Mountain of Transfiguration

"Transfiguration" by Raphael

TEXT: Luke 9:28-36

We began this summer with the reminder that, even though we will be talking about important events that happened on mountains, the mountains themselves are not the point. The faith is the point. So, here at the end of the series, we have a similar reminder as we climb with Peter, James, and John up the Mount of Transfiguration.

Jesus ministry is drawing to a close. When he comes down from this mountain, he is headed to Jerusalem for the last time. He has just miraculously fed five thousand people. One of the signs that the Jews were looking for in the Messiah was that the Messiah would bring manna from heaven, like Moses had provided for the people in the wilderness. Feeding five thousand on five loaves of bread and two fish came pretty close, and it is right after that where we have Peter making the declaration that he believes Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah. The story of the transfiguration is next.

Just like on the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus goes off to pray, taking his three closest disciples with him. Jesus is not going up this mountain for the purpose of being transfigured. He is going up there to pray with his friends before the roughest week of his life. As Jesus prays, Peter, James, and John get to see what prayer is ultimately about. As Jesus connects to God, he begins to glow. Then, the disciples can see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus about what is about to happen.

Remember, Jesus is in prayer. The next time you are tempted to come down on Catholics who pray to the saints, remember that when Jesus prayed, God sent Moses and Elijah to instruct him and he talks with them in prayer. We have talked about both of these other men. They are both men who had direct contact with God. They are both men who represented what the Jews expected from the Messiah. A great liberator, a great prophet.

Moses and Elijah both had missing bodies as well. Moses went up on Mt. Nebo to die. The account in Deuteronomy says that Moses died on the mountain and seems to indicate that God, Himself, buried Moses, but no one could ever find his grave. When Elijah came to the end of his life, a fiery chariot came out of heaven and took him away. Both of them took on powerful kings, just as Jesus was about to do. Both Moses and Elijah had run for their lives and had shed the blood of others, and here they are different. Jesus walked deliberately to meet those who sought his life, and instead of taking their lives, he offered them his own.

We don't know exactly what was said between the three men on the mountain. We are just told the general topic. But we can assume that Jesus found the strength and answers he needed in his prayer. For the disciples who were there with him, they were given a sign from God. Just like at Jesus' baptism, the voice of God declares Jesus to be God's son...God's chosen one. They have seen the glory with their eyes and heard the declaration with their ears. They will need to remember the strength of that affirmation as the events of the next weeks unfold.

Mountaintop experiences are the times and places where we get clarity about things. It is the place where we work out our allegiance and decide just who we will serve. It is the place we go when we get overworked and discouraged, where God comes and brings us nourishment and strength. It is the place where God teaches...the Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandments, and it is the place where God answers our prayers in ways that are clear to us.

Mountaintop experiences are places where God and God's way become clear to us and where we make the choice of how we will respond. For those of us who have made a sincere commitment to follow Christ, we can point to some such experiences in our lives. For some it is the moment of conversion. They can tell you exactly how it was when they came to realize who God really was and what it felt like as the love of God washed over them.

Others of us come to know God more gradually and people like me who have been raised in a Christian home and didn't have a dramatic conversion experience point to different experiences. There have been a number of such times across my life so far. One was the day when at fourteen years of age I preached my first sermon for youth Sunday at the church where I grew up. Standing in that pulpit and telling my church family about my faith, God called me to preach. By the time I had finished my little five-minute "sermon," I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God wanted me to spend the rest of my life telling others of the love of God. It was scary, but it was clear and sure. The twists, turns, and curve balls of my life kept me from that calling until I was 33 years old, but when illness and divorce stripped everything else from me, the call of God to ministry was still there.

Another time was the night of my father's death, back in 1980. He died suddenly of a heart attack in his sleep. He was 47 years old. Two amazing things happened on that terrible mountaintop. I awoke to the sounds of my mother screaming to emergency personnel on the phone. I ran from where she was to where my father was in their bedroom, and I saw the look of death. I knew he was dead, and I knew I served a God who could raise the dead. So, as my mother waited downstairs for the ambulance, I knelt beside his body and prayed for his life. As I prayed, the reality of the situation began to sink in further and my prayer became more and more distressed. I could feel myself heading over the edge into hysteria, when suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a voice say, "No." An undescribable peace flooded my heart and pulled me back from the edge. There was no one else in the room.

I got off my knees, told my father to go in peace, and looked at him again. And then the second amazing thing happened. As I looked at his body, it was as if a cloudy veil was pushed away and I could see what was really important in life. I suddenly knew as clearly as I could know anything that love was all that mattered in the world. Nurturing relationships with each other was the only work worth doing...the only thing that lasted...the only thing that lasted beyond the grave. It was crystal clear that life continued after death and that life both here and there was fundamentally about love and nothing else. It wasn't about knowledge or money or power or work. It was ever and only about learning to love.

The ambulance came and the veil closed back over, but I knew something in a way that I had not known before and the clarity of it made me almost unfit to work in the world anymore. I was working in a rare book library at Brown University at the time. I had taken a week off at the time of his death, but the effect of that transfiguring experience at my father's deathbed made it almost impossible for me to work for the next month.

I was tending old books. People came from all over the world to look at them and study them. I felt like the writer of Ecclesiastes, wanting to cry out "Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!" What did it matter? It was a book...a thing. Here was a whole industry devoted to collecting things. Millions of dollars were spent to protect those things, and eight hours of every day I gave over to that industry. It was all dust and ashes. None of it meant anything. Only love mattered. Books didn't matter. People traveled from Europe to see a Columbus letter, when their real work was back at home. I could hardly face my job each day.

Eventually the glow of that transfiguration faded, and I could again focus on and even enjoy my work. But the knowledge was still there, and today it is the only non-negotiable in my theology. God is love. Love is the only thing that lasts beyond the grave. Love cannot die.

Part of the Christian life is going to the mountaintop to find the clear voice of God, whether it is in the thundering voice of God to Moses or in the sheer silence of God's message to Elijah. We find there our calling and accept there our death. But the transfiguration of Jesus also teaches us something else. We are not meant to dwell on the mountain. Peter suggests that they pitch tents up there so that everybody can stay right there and enjoy the experience. That's not how it's supposed to be.

The purpose of the experience on the mountain is to make us better equipped to live our lives in the valley. That's a double-edged sword sometimes. The more times we go to the mountain, the more we realize that life in the valley often has precious little to do with the things that are truly important to God. Like trying to go back to work after the revelation about love, we can come back to the valley extremely frustrated with the way things are. The challenge of our lives is to live enough in the tension that we can begin to change the valley. We must remember the lessons of the mountaintop enough to see what needs to be done in our lives and in the lives of our families and communities. We can't simply go back to living the way we did before. But we do have to live in the valley, and not on the mountain.

I think this is what Jesus means when he says to be "in the world," but not "of the world." We participate in life, even as we seek to bring it more in line with the will of God. And so, as we bring Summer to a close and head toward the work of Fall, it's time to descend the mountain. We have met God and perhaps learned something of ourselves in the process. We have eaten the food God has provided and gained strength for the journey. At the bottom of the mountain, others are waiting for us. There are needs there...demons that won't come out without our prayers, hungry people who won't be fed without the bread we offer. Jesus didn't stay on the mountain. Neither should we. It is time to go out, to take the light of God out into the world to shine in the dark valley of life. God has done God part. Now it is time for us to do ours.


© 2003, Anne Robertson

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