February 7, 2016
The first time I remember having a mountaintop experience, I was actually on top of a mountain. I was in Montreat, North Carolina with a group of senior high school students, members of my youth group from my church in Richmond, Virginia. For many Presbyterians, going to Montreat is a pilgrimage. I can’t say that it ranks up there with making pilgrimages to Mecca or other holy sites in other countries … but it is close.
The kids in my youth group loved going to the Montreat youth conferences in the summer. It was something they looked forward to all year long, and it was something that we worked to raise money for all year long. As a youth leader, I helped washed cars at car washes, helped organize an elaborate and sophisticated Valentine’s Day dinner for parents and other church members, and led silly parodies at a Cabaret Night. All of this was done with the intent of getting to Montreat. Everyone who had been there told me it would be an experience I would never forget. I would love it, they said. I would hate leaving, they said. Honestly, I worried that the actual Montreat would not live up to the glowing picture of the place the kids and other adults had painted. I was wrong.
It was beautiful. And amazing. And spectacular. The mountains were glorious, the sunrises and sunsets were glorious. The conference was incredible. Each worship service seemed to be even more meaningful and moving than the one before. I loved the workshops I participated in, and I loved the other youth and adults I got to know. My bond with my own youth grew stronger in that week. I learned how to do the group dance Star Trekkin, and play the game Killer. To top it all off (no pun intended), when we left Richmond I had not yet gotten official confirmation about my application to seminary. Before our week in Montreat was up, I received the word that I would be starting in Hebrew school at the end of month.
I absolutely loved everything about my time in Montreat. I was so inspired and motivated in my faith and in my life that I promised myself that I would never lose that enthusiasm. I would never let myself forget how powerful it was to be on that mountain, feeling closer to God than I ever had before. But what goes up must come down. The week came to an end and we had to leave the mountain and drive back down into the valley.
Not all valleys are valleys of despair. Valleys have their beauty too. There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about being in a valley. But after that time on top of the mountain, being back in the valley didn’t seem quite as nice. I have been mixing the literal and the metaphorical in this illustration. I was literally on top of a mountain, and while there I had a metaphorical mountaintop experience.
I wonder if this kind of mix isn’t also happening in Luke’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop in our passage from the gospel. Regardless of which gospel version we are reading, the story of the transfiguration is just strange. It is a moment of supernatural splendor that we children of the enlightenment may struggle to picture, imagine, or even fully believe. Jesus takes three disciples, Peter, John and James, up a mountain. Jesus often traveled up a mountain to pray and to find rest, so it isn’t a surprise to read that he’s climbing one again. We often interpret his choosing of these three disciples as indicative that they were special to him. But a point I never get tired of repeating is homiletics professor Anna Carter Florence’s suggestion that perhaps these three weren’t up there because they were ahead of the others. Maybe they were chosen because they were in the remedial group.
Either way, Peter, John and James climb to the mountaintop with Jesus. Having hiked many times in my life, I know how tiring that can be, so I can understand their sleepiness at the top. In spite of that, they resisted napping and oh boy were they rewarded! Because they stayed awake, they saw Jesus transfigured. They saw his face change and his clothes become dazzling white. They saw two men suddenly appear with Jesus, talking with him. Somehow, they recognized the two men as Moses and Elijah. That recognition is astonishing in itself. Moses and Elijah lived hundreds and hundreds of years before. I doubt there were any images of them inscribed on coins. There was no such thing as holy prophet collector cards. Still, they recognized Moses and Elijah. And as terrifying as this may have been for them, it was also exhilarating. Peter was so excited he wanted to make little tents for the three transfigured men.
“Jesus! This is great! Let’s stay here. Let me build some dwelling places for the three of you.”
But before Peter could finish his sentence, they were engulfed in a cloud and a voice spoke to them from its mists.
“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
When the voice finished, Moses and Elijah were gone. Jesus looked like Jesus again, and whatever the disciples may have been thinking about what they had just seen, they didn’t talk about it. They kept silent and told no one.
