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February 18, 2007 (The Last Sunday after the Epiphany: Transfiguration Sunday)—“Mountain, Hill, and Valley”
Interim Pastor Steven Jensen
Some of you know about Kaneohe’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It used to be one of my favorite hikes on those days when sunrise came with not a cloud in the sky. After navigating the often muddy paths, knife-edge cliffs, and rusted, slimy metal ship’s ladders, my now rubbery legs still allowed me to reach the top of the Ko‘olaus and be rewarded with an incredible view of most of Oahu and Molokai and Lanai in the distance. I was in no hurry to leave such a glorious perch, but common sense would dictate the need to make my way back down before clouds and/or winds would make the return treacherous.
Others of you have spent time atop Haleakala, Mauna Kea, or other peaks in our islands that reward some effort or at least lack of sleep with a perspective on creation few others can appreciate.
Still others have their own stories to tell of experiences atop such places as Mt. Fuji to Mt. Snow, the Zugspitze to Kilimanjaro.
At the best of times in such places, our efforts are rewarded with sights and perspectives that are etched in our memories for a lifetime—even though the actual period spent atop those peaks may be short.
“Mountain-top experience” has come to be a metaphor, however, for different types of experiences that are life-changing. Taking time to revisit those occasions in our lives can often be rewarding in and of itself. But it can also remind us why we have made certain decisions, gone down certain paths, or even chosen to stay stuck in a certain time.
I have known individuals who have been quick to tell of a wonderful, life-changing event—repeatedly, year after year. It is as if they have frozen their lives and are afraid to let go of whatever fading feeling is attached to that event. Hearing the tale more than once, it sounds to me almost like a rehearsed script, not an evolving life that has been influenced by the event in such a way as to influence new thought, new discoveries, new directions.
Peter, James, and John have been witness to a number of life-altering times as they accompany Jesus. They were at his baptism when Jesus began his ministry and the Spirit descended upon him with the message from God, “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well-pleased.”
They are asked by Jesus who others see him to be and answer, “John the Baptist or Elijah or another prophet.” Only Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ.”
Now they find themselves apart from the other disciples and the multitudes as Jesus takes them to a mountaintop retreat to pray. There God produces Elijah and Moses, and they are clearly subordinate to Jesus. It was as if God was responding to the disciples’ confusion and helps them to see and hear clearly who Jesus was: “This is my Son, the Chosen. Listen to him.” In fact, a better translation might be, “Keep on listening to him” or “Continue to listen to him.” In the old relationship with God, He gave Moses Ten Commandments to guide his people. In the new relationship with God through Christ, He gives just one—“Listen to him.” Which, I wonder, is easier for us to obey?
Peter, James and John have been party to something extraordinary, and they are at a loss as to how to respond to it, comprehend it. They have been in God’s presence and lived. They have, perhaps, witnessed revered prophets of old pass on the mantel to the one some call the last and greatest prophet, the one whom God identifies as his Son. Peter can only partially grasp the significance of the event. He wants to freeze the moment and commemorate the place.
Jesus, however, tells him that God’s plan is for them to move on to another hill (Calvary) after spending time in the low places. Faithfulness will require following Jesus to the cross, not commemorating the place of the transfiguration.
How could the disciples anticipate such a result after such a holy moment, after such a display of God’s amazing power and Jesus’ anointing by the Holy One? I suspect our picture of the mighty messiah of God—the holy Son of God—would be much more like what the disciples saw on the mountaintop—Jesus in all of his glory, shining bright in dazzling white. Seeing that, we would know that he is God’s Son—the Chosen One. However, seeing Jesus dying on the cross, we might not be so sure about him. Hearing that voice from heaven, we would know Jesus is God’s son. However, when we hear nothing—the silence on Good Friday—the silence at “down times” in our lives, we might wonder about Jesus. Seeing that dazzling white engulfing Jesus on the mountain, we would be sure. However, seeing the dark red of blood streaming down his face, we wouldn’t be so sure. When Moses and Elijah are at Jesus’ side, he is really somebody special. However, when it’s two convicted criminals, we might wonder about this Jesus. When Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead, we know his power. When our friends get sick and die, we question if Jesus has the power to do anything for us. On the mountain, Peter talks about building dwellings or shrines to this glorious moment—and he doesn’t know what he is saying. However, at the trial, Peter denies he knows Jesus—does he know what he is saying then? On the mountain it was easy to believe. At the cross, it was nearly impossible.
So how do we make sense of this Transfiguration event for ourselves? What do we do with the “mountaintop experiences” God gives us?
Lowell Erdahl suggested decades ago: “The vision of glory is not given for our escape, but for our encouragement and strengthening. Having glimpsed his glory we are to find our strength not in ourselves, not in our own wit and wisdom, not in the might of our money nor in the power of our nation but in the power of God who transfigures and transforms and empowers our lives to carry forward his will of love. As we have beheld his glory so now by his grace let us follow him even in the way of the cross.”
With Peter, James and John we have glimpsed his glory. We listen to him and now seek to move forward with him. Those disciples wanted to settle down and make the place into a sacred shrine. Not so for Jesus. He had work to do. He was on the way toward the cross and the disciples were to move on with him. The vision was over and “Jesus was found alone.”
As we follow him, we discover that we too are being led on the way of the cross. That cross is not only the sign of God’s suffering and saving love. That cross not only marks the cost of our eternal salvation. That cross tells of the way we are created to live. That cross shows the price of Christlike living in a sinful world.”
Some congregations have etched in the floors of their churches or written at the beginning and end of their liturgies, “Enter to worship. Depart to serve.”
During the new worship book and hymnal training, one of the presenters did not quite get how the words that left his mouth were heard by others. He said that at the end of our time in God’s presence, we usually say, “Go in peace. Do something.”
Peter, James, and John, while in the presence of God and company of his Son, were provided direction and opportunity to change their lives and influence the lives of others. God helped them to hear and to know in their heart of hearts that Jesus was his Son and that he would accomplish God’s will in the world. “Listen to him; keep listening to him,” they were told.
That message is for us as well. “Listen to him; keep listening to him.” Allow the rare mountaintop experiences of your lives, your encounters with the Almighty, to enable you to trust that he will be with you in the deserts and rough places as well. Allow the rare mountaintop experiences of your lives, your encounters with the Almighty, to change you and move you and bring you from mountaintop to valley, from hilltop cross to empty tomb.
As you leave our worship today, go in the peace of Christ. Do something.
Copyright © 2007 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org