A little known fact about me – or, well-known, depending on who you talk to – is that I am a southern girl at heart. I went to high school and college in North Carolina and I have a deep, ingrained fondness for the Appalachian Mountains because of it. I went to college in a mountain town called Boone. It’s a small town nestled in a valley surrounded by beautiful, rolling mountains and about 45 minutes down the road, one of my favorites places in the world sits on a cliff. It’s called Wiseman’s View. The road to this particular place is not an easy one to travel, and it’s not a place that you just happen upon. Off the windy scenic highway, you make a hairpin turn into the National Park and drive down a road for three miles beyond all the obvious trail heads….and, I use the term “road” loosely…It is a bumpy and hilly and mostly unkempt gravel trail and you wind about the mountain until you can drive no further. Then, a heavily wooded path takes you down to the edge of the mountain. No one just happens to pass by this place. No one just happens to pass it on the way to somewhere else. Wiseman’s View is a destination, a place where one goes with a purpose…for retreat, for perspective, for rejuvenation, for prayer or meditation.
For several years, this mountaintop was the place I would go when I was tired and exhausted, when I was overwhelmed by life – this was the corner of the world I would go when I needed a reminder of the steadfast beauty of God. Autumn was a particularly beautiful time of year to go – the gorge appeared to be on fire. Hawksbill peak is just across the gorge and it’s magnificent core of rock reaches out from the protection of the trees longing towards the heavens. The colors are always striking though – no matter what time of year, or even if clouds are drifting through the gorge, shrouding everything in soft grays and whites. The strong presence of the cliffs; the rushing river below, the delicate leaves and needles of the trees clinging to branches on trees that grow on the unsuspecting rockfaces – The face of God is beautiful.
Each time I went, I wanted to stay. It was so quiet, so peaceful. But, the sun would go down and the temperature would cool to a chill and I had commitments to keep back at home. I had meetings to go to or papers to write for class. I had family and friends to care for and laugh with and bills to pay. I didn’t live there at Wiseman’s View. I could only visit. And, when it comes down to it, I’m not sure I really would want to live there. Though I felt connected to God through the beauty of the mountaintop, if I lived there, I wouldn’t be connected to any other people, any other experiences, any other expressions of God – nor would I be able to appreciate the perspective Wiseman’s View offered me.
I tell this story because our Scripture reading this morning is of another experience of a ‘mountaintop experience’ – an experience of gaining perspective to continue the work. So, let us turn to the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Let us listen for God’s Word.
Matthew 17: 1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Our text this morning is a story that is told each year on the last Sunday before Lent. And I want to draw your attention to the setting, because it’s important. You see, Lent begins and ends on a mountain. Here, at the end of the Season of Epiphany, after we have sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him preach and teach, we go with him to a mountaintop and if his identity as the Son of God wasn’t clear to us already, it is now. (slow down) On this mountaintop, it becomes undeniably clear that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, God’s Beloved. Dazzling before our eyes, God’s glory is magnified through Jesus and it is wonderful. It is this mountain where we wish to remain. However, in a few short weeks, we will find ourselves with Jesus on another mountaintop – one filled with death and darkness, violence and evil as Jesus will be brought before the people and crucified. But it is because of this mountaintop experience that the experience on the next will become so powerful – it is because of what happens here, what we learn here, what we bear witness to here, that we can get up and not be afraid of what is yet to come.
So, let’s take a closer look at this mountaintop experience. Jesus is in need of rest, of respite, closeness with God, and perhaps a comforting ear to bend. He ascends the mountain with a clear purpose – it is for prayer, for guidance. Life on earth for Jesus is hastening toward a demanding and challenging end and he needs time on the mountaintop to prepare. He speaks with God. He speaks with Moses and Elijah… We’re not told much about the content of the conversation. We know they are talking about Jesus’ impending death, or “exodus” as the Greek tells us…but what were they saying about it? Are they lamenting? Rejoicing? Moses and Elijah have already been through their exodus, are they offering advice to Jesus like a coach advises a quarterback in the big game? I’m so intrigued… But, regardless of the content of that conversation, the purpose of this trip up the mountain for Jesus – the experience of this trip -is very different from that of the disciples.
Can you imagine the experience that Peter, James and John had? After hiking up the mountain, tired and probably in need of a drink of water, rather than pass the Nalgene bottle, Jesus is transfigured before their eyes. Glorified and surrounded by Moses and Elijah, ones who have gone on to be with God before them, Jesus is transfigured and just when Peter begins to make the suggestion they stay there forever, a cloud envelopes them with the presence of God. Can you imagine? A cloud is so penetrating. It’s not something you can grab onto, or something you can push away – but it is something that surrounds you completely, even touching the creases of your knuckles, the curves of your ears, the spaces between your hair, it can be breathed into your lungs. It must have been glorious and terrifying all at once to experience God is such a way. Miraculous and confusing. Spectacular and yet fear and trembling coursed through their bodies like lightning. Feeling so close to God – literally hearing the voice of God spoken and seeing the dazzling glory of the Lord before them in Jesus – I wouldn’t want to leave that experience either.
It’s a natural instinct to want to draw near to God – to cling to the miraculous. The disciples wish to stay there in that moment in the presence of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. But, there are no dwellings made there. Instead, the presence and voice of God enters in and reminds the disciples of Jesus’ identity and to listen to him. And, the first thing Jesus says to them is “Get up and do not be afraid.” Commitments have been made and they must return from the mountaintop to fulfill them. There is a journey ahead of them yet to be trod. It won’t always be easy – in fact, we know that it will be unspeakably difficult at times. But, Jesus insists on going back down and in their faithfulness to God, the disciples follow Jesus down the mountain too.
