Originally Preached at Alger First UMC on 2/26/2017
Transfiguration Sunday, Year A
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”
I’d like to talk about mountaintop experiences today. Now, when we hear that phrase, “mountaintop experiences,” many of us might normally think of them as these extremely powerful and emotional and spiritual moments, where Jesus feels closer to us than ever before.
But today, I want to widen our definition of “mountaintop experiences.” Maybe they’re not necessarily spiritual or religious experiences, but simply a hugely meaningful time where we feel like we’re up on cloud 9, floating above everyone else, feeling all warm and fuzzy.
For me, I had this kind of mountaintop experience when my fiancé Lauren and I took a road trip out west last summer to visit some of my relatives in Missouri, Colorado, and Iowa. It wasn’t an experience I would necessarily call “spiritual” or “religious,” but it was still a week where I felt incredibly close to all my aunts and uncles we visited and I felt incredibly close to Lauren – sometimes too close, because it was a long drive out there, I tell you what. But still an incredibly meaningful experience for both of us.
What about you? Maybe you had a mountaintop experience at a Chrysalis flight or Emmaus walk or a church service. Or maybe yours was that one family vacation you took where no one argued and everyone actually got along. Maybe yours was when you got a promotion at your job and everyone recognized your hard work. Or maybe it was when you got married, or maybe it was when that grandbaby was born.
Of course it’s not like we can only have one mountaintop experience. But maybe we can all think of at least one mountaintop experience in our lives. What was your mountaintop experience?
To be honest, this topic of “mountaintop experiences” is probably the most stereotypical topic to talk about on this day. Today is Transfiguration Sunday. You heard me read the passage from Matthew’s Gospel earlier about Jesus’ transfiguration up on that mountain. Every year, the Revised Common Lectionary has the Sunday before Lent as Transfiguration Sunday. So we read about Jesus’ Transfiguration every year in the lectionary. We read every year about seeing Jesus in all his glory as the Son of God up on the mountaintop
In fact, all the Scriptures assigned to today by the lectionary were read earlier because they all have something to do with this event. The passage from Exodus tells the story of Moses going up on another mountain to get the 10 commandments, and God’s glory descends upon that mountain just like in Jesus’ transfiguration. And in the passage from 1 Peter, Peter himself is telling his church that he saw this event.
To be honest, when I think of this event of Jesus’ transfiguration, the first place my mind goes is Harry Potter. Transfiguration class with McGonnagal, right? I also think of that scene in the movie Beauty & the Beast where the beast transforms from beast into a man. Light shoots out from his face and his hands – sounds familiar, right?
But we’re talking about Jesus’ transfiguration up on that mountain. Now I think the setting on the mountain is actually really important. Both the Exodus passage and this story in Matthew’s gospel happen on a mountain. And have we read about anything else happening on a mountain in Matthew? I think of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 where Jesus unpacks what life in the Kingdom of God looks like. So what this tells me is that a mountaintop is an important place to be.
In both of those stories from Exodus and Matthew, we’re up on a mountain and have these dramatic, tangible, overwhelming, and terrifying experiences of God. Utter closeness with holiness.
In fact, I think this is where we get the phrase “mountaintop experience.” Right? For us Christians, like I said earlier, the normal way to think about these “mountaintop experiences” is to think of those moments when Jesus feels so close that you could almost touch him; where you’re overwhelmed by the presence of the holy. When I was in my church’s high school youth group, we called it a “Jesus high.” When we were on a retreat or at camp, we would call it “warm fuzzy night” because this mountaintop experience left you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.
Maybe you can name those experiences you had on your own mountaintop.
These mountaintop experiences can be transformative moments in our lives; experiences that show us something new about ourselves or our family or God. And they don’t have to be explicitly religious, right? Maybe you see God in the birth of a new baby, or you experience holiness in the time you spent with close friends. These mountaintop experiences are experiences of intimacy with God and other people because God is present in all relationships, whether it’s a religious thing or not
I think we’ve all had these intense, joyous, wonderful experiences that you just want to hold onto and stay on that mountaintop.
Maybe that’s why Peter wanted to build those shrines. He sees Jesus shining as bright as the sun, he sees Moses and Elijah – two central figures in his Jewish faith – and he sees the glory of God fully revealed.
The veil is torn away and he sees this amazing sight and these amazing figures and he says “This is awesome! Let’s build these shrines or tents so that we can stay up here basking in the glow, so we can remember this forever!” Isn’t that what we do when we have our mountaintop experience, spiritual or otherwise? We want to stay up there with those warm fuzzies.
But the truth is that after our mountaintop experience, we have to descend and go down the mountain. Isn’t that the worst part?
During the summer of 2012, I did an internship through our Annual Conference that was for college students discerning a call to ministry. I worked at Fort McKinley Church, a branch campus of Ginghamsburg UMC in the Dayton area. And it was a really intense summer, working in full-time ministry with all these new experiences and new people. The whole summer was a mountaintop experience. It wasn’t all pleasant, but it was so transformative with all these experiences and people confirming this call to ministry that I’d felt two years earlier. Maybe I could actually do this ministry thing.
The last thing I wanted to do was leave that place and go back to ONU for my sophomore year of college. My last day was a Sunday in August, and I left after worship to drive up to ONU, and as soon as I got to ONU I had to run to marching band practice. It was awful. Because I wanted to hold onto that experience.
