Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Like many things, our use of certain terms and phrases has become so common we often fail to fully understand the scope and depth of their true meaning. ‘Mountain-top experience’ is one of those phrases. Many of us say we have had one or more mountain-top experiences, but I wonder if our experiences would pass muster when compared with the ones described in today’s lessons.
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, otherwise known as Transfiguration of Our Lord. We think of the Transfiguration as centering on the events on Mt. Sinai which Peter, John, and James experienced with Jesus.
But, also in our lessons we read of another mountain-top experience. Moses entered a cloud upon climbing up the mountain. A beautiful scene is described of a mountain whose highest point is enshrouded by a cloud. It calls to mind one of many paintings and photographs of dramatically lighted scenes of majestic mountains, snow-covered granite peaks, and wintery clouds descending to hide the peak. The mere mention of such a vista can be awe-inspiring.
And although I have had an experience climbing tall mountains in our western states, my ‘mountain-top’ experience happened in the flat land of Florida at a place called Camp Weed. It didn’t happen during the time I was there; rather it happened later, after I had been home for several months. Mountain-top experiences, whatever they may be, do not seem to require mountains.
But it is undeniable that the experience was important to me. And it may even have fit the definition we place on the term. It was a religious experience. It was a sudden realization of the way things were. It was life changing for me and for other people around me.
I did not know it at the time but my son had a mountain-top experience when we visited the college he ultimately selected where he would spend four years in study. He had a sudden realization of the way things were and it had the potential to change his life. You might call it an epiphany—an ‘aha.’
A mountain-top experience is an epiphany, a sudden understanding of the way things work. A mountaintop experience is an “aha” moment when something—or everything—falls into place. We are most able to have mountain-top experiences when we find ourselves confused about something which we trust we understand—and then we are faced with insurmountable evidence to the contrary.
In its most mundane example such an epiphany could be the recognition of the solution to a calculus problem or knowing after many trials and errors why certain chemicals should never be mixed together. It could be the answer to a question we have long pondered—or God’s voice telling us to “Be quiet, Listen.” In its most complex manifestation, such an epiphany could be the understanding of a deep, problem we have carried around for way too many years.
The irony of the placement of Transfiguration Sunday at the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent should not be lost upon us. The Season of Epiphany began as God manifest himself to us and the world by using the gentile Kings from the East to call upon the baby Jesus in Bethlehem—to crown Him king of kings and Lord of Lords.
It continued at the Jordon River when Jesus rose up from the water. We are again invited to listen with the crowds (at Jesus' Baptism) and disciples (at the Transfiguration) as a voice from heaven announces, "This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased”—bookends to the season.
The instruction to "listen to him" addressed to Peter, James, and John will become poignant, even painful in the weeks ahead as the disciples regularly fail to do just that, or at least fail to understand what they are listening to. Jesus is trying to help his three closest disciples get an idea of what this is all about.
Often we also fail to answer the call to “listen to him” even in the face of knowledge about how things really turn out. Transfiguration leads us resolutely to Jerusalem and into Lent, as Jesus comes down from the mountain to head to the death he speaks of during that very descent.
And do those same words—“Listen to him”—when taken as addressed also to us as Jesus' latest disciples, orient us to listen and watch the Lord of Glory approach his destiny in Jerusalem so that we might more fully comprehend God's purposes and work in Jesus. In other words—Epiphany—understanding—“aha.”
And did Peter really want to preserve the moment and stay on the mountain-top and build three booths? Or was his an appropriate response to Jewish custom surrounding the festival of the Tabernacles—or was it Peter being Peter, the never quite getting it disciple?
Whatever Peter—or we—may have been thinking, there is only one thing that is necessary: to listen to Jesus. Because, when it is all over—when the reunion with Moses and Elijah is finished, when the disciples have gone back down the mountain is awe and disbelief and when the voice of God has finished speaking, and Jesus is no longer brilliant white—after all of this has transpired, all that is left is Jesus.
And Jesus looks to us, as he looked to the disciples, to carry out his work in this world. “I am not your “personal saviour” Jesus;” he says. “I am the saviour for all mankind.” On this World Mission Sunday Jesus reminds us of the work that needs to be done in our world. We cannot stay on the mountain; it is time to leave—time to leave the safety of the mountain, the safety of a life in three booths—of comfortable, risk- and commitment-free worship and living. It is time to go out and do the work we are called to do.
It means going down that mountain and being Christ for the poorest, loneliest, sickest, and most destitute in the world even as they reveal Christ to us.
Most of us have had mountain top experiences. We know and can tell about the impact they have had on our lives. But we also have returned to the valley—knowing we could not live in the rarified air of Christ. And At both places, and everywhere in between, Jesus is there, reaching out to raise us to life again.
“Listen to him!”