I have been deeply committed all week to not saying anything about the Asbury Revival, as it is best known on Twitter. It’s still going on, and last night I saw a picture of a long stream of cars inching through what appears to be a very small town. Multitudes are pouring in to see what is happening and even participate. But last night, as I was finally glancing over the lections for today, Matt sent me a long article, and well—it’s an interesting mash-up. So don’t worry, I’m not going to say much about Asbury, since I haven’t been there and can’t get up and go, and I don’t think I’m required to form a definitive opinion—is it a real revival? Is it a good one? And so and so forth. As is my habit, let me start with the article. It seems to be by someone on the more progressive end of things who starts out by worrying about the racial makeup of said Revival and assures the reader that “Queer persons long have been participants and leaders in revivals, although often closeted or later erased” which seems like just the sort of thing you’d expect someone to say in the Year of our Lord 2023. She describes her experience of visiting Asbury this way:
I visited the revival at Asbury University on Tuesday, Feb. 14. I arrived mid-morning, and when I entered Hughes Chapel, the entire crowd was bathed in soft, golden light. Two-story, buttery yellow stained-glass windows cast everything and everyone with a serene glow like an eternal sunset. Everything on stage was an intentionally low-fi production during my two-and-a-half-hour stay. Three people were on stage, singing and playing music. They gently rocked and sang softly as they played guitar and piano. A large drum kit and the stately organ pipes went unused. A few art pieces dotted the stage. The projector screens were closed up; no words to the music were provided. Two crosses made with plain wooden boards and posts were displayed. Worship leaders changed places seamlessly.
She goes on to say this, which excited no little attention on Twitter:
Some who were present at the beginning of the current revival say it began in a mood of contemplation and a search for connection, repentance and calling. This revival is not preaching laden. On the contrary, it seems almost preaching averse. The one person who spoke directly from the podium pleaded for people “to stay in a posture of worship” and not be distracted by his efforts to find seats for the crowd. When preaching does occur, it likely resembles the form of testimony in keeping with the mood of spontaneity.
I scrolled around for a while and could find no agreement on the preaching question. Some say there is preaching, others insist there is none at all. I suppose opinions would wildly differ about what preaching even is in this peculiar moment. So perhaps it is best to pass on to the scriptures, which, it seems to me, provide extraordinary comfort and compassion for anyone who might be driving around, looking for the only Person who really does have the power to make everything ok.
Because of the date of Easter, Lent will start this week, which means that today is The Last Sunday of Epiphany, the day we always hear about Jesus transfigured before Peter, James, and John in the company of Moses and Elijah. Matthew tells us that “after six days Jesus…led them up a high mountain by themselves.” If you go look at it, you might protest that it is not that high, not like Mount Everest or anything. But that is not Matthew’s point. The descriptive “high” corresponds to that other moment when Moses had to toil up a great height to receive the law.
Mountains are found all over the Bible, if you look for them, and they represent a lot of different kinds of theological moments. Mount Horeb is where God revealed his most holy name. Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal are the two heights upon which the people had to stand to shout the conditions of the Law back and forth. Sinai is the place where Moses had to go to get that very law, a mountain so holy that no one save Moses can go up or even touch it without being put to death. And, in the section right after this morning’s gospel, Jesus says, gesturing to the Mount of Transfiguration, “…truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” They don’t really know what he is talking about, of course, but later they put more of the pieces together.
So anyway, Matthew tells us that Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah talking with him.” Moses, you might remember, had to spend so much time in the presence of the Lord that his face shone brightly and so disturbed the people of Israel that he had to go around with a veil on. In this morning’s texts, he’s up on the mountain receiving the Law, and “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire.” Elijah also was carried off in a chariot of fire and never had to die. So, Peter and James and John would have had some sort of clue that the light emanating from Jesus was not random happenstance unrelated to the rest of God’s self-revelation in the scripture. Something important is being said about who Jesus is. The light is coming from him. Moses and Elijah stand on either side in some strange foreshadowing of Jesus’ forthcoming throne, the place where the glory of God will be so perfectly displayed that the people of Jerusalem will beat their breasts and wail and cry for the very mountains to fall on them and cover them.
But it is bewildering and Peter tries to orient himself in time and space. “Lord,” he says, “it is good that we are here. If you will, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” I always thought Peter was foolish for saying this. No one wants to leave their “mountain top experience” I thought. He doesn’t want to have to deal with the dust and chaos at the bottom of the hill. He can’t let go. He should be better at transitions. He should be able to get it and so on and so forth.
More lately, it seems to me that this is the most reasonable thing Peter could have said. There they are with the “Law and the Prophets”—Moses and Elijah, and their Lord and friend is shining with the brightness of the glory of God. Of course they should build Tents. Just as the people of Israel pitched their tents around that great, holy Tent, the Tabernacle, the place where God promised to place his feet and be with his people. Surely this is God reconstituting his people, bringing them out to the mountain to reveal himself to them, to make them his own. Isn’t that where you would like to pitch your tent? Huddled under the shadow of God’s almighty wing? A swallow in her nest under the eaves of the Temple?
As if to confirm this very thought, as Peter was still speaking, “behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.’” The light, the cloud of God’s glory and presence, the total weight of God’s revelation in scripture literally envelops Jesus so that they will be sure to get the point, for “when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”
Paul, writing far away from any mountain, his eyes nevertheless latched onto Jesus as though his life depends upon it, writes this:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Which is to say—in Jesus, the demands of a holy God that you, poor creature that you are, be perfect lest you perish in his presence, consumed by his holy and just fire, are married together with the perfect mercy of God to rescue you out of that very fire. Justice and Mercy kiss each other on the throne of God, the cross, that awesome and terrible mountain of Golgotha.
Peter and James and John can’t yet bear the weight of that glory. They have to go back down the mountain to the long line of needy people at the bottom, and the failures of the other disciples to cope with those needs. It might have felt a little bit like the spiritual whiplash bemoaned so many people who have grown up in Evangelical “spaces” and gone off to camp for their “mountain top moment” and then had to go home again and go back to school on Monday morning. It’s so hard to go from the life-altering experience of a group of people all directed in the same orientation—toward God, if it’s a good one—singing, praying, thinking about everything under the light of God’s glory, and then trying to fit yourself back into some other tent with ordinary people who didn’t go there with you. And so, many people try to replicate that experience over and over, and it becomes the basis of their “walk” with Jesus. They need it to feel ok.
But observe all the people at the bottom of the mountain who weren’t invited up with Moses all those years ago. Not even Joshua could go, and all the disciples and people at the foot of the Mount of Transfiguration. Did Jesus not care about them? Doesn’t he want them to know him, to be in his presence?
Peter, much later, answers that very question. Describing the very moment of the Transfiguration, he comforts believers who wish they could have been there, who want to see the lamp in the dark place and are searching around for it. He writes to all the churches:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
What is that prophetic word? It is the whole of the scriptures which always and continually speak about Jesus. If you can’t go anywhere. If your car doesn’t work. If you are stuck at the bottom of a well and can’t find a light switch, first of all, cry out to Jesus, who is the Light, and ask him to help you. And then go find a Bible, for he is also the Word. And find a church, for he will join you to his Body. And he is the Bread and Wine. And he is the Living Water. And he will be your All in All. He will not leave you as an orphan. Not a thing happens to you without his knowledge and love. Go to him wherever you are.