah like so many envision. He is going to soon go to Jerusalem and suffer and died at the hands of the political and religious leaders…and then rise.

In particular, he says just before our passage today: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”

I have to imagine the disciples hear this and are looking for some answers, some further insights about what this means for them and how this all is supposed to work.

I am confident many of us arrive with our own queries about what it means to follow the way of Jesus amid certain relational challenges, certain realities of grief, certain political realities, certain environmental realities. What does it mean to take up the way of love – and its accompanying costs?

In the spring of 2015, I attended an 8-day retreat specifically designed for pastors in the Blue Ridge Mountains on North Carolina.

When I attended, I was in one of those places where I had a lot of questions. I don’t remember all the specifics, but I know I that in that particular season things had been stressful. Things had been hectic. Things had been hard. Which meant I arrived quite eager for answers. For direction.

And on the second day there, I went out to the lake at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains – and I took a seat beside it.

It was a sunny afternoon, light breeze and a chorus of creation as the only sound. I watched the water for a while.

And slowly, I began to notice the way the sunlight was dancing on the lake. All over the way, at each little ripple of water a bright reflection of light. Here. There. Everywhere dancing lights on the against the deep navy water.

And I heard a voice: “Bobby, that’s the church.”

And I got it – the sun shines faithfully and the church is a dancing reflection of that light. The church somehow receives and reflects and is brought to life by the Light. And these minutes were really quite magical. Inspiring.

It was not nearly as fulsome as what Peter, James and John experience. “(Jesus) was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”

Here, light, is also quite prominent, and in this case Jesus’s very face shines like the sun, his clothes dazzling white – a level of brightness that really moves the scene beyond easy comprehension or description.

On top of that, Peter, James, and John now see the distant past in the present somehow. Moses – representative of the law. Elijah, representative of the prophets. How do we explain their appearance?

It seems to be some kind of endorsement of Jesus for them to be there; some way to say that Jesus is fulfilling the law and the prophets…but again, the scene in total defies easy explanation – except that somehow the fullness and wonder and truth and beauty of Jesus is being made clear.

Many argue, actually, that this is a glimpse of the future – a glimpse of Jesus resurrected.

Have you ever had a mountaintop moment? Maybe not this very thing in Matthew 17, but have you ever known a space that maybe defies easy description, but where fullness and wonder and truth and beauty of Jesus was so real?

Or, put another way, have you ever known moments of genuine awe before the living God?

Such moments can’t be planned or forced, but it does seem that whether at some point in youth group or a particularly memorable experience in worship or an event or a certain conversation or mission trip or low point or mountaintop or…it does seem that inexplicable moments of grace meet us, and they are powerful.

I personally can point to a number of moments in my journey where this grace has been known in song and prayer, in conversation and Scripture and creation…the light of Jesus somehow dancing.

And you know what becomes so natural to want when this experience is at hand?

4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 

Let’s make our home right here in whatever this light is. Let’s hold on to that. Let’s give it a framework with walls and a roof. We are taking up residence on the mountain.”

When I sat by that lake and watched the light dance, the sentiment went this way:

“Ok, that’s the church. That’s me and all of us reflecting this light we have no control over but is dancing in us and through us…but wait, Jesus. I have some really specific questions about the challenges I’ve brought to this retreat. Some relational challenges. Some big decision challenges. Some life direction stuff. I need answers.”

There was part of me that needed to stay on the mountain until everything was clear.

For others, it may not be quite that sentiment.

It may simply be that if you’ve known those moments of profound awe before the living God, it is quite natural to want to hold onto that and so fall in love with the place or way that that moment unfolded. And in time we start to believe that place or that way is the only place of way Jesus can show up.

  • We must do church that way because that’s how the light streamed in…
  • We must do prayer that way…
  • We must have those exact people and place and things…
  • We must build walls out of our theology to hold in this precious experience known only in this understanding of things …believe this way because those were all the things in place when Jesus in inexplicable light was made known.

Ever tried to build a house around the light of Jesus? Ever spent time trying to get up some walls to make sure we can get back to just how it was when the light first poured through?

We read that “while Peter was still speaking,…” in other words before Peter can even finish his sentiment about “let’s capture this experience and keep it and hold it and stay with it just so…”

God’s moving on.

God has no interest in tents or houses going up around such things.

God is moving to the point of this whole experience.

Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud, a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

We are given the mountaintop experience not to live there, not to memorialize the space and try to recreate it over and over…. We are graced with the light of Jesus in surprising ways time and again in this lifetime so that we may that we may give thanks…and the know deep within our bones that we will listen to him.

His light and goodness and promise of resurrection no matter what may come…it’s so real to us that no matter where the path leads and what questions remain… we trust his voice. We will listen to the voice of the Beloved.

The One that has taught such things as…
Blessed are the peacemakers. The merciful.
Love your enemies; pray those who persecute you.

Forgive 70×7 times.

Give to the needy of any kind; no fanfare.
Do not judge; take care of the plank in your own eye.
Let your yes be yes, no be no.
Welcome the children.

That’s what the light dancing looks like. That’s the lose-yourself-to-find-yourself stuff that turns the valley into a mountaintop for the world around.

How might the light dance through us this day?

Imagine if it was the faces of the body of Christ on earth that shone with a mountaintop light to another this week?

Imagine we ourselves were the images shining with a light from another realm and conduits of the kind of love that moves?

I don’t think we or this world needs fundamentally more answers. More data. More clarity. Most fundamentally, I think we ache to know there is a light actively shining and dancing upon us and through us. Which is to say, I think our foremost hunger is to know a living hope amid all that is unfolding.

And what if one of the central ways God was at work communicating that hope was through the light refracting through God’s people?How is Jesus calling us today?

What if Jesus calls with the same words he gave to the disciples in our passage as they took their first steps toward the unknowns of Jerusalem?

“Get up and do not be afraid.” Amen.

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert