(Beginning this Sunday, we will no longer post sermon audio. Please head over to our “Watch Worship” page for audio/video of the entire service).
This Sunday marks the conclusion of the sermon series Rebecca and I began back on the second Sunday of January. We’ve called it “Created Anew” and we’ve been looking at how creation – and more to the point, God’s creative activity – is reflected in the stories of our faith as well as the stories of our lives. We’ve looked at the role creation plays in helping us connect with each other, in finding our Samuel voice, in undergirding authority, and in leading us to remember. We’ve even talked about un-creation as a way of understanding some of the crises we’ve witnessed as of late. Everything we encounter in life, one way or another, is infused with God’s never-ending, constantly perpetual creative activity – and thanks be to God for that.
In truth, we’ve been on a journey of sorts – a hike, if you will, through steep trails and windy mountain roads. Last week’s message, you may recall, concluded with a story about two people hiking up Mount LeConte in Tennessee. I mentioned briefly that my family has a bit of history with that particular mountain. My grandfather on my Dad’s side hiked that mountain multiple times – he knew every incline, every switchback. He actually died hiking LeConte at 63 years of age; slipped on an icy patch on the trail one January and fell over the edge. Our family has held commemorative hikes up LeConte ever since – one of which was on the occasion of my father’s 60th birthday – he, my brother and I took a weekend and made our way to the top.
I’ll always cherish that experience, for a host of reasons; not the least of which was the sheer effort it took to get up there. There were many moments when I literally was not certain I would make it. And so when I got to the top, I was elated. I was overjoyed. The fresh oxygen I’d been frantically inhaling into my lungs for the previous few hours had me feeling more than a little light-headed, and it was glorious.
The three of us sat in the lodge enjoying lunch and a cold beverage. I can’t remember exactly what we had, but I distinctly recall it being, hands-down, the best lunch ever. We reminisced about the trip up, we laughed at things that deserved to be laughed at, we pondered the moment we spent in reflection at the place where my grandfather fell. Most of all we took in the breathtaking view and relished in this priceless father-sons moment.
And eventually it came time to go back down.
I remember a lot about going up. I recall very little about going down. I do remember that the scenes weren’t nearly as scenic and how weird it felt doing the hike in reverse. I also remember being surprised at how physically hard it was. I wasn’t prepared for that. I’d assumed that the effort was all in ascending – but the truth is, the trip down is no picnic. It was an entirely different set of leg muscles getting a workout now, with the quads bearing the full brunt and burning something fierce. The knees are forced to do the exact opposite of what they did before, and it just does not feel natural to “step down” over and over again. I may not remember much about the trip down, but I recall well how it made my legs feel.
And I also remember something else – I remember how the further we went down, the more the exhilaration of that “mountaintop experience” started to slip away. As if that moment is somehow confined to the location where it took place. As if, with each step, the physical distance contributed directly to a spiritual one.
And once you’re down at the bottom, back to “life as normal,” just try explaining to someone what the experience was like up there. There’s no way to do it justice, is there? You can show all the pictures you want, you can recount story after story. But try as you might, it is next to impossible to relay your mountaintop experience to someone who wasn’t there.
And so while it is true that it takes a lot of effort to get to the top of the mountain, in many ways the trip down is a lot harder than the hike up.
I tend to believe that Peter, James, and John felt this way. Jesus comes to them in our passage today and says, “hey, let’s go on a hike.” Little do they know what he’s getting them into. The hike itself, for one thing. Most biblical scholars believe that, given their proximity, these four were hiking Mount Hermon – a summit that reached 9200 feet in the sky, a full half-mile higher than Mount LeConte. So lest we think this was some casual afternoon stroll, this was in fact a serious hike; a calf-burning, oxygen-sucking, strap-on-the-big boots kind of serious. And with each step up, those disciples left the familiar behind and entered a realm that was most certainly not their own.
All of which becomes more apparent with what they find when they get there – and this is where things get strange. Jesus suddenly turns dazzling white – whiter than bleach could make him, it says. And then Elijah and Moses show up, two Hebrew historical icons who lived centuries before. They appear more or less out of nowhere. And the craziest thing? The three of them – shiny Jesus, Elijah, Moses – they are chatting it up as if this is nothing out of the ordinary. Like this is just what happens on top of the mountain.
Our three disciples have no idea what to make of this. None at all. Which is more than understandable, right? Peter tries – oh, does Peter try. Peter, the one who always speaks before thinking. I love that about Peter, even if it gets him in a mess sometimes. Should I build dwellings for the three of you, he asks. Leave it to Peter to take a holy, inexplicable mountaintop-experience and reduce it to the equivalent of a photo op. It more or less prompts a voice from the heavens, saying: This is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him! The disciples blink, and suddenly it is just them and Jesus again. As soon as it started, their mountaintop experience appears to be over. So they head down the mountain, and as they do so, Jesus tells them to keep this little hiking excursion to themselves. Because apparently, what happens on Mount Hermon – you guessed it – stays on Mount Hermon.
