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The Glory and the Muck

Jesus leads us through valleys in order to experience glory.


A few months ago, I officiated my father-in-law's funeral. We arrived in Fresno and prepared for the first official gathering—the viewing. My wife and I, along with our children, were a little late. A lot of the family was already there. We walked into the room, and it was appropriately solemn and quiet; you could sense the grief. But as soon as I stepped into the room, my ten-year-old nephew, Bradley, came running up to me, saying, "Uncle Mark! Uncle Mark! What's heaven like?"

I had come prepared to be pastoral. I had come prepared to put my arm around people, to offer handkerchiefs or Kleenex, and to console and pray with people. I hadn't come prepared to be a theologian who translates complex doctrine into the language of a ten-year-old. So I did what any self-respecting chaplain would do: I bluffed. I said, "Bradley, let's go sit down. Tell me about your question. What do you think heaven is like?" It's a tactic all teachers use when they're caught unawares.

My mind was spinning. What am I going to say to him? How am I going to say it in this context?

Bradley didn't take very long to reply honestly: "Well, Uncle Mark, I don't know what heaven is like. That's why I asked you."

So I took a deep breath and started mumbling as thoughts were forming in my head. And as I looked around the room, everybody was looking at me. Now I'm giving this answer not only to a ten-year-old, but also to people of all ages, at various stages in their journey of faith. That's pressure!

But it's not just during moments of grief that we ask questions about heaven. As Christians who are told about the promise of heaven—about the place we will spend "forever and ever, amen"—we have questions: "So what's that going to be like exactly? What's that about?"

Our culture likes to speculate and joke about heaven. One journalist said, "Las Vegas looks the way you'd imagine heaven might look at night." Ernest Hemingway said, "To me, heaven would be a big bullring with me holding two Barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in." Mark Twain didn't have a high view of heaven: "Go to heaven for the climate," he said, "go to hell for the company." There's been a lot of thought, a lot of jokes, a lot of speculation, and a lot of wondering about heaven.

I believe this text, the Transfiguration of Jesus, is about heaven and what the journey is like to get there. Why? Just before Luke describes this story, he shares a teaching from Jesus that ends with these words: "But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God." And then he continues: "Now about eight days later after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John, and went up to the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory."

I think it's fairly unmistakable, although you'll find people who disagree, that this is a vision of the kingdom of heaven for Peter, James, and John. Luke gives us a glimpse of what the three saw.

First of all, they saw that heaven is a place of community. This is one of the things I told Bradley. Heaven is a place where we enjoy love and community like never before. Any time we have experienced a really intimate moment with our spouse, with a friend, with a team that's just won a championship game, with a small group, or with someone in a moment of prayer—any time we have felt that rare sense of harmony and love and bonding—that's heaven. In the text's picture, Jesus is not alone. He is with Moses and Elijah. We have other passages where heaven is about worshiping Jesus, but in this passage, it shows people talking with Jesus. It's about community.

But along with community, heaven's also about glory. That's what I want to spend a few minutes on. Glory is an abstract word. Scholars can write volumes on it, but I'm going to look at three elements I think are crucial to understanding glory and how heaven is a glorious place.

Glory is about light.

First of all, glory is about light. We see it in the Old Testament passage where Moses' face shown after he was in God's glory. We see it in this passage where Jesus' clothes are shining. Glory is about light. I like to think it has to do with a cleansing light. When archaeologists uncover old Greco-Roman statues or parchments, the artifacts are often very dirty because they've been buried for close to two millennia. They've got smudges and stains. I saw a picture of a Greco-Roman statue that had brown and black blotches all over the bust of a Greco-Roman man. In the next picture, it was absolutely pristine. The statue was not cleaned with cleaning solutions; those can be abrasive, cleaning off the mud and the muck while also taking away from the original artifact. The statue was cleaned by a laser light that has the ability to burn off the dirt while not affecting the artifact itself.

I don't know about you, but there's dirt in my life. There are smudges. There are things I've done that I still feel badly about; I feel a little dirty. I've prayed for forgiveness, and I know God has forgiven me. He has given me a second chance to move on, and that's all in the past. But for a lot of us, we always live with that sense of smudge.

For some of us, it's not our fault that we feel dirty or smudgy. Someone has forced something on us that makes us feel that way, and we just can't shake it. Even if we can shake it, move on, and live an adjusted life, it's always there, messing up our inner being. In God's providence, he cleans some of those things up. But in God's providence, he leaves some of them there—maybe a thorn in the flesh. But the promise of heaven is that the cleansing light will come into us and clear even those memories away, so we will be the pristine and beautiful beings he originally created us to be.

Glory is about honor.

Glory is also about honor. My sister works for Roger Staubach, who works in real estate these days. Roger Staubach was a great quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, winning three Super Bowls. I once got to visit his home. We went into his trophy room where he has pictures of himself playing in the Super Bowl and awards from numerous groups. When I turned to my left, there was this big statue a guy holding a football. It's the Heisman Trophy he won in college! Every year, some 40 or 50 football players get a Super Bowl ring. Every year, 20 or 30 baseball players get a World Series ring. Every year, one college football player gets the Heisman Trophy. You have to be pretty good to get the Heisman Trophy.

