This summer my family took a wonderful trip out west to spend time adventuring together. We visited the desert of Utah, the cool, calming forests of Yellowstone, and the snow-capped peaks of the Grand Teton mountain range. We climbed and rafted and biked and swam our way through 5 states while reconnecting, unplugging and experiencing this great creation God has given us.
My favorite part of our trip was a hike the three of us took in the Tetons. We started out early in the morning with backpacks full of snacks, water and the requisite bear spray to ward off any unfriendly grizzlies. We happily made our way around the base of the mountain, ready to tackle a significant hike- considering we had a 6 year old’s legs to keep in mind. As the elevation grew, our spirits soared. All of the guide books told us that the view at the top of our hike would be worth every mile we stepped. So, we sang and talked and made up games. We paused to look at interesting trees, powerful waterfalls, and fascinating rock formations.
And then, the climb got steeper. My child continued with the exuberance that you always see in him. His blonde curls bounced as he ran up to some park rangers he saw ahead of us, and from behind, we could just barely hear him engage them in a one sided conversation that consisted of something like “Hi!I’mBerkley!I’majuniorranger&Ilovehiking&I’monalongtripwithmyparents&wearehavingagreattime&doyoulikeyourjob?Becauseitseemsreallyfun!MaybeI’llbearangeroneday!” His excitement was palpable. He thought nothing of the hike ahead. My husband, Stephen just hiked. He’s strong and in good health, and while the hike became a bit more challenging, he’d probably tell you it wasn’t that big of a deal. But as we made our way out of the woods and closer to the jagged rocks; as our elevation changed quickly and drastically, I struggled a little. My breathing was harder, my legs started to ache. I’m just not in as good of shape as the two guys in my family. I stopped looking around at the trees and rocks, and started looking ahead at each step that I took. I concentrated more on not falling off the side of the mountain, than on looking out at the view around me. I focused on breathing and climbing the mountain.
And all of a sudden, we were there- not at the top of the mountain- because the Tetons are HUGE! But at the overlook we’d aimed for. And finally, I could catch my breath; I could pause and look up. Finally, I could see. I could see the majesty of the mountain range, the clear lake just below, the sky reaching out as far as they eye could see. The journey up the mountain was hard, but it was totally worth every step. When we climb up mountains, we see the world better. We are able to look at everything around us. We are able to see and understand and worship more clearly. Being at the top of a mountain can give us a vision for what should and could be.
There is a reason that, over and over, scripture shows us examples of folks going to the tops of mountains for inspiration, for perspective, and for encounters with God. God clearly likes making God’s self known on mountains. Moses met God on a mountain, Elijah met God on a mountain, and in our story today, we find Jesus and three of his disciples meeting God on a mountain. There is something about the journey up a mountain that often leads us to experience God more clearly.
In the last several years there has been a surge in literature about hiking up mountains- Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild narrates her experience on the Pacific Coast Trail. The book Walk in the Woods is about two older men & their adventure trying out the Appalachian Trail. Both of these books were made into movies and both of these trails are referenced throughout pop culture. The popularity of these books has inspired even greater numbers of folks to hike both of these significant paths- so much that the Pacific Coast Trail now has to limit the number of hikers allowed to enter the trail each day.
When I read both of these books, all I could think of was how much I would love to go on one of these hikes. I kept saying to friends, “Shouldn’t we do one of these trips one day? Wouldn’t that be amazing?” And their responses were typically, “I’ve read that book or I’ve seen that movie, and it looks amazing, but no. I’m not doing that with you.” And let’s be clear. I enjoy hiking and I enjoy camping. But I’ve never hiked with a full pack on my back, and I really prefer my tents to have air mattresses and down comforters. And yet I still feel drawn to hiking these mountain trails.
We are a people fascinated with these mountain journeys. We read or see these stories and we understand the necessity of these mountain trips, and we are inspired to hike the mountains ourselves. We find ourselves and we find God in that journey to the top of the mountain.
In our scripture today, Peter, James and John journey up the mountain with Jesus. Up to this point, we know that Jesus has been trying to make it clear to the disciples that he is indeed the son of God, without actually saying that he is the son of God. He is giving them advice about how to carry on once he is gone. But, being true to form, the disciples aren’t quite putting all of the pieces together.
So he leads them up a mountain, alone. And there Jesus reveals himself to them. His face shone and his clothes were a brilliant white. Then, the figures of Moses & Elijah- pillars of the Jewish faith- appeared before them as well. Jewish tradition believes that Elijah & Moses were carried to heaven before they suffered a mortal death. So, the disciples could have easily believed this was the fate Jesus was about to experience- that he was about to be carried off to heaven.
Peter immediately decides that the three figures should make their home on that mountain- a physical place for them to remain. I imagine Peter believed this was the culmination of Christ’s story- that he would shine alongside these older men, and remain there. Peter was busy making plans while God interrupted and spoke out to claim Christ as God’s son. Perhaps Peter, James & John would have been convinced by simply seeing the transfiguration alongside Moses & Elijah. But God left nothing to chance. The disciples had missed so many messages up until this point, that God made it abundantly clear, in no uncertain terms, that they were, in fact following God’s son.
God tells the disciples that Jesus is the Messiah, and that they are to listen to him- to follow his leading and his teachings. In the transfiguration of Jesus, God gives the disciples the ability to see what others could not. And, as followers of Christ, we are given that vision as well. God allows for us to see this world differently from others. But with that vision comes great responsibility. We must allow that understanding of who Christ is to change us. We must be continually transformed by the transfiguration of Christ.
The view of Christ on that mountain is radical. It is amazing and beautiful and life-changing for the disciples who witness it. But so was Christ’s life down from the mountain. Christ preached and lived radically. The transfiguration was simply proof that Jesus was not acting alone. But, in fact his radical life was in direct response to God’s leading.
At the base of the mountain, Jesus was walking and talking with the people that no one expected him to. He was caring for the poor- regardless of what led them there. He took care of the sick- those afflicted with disease or mental illness who were shunned by those around them. Jesus walked and talked with women as equals- a bold move in a time when women were considered to be property. He spoke about a radical love for the refugee, he talked about living simply so that resources could be shared with those in need. Jesus preached that the first should become last and that we should look to the needs of others before our own. Those were radical teachings for the first century, and quite frankly, they are still radical teachings today.
And while we don’t get to journey up a mountain with Jesus physically at our side, the story of the transfiguration gives us all the proof we need. The proof that Jesus is the son of God- that his teachings and his life are the ultimate examples we are called to follow. And proof that we must not sit idly by when we know this truth- but we must respond.
A close friend of mine was recently in a conversation with co-workers. They were sharing stories about the morals and values they learned growing up. My friend shared with everyone that he grew up in a home that was pretty racist- both in overt and hidden ways. They were homophobic and xenophobic. They cared more about how the world could benefit their own family, than how their family could benefit the world. My friend’s co-workers asked, “Well, what changed for you? How are you not a person who still subscribes to those beliefs?” And my friend very simply answered, “Oh! That’s easy. I started reading the Bible more and began to really see and understand who Jesus was.”
You see, when we really seek to understand who Jesus was, how he lived, and how he desires for us to imitate him as his followers, we can’t help but be changed. When our eyes are truly opened to the transfiguration of Jesus, we are transformed. We begin to see the world through God’s eyes, and we are called to love and respond and give to the world accordingly.
In this scripture lesson, Peter really wanted to hang out on the top of the mountain with this heavenly Jesus instead of heading back down. Because down the mountain is pain and suffering. And don’t we sometimes want that too? Don’t we want to rejoice in the happy parts of Jesus- in the glory, