Last week I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico with my cousin, Ron. The Unitarian Church there always has something interesting on its marquee. Last week the sign had only three words, it read, “Spirituality without God.” My cousin Ron asks me what that sign meant. I said, “I think they’re just trying to being honest.” The UU church advertises itself as place where people can find spirituality without God. People who enter that church will probably find a warm and loving fellowship. They will find a pastor that listens to their problems and visits them in the hospital. They will find a rich educational program where there are activities for their children and youth. As a visitor to that church passes through the narthex they might see a place where the people drop off donations for the food bank and sign up for work trips and volunteer to knit items for the local nursing home — doing good is probably something that this church in Albuquerque does well.
What is missing? Is it really possible to have spirituality without God?
The twelve disciples had been following Jesus for almost three years. They have watched him heal the sick and walk on water. In recent months he has been showing them how to do ministry on their own. He wants his disciples to be healers and compassionate like he is. Peter, James, and John are beginning to learn how to be good at caring for others. The crowds have been wonderful. Jesus is a marvelous teacher, though he has a tendency to preach past noon. When he does, he finds a few loaves of bread and he makes everyone share and pretty soon 1,000s of people are fed. Cool trick and the disciples want to know how he does it.
What is missing? Jesus could do the things without being God. Miracle workers are not that uncommon in human history. What about the crowds? Do they really need him to be God? No. We’ve all seen on the news stories of people who can draw vast crowds of admirers. They may be rock stars or sports figures. They may be the pope. They may be the president. All these mega-stars can do incredible things. It is possible to build great enthusiasm and not be God.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. They get to the top as darkness falls. What happens next is the big reveal. Their humble rabbi — this Jesus whom Peter just that morning has seen slip on a stone and fall into the water as they were crossing the creek, this man that they knew to be human — suddenly is transformed. He face and clothing became dazzling white. The dark mountain is lit up like day. Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah. And the thick cloud of God’s glory falls around them and a deep voice booms, “This is my son… listen to him.”
Why did this transfiguration happen? Because the next part of the journey which Jesus was going to take his disciples on can’t happen without God. Jesus is about to take his disciples to Jerusalem. They will enter with the crowds on Palm Sunday. Then on Friday, Jesus will die on the cross. This next part of the story only makes sense if Jesus is God.
Back in ancient times when Arabs with caravans and camels used to cross the desert and go days without seeing green or water, there was near the half way point of the journey always a marker that the caravan leader called the nuqtat tahul (نقطة تحول ) — the turnaround point. When the caravan reached that marker, everyone would stop and go around and count the number of water jugs they had. If there wasn’t enough water, they would turn around and go home.
The worse thing you can do in the desert is to keep on going and run out of water. If you drank too much in the first three weeks, turn around. If there was an accident and some was lost, turn around. If you didn’t plan well enough, turn around while there is still time.
For the first disciples of Jesus, the Epiphany of the Transfiguration happens at the turnaround point of their journey. Jesus knew that the Lenten journey ahead was dangerous and they couldn’t travel it unless they were sure that they had God. The disciples had to get out and measure Jesus — they had to make sure that they weren’t being spiritual without God.
Just before this big reveal to Peter, James, and John, Jesus had taken all of the disciples up to Syria for a vacation (it wasn’t too long ago that people would do that). While there, Jesus asked them who do you think I am? And Peter said, “You are the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God.” Then Jesus said, Okay — because I am the son of God, we will go to Jerusalem and there I will be crucified. Then he added, and each of you must pick up your cross daily and follow me.
Next week, begins Lent. Forty days… the time it took these disciples to come down off of this mountain and go to Jerusalem and watch Jesus get crucified. This is exactly the time it takes for us to go from seeing God as optional to valuing God the way the Arabs counted their water when they traveled on camels across the desert. The journey is too dangerous
If you think that you can be spiritual without God, then turnaround now. Don’t do Lent.
If you want God to be in your Lent. There are four things that you should do for the next forty days:
1st - Make daily Bible reading a discipline and try to each day discover how what you just read was relevant to that day. I suggest that you read the Gospel of Mark over the next 40 odd days — Mark is short - 16 chapters - two chapters a week.
2nd - try to pray as if God was actually going to answer your prayer & write down in a notebook or on a piece of paper in your bible each answer to prayer that you experienced.
3rd - Every week, try to tell someone that you believe in Jesus. Nothing goes without saying.
4th - When you come to worship and when you participate in the worship, pray for the Holy Spirit to bring inspiration to those in worship. Let’s plan that each Sunday of Lent will be the highpoint of our week.
4 things: Scripture, Prayer, Witness, and Worship — four gallons of water — the things that are needed to put God back in our lives.