Next Sunday Before Lent
2 Peter 1:16-21
I grew up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains just outside Calgary, Canada. The majestic Rockies provided the backdrop to my childhood: great winter skiing holidays, summer hikes, days out in Banff. The Rockies have been a constant presence throughout my life when I picture home.
My father once wisely said, ‘the Rockies never look the same twice.’ This is very true. Some days they appear very close on the horizon, other days much further away depending on the light and time of year, some days they are covered in cloud or fog and not visible at all.
In the OT and NT readings this morning, ‘mountains feature significantly. The mountain was already highly symbolic in the Old Testament. There is Mt. Sinai, where the Commandments are given; Mt. Horeb, possibly another name for Sinai, as the site of the Burning Bush; and Mt. Moriah where Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. It was on a mountain where God revealed himself to Elijah. For Jesus, the mountaintop is the site of various important events: the mountain of the temptation; the mountain of his great preaching; the mountain of his prayer; the mountain of the Transfiguration; the mountain of his agony; the mountain of the Cross; and finally, the mountain of the risen Lord. ‘(Fr Kvetoslav Krejci, Transfiguration, 23/2/20)
These stories of Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Peter, John and James are likely familiar ones, but I hope that we will not see them the same way twice.
On this last Sunday before Lent, I think it is significant that we are reminded of the greatness, holiness and completeness of Jesus before we descend into the austerity, solemnity of the Lenten season. As we hear again the Transfiguration story, we need to remember the importance of it as it reveals Christ’s divine nature, confirms his Sonship, foreshadows his death, secures his place in the stream of Israel’s history, exalts him above the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), and prefigures his Resurrection. This might seem quite dense and hard to understand – that’s okay!
It is important that as Christians we understand Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and his authority which also comes from God. If we don’t – then all we are is a social club with inconvenient meeting times.
The Transfiguration would have been an amazing sight I am sure! It was clear that by Peter’s response that the disciples were overwhelmed; Luke helpfully records that ‘Peter did not know what he said.’ They were frightened, bewildered by what they were seeing on the mountain.
It is only after time and reflection that Peter begins to understand what he saw that day. There is hope for the rest of us! Peter believed what he saw, in his second letter he tells his readers that they didn’t make anything up. Peter, James and John were eyewitnesses to the power and coming of Jesus; they heard the voice of God on the mountain.
Any meeting with God on the mountain is a changing experience. Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain in God’s presence. Whenever Moses spent time in God’s presence, people were afraid to look at him after as he is described as glowing. There is something about those mountain-top experiences, in the presence of God, that carries on down the mountain and people are changed.
Coming from a more charismatic background, talk of ‘mountain-top experiences with God’ are quite normal. Those divine encounters with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit that are overwhelming, leaving one changed and knowing something more and deeper about themselves and of God.
Most of the sermons and explanations that I’ve heard about the Transfiguration of Christ end here. In both Exodus and Luke everyone comes off the mountain, the show is over and it’s time to go home. Some would theorize that this should make us hoard those mountain-top experiences because we all have to come down at some point and get back into ‘real life.’
Leaving the Transfiguration at this point also raises some difficult questions about God: is he just a showman, dazzling for the few, the select? What about the others who don’t get a personal invitation to the mountain? The other nine disciples were waiting at the bottom.
This is where I got a second and wider look at this story. The Transfiguration of Christ is told in three of the Gospels; the lectionary lets you choose your own ending though. At the end of the passage in Matthew, Jesus tells them to keep silent as they come down the mountain. As Jesus and the disciples came back into the crowd they are confronted by a desperate father with an epileptic son. Back to real life indeed.
Debie Thomas, an American essayist, writes about the Transfiguration: ‘Yes, Jesus revealed his majesty on a mountaintop. Yes, it is essential for us to contemplate that amazing epiphany and consider what it reveals about Jesus’s identity. But here’s what I’d like to know: how does glory on the mountaintop speak to agony in the valley? What does it mean that the two experiences – fullness and emptiness, ecstasy and despair, light and shadow — share a landscape in this famous Gospel narrative? Aren’t there two beloved sons in this story?’ The glory, the revelation, the holiness and greatness of Jesus on the mountain-top needs to work in the valleys too. The heavens opened for the disciples on the mountain, but in the valley just below there is a scene of heartbreak and suffering as the other nine disciples are helpless as this second beloved son is not healed (at least not yet).
This tells us something about how the world works; our mountains and valleys are often much closer together than we might think. One person’s pain does not cancel out another person’s joy.
Maybe this morning some of us are feeling close to God and all is well with the world and a few pews over someone else is aching with the pain of God’s absence? Here’s the challenge for the Christian life, for a church congregation: Can we hold in faithful tension the mountains and valleys we all experience, denying neither and embracing both?
Jesus did heal the little boy and the valley of that suffering turned to a mountain top of excitement and relief. Let’s not forget the suffering that came first; it was very real and needs honest witness. The faith the father needed to call out to Jesus was forged in the valley of pain and helplessness in the demon possession of his only child.
For the nine disciples left at the bottom on the mountain too, there were left alone as their three leaders, Peter, James and John had gone off with Jesus. They were also surrounded by some of their strongest negative influences – the teachers of the law. Where did their confidence go? Where does ours go in those moments?
The view from the mountain top is arguable better than the view from the valley floor. Yet the power of God in the Transfiguration is the same power that healed the little boy in the valley. As a church family, our mountains and valleys often lie right beside each other; the challenge is to hold the tension in love and faith.
We cannot afford to lose or have our view of God dimmed by our circumstances. As we stand at the gateway of Lent and come to Communion once again, let’s seek our eyes to be opened to God and to each other, be dazzled by the power of God regardless of where we find ourselves this morning.