Our New Testament reading for this morning is so well-known that it spawned a cliché. Anyone, anywhere can tell you about “mountaintop experiences” in their lives, and we Christians in particular are fond of using that term to describe the high points of life and faith. In our lives we all have peaks and valleys, highs and lows, moments of intense challenge and invigorating triumph along with moments of pain and exhaustion. There are moments of overwhelming beauty, but also times when upsetting and troubling things seem to be everywhere we look. The moments that affect us the most, I think, are those mountaintop experiences, those vivid and memorable times when the beauty, and splendor, and mystery of God break into our everyday lives and for a brief moment take our breath away. Sometimes this happens in an encounter with nature, but we also find ourselves deeply affected by moments of compassion, moments of sacrifice, and moments of love. Sometime in your life, I would bet that you’ve had a mountaintop experience, a moment in which you felt close to God, one of those genuinely formative experiences that shaped who you are and what you believe for years to come.
Both of our scripture readings for this morning contain such experiences. They were literally and figuratively mountaintop experiences. Moses had a face-to-face encounter with God on Mount Sinai, and as Moses came down from the mountain his face was still shining from the experience. In fact his appearance is so brilliant that people have to turn away. In Luke’s Gospel we find something similar. Jesus invites three of his closest disciples to follow him to the mountaintop to pray with him. The three disciples, Peter and James and John, go with Jesus, but you can tell they aren’t really into it. They reach the summit with Jesus, and while he’s praying they’re falling asleep. Luckily they are awake enough when something spectacular happens, something they could have ever expected. The appearance of Jesus’ face changes, and right before their eyes, his clothes become dazzlingly white, “whiter than white” according to one translation. Peter, James, and John are astounded by the splendor of this vision, but they also catch snippets of a conversation between Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah, two of the heroes of their faith. How’s that for a mountaintop experience?
Needless to say, this was not the kind of thing that you simply walk away from as if nothing had happened! Peter is so bowled over that he just wants to stay on the mountain forever. I’ll even build some buildings, he says, one for Jesus, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah. We can all just stay right here! We can build the rest of our lives around this moment! It was for Peter, both literally and figuratively, one of those mountaintop experiences that you never forget. It’s no wonder he didn’t want to come down. He knew that once he walks back down that mountain, nothing he would ever see could ever top that moment.
Recently I read a CNN report describing the emotional letdown that a number of moviegoers experience after seeing a movie. In an age where Imax and 3D movies are so real and so vivid, sometimes it’s hard to go back to reality. You may have experienced this as you sat in your seat while the credits rolled, not quite ready to make the transition from the beauty of cinema to the chaotic and cluttered world in which we all live. But it always happens: the screen goes black and the house lights come on, jarring us back to reality. We notice disgustedly that our shoes are sticking to the floor and someone has spilled popcorn in the seats. With one last wistful glance at a dark movie screen we put on our jackets and head for the exits. Is it so strange for us to want to linger in a more beautiful world for just a little bit longer? Can we blame Peter, James, and John for wanting the same thing? The transition from one world to another is a rude awakening to be sure, and it’s something akin to the disappointment the three disciples felt after their mountaintop experience was over. It is good for us to be here. Let’s just bask in the glory of this place. Let’s build our lives around this moment.
As usual, the disciples weren’t really understanding what was going on. If they had just listened a bit closer, or not gotten so caught up in the dazzling display of brightness, maybe they would have heard something that could have helped them understand. Matthew’s gospel doesn’t include any details of Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah, but Luke’s does, and in it we find that they were talking about Jesus’ departure. They use the word exodus to describe it. Exodus. With Moses standing right there beside Jesus, shining like the sun! The parallel here is hard to miss!
