On the Mountaintop

Below is my sermon from Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018. It’s based on our reading from Mark 9. It was also our Annual Meeting Sunday at St. Paul’s, which brought me to the main focus of this sermon: where is Jesus leading us? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

My family had been stuck in the car for about five hours when we finally pulled into the National Park. We were bickering, as families do, especially when they’ve been forced into a small space together for the past week or so. The back and forth between my brother and me continued as we stretched our legs, and the increasingly ill-tempered snapping from my parents did nothing to stop it.

But, when we came up over the small hill to the outlook point, we all stopped. We didn’t speak at all. In front of us lay the Grand Canyon and awe and majesty of its beauty, its enormity—and our smallness in comparison—took away all of our words.

When I’d told my friend that my family was going on a road trip to see the Grand Canyon, she was really excited. “I can’t tell you how awesome it is,” she said, “I can’t explain it to you, you just have to experience it.” And she was right. No pictures or videos I had seen did the Grand Canyon justice. They cannot capture its magnificence, and words too seem inadequate.

I sometimes feel as if the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of those experiences—where it can’t be explained to us, we simply need to experience it. Only we can’t experience it, because we weren’t there. Almost no one was there, in fact, just Peter and James and John. And we only have these second-hand accounts, written in the gospels years later.

When we try to explain the Transfiguration, we never are able to really get across what it must have been like to be there. And we get bogged down in some of the things that we can’t explain: what does it mean that Jesus’ appearance changed? Did it change back? How did Moses and Elijah show up? Were they visions? Actually physically there? Did just Peter hear this voice of God, or did everyone? In trying to explain this mystical experience, we lose something in translation.

It just has to be experienced. And, while we might never experience the totality of the Transfiguration’s transcendence and wonder, I think we have experienced pieces of this story in our lives. Maybe you have had a moment where you feel or see or hear the overwhelming presence of God in your life. It might not have been quite as dramatic a story as what we read in Mark, but that doesn’t mean it was less significant in your life.

Whether you’ve had such a moment or not, we can all relate to Peter’s reactions through the story. It’s almost as if we see this moment through his eyes. And Peter can’t believe what he is seeing. His first instinct, though, is to stay—to build dwelling places for these holy figures, and to make this experience last.

But that is Peter’s mistake. He wants to keep the Holy, the transcendent God, in one safe, confined place. It is good on the mountain, he says. And he is right. And so he wants to stay there. Can you relate? I know I can. When we find those moments of peace, those moments where everything seems to be right, we wish that they will never end. It doesn’t have to be some big revelatory experience, either. It could be the whole family together, when that doesn’t happen much anymore. Or a quiet day to yourself, when that doesn’t happen much anymore. A gathering of friends from far away. We want to stay in those beautiful, fleeting moments, because we know it is good to be there.

In the story from Mark, Peter’s option is actually the safer one. Staying on the mountain that is. Post-Transfiguration life is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps Peter is beginning to realize this. Just before he ascended the mountain with Jesus, Jesus told his disciples the truth about what was going to happen to him: that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again. The Bible tells us that Jesus said all of this quite openly, the same way he says on their way down the mountain not to tell anyone about this until after he has risen from the dead. Rising from the dead sounds pretty good, but it also means that you were dead.

It’s no wonder peter wants to stay up on this mountain where the world is clear, God is present, and they are safe. It’s our human instinct when we’re facing an unsure future. Sometimes, even if our present reality is so great, we’d rather stay there than face the uncertainty of what might lie ahead.

Especially when, like Peter, we’re not sure what we can trust in anymore. When that which we’ve known, on which have relied is changing and sometimes crumbling before us. Whether it’s the very churches that we built to house God: less attended, less influential than they used to be. Whether it’s our relationships with one another: less trusting, less open than they used to be. Sometimes it feels like it’s the whole world: less safe, less predictable than we used to think it was.

Too often our only response seems to be pop-up tents: quick fixes, continuing resolutions, short-term thinking. We’d often rather stay in places feel okay, even if they aren’t great. Or try to cling to what no longer exists. None of which actually trusts in a future that God holds for us.

We are called to leave the mountain—to go into the future that God will show us. Even though it might be frightening. Even though it might be different than what we’re used to. We have our annual meeting after worship today, and at meetings like this, it’s always tempting to get bogged down in questions about numbers: financial or attendance. And, while I think both of those things are important, they are also not the true question at hand: Where is Jesus leading us? The voice from God says to listen to Jesus. What does that mean for us, as St. Paul’s? What does it mean for you, for your family, for your work?

I’m not sure. I don’t think we can ever know the specifics of what the future holds, and that we drive ourselves crazy when we try. God holds the future for us, and is calling us be a part of it. What I do know is this: we do not go into the future alone. The disciples aren’t sent by themselves to the difficult path awaiting them. Jesus goes down the mountain with them. And Jesus goes down the mountain with us. Jesus goes with us as we leave our dwelling places, as we journey into the unknown future together.

May God continue to bless us with moments of wonder and awe, with moments of peace and beauty. And may God guide and direct us as we seek to listen to Jesus, and journey with Jesus into our future. Amen.

One thought on “On the Mountaintop

  1. Thank you for this sermon! I especially liked your analogy to the Grand Canyon and also appreciated your encouraging us to think about moments when we’ve felt really close to God. It was good to think about exactly what or when those experiences were and to gain a new appreciation of them.


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