Texts: Psalm 99 and Matthew 17:1-9
How many of you have had a mountaintop experience? Now, you may not know exactly how to answer that because the term “mountaintop experience” has come to mean a couple different things. One is a literal experience of being on top of a mountain and exhilaration that is felt of achieving a summit after a long hike or horseback ride from the valley below. Being able to see a vast 360 degree panorama can be dizzying, where everywhere you look you see pure beauty. The mountaintop is a place that brings about huge emotional reactions for people. Some people feel elated, as though they are part of the mountain, or almost able to fly out over the horizon. For others, the experience makes them feel small, just a tiny grain of sand in a vast universe. Some are just brought to tears. This past summer, I got to climb the Eagle Cap here in the Wallowas with two of my old college buddies, and it is a place where I know many of you have been, too. The views of the other mountains like Hurricane Ridge and Sacajawea, and the Lakes Basin is nothing but awe inspiring. It is almost as if you are at the heart of the range as the rivers and major streams radiate out from the summit in all directions. A mountain top experience allows one to see forever and sense they are a part of something, something greater and grander than oneself. Almost as if there isn’t anything one can’t do. The eyes seem to see the world with greater clarity. One can see where one has come from and the direction one is headed. One is changed by the experience.
So it is not surprising that when someone has a deep spiritual encounter with or revelation about God, a spiritual high so to speak, it is also called a mountaintop experience, even when a mountain isn’t involved. People use that term when they have an epiphany, a sudden understanding of the way things work with their life with God. This kind of mountaintop experience is an “aha” moment when something falls into place about faith or the nature of God. Emotions can go in any direction in such an encounter with the Holy. Some feel elation, others feel fear. But the main thing that happens is the person is changed by the new revelation or encounter. Their life changes, how they interact with others changes, how they view God changes. Life no longer proceeds like it once did, but now proceeds down a new path.
In scripture, we find God revealing himself and encountering humanity on several occasions. And based upon what just being on top of a mountain can do to us, it is of no surprise that some of the most momentous God/humanity encounters happen there. Probably the two most well known biblical mountain top stories are of Moses and Elijah’s encounter with God. Moses had several of these meetings with God. It is where he received his calling from God at the burning bush and it was where he became the law-giver to his people after God had lead them out of Egypt. As the Hebrews were in the wilderness, God’s presence would descend onto the mountain and the mountain would appear to be devoured in flames. Not only did these encounters with God change Moses’ calling from a sheep herder in the desert to Israel’s liberator and law giver, his meetings with God changed him physically. When Moses would come down off the mountain, he had to wear a veil because his face shined so brightly that his appearance frightened the people.
Elijah, the great prophet, encountered God on the mountain in almost as spectacular fashion as Moses. He had just been on a mountain top where God had defeated the prophets of Baal with a spectacular show of fire from heaven. When he receives a death threat from Jezebel, he flees for his life and ends up on a cave on mount Horeb. God asks him what he is doing there, responding that he alone is left in his zeal for the Lord. After the great wind that split the rocks, after the earthquake and the fire, God spoke to Elijah in a small, still voice from the silence of the mountain top. Elijah met with God and the experience reaffirmed Elijah’s as God’s prophet and confirmed that he wasn’t alone in his love of the Lord, so that he could turn and face whatever lie ahead.
In today’s text, we find Jesus and his closest disciples climbing a mountain, probably to pray. From the top, they could see both literally and figuratively where they had been and where they were going. Six days previously, Jesus had been meeting with his disciples, and had asked them one of the most important questions in scripture, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responses that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the living God.” He orders them not to tell anyone about this, and begins to teach them that the messiah must suffer, must die, and must rise again from the dead. Peter says no, that is not what is to happen to the messiah, and is rebuked by Jesus.
Now, Jesus and three disciples are on a mountaintop in prayer. Jesus’ face changes and his clothes become dazzling white, so white that it was unbearable, like looking at the midday sun. Suddenly, in the midst of this light, Moses and Elijah appear to talk with him. They too appear in glory and talk to Jesus. Peter’s reaction and suggestion to build three dwellings or booths was probably to prolong this incredible experience, but before he could even finish his words, a bright cloud overshadowed them and a booming voice from the clouds that says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Peter, James and John fall to the ground in fear, and with the reassuring touch from Jesus, look up, and see only him. Their encounter with the Holy has left them frightened and unsure how to proceed. Jesus tells them not to be afraid, he is with them.
If a mountain top experience changes people, how was Jesus changed when he met with Moses and Elijah? Literally, the word that is translated transfigured in our reading this morning is metamorphosis, a complete change of physical form. It can also mean to change the outside to match the inside. His full, true nature is revealed. In a way, his disciples were witnessing his glorified self that they wouldn’t witness again until after his resurrection. They were seeing his full humanity and full divinity revealed at the same time. Jesus is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets. All the law taught and that the prophet’s spoke was of him. The law and the prophets pointed to his coming; his birth, life, death, and resurrection. He was fulfilling all that God had been preparing for this moment and for the weeks to come. The disciples were seeing the true glory of the Messiah as God had promised.
How does this mountain top experience change the disciples? Peter had a perception of what the messiah must be and do. The messiah would be both a religious and a political figure, freeing Israel from Rome and bringing the glory back to Israel they once knew. And the disciples would be the Messiah’s right hand men, so to speak. Jesus’ transfiguration is just the beginning of seeing that he is not the kind of Messiah that God has sent. They must set aside their preconceived notions about discipleship and messiahship and listen, truly listen to Jesus and journey with him. And the journey begins by coming down the mountain.
Friends, we can’t stay on the mountain. We must leave our preconceived notions about who we think Jesus is and listen to him about who he says he is. This encounter happens to help us take the first steps down the mountain. From the top, we can see where they are going. From Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah and his transfiguration, Jesus now sets his sights on Jerusalem, to show them that the Messiah is also the suffering servant of all. Jesus had been telling them about what was to come, but they either wouldn’t listen or understand. Now it is time to listen. The path leads to Jerusalem, to his betrayal, to his arrest, and to a cross that stands on another mountain. That is where he will find his glory. Today’s mountain top experience is to prepare them, to prepare us, for that journey.
This Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, when we begin the journey with Jesus as a time of self reflection, repentance, and renewal. Jesus will continue teaching us about what it means to be his disciples and what it means that he is the Messiah. Like Peter, James, and John, we need to follow for awhile and listen to Jesus, listen to him about what it means to be his disciples, that it means for him to be the Messiah of God. We are invited to listen, truly listen to him, to see where we have come from and realize where he is leading us.
Friends, it is time to get up and begin the journey off the mountain. There will be times we will question, moments we will be tempted, incidents that will cause us to doubt, and times we will want to walk away from this Messiah because he doesn’t fit our understanding of what a true messiah should be. In all that, along this journey to the cross, we may experience fear. Jesus tells us not to be afraid. He says that because he is with us on the journey. He is with us on the journey as we look back over our lives to see where we have been and he is with us as we look ahead where we are going. He is with us so that on Easter morning we will be prepared to meet our once crucified Lord, risen in all of his glory.