A commentator pointed out something about this dramatic scene that I had never thought about before. This was a visual moment. Jesus’ face and appearance changed. Even his clothes changed. He was transfigured before their very eyes. They saw the two great prophets of history and of the promised future. They witnessed Jesus talking with them. They heard God’s voice, but they saw the cloud; they were in the cloud. Everything was seen. But what does God tell them? “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Listen. Not, remember what you’ve seen. Not, hold this vivid scene in your minds. Not, watch him and everything he does from now on. Listen. It’s important to remember that this happened eight days after Peter made his great confession about Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah. It happened eight days after Jesus told Peter and the other disciples that being the Messiah meant suffering, dying, and rising again. It happened eight days after Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that. It happened eight days after Jesus rebuked Peter in return, telling him, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem; literally and metaphorically. He wasn’t on a trip to see the sights. He was on his way to confrontation with the powers that be. He was on his way to offering himself up like a sacrificial lamb. He was on his way to suffering and dying; he was on his way to the cross.
Peter, James and John were given this vivid, visual gift. But they were not going to see Jesus for much longer. As much as they needed to remember this moment, they needed to listen to Jesus. They needed to heed his words spoken directly to them, and they needed to hear him through the gift of the Spirit and through others. When they went back down the mountain, when they once more took up residence in the valley, they needed to listen. When they could no longer see Jesus, they needed to listen. They were to listen. Not see. Listen.
So if listening is so important, why title this sermon, “Seeing Glory?” Obviously, the disciples saw glory on that mountaintop. But it was a fleeting thing. It didn’t last. The ability to listen would have to stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives. Yet what about this story following the story of the transfiguration? Jesus and the three went down the mountain and immediately Jesus was approached by a man wanting healing for his son. The boy was possessed by a demon, and the man had already asked Jesus’ disciples for help to no avail. The disciples were unable to do it, but Jesus could. If we are called upon to listen to Jesus, what does he say at that moment?
“You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”
Maybe we could paraphrase this as, “You people who just don’t get it, how much longer do I have to put up with your confusion and misunderstanding?” Jesus rebuked the demon in the boy. Jesus restored him to health. Jesus’s words in that valley probably seemed the opposite of the Jesus they had seen on the mountain. But were the disciples able to recognize the glory in that moment, as surely as they recognized it on the mountaintop?
I’ve been asking people to give me their definition of glory this week. Most have defined it as “radiant,” “magnificent,” “glowing.” Certainly Jesus’ visage on the mountain fits that understanding of glory, but I think the real challenge for the disciples and us is not wrapping our minds around a radiant, transfigured Jesus. It is in seeing glory in other ways, in other places, even in the valley.
This week I saw a story about two mothers. One mother had lost her baby boy, Lukas, when he was only seven months old. The other mother’s baby girl, Jordan, was born with a congenital heart defect. If she did not receive a heart transplant, she would surely die. Tragically, Lukas died suddenly. In the midst of what must have been overwhelming pain and heartache, Lukas’ mom decided to donate his organs. Jordan received his heart – and lived.
In this story, the mothers meet for the first time after three years have passed. The mothers hug and cry and Jordan’s mother thanks Lukas’ mom for this incredible gift. Then, Lukas’ mom puts on a stethoscope and holds it to Jordan’s chest. After so much time, she hears her baby’s heart again. Jordan’s mom says, “That’s your baby.” Lukas’ mom says, “It’s so strong.”
She listens to her baby’s heart, and we see glory.
We do not get the chance to see Jesus in his glory as the three disciples did on that mountaintop. We don’t get to remain in our own mountaintop experiences. It would seem that most of our lives are spent in the valleys. But as the disciples were called to listen, so are we. In this Sunday between Epiphany and Lent, we are called to listen to Jesus. And if we listen, if we pay attention, if we open our hearts and our minds to God’s voice in the world, we just might see glory as well.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”