To the Mountaintop…and Beyond
Jesus’ closest followers saw Jesus “transfigured” on a mountaintop and heard God say “listen to him”. This encounter strengthened their faith in Jesus as God’s Son and prepared them for the tough road ahead. In the same way, our own “mountaintop experiences” can carry us through the challenges and low points we experience in life.
There are mountaintop experiences like the ones I had in Boy Scouts that I shared with the children, where we reach the summit, marvel at the views of the scenery below, and feel this amazing sense of accomplishment for making it to the top.
And then there are those figurative mountaintop experiences that we might call spiritual highs, those times when we catch glimpses of the glory of God, times when we feel like we are standing on holy ground, times when feel so close to Jesus that his presence is so real, so intimate.
Can you think of a mountaintop experience that you have had?
These kinds of spiritual highs aren’t limited by topography; then can take place in the Shenandoah mountains, or on a beach in the Outer Banks. We can have them in the deserts of the Southwest or on the plains of the Heartland, at a camp or a retreat, and even in our own backyard.
And mountaintop experiences aren’t limited to the outdoors; they can take place in buildings, whether we are alone in the quiet of our living room or with a large crowd in a concert hall. We can have these meaningful encounters with God anytime and anywhere, sometimes surprising us when we least expect it.
When I think of the mountaintop experiences in my own life, one place my mind takes me to is the youth conventions of the Mennonite Church. I was a youth leader at the two former churches I served,
and then when I was at Bluffton I would usually be part of the team that set up a display in the exhibit hall to connect with the youth from all the churches. So every other year from 1995 until 2017 I was there.
At the worship services, the singing was powerful, the speakers were inspiring, and the mood was like a joyful celebration. Sometimes there were beach balls bouncing in the air.
Just like the youth, I would always come back from those conventions on a spiritual high, excited about my faith in God, and energized by relationships that have gone deeper and new friendships that were made.
They were truly unforgettable mountaintop experiences for me and for so many others who attended, and they left us with memories that will last a lifetime.
In our scripture today known as the Transfiguration, three of Jesus’ disciples had a mountaintop experience that I would guess they would soon not forget as well.
The passage starts out by saying “After 6 days”. So let’s first take a look back to see what happened 6 days earlier. And what we find is Jesus asking his disciples a couple of questions:
He asks, “Who do people say that I am?” And they give answers like John the Baptist, Elijah, or another prophet. And then Jesus makes it personal by asking, “But who do YOU say that I am?”
And Peter, true to form as the impulsive, spontaneous, passionate, wear-your-heart-and-mind-on-your-sleeve disciple, speaks up first, proclaiming “You are the Messiah.”
And then Jesus starts teaching them about the consequences of him being the Messiah, that he will suffer, he will die, and then rise again three days later.
And Peter doesn’t like what he hears, and in his classic form gets all riled up and takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. But Jesus won’t have any of it, so he rebukes Peter, telling him “Get behind me, Satan!”, saying to him,
You’ve got your mind not on divine things but human things. In other words, “You’re seeing things from the world’s point of view and not from God’s”.
And then Jesus gives a mini-sermon on what it costs to truly be his follower. This is not Christianity-light, or watered-down discipleship; it’s a call to take up your cross to follow him wherever he leads.
It’s a call to save your life through losing it for the sake of the gospel. It’s a call to not be afraid or ashamed to cast your lot with Jesus, no matter what the cost is, no matter how out-of-step you seem to be with the world around you.
And then Jesus ends this section by saying that some standing there with him will not die until they see the Kingdom of God coming with power. Well, in literary terms, that’s called foreshadowing, because this witness of power is just around the corner.
So here we are 6 days later, and Jesus takes his inner circle, his “executive leadership team” in business terms, his three closest followers Peter, James and John on a hike up a mountain.
And when they get to the top, Jesus starts glowing like a 10,000 watt light bulb, so bright that his disciples are blinded looking directly at him.
Mark describes Jesus’ clothes as “radiantly, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them”. I mean, this is right out of a Tide or Chlorox commercial!
And then two prominent figures of the Israelites in the Old Testament appear next to Jesus, both who had their own experiences of encountering God on a mountaintop.
First Moses, who God gave the 10 Commandments to on Mt. Sinai, which were to be the Law that guided God’s people in how they should live.
And then Elijah, the Prophet who met God in sheer silence while he was in hiding on Mount Horeb, and it gave him a renewed courage to go back down the mountain and speak truth to God’s people.
We can say that Moses represents the Law and Elijah the Prophets, and both were precursors and preparers for the coming of the Messiah, who is now here standing with them in all his glory.
And then who do you think is the first disciple to speak up upon seeing this display on the mountaintop? Yes, it’s Peter. The story says that he and James and John are scared as all get out of what they see.
And sometimes when we’re terrified we are either left speechless, or we blurt out something that’s not completely thought through, which Peter would have done even if he wasn’t scared, I guess.
So Peter shouts out to Jesus, Hey, let’s build three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. I guess Peter wanted them to camp out there for a while at the top of the mountain and just bask in that glow and glory.
And then a cloud hovers over the mountain, and a voice that is the voice of God says, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” This is similar to what God said at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river.
And then Moses and Elijah vanish into thin air, leaving Jesus alone with his three disciples. And they head back down the mountain to reenter the real world.
We don’t use the word “transfiguration” much, but it basically means “changed” or “transformed”. Kind of like those transformer toys that start off as a truck or a tank and you can morph them into action heroes.
(Do you know what the most popular transformer is? Optimus Prime—bright red one. I looked it up on the internet. If you’re into this stuff, on YouTube you can check out the battle between Prime and Megatron.)
