Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Jesus implodes with glory. For just a moment, he is transfigured; a roaring radiance pours from him. He becomes as he was before he came. For one brief, shining moment, the burden of his humanity is lifted. “Decarnation” occurs. He is elevated above earth’s horizon and escorted into the eternal. He is home again. Familiar sounds surround him. Those who understand welcome him. And the One who sent him … holds him. Max Lucado In the Eye of the Storm
The Road to Glory Leads Downward
In Colorado there are fifty four 14ers, mountains that are taller than 14,000 feet. A couple years ago our family Christmas picture was on top of one of them, Mount Evans, 14,264’. Not that sounds impressive until you realize that you can drive to about 14,130’, which means we only climbed about 130’ in about a quarter of a mile. I’ve actually climbed three of the 14ers. It is exhausting and sometimes can be a bit scary. More often than not, when you get to the top of the mountain all you see is clouds. It’s cold and windy. The wind blows so hard that the snow and dirt sting when they hit you. And, if a thunderstorm happens to roll in, the top of the mountain is the last place you want to be. It’s dangerous. People usually don’t lounge on top of a 14er for very long. The top of a mountain is a desolate and lonely place.
The story I just read from Mark, the Transfiguration, is about a mountaintop experience of this second type. Let’s take a look.
“Six days later,” which leads to the obvious question, six days after what? In the previous passage Jesus has just told his disciples that he is going to “undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31). It isn’t the most uplifting idea. Then Jesus told the people who were with him that if they want to be his disciples they must take up their own cross and follow him. If they want to find life they must lose their own life. That is the context for the story of the Transfiguration. At the end of the Transfiguration story Jesus repeats the idea that he would soon be betrayed and killed. Mark connects the prediction of Jesus’ death with this mountaintop experience as a way to show that the mountain is a dangerous and terrifying place.
“Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, … and he was transfigured before them” (Mark 9:2). Mark doesn’t tell us which mountain Jesus went up. There are two places in Israel which are traditionally thought to be the mountain of the Transfiguration. One is Mount Tabor. It is a little under 2,000’ high. It is about 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee, which would be about a six day walk from where the previous story took place. The other place, which I think is more likely, is Mount Hermon, which is the mountain on the cover of the bulletin. Mount Hermon is about a six day walk north from the previous story. It’s more than 9,000’. You can see that even in the summer it is high enough to be covered in snow. In Jesus’ time it would have been a desolate and impressive wilderness area.
Either way, on this mountain Jesus was transfigured. The word for transfigured is metamorphosis. Jesus’ form changed. Mark tells us that Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white. The word he used here means the glistening gleam of gold. It is the blinding glare of the sun reflecting off polished metal. Mark tries to describe Jesus in all his heavenly glory.
Then Elijah and Moses appeared. Elijah was the great prophet of the Old Testament. He never died and was expected to return to prepare the way for the Messiah. Moses was the greatest Old Testament character, the one who led the people of Israel out of Egypt and gave them the Law. The appearance of Moses and Elijah shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, of the whole Old Testament.
Then Peter spoke. “Hey Jesus. This is pretty cool. Why don’t we set up a few tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?” I’ve always wondered where Peter figured that he and James and John would stay. Peter knew that this was a holy moment. He probably didn’t fully understand everything but he knew that Jesus was an extraordinary person. Peter wanted to build these dwellings to capture this moment of glory. He wanted to hold on to this mountain-top experience of God. He figured the tents could make it last.
Right after Peter spoke a cloud came down on the mountain, a cloud that symbolized God’s presence. If you’ve ever been on top of a mountain and had a cloud roll in on top of you, it is an eerie feeling. In just a few minutes you can go from bright sunlight that can be blinding, to needing a flashlight to see anything. Then a voice came out of the cloud, God’s voice. “This is my Son, the one I love, the one I have chosen to bring salvation to the world. Listen to him. Obey his words. Follow him, even when it means denying yourself and taking up your own cross.”