That's the type of honor and glory we will receive in heaven. It's not going to be an honor and glory that competes with Christ's honor and glory—he is still the center and focus of all worship—but notice in the passage that Elijah and Moses are described as being in glory. What's that about? Well, it's been such a long time since the Garden of Eden that we've forgotten what we were intended to look like. C. S. Lewis says if we could get a picture of Adam and Eve in the garden in their original greatness, we would be moved. We would be tempted to fall down and worship them, because they would be so glorious in their creation. Instead of the haphazard, crippled, bumbling people we are, in heaven, we will have the honor and glory that is due us as created in the image of God.

Glory is about fulfillment.

Finally, glory has to do with fulfillment. I think of the phrases we sometimes use: "He was in his glory" or "She was in her glory." I think of parents—mothers and fathers—who have spent years sacrificing to make sure their children have a roof over their heads and three squares and that they do well in school. They make sure the children have health care. They make sure they get their college education at least partially paid for, sending them on the road of life. Then, when the kids go on and get married themselves, the parents are there to babysit the kids, maybe help with a down payment, and do whatever it takes so their grandchildren can now get off to a healthy start! There comes a time in the evening of life when that mother and father—now a grandmother and grandfather or great-grandmother or great-grandfather—gather at a family celebration, and the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren surround them so the photographer can take a picture. For years, everyone will look at that picture and say, "Look at Grandma and Grandpa; they were in their glory. Everything they sacrificed for and worked for was fulfilled in their midst. They were in their glory."

These three ideas—light, honor, and fulfillment—come together in a very common social event we have in most cultures: a wedding. We arrive at the wedding and sit on the appropriate side, looking at our watches because weddings always start late, making us nervous. Everybody's nervous: "Will everything go all right? Will it start on time? Will the bride faint?" Men adjust their ties, cursing the fact that they have to wear one. Women adjust their dresses, cursing the fact that they couldn't afford a better one. And then, all of a sudden, the organist plays a measure, and everyone knows it's time to stand up. It's time to turn around and look at this beautiful woman who is about to walk down the aisle. She's a symbol of light with that white dress and beaming smile. And in that moment, we honor her. We all look at her, mentally praising her. And it's a time of fulfillment, as we have prayed for this woman and her husband to be. Light and honor and fulfillment all rolled up into one—along with community because we're all there to celebrate it together.

It's not an accident, friends, when Paul or Jesus uses the metaphor of a wedding to describe the kingdom of heaven, our relationship to the kingdom of heaven, and our relationship to the King. They talk about us as a bride and Christ the Bridegroom—of the kingdom of heaven as a wedding or a place of honor and glory and celebration and community. Heaven is like that.

But what's the journey like on the way to that wedding—to that mountaintop and the Transfiguration?

We should follow the person of Christ and not the experience. 

There are a couple of ways people think they can get there: There's Peter's way and then there's God's way. Peter, as the story goes, says: My gosh! This is incredible! This glorious moment—let's preserve it! Let's keep it in a jar and pickle it! This is great! Let's build a booth! Elijah, Moses, Jesus—let's just hang out here for as long as we can, because this is absolutely wonderful! This is what I've been thinking life should really be about!

We're tempted to make fun of Peter, saying how small-minded he is, but the fact of the matter is any human being worth his or her salt should do the same thing. If you don't want that, you're on the wrong planet; that's what it's all about! It's only natural you want to preserve it, keep it going. It's only natural that we like to hold on to those glorious moments God gives us now and then in our lives. Whether it's a certain hymn or praise song that makes us feel spiritual or a worship service that really helps us sense glory or a person who prays with us and helps us experience things we've never experienced before, we want to repeat them, doing them over and over, pushing a button and calling forth the glory when we have the opportunity.

A few months ago, I was given a word from the Lord that I was supposed to go to the prayer ministers at our services and have them pray for my sciatica, a disorder that sends painful jolts up and down the sciatic nerve. For three years, I had suffered at the hands of many physicians who hadn't helped a whole lot. I thought it was my cross to bear, something I was supposed to deal with for the rest of my life. But I kept getting a message from the Lord: "Just do what I say, okay?"

"But this is not something I do, Lord. I don't go up in front of people and have them pray for me."

"Well, I didn't ask you what you do!" he replied. 

So I did it. I had the prayer ministers pray over me at various times. One week, one of our prayer ministers asked permission to place her hand on my chest. As soon as she did, I felt this electricity go through my body as she prayed. My knees started to buckle, and I felt like I was going to fall over backwards. Being a good Episcopalian, I got a hold of myself. We only let the Holy Spirit in just so far—as long as it doesn't get embarrassing. But the prayer was remarkable. It was a wonderful gift from the Lord. It was a moment of glory. And I started thinking, That Tammy—she's got the gift. Next week, I should go up and have Tammy pray for me again. I should do that every week!  It was a very human reaction—small-minded and narcissistic—but that's the way we often are, isn't it?