Even so, I can’t help but wonder if they at least talked about it amongst themselves. At least to process things a bit. Something happened on that mountain, and these disciples had no context in which to understand it. And that’s because they, as we, are so accustomed to life at the bottom of the mountain that we don’t always know what to make of things at the top.
We use the expression “mountaintop experience” in both a literal and figurative sense. There’s a reason, for instance, that Montreat is often referred to as a “thin space,” evoking the sense of reduced distance between the human and the divine. Thing is, you don’t have to be on a literal mountain to trod on holy ground.
No, mountaintop experiences and holy ground moments occur in the most obvious and most subtle of ways, if we’re willing to take time to notice them. The birth of a child. That moment when one asks the big question; that instance when the other answers “yes.” An acceptance letter in the email inbox. A second Covid vaccine shot. I’ve witnessed mountaintop experiences in some of life’s most precious moments, and I’ve also walked on holy ground with family members as they keep vigil by a loved one’s hospital bed.
And when we are in those moments, we are well aware that our feet, like Moses, are standing in sacred space; and we connect with that which is both outside us and deep within us. In a manner of speaking, it is we who are transfigured – not to the point of being dazzling white, not in welcoming unexpected guests from days long gone by. No, in our moments of transfiguration we are elevated in a way that connects us to the kinds of things that can evade us in the daily churn of normal life: clarity, perspective, vision, calling, unconditional love.
Oh, how we long to hold on to that sacred moment forever! And yet, our place is not to set up permanent residence on the mountain. We cannot make that mountaintop experience our eternal reality. We can’t pull a Peter and try to capture it, encapsulate it, harness it. One commentator put it this way:
Like Peter, we want to build tabernacles; like the quarreling disciples, we want our little egos to bask in Jesus’ power and glory. But the Gospel of Mark repudiates all such Jesusology, with its underlying egoistic power grab.
He goes on:
Jesus’ mission was not to make a big deal of himself or to elevate his followers to positions of power. It was rather to point through and beyond himself to God and to God’s coming reign on earth, and to invite his followers to find their voice in bearing witness to this transforming, redemptive God.
Have you noticed, dear friends, that Mark’s story of the transfiguration falls in the middle of the gospel – right in the middle of it? And have you ever thought about the fact that Transfiguration is literally the midpoint of our journey from Christmas to Easter – the exact day count fluctuates year to year but in 2021 it’s 51 days back and 49 days forward. What does it mean that this story falls in the middle of things? Could it be simple coincidence? Or might there be more to it? Might it be because there is something about the need for a mountaintop experience to tie us over on the journey from beginning to end, from the onset of life to the celebration of new life? This time on holy ground with Jesus in all of his glory, and the more important task of transitioning off the mountain and taking some of that glory with us, because as well all know, the world down at the bottom sure could use a little transfiguration of its own.
Raphael was an Italian painter and architect of the high renaissance era and widely recognized along with contemporaries Michelangelo and Da Vinci, as one of the best. He was quite prolific in his career, which concluded with his final painting of the Transfiguration. He painted this one in Rome in 1520 – he was 37 at the time and not far from death; in fact, he actually died before he completed it.
If you look at the painting, you’ll notice the background of Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus first startled his disciples with the prediction of his suffering and death. In the upper center of the painting you see a flat, rocky mountain – the top of Mount Hermon. Up on that mountain you see three disciples – Peter, James, and John – shielding their eyes from the glory surrounding them. Just above them are Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Jesus, of course, is shimmering white; and everything in the painting seems to be drawn toward him, as one would expect from a mountaintop experience.
But the real brilliance of Raphael’s painting is not what’s happening on the mountain but what’s happening at the bottom. If you look down, you see a crowd of disciples at the base of the mountain – over to the left, a few are trying to heal a young boy suffering from seizures. High Renaissance art was apparently not the only thing Raphael was fluent in – for in the gospel of Mark, right after the story of the Transfiguration, we find Jesus coming down the mountain and encountering that very boy. And in the beauty of art we see both at the same time.
And the more you look at that boy, the more you notice his eyes – wild and wide and white. There’s something else you notice about them- that they’re focused squarely on Jesus, looking up at him high on the mountain as if he can actually see some two miles up. And then you notice his right hand and how it is stretched up to Jesus, stretched as far as it can reach, as if he is trying to touch him from 9200 feet away. Every one of the disciples at the base of the mountain is looking at everyone else. Every one of them. Only the boy is looking up.
Beloved, look up to Jesus. Reach for him as far as your arm will stretch. Remember what it was like walking with him on holy ground; revisit that mountaintop experience every chance you get. And know that where he needs you most is at the bottom of the mountain – for that is where the real work lies. Be transfigured. Let the glory of God shine in you, so you can then shine in God’s world.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.