There’s all kinds of transformer movies that have been made as well. I’ve never seen any of them or hardly even seen the toys. Our kids never had them because we tried to steer them away from violent toys.
Maybe in our internet/tech age today, the new transformers are all those filters that people can use to change their appearance. I mean you can do some major transfigurations with those things.
You can give yourself bunny ears or a puppy nose, or distort your face in all kinds of contortions. Did you know that there’s even a filter on Zoom where you can turn your face into a cat face. Did you see the lawyer do that in a Zoom court hearing? That video went viral!
I’ve got to say that he had impeccable timing, giving all of us preachers a great illustration for Transfiguration Sunday! And I needed a good laugh this week with the tension of the impeachment trial and the frustration of trying to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Ok, now back to the transfiguration of Jesus, which is the most pertinent topic right now. This story takes place on the last week of the season of Epiphany, which is a time when we focus on the appearances, the manifestations of Jesus as the Son of God.
The transfiguration is like the exclamation point at the end of Epiphany, showing Jesus in all his glory, shining like a blinding light on top of that mountain.
It’s a fitting bookend to the beginning of Epiphany which begins right after Christmas. And I love the way that John’s gospel describes the Epiphany, the appearance of God’s coming in the form of Jesus into the world:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14). This is actually the verse that the Virginia Mennonite Conference has invited congregations to reflect upon in this coming year, and it’s a good one to explore.
And right now I want to reflect a bit on the second half of the verse, where John says that we have seen his glory, this unique glory that is in reality the glory of God, a glory that embodies the grace and truth of God’s nature.
Why did Jesus make an appearance in all his glory to his closest disciples at that time up on that mountain?
I think we can get a clue from what happened right before this event. As I mentioned earlier, we saw Jesus telling his disciples that if they were serious about following him, it would mean a life of sacrifice, self-denial, taking up one’s cross, and possibly suffering.
Jesus was calling them to a life that would not be popular with their peers or their families, that would go against the grain of the culture around them,
The life of a disciple of Jesus will likely encounter opposition, maybe even persecution, so it requires perseverance in order to not lose heart, back down or abandon the faith.
Could Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain be what the disciples needed for the road ahead?
Seeing Jesus shining in all his glory showed them that he truly was who he said he was and confirmed what Peter had said earlier: that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was both human and divine, the Son of God who had power and authority over all things, even the power to overcome the forces of death by rising from the grave.
And Hearing the voice of God say “this is my is beloved Son; listen to Him” was a message of grace and truth; it confirmed to the disciples that Jesus’ message of sacrificial love, compassion for the least of these and justice for all was worth listening to and dedicating their life to when they came down from that mountain.
That mountaintop experience was a spiritual high for the disciples. It gave them the assurance that they were following the right rabbi.
And it gave them the courage, the confidence and the hope they would need to get through the bumps in the road, the deep valleys and the barren deserts that might await them when they came down from that mountain.
Throughout history, mountaintop experiences have helped people of faith live with conviction, courage and faithfulness to the way of Jesus, even in the face of opposition and persecution.
During this month of February that is Black History Month, we remember the legacy of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. In his speech at the March on Washington in 1963, Dr. King said he had a dream,
a dream which was rooted in the Biblical vision of justice, peace, and freedom for all, where the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
Five years later on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, in Dr. King’s final speech he said that he wasn’t concerned about how much longer he would live, and that he only wanted to do God’s will.
He said, “And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
I don’t know the exact nature of King’s mountaintop experience with God. They’re different with each person. But we know that he had a deep relationship with God that was nurtured through prayer, through community and a love of scripture, and God’s vision of justice, peace and reconciliation for the world.
And these are the things that gave him the courage and the conviction to dedicate his life to making his dream become a reality.
Today is Valentine’s Day. Did you all remember that? Learning about the life of St. Valentine who lived in the 3rd century makes me think that he also had been to the mountaintop.
The story says that Saint Valentine was a Roman priest who performed secret weddings for Christians against the wishes of the authorities in a time when Christians were persecuted.
He was put in prison in the home of a noble leader, and then he healed the leader’s blind daughter, causing the whole household to convert to Christianity. His “reward” for this was being sentenced to death. Before his execution, he sent the girl a note signed “Your Valentine.
Most of us here live in a different reality today, but like Jesus’ disciples, like St. Valentine, MLK and so many other saints who have gone before us, if we seek to be faithful to the way of Jesus, we will face opposition and sometimes suffering as well. And we all will go through hard times, times of doubt and despair.
And thankfully, God provides us with mountaintop experiences to give us assurance that we are on the right path, to give us strength and courage we need to live a life of faithfulness, and to give us hope when life gets tough.
Those mountaintop experiences can take all kinds of shapes and forms. They can take place at a large worship service like a convention, or at a gathering where we experience a deep sense of belonging and community and love with others.
Or they can take place when we are alone with God in stillness and silence, like Elijah experienced the presence of God on that mountain.
We can’t live going from one mountaintop experience to another, life is not just one spiritual high. But God gives us the gift of memory,
of remembering those times when we experienced the presence and the faithfulness and the glory of God in a way that touched us and moved us deeply, like Jesus’ transfiguration did for his disciples.
So may we open our hearts and our minds to meet God on the mountaintop, wherever we are, however and whenever God chooses to manifest His presence to us. And may those experiences create memories that will carry us through the rough roads, the valleys, and deserts we experience in life, knowing that God is good and faithful and always with us, even when we can’t feel his presence. AMEN.