That's what Peter wants in our text—to preserve the moment. But God says, "Not quite." A universal spiritual law seems to be that whenever we pursue glory, God gives us a fog. That's what happens in the text. As soon as Peter speaks of preserving the moment, God sends fog and darkness. Peter can hardly see a thing. Whenever we pursue glory, that's what's going to happen, by God's good grace. We discover the reason for this when God speaks from the cloud. God says: Peter, this is my Son, the one whom I have chosen. He is what I'm about—not the experience you've just had, but the person. Don't follow the experience; follow him.

A couple of weeks after I had this experience with Tammy, I went to her after the service and told her what had happened to me. I said, "While you were praying, an electricity came through, and I felt weak in the knees." The description I offered her was couched only in physical and psychological terms.

Tammy looked at me in a concerned manner and said, "That was the Holy Spirit."

I thought to myself, Thank you, Tammy. I have a Master of Divinity degree. I know that.

But then I thought about it some more: No, I don't know that. I'm focusing on the experience, and Tammy is saying it was the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. She is saying, "Follow him."

Following Jesus means choosing our valleys.

But what does "following him" look like according to our passage? Where does Jesus lead Peter, James, and John after this event? One thing Jesus doesn't do is lead them from mountaintop to mountaintop, blowing their minds with many signs and wonders. He just starts walking back into the valley. Jesus leads his disciples into the valley of the mundane and sometimes un-miraculous (see Mark's account about how the disciples couldn't heal a demon-possessed boy). From there, he leads them to the Garden of Gethsemane so they can watch him sweat drops of blood. Then he leads them onto the hill of Golgotha so they can watch him die a cruel and ignoble death. Only then does he lead them to the Resurrection, inviting them into the kingdom of heaven.

Now why does God do this? This seems like such a troublesome way to get to heaven! But the journey itself is a moment of grace. Paul writes, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection." Amen! Preach it! But then he continues, "and the sharing of his suffering, becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead."

The way of the Christian life is not to move from glory to glory—although moments of glory and tastes of the kingdom of heaven come our way now and then. We have work to do. We have a person to follow—Jesus. We have needs to meet. We have things to learn. And it happens in the valley, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on the hill of Golgotha. It might mean getting involved more heavily in the life of the church. It might mean giving yourself afresh to a marriage that's not working out.

We cannot avoid the valley. We want to come down off the mountain and walk around the valley—at least I want to. But I think we need to choose to follow Jesus into that valley.


My daughter, Katie, has just returned from college. She spent four years at Scripps College, a liberal arts school for women in Southern California. During her freshman year, she shared a room with three young women who were not like her at all. They didn't share her faith. They didn't share her sleep patterns. They didn't share her homework patterns. They weren't interested in things she was interested in. Pretty soon, tensions built, and my daughter phoned me in tears.

"What am I going to do?" she asked.

Part of me was thinking, This is good for your character, daughter. Another part of me was thinking, Get the heck out of there; you don't need this!

Fortunately, she had a wiser person in her midst to whom she went in tears. After Katie shared her desire to leave, her InterVarsity worker said, "Have you ever considered staying here to love your roommates?"

Katie, being a faithful and devoted follower of Christ, said what you might expect: "Why would I want to do that?"

"Well," the worker replied, "because that's what God calls us to do—to love the unlovable."

"And how am I supposed to do that?" Katie asked.

"Well, you could take an interest in their lives and get interested in what they're interested in."

Katie, being a faithful and devoted follower of Jesus Christ, said what you might expect: "But I don't like them. I'm not interested in anything they're interested in."

But Katie did something remarkably courageous for a freshman woman in college—she went back into the valley and apologized for what she needed to apologize for. She did her best to forgive what she needed to forgive others for. She learned, slowly but surely, to take an interest in people's lives she wasn't naturally interested in.

During her college years, Katie took two trips across the country from Chicago and Scripps. Both times, she was accompanied by a young woman who was searching for Jesus. She was interested in Katie not only because Katie is a fun person, but also because Katie represented a different kind of worldview and a different kind of lifestyle than that girl was used to. That young woman was one of Katie's roommates from her freshman year.

That's life in the valley. It's not easy, but it has its rewards.

Where is the valley for you this week, this month, and even this year? Is it to return to a marriage or to dig deeper into a marriage that is falling apart? Is it to stay at work and minister to people you really don't have anything in common with? Is it to get involved in the life of the poor? What is it?

God never asks us to move from our valleys because that's where he leads people—into the valley of the mundane, through the Garden of Gethsemane, to the hill of Golgotha, and then on to the Garden to experience the Resurrection and the glory of the kingdom of heaven.

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today magazine and author of A Great and Terrible Love (Baker).

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Sermon Outline:


Heaven is about community and glory.

I. Glory is about light.

II. Glory is about honor.

III. Glory is about fulfillment.

IV. We should follow the person of Christ and not the experience.

V. Following Jesus means choosing our valleys.


God never asks us to move from our valleys because that's where he leads people—into the valley of the mundane, through the Garden of Gethsemane, to the hill of Golgotha, and then on to the garden to experience the resurrection and the glory of the kingdom of heaven.