As the season of Epiphany comes to a close, we find ourselves standing on the Mount of Transfiguration, listening as God reaffirms the commission given to Jesus at his baptism. We go up the mountain to pray with Jesus and three of his disciples. With Peter, John, and James, we watch as Jesus prays. As he prays his face begins to radiate light, and his clothing becomes a dazzling white. In that moment the glory of God that is present within him is revealed. It is a blessing to be in this place at this moment, so that we can witness this revealing of God’s presence. Then, as we stand there in awe of what is happening, two figures from the past appear – Moses and Elijah. This is a moment to behold. It is the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration.
This is what you would call a mountaintop experience. I’ve climbed a couple of relatively tall mountains, though it was a long time ago. Both mountains stood above eight thousand feet. Standing on the summit of a mountain is exhilarating. The air is thin and the views are breathtaking. It’s no wonder that spiritual writers speak of encounters with God occurring on a mountain. These are truly “thin places,” where the distance between our human experience and God becomes nearly transparent. Richard Rohr writes that “The tradition of the mountain is about presence; the tradition of the desert is about absence. The tradition of the mountain is about speaking; the tradition of the desert is about silence” [Rohr, Things Hidden, p. 118]. There will be times of absence and silence, but at this moment the experience is one of presence and speech.
If you’ve been to the mountains, it’s understandable why the ancients often believed that God or the gods lived up in the sky. God must have a better view of things than do we! So they believed that if you wanted to meet God you had to climb a mountain. If you couldn’t find a mountain close by, then you built one, as the people of Babel did in the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9).
So we go to the mountain this morning to prayer with Jesus. We go to the mountain expecting to experience his Transfiguration. We go in the hope of experiencing the presence of God.
When we get to the mountain, we watch as Jesus is transfigured. He glows with God’s presence. Then the two figures arrive and begin talking with him about his departure or exodus from Jerusalem. It’s helpful to know that both Moses and Elijah had mountaintop experiences. Remember how Moses went up on the mountain of Sinai and received the stone tablets that carried God’s message to the people. When Moses came down from the mountain, his face radiated light as well, though it would fade with time (Exodus 34:29-35). Elijah also climbed a mountain to meet God. Scripture tells us that Elijah hid in the cleft of the rock, and watched as God passed by in sheer silence. Then, God gave Elijah his next assignment (1 Kings 19:11-18).
The topic of conversation this day is Jesus’ exodus. Jesus has already revealed to his disciples that the path forward is a difficult one. He’s already told them that he is going to suffer and die, and that those who follow him must take up this same cross (Luke 9:21-27). That is the desert, the time of absence and silence, but this will lead to resurrection. Mountain and desert are both parts of the journey.
There is much in the Epiphany story that mirrors the story of the Exodus. In the story of the Exodus the people of Israel go through the waters of the sea, they sojourn in the desert, and they finally cross the river into the Promised Land. As they make their way through the desert, Moses goes up the mountain and speaks with God and receives instructions about how to live in the Land of Promise. In the Epiphany story Jesus begins his journey in the waters of the Jordan, the same Jordan River that centuries before the people of Israel crossed over into the Promised Land. After his baptism he hears the voice of God declare: “You are my son, the Beloved” (Luke 3:21-22). From there he goes into the wilderness, where he is tested. From that test he moves into his ministry, sharing the news of God’s realm.
The next stage in the journey will lead to Jerusalem and his death. It will be another time of testing. So, he goes up the mountain to pray. He goes there to seek guidance. After he converses with these two heroes of the past, he and his three disciples hear God speak once more. God declares: “This is my Son, my Chosen.” Then come these three key words: “listen to him.”
If the mountain is a thin place, it would seem that Jesus himself is a thin place. In him we encounter the living God. In his life and in his teachings we encounter God’s word. That momentary radiance was a sign of this truth.
Peter and his companions weren’t sure what to make of all of this. So Peter, with the best of intentions, asks Jesus if they could set up booths or tents for Jesus and his two companions. These tents are themselves reminders of the exodus, because the feast of booths or Sukkoth celebrated the ongoing presence of God with the people as they made their way through the Sinai and into the Promised Land. Perhaps Peter wanted to convince Moses and Elijah to continue on the journey with them. Peter wanted to extend the mountaintop experience. But that wasn’t to be. After God speaks, it’s time to go back down the mountain into a broken and fragmented world. There are difficulties down in the valley that need attention.
Yes, it’s difficult to descend the mountain. When you’re on the mountaintop, you want to stay put. You want to stay where the air is clear and the view is breathtaking. But every mountaintop experience leads to a desert experience.
Moses must go back down to face a rebellious people who have created a Golden Calf in his absence. Elijah faces a hostile crowd as well. As for Jesus, he goes down the mountain to discover that his disciples have had a failure to communicate with the people who had come to Jesus seeking his help. It’s necessary to go to the mountain for refreshment and guidance, but you can’t stay there. Eventually you must return to where a hurting world exists; to the place where God is already at work bringing wholeness and liberation.
This is important news. Even though we may experience that thin place on the mountaintop, God is also present in the valleys and on the desert floor. God is present in our worship experiences, as well as in the mundaneness of daily life. That is what I think Diana Butler Bass is getting at when she calls on us to be grounded. It’s a reminder that heaven isn’t just up there. It’s also down here. Diana writes:
The heavens live in us, with us, as the reality under all things, as part of creation. In Christian theology, Jesus brings together sky and earth, the God who dwells with us. [Grounded, p. 123].
We started out worship this morning singing “Shine Jesus Shine.” Then we sang “Be Thou My Vision.” In a moment we will “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” All three hymns catch some of the meaning of the Transfiguration. These are all powerful songs that speak of the glory of God revealed in Jesus, a glory that is made manifest in the resurrection. But let us not forget the presence of the cross in this story. When we climb down the mountain, and pick up the Lenten journey, we will enter the wilderness. We will be tested. There will be times of suffering and difficulty. But the promise here is that God is with us, meeting us even in these cross-marked moments. In this heaven and earth meet! Let us listen for the voice of Jesus!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
February 7, 2016