We all want to hold onto those times. Maybe you had a great family vacation where you had no arguments and no fighting and you genuinely feel like everyone loves each other. Don’t you want to hold onto that? Maybe your mountaintop experience was with great friends on a trip or at a conference or at Chrysalis or at a concert. Maybe you have a conversion story that was a mountaintop experience for you.
Whatever it was, we all want to hold onto those moments. We feel love, we feel intimacy, we feel close to each other and to God. And we don’t want to let go of all those feelings, the feeling that everything is right with the world. We don’t want to leave those warm fuzzies.
I didn’t want to leave my internship because I knew that I’d have to be around all these people who hadn’t had that same experience. They didn’t know what I’d been through. I mean, I could tell them about my summer, but they wouldn’t really know. I’d been drenched by the Holy Spirit the whole summer, and now I have to go back to normal life?
Even Jesus and his disciples had to descend that mountain. If you read on after this passage in Matthew, you’ll see that right after they came down the mountain, Jesus and his disciples were confronted with this man who wanted Jesus to cast a demon out of his son. Do you think they disciples wanted to deal with this? They had just been drenched with the glory of God shining out of Jesus’ face, wiping away all doubt and disbelief. And now they have to worry about this – really?
So the disciples have this mountaintop experience of Jesus’ transfiguration that they want to keep and hold onto, but they have to descend into normal life. And I think that this shows us a truth.
So often, we read this story and we say “So that’s what Jesus’ glory looks like.” His face was shining like the sun, his clothes are sparkling, Moses and Elijah are with him. So often, we think that this was the one time we could see Jesus in all his glory.
But that’s not really true. Jesus’ glory can be seen all throughout his story – in that manger in Bethlehem, in his baptism in the Jordan River, teaching the Sermon on the Mount, calling the children to himself, every healing and exorcism he performed – Jesus’ glory was on display every day of his life.
Like I said earlier, Lent starts this Wednesday with our Ash Wednesday service at 7. And this is a key thing to remember throughout the season of Lent, preparing for Easter. We can see Jesus’ glory even in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, even when the soldiers beat him, even when the crown of thorns was shoved onto his head, even when he was nailed to a cross, even when he was put into a tomb – Jesus’ glory was still on display.
So yes, Jesus’ disciples saw his full glory as the Son of God, the Messiah, on full display on that mountaintop, but that wasn’t the only time they saw Jesus’ glory. That glory had always been with them and would always be with them. This story is just a fuller unveiling of it.
The truth I’m getting at here is that the full glory of God is with us on the mountaintops and in the valleys.
Mountaintop experiences are great. Feeling close to God is great. Feeling close to family and friends is great, and we should celebrate that. But when we have to come down from our mountaintop and get back into the muck and mire of life, God is just as close to us as God was on the mountaintop.
I love how Matthew tells it. This bright cloud descends, the voice of God thunders out – probably in James Earl Jones’ voice – and the disciples fall down in awe. But then “Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.”
We want to stay on the mountaintop where everything is bright and beautiful and the presence of the holy is palpable. But we eventually have to descend. BUT Jesus goes with us on our descent into the muck and the mire. Jesus’ face won’t always be that bright and shining vision of glory, and it’ll look rather boring and ordinary at times. But Jesus is still with us and in the end, that is all we need.
The full glory of God is with us on the mountaintops and in the valleys, no matter how high and holy your mountaintop is, and no matter how low and dark and painful your valley is.
So what do we do with that?
Maybe you’ve had one of those mountaintop experiences that you’re thinking about right now, whether it’s religious or otherwise. Maybe you got a great promotion in your job, maybe there’s a new grandbaby, maybe you had a great vacation, maybe you had a conversion moment, one of those “Jesus high’s” or warm and fuzzy moments, where you feel like Jesus is so close that you could touch him.
I know there’s a Chrysalis flight happening this weekend and I’m sure this is what the students on that flight are going through, and even the leaders and any of you who might have gone to the candlelight service.
Maybe you’ve had one of those experiences where you were on cloud 9, you feel like you could see the world in a whole new way. But now you’re back in the muck and mire and boredom of everyday life, and you wonder how you can go on.
If that’s you, I want you to know that God is just as close to you right now as it felt on your mountaintop. Jesus is still just as close now even though you can’t see or feel him as well as when you were on your mountaintop.
Or maybe you feel like you’re stuck in one of those valleys, and maybe you’re in so deep that you can’t even see a mountaintop. And maybe when I talk about these mountaintop experiences, you don’t even know what I’m talking about. Maybe it feels like you’ve been stuck in a valley for years and years of your life and you have no idea how to get out. You long for one of those mountaintop experiences, but you can’t seem to find it.
If that’s you, I want you to know that Jesus is with you too. Because Jesus has been where you are. Jesus was tempted for those 40 days in the wilderness, rejected by family and friends. He was beaten, tortured, and killed. Jesus can feel what you’re feeling. Jesus’ heart breaks with you, and whether or not you can feel him, Jesus is with you.
Our faith must not rest solely on whether or not we can feel Jesus, where we’re constantly in pursuit of the next mountaintop. Because real discipleship happens in the valleys. Jesus calls us to follow him, and that means to follow him even unto death. And that happens only in the valleys of our life. In fact, following Jesus happens mostly in those valleys. Sure, there are some mountaintops, and those are awesome. But it’s mostly valleys, were we can’t feel or see Jesus very well. But whether or not Jesus’ presence is evident or obvious to us – because it’s usually not – we can have faith that Jesus in all his glory from that mountaintop is with us