“A Mountaintop Experience”
February 14, 2021
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart,
by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses,
who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice,
‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’
Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen,
until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Images of the actual mountain, Mt. Tabor, where the transfiguration of Jesus reportedly occurred
are included in today’s service.
The mountain itself is shaped like an upside down bowl.
It is larger than it appears from the local highway.
It would be a steep, but not so long, walk to the top, probably about a mile uphill.
Mt. Tabor reminds me of Kennesaw Mountain, just north of Marietta.
The day my group of pastors arrived on Mt. Tabor in our tour bus,
the air was cool and foggy, almost ethereal. There is a beautiful chapel near the peak of the mountain,
and all along a stone wall, not far from the chapel, someone had planted bougainvillea bushes.
We were there in early spring, and the bougainvilleas were alive with bright blossoms.
I could well imagine Jesus, James, Peter, and John, after an invigorating walk to the summit,
relaxing among the rocks and trees, enjoying the beauty of nature.
I can imagine that they had gone there to get away from the crowds for a while,
to soak in some precious time in the woods, to listen for the voice of God.
They climbed the mountain just six days after Jesus and Peter had had an uncomfortable encounter.
Jesus had begun to teach the disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,
that he must be rejected by the elders, and killed.
Peter had taken Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
but Jesus rebuked Peter, and said to him, “Get behind me, Satan!
For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:31-33)
Just six days later, Jesus took Peter, along with James and John, to a mountaintop,
perhaps to reset Peter’s mind, to ensure that he was thinking about divine things.
The uncommon event that happened there has traditionally been called the “transfiguration.”
“Transfigure” simply means “to change”.
The gospels report that the appearance of Jesus’ face changed, and his clothes became as dazzling white.
Like one of those awe-inspiring time-stands-still experiences that happens only occasionally in life,
this event does not fit neatly into our logical categories.
Matthew called it a vision. Luke makes it clear it was the presence of God.
Mark, in his typical brevity, gives little more than a chronological account of what happened.
Jesus and the three disciples with him had some awe-inspiring experience of the presence of God
that few persons will ever have the privilege to witness this side of death.
This was an event not unlike Moses on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments.
This was an event not unlike Elijah on Mount Horeb when he heard the still, small voice of God.
This was an event to be remembered, to be honored, but not solely for the sake of the event itself,
but for what the event would mean to Jesus and the disciples once they were back in the valley.
Across the eons, persons of faith have been nurtured by mountaintop experiences.
Pilgrims have walked hundreds and hundreds of miles to visit holy sites.
Faithful have gathered at festivals and conferences with thousands of others to worship, to sing,
to be renewed.
Seekers have discovered the presence of God in the glory of the mountains
or in the awesome power of the sea.
Many have had strange dreams, or chance encounters, or visions in the night
that granted them comfort or direction from God.
Such experiences awaken us to the presence of God and may even turn our lives
toward a different direction.
Such experiences are important to the life of faith.
This transfiguration moment was important to Jesus and his disciples.
The remembrance of such an experience can give strength in the present and hope for the future.
On this Valentine’s Day, many of you can remember a special or extraordinary event
in your relationship with your loved one, when your hearts were full and two lived as one.
The remembrance of these events is important to our relationships.
When time stands still in some wondrous moment and we recognize something special going on
between two persons with a special relationship,
the impact of such an experience stays with us long after the event.
If we could but stop time and live in the radiance of such moments,
our lives would consist of nothing but joy and wonder and awe!
Ah, but such a life is rarely found. Soon, the rush of human life continues.
We do not live most of our lives in a mountaintop experience; we live mostly in the valleys of life.
After the transfiguration, Peter, James, and John followed Jesus back down the mountain.
They followed him back into the streets and marketplaces,
back to the crowds who were arguing with one another and who wanted so much from them,
back to the daily grind where there were bills to pay and work to do.
In those places, it can become difficult to listen. It can difficult sometimes even to believe.
The remembrance of a special event, the remembrance of some awareness of God,
can keep our lives pointed in the right direction,
can encourage us when it feels as though God is far away.
The voice from heaven called out to them on the mountain, “Listen to him!” “Listen to Jesus!”
The implication is that in the valley, when he tells you that he must suffer and die,
and when he tells you that you must take up your cross and follow him, still you must listen.
The season of Lent begins this Wednesday, the season of preparation for Holy Week and Easter.
Lent has traditionally been a season to become more intentional about our daily walk with Christ.
Lent is characterized by practices of reflection, repentance and sacrifice.
This year, as part of our preparation, our Faith Formation Council is encouraging us to “Do the Work”,
specifically, to begin doing the work of dismantling structural racism.
The purpose of our Lenten Journey, “Doing the Work”, will be to listen to Jesus.
As dig deeper into the nuances of systemic racism, and begin to recognize more clearly own our part in
it, we will actively engage in doing the hard work of dismantling racist structures within ourselves;
so that we can more effectively work to dismantle racial systems around us.
Did you notice that the NFL, the National Football League, announced last Sunday during the Super
Bowl that it has committed $250 million dollars to address systemic racism?
The metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce announced recently a multi-year, multi-step action plan
designed to help address the ongoing effects of systemic racism.
Over the past year, hundreds of Atlanta corporations and institutions have made fresh commitments
to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
A helpful way for us, the Church, to participate in this huge, national task, will be to educate ourselves,
as we listen for how Jesus related to other human beings,
and as we dig into some of the new and helpful resources now available.
What we are encouraging you to do, along with your pastors and your elders,
over the next six weeks, is five things:
Read at least one book on this issue.
Watch at least one movie.
Read one article per week.
Watch one short video per week.
Keep a journal of your experience.
And, in addition, talk about your experiences with someone else, with an accountability partner.
This list and the resources recommended are on our church website and are in emails from the church.
And we invite you to register your name as a participant.
The same voice that commanded the disciples on the mountain, saying: Listen to him!,
still speaks to us today.
Listen for that voice along this Lenten journey. Listen for the voice of God, for the will of God,
as you encounter challenging resources on racism and equity.
Most of us will spend very little time on the mountaintops of life, fully aware of God’s presence.
Most of us will spend the majority of our time in the valleys, in the day-to-day activities,
in the streets and marketplaces, among the crowds, where God’s presence can be difficult to discern.
In these places, it is most urgent to listen, to wait for God, and to obey the Spirit’s leading.
And the good news, the surprising good news!
is that God often reveals God’s self in the valley, just as much as on the mountain.
Over the next six weeks of Lent, I anticipate that we will be able to lean on memories of mountaintops,
even as we begin to recognize more clearly God’s presence in the ordinary events of life,
even as we learn to see with new eyes and hear with fresh ears.
Friends, we invite you to join us on the journey of this Lenten season.
May our memories strengthen us as we do our holy work,
and may God show up for us in the midst of whatever challenging valleys we may face.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church