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February 26, 2006 (The Transfiguration of Our Lord)—“Something Happened on the Mountain that Day”
Pastor David Barber
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
After 35 years in ministry, you would think that I might have learned a few things along the way. For instance, Rule #5 might be: “Whenever there’s a text you don’t like and don’t care to preach, assign it to the intern.”
This is one of those Sundays—Transfiguration Sunday. This text appears in some form every year, and to tell you the truth, I’m not terribly excited about encountering it once again. So I’m going to ask you to hang in there with me.
Our reading from the Gospel of Mark begins with a reference to time. Mark tells us, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John and led them up to a high mountain apart, by themselves.” Right away we’re told that this extraordinary experience didn’t happen in a vacuum, but it’s set in a very important context.
Although “6 days” also refers to the experience of Moses on Mt. Sinai, its most immediate application is tied to Peter and his confession about Jesus in the previous chapter.
You may remember that confession where Jesus asks: “Who do you day that I am?” And Peter boldly confesses, “You are the Messiah.” But contrary to the expectations of Peter, as well as the other disciples, this Messiah would be a Suffering Servant and one who will be put to death by the religious authorities.
Up there on the mountain that day the role of Jesus as Suffering Servant is confirmed, and what the Executive Committee of the disciples experience on this mountain is at the very least unexpected and disturbing.
As one commentator tells us, it’s important to notice whom Jesus doesn’t meet with. He doesn’t meet with Aaron the priest, the interpreter of the law. He doesn’t hold a conference with King David, the defender of the state. He doesn’t have his picture taken with these symbols of royalty and ritualism.
But rather Jesus holds court with Moses and Elijah. Moses, of course, led the people out of Egypt where they were oppressed by Pharaoh. Elijah was referred to by King Ahab as: “that trouble of Israel.”
Ahab labeled Elijah as trouble because he condemned the people for their compromise between true and false gods. The fact that Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah is also a significant aspect in his understanding of what it means to be the Messiah.
What actually happened up there on the mountain that day? I know it didn’t happen in Hawaii. There’s no way that Jesus’ clothes would have become dazzling white after he hiked for a bit on our mountains. Instead, after trudging up these mountains, he would have appeared up there in a “red dirt shirt.”
Something happened up there on the mountain that day, but maybe it didn’t happen exactly as the artist painted it for us. After all, there were no hidden video cameras or wire-tapping procedures.
Recently, there was much conversation and controversy about a book endorsed by Opray Winfrey and her book club. James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces, was accused of embellishment and lying in this book about his recovery from addiction.
I picked up the book at Barnes and Noble before all this was revealed. In fact, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read it because I thought it might be a depressing book.
It was just the opposite. I knew there was embellishment because I was familiar with the center where he had received treatment. In fact, I was discussing this book with an alcoholic friend and he asked me: “You know how you can tell if an alcoholic is lying, don’t you? His lips are moving.”
In spite of the embellishment and the fact that I didn’t always agree with his philosophy about addiction, I found it to be a fascinating and interesting book because something happened within his life. A transformation took place—or even a transfiguration took place—which can’t be denied.
I’m not defending the author. There is a need for literary integrity just as it would be unethical for me to make up stories about myself in my sermons. Although when I told you previously that I was a bishop in my past life and I worked with John Paul II on a very important project, those stories were true.
However, if we have a concern about embellishment and what is literally true or false, we probably should keep our hands off the Bible. It’s a dangerous book and it may unsettle us, and if it does, that’s a good thing.
We may quarrel a bit about the details in our story for today, but something happened up there on the mountain that day. This can’t be denied.
Jesus is changed. Jesus is transfigured, and although the disciples can’t completely comprehend it, they began to see Jesus differently. They got a brand new insight into whom this Jesus really was.
We’ve had these experiences—these epiphanies—ourselves. Some of us have had them up on the mountains of Hawaii where the clouds have indeed overshadowed us and where we felt as if the very presence of God had descended upon us.
Some of us have experienced them at other times—times when God was revealed to us in a new and surprising way. We’ve had epiphany or transfiguration experiences where God’s presence and care for our lives and the world has been revealed, and we’ve been given strength for the journey to follow Jesus down the mountainside.
I recently had such an experience. It wasn’t a trek up the mountainside where at the top you could see for miles and get a bird’s-eye view of the world below. This was a different kind of journey. This was a journey into the inner workings of my heart.
After enduring a treadmill in a doctor’s office, I saw the wonder and the mystery of my own heart beating upon the monitor. I saw the muscles of my heart expanding and contracting—working diligently to pump my own life-blood throughout my body.
The most interesting surprise, however, were the valves of my heart. I had always pictured them as being very substantial, when in reality they looked very much out of control. They looked like fragile streamers in a windstorm flapping up and down.
Lying there upon that examination, table watching my heart, I was almost moved to tears. I felt humble and vulnerable. I felt overwhelming gratitude for the life I had been given and tremendous thanksgiving for the goodness of God. This, indeed, was a holy moment for me.
Sister Joan Chittister tells us: “The purpose of holiness is not to protect us from our world. The purpose of holiness is to change the way we live in the world, not for our own sake, but for the sake of others....
“We are more inclined to want a religion that comforts us than challenges us. Why? Where did we ever get that idea? Maybe it was because we have misunderstood, or at least forgotten...the importance of mountain symbolism in religious literature” and the very context of our reading for today.
Not only do we have the context previous to this experience where Jesus tells the disciples what it means to be the Messiah—that he will suffer and die in Jerusalem, and if they want to follow him, they, too, will experience the same fate.
We also have the context at the end of our passage for today where Jesus leads the disciples down the mountain. Jesus didn’t buy into Peter’s need to begin a building program or at least have a monument or a shrine to memorialize this occasion.
Instead he leads them down the mountain away from the visions and the mystical experiences to meet the ones who needed him the most in the town below.
Jesus takes his disciples to a man whose son was possessed by a demon. He himself leads them down to the bottom of that mountain to the hurting people, to those who are bound and oppressed, and to the demons below.
It’s important that we have epiphany moments of holiness. It’s critical that we have transfiguration experiences where we receive a glimpse of God and where God’s purposes for our lives and the world are revealed with greater clarity.
These times are important for us. These times are to be cherished by us, and when they happen in this place through our worship, the preaching, the sacraments, the music, and our fellowship together, we are especially blessed and indeed very fortunate.
But these moments of enlightenment don’t just happen on a mountaintop or in a church nave, but also in the valley where folks are hurting and people are suffering.
They happen when we take a journey into the heart—into the heart of the poor, the weak, and the oppressed, and we have a view—not from the top—but a view from the bottom of life.
In fact, this is what it means to be the church—to heal hurts, to speak with and to be present for the hungry, the helpless, the voiceless, and the forgotten.
Is not this the purpose for which we gather? We’re not here to build temples and to erect shrines and monuments or even to have a close knit community where we can all feel good about each other.
Our purpose is not to transcend life upon some mountaintop, but to help transform life here and now, as God desires for all of creation. It’s about being changed ourselves through our Lord Jesus Christ so that we can change the world. It’s to see the world as God sees the world and then to work diligently and creatively in partnership with our Savior to make this become a reality.
The disciples in our Gospel for today are left with “only Jesus,” the man who touches them inwardly but also calls them in simple human terms to follow him down the mountain into the every-day world.
Jesus touches them and us so that we might experience life in all its abundance among the poor, the hungry, and all those who are forgotten on the fringes of life.
He touches us so that we might become transfigured and transformed and give ourselves away in suffering love for others just like Jesus.
Copyright © 2006 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org