As suddenly as this mountaintop experience started, it stopped. Suddenly the cloud disappeared. Moses and Elijah were gone. The disciples were there, alone with Jesus. They went back down the mountain and Jesus went toward Jerusalem and the cross. The story of the Transfiguration is a dark, terrifying and mysterious experience that focuses on the death of Jesus.
There is something about the Transfiguration that I find captivating. I’ve studied it and preached it many times. I know the story, but I always have the sense that there is more to it than I can fully grasp, much less proclaim. Let me share with you two thoughts that come to me from this story.
First, “mountaintop experiences” can be of many different types. Sometimes the presence of God is a wonderful experience. We have a sense of calm and peace. We know that we are loved and are filled with joy. Everything feels right. I hope that at some point in your life, maybe many times, you have that type of experience, when you are overwhelmed by God love for you, you overflow with joy and thankfulness.
However, there are other times when the presence of God will not be comforting and peaceful, but very disturbing. It may shake you to your core and leave you with more questions and doubts than you had before. Notice in our passage, right after Peter made his comment about putting up the tents. Mark tells us that “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mark 9:6). Part of that could be that mountains can be scary places. Part of that may have been seeing Jesus in all his glory. Part of that could be because Moses had been dead more than 1000 years and Elijah about 800 years. Seeing the cloud roll in and hearing God speak out of the cloud must have been terrifying. Any one of those would have been enough to scare us beyond imagination.
Because God is God, because God is holy, almighty, and transcendent, our experience of God may not be what we expect. God chooses the way He will come to us and we can’t choose what that will be like. Sometimes that may be a warm fuzzy that makes us feel good. Other times we may be terrified. We may be overwhelmed by life and death. It may come at a time when we are confused and lost, when we are struggling and broken. Our job, which isn’t easy, is to recognize the presence of God in all the experiences of life.
Second, when we experience the presence of God, when we have a mountaintop experience of any sort, we must not cling to it or try to prolong it. Peter wanted to build the tents so it would last. But that does not work. When it is gone, it’s gone, and we can’t recreate it.
Years ago there was a man in one of my congregations who went to a Promise Keepers conference. He’d been raised in the church but the conference was the first time he really experienced God’s love for him. It was a life-changing event, a mountaintop experience. The next year he went to another Promise Keeper’s conference. It was good, though not quite as powerful as the first one. Every year he kept going back to Promise Keepers, looking for that same experience. He also spent a great deal of time and energy trying to create that same experience within the life of the church. I’m convinced that all of the time and energy he put into trying to recreate that first experience caused him to miss a lot of what God was doing in his life.
I’m not suggesting that mountaintop experiences are a bad thing. They are wonderful. I’m simply saying that we can’t create them. We can’t control them. We can’t make them last. They are a gift to us. They are God’s grace. What we can do is celebrate them and be thankful for them. We can remember them and let them encourage us. I’m sure that as Jesus headed down the hill toward Jerusalem and toward the cross, he was encouraged by this mountaintop experience. His heavenly Father had embraced him and said to him, “You are my beloved son.”
When these mountaintop experiences end, and they will end, we are called back down the mountain. Jesus didn’t stay up there, why should we expect to. Jesus received a glimpse of God’s grace and glory on the mountain, but the fulfillment of that glory came only after he went back down into the valleys of life. God called Jesus off the mountain to face the pain of the world, the needs of broken people, and the sin of all creation. Jesus had to go back down the mountain, and ultimately to the cross, before he would receive his final glory.
Just as Jesus had to go back down the mountain, we are called to follow Jesus back down the mountain into a world filled with suffering and pain, sin and evil. And in that world we are called to share God’s love and proclaim that through Jesus death and resurrection our sins are forgiven and we are free to live as God’s beloved children.
I hope that you have mountaintop experiences, glimpses of God’s grace and glimpses of God’s glory. But friends, the glory that we really want and need is not found on top of the mountain by escaping the world. The road to glory and the grace of God’s presence leads us down the mountain and into the world, to serve the people that God loves. The road to glory leads down.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.