Jesus, you see, was on a mission. He was going to set God’s people free, only it was not bondage and enslavement to Pharaoh that they needed freeing from this time. It was bondage to their own fear of sin and death, their own fear of the low places of life where death hangs in wait and the tragedy of human injustice tears down one person after another. That’s the kind of bondage Jesus was concerned with, and those are the chains that he came to break. To do it, he must go to Jerusalem, the city where he would be arrested, and tried, and crucified. It’s all going to be so messy, and tragic, and nightmarish, and it’s not going to be something the disciples will want to see. The low points of life are like that. Yet, we all have to go. At some point, in some way, at some time in your life you will have to walk the valley and the mountaintop will be a distant memory. You’ll have to put one foot in front of the other. You have to go down the mountain. Jesus wouldn’t give his disciples permission to stay on top of that mountain, and we won’t have it, either. What we have, though, is the same assurance from God that they got. This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him! Listen!
Catholic theologian and storyteller John Shea writes that the point of spiritual experiences and times of great awakening is not to hold onto those special experiences, but to listen to them (John Shea, Matthew, Year A, p. 101). The extraordinary vision, the mountaintop experience is not valuable in and of itself. Instead, the high moments of Christian life should recommit us to the challenge of participating in Christ’s ministry and mission in the low places of life. The disciples wanted to build booths and stay on the mountaintop, but they needed to go, to love, and to serve all the people they would meet down there in the valley. Like them, we too are called to descend from our moments of profound glory, celebration, and joy, into the valleys of this world where life is messy, and challenging, and inhospitable.
As if to drive that point home, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all follow the Transfiguration immediately with the story of a boy who is desperately ill. Here in Matthew’s gospel we find a distraught father begging Jesus to look at my son, which reminds us of God’s own words on the mountaintop: This is my son! Listen to Him! Taken together, these two exhortations call us to direct our attention both upward and outward – upward in praise, outward in service. Here the mountaintop experience of God’s glory is indelibly connected with the chaos and clamor of a shrieking, convulsing demon. It’s a reminder that while the Christian life is full of moments of mountaintop splendor, we are ultimately called to enter the valleys of illness, sorrow, despair, and oppression, that we might minister to those who live there, and set them free. It is significant here that in one of the few instances in which God speaks aloud in the gospels, God directs the followers of Jesus to listen. This not only entails silencing our own desires and intentions, but additionally striving to do and be as God intends, not as we ourselves intend. Listening is a necessary prelude to following and doing.
So, along with Peter, James, and John, we follow Jesus, and we listen. We listen as he encounters shrieking demons, worthless outcasts, and unclean sinners. We hear him say things like, “Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me.” We listen as he tells the stories of an outcast who stops by the roadside to help a stranger, and a father who runs down the road and throws open his arms to welcome his insolent son home. We listen as he tells us to love our enemies and neighbors alike, just as we love ourselves. And we listen as he asks God to forgive those who nailed him to the cross. Eventually, if we keep putting one foot in front of the other, if we keep following and listening to him, his pattern may become our pattern. His life may become ours, and maybe we’ll discover some beautiful things in those low places of life.
The high places are nice, but as Christians we have to go back to the valleys. One of the most enjoyable things about preaching is that I get to be way up here and to be honest, I kind of like the view. But you know and I know that this isn’t where real ministry happens. I will need to make my way down to ground level, down to where I can shake hands, and give hugs, and where we can share each other’s joy and concerns. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “It’s a lot to believe: that God’s lit-up life includes death, that there is no way around it but only through” (Taylor, “Dazzling Darkness”, Christian Century, 1998). It is the message of this Sunday, as we prepare for the beginning of Lent. Jesus starts his departure, his exodus, toward Jerusalem and the cross. Will we stay up here where it’s bright and clean, and visions of glorious days gone by shine like the sun? Or will we follow him, down into the low places, down to the streets where hunger rages and wounds need healing and people need love and forgiveness? It is my prayer that we will have the courage to follow, the strength to put one foot in front of the other, and the wisdom to stay on this journey. I also pray that as you walk, you’ll slow down enough to reach out a hand to take another, and remind someone else that even the low places are not beyond the reach of God’s love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.