They were only on the mountaintop for a brief moment – just enough time to experience a connection with God before going back down. And, we can relate to this experience – though admittedly, I think Peter, James and John had a more miraculous experience than I can attest to. I suspect we all know of a place to find solitude and peace, rejuvenation and joy – we all know of a place where we have felt the distinct power and glory of God. For many of you, I suspect it’s here in worship each Sunday. But perhaps it’s on a beach or a mountain or a lovely park bench surrounded by flowers. Perhaps it’s in the still of the night just before slumber takes hold, or in the early hours just before the sun rises. Perhaps it’s in the quiet times of prayer or in the tones of an exquisite piece of music. Each of us could name a sacred place where we dream and retreat toward God and away from the challenges of life – away from the bustle, away from the problems of broken down cars or overdrawn bank accounts; away from gun violence in the neighborhood or deadlines to meet; away from the news alerts on our phones, away from the realities of war, of sickness, of stress, of heartache. But, our reality – our faith – doesn’t allow for us to stay on the mountaintop as the disciples so desired. We don’t live on the mountaintop – we live here, in the valley – and Jesus is here with us too.
A question we as Christians may grapple with is: If being so close to God is so wonderful, something so desired, why does so much of life feel consumed by busyness and stress, by the mundane and demanding challenges of life? Is there even a connection between the two seemingly opposite experiences? Upon return from the mountaintop, it often feels like the valley didn’t change all that much while we were up there. Not much seemingly changed in the world of the the disciples either. Peter, James and John followed Jesus to that mountaintop only to descend again and be confronted with the crowds of people with the same problems they were dealing with before they ascended. But, perhaps the connection between these opposites is found in the experience of living a faithful life following Jesus – who lives in the valley also. Perhaps the connection is that we are changed. We are made new again by our closeness with God. We are made whole while on the mountain.
Friends, we go to the mountain for a reason…for respite, to gain perspective, to feel a sense of rejuvenation. Sometimes, we go intentionally, recognizing our need for closeness with God like Jesus did in our text this morning, and sometimes, we just follow along, like the disciples. Whichever way we get there, the mountaintop is wonderful, and we profoundly need it. We need to connect with God in those sacred and praise filled ways because it is on the mountaintop where hope is rejuvenated and enlivened. And by the power of the Spirit, we hear the instruction to ‘get up and do not be afraid’ and we follow Jesus back down from the mountain to connect with the world, to connect with the people around us, to engage with the complexity life offers. So, perhaps it’s not a matter of reconciling the two experiences, “mountaintop” and “valley”; feeling close to God and not as close to God regardless of location; but rather, it is recognizing that to follow Jesus, the connection with God in those mountaintop moments calls us to recognize the hope God has for us in the valleys.
Church, we all know that this coming Tuesday, we will gather together to celebrate the gifts and talents of the community and delight in the pancake supper. We will do this to honor the tradition of Carnaval or Mardi Gras or, to be more theological, Shrove Tuesday – the day before the season of Lent begins. Then, on Wednesday, we will receive the ashes on our foreheads and we will hear the words spoken to us ‘from dust you came and to dust you shall return’ as we are mindful of the myriad ways we are in need of God’s grace. And then, the journey down to the valley really begins – with humility and awe, we will continue to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to the trial, to the cross, and finally and miraculously, to the resurrection. For Peter, James and John, for us – the mountaintop experience – the experience of feeling close to God – this is a feeling we must remember as we follow Jesus back down to the valley. Knowing that God is as close to us as our breath – we’re going to need to remember this when we struggle to believe Jesus is God’s Son, when we struggle to see justice and peace in our midst.
In addition to the pronouncement of Jesus as God’s Son, if there’s one thing you take away from this sermon, let it be this: even Jesus needed to seek out time with God to be renewed. None of us, not even Jesus, can do the difficult work of seeking justice and peace for God’s people without renewing and rejuvenating moments with God. His time on the mountaintop sustained Jesus for the road ahead to the cross and resurrection. We too have a challenging road ahead — Lent is a time of deep reflection upon the ways in which we as individuals, and we as a community, are in need of God’s grace. There is much work to be done in our community and world – work of mercy and reconciliation and we are in need of sustenance for the long road ahead. And that is where true Christian life is borne out — because just like Jesus and the disciples, we are called down from the mountain and into the valley, unafraid and renewed by our faith in God to co-create with God a more just and peaceful world. A world in which the immigrant finds a safe home, wherein all children are known and loved just as God created them to be, wherein we delight in Beloved Community.
And as we walk back down the mountain, we cannot do so blindly and indifferently with our heels dragging and tempers flaring. Instead, we must walk boldly, with a quickened pace and a bounce in our step for we have been blessed, and we are asked by God to bless others. We are led back into the world by Jesus to connect with God’s people. God tells us on the mountaintop that Jesus is God’s Son, God’s Beloved, and that we should listen to him, listen to his messages of hope, his charges of love, his declarations of mercy. Listen, we must – for we have commitments to tend to here in the valley. Let us walk together to keep them. Get up – and do not be afraid. Amen.
(sermon preached at Takoma Park Presbyterian Church on 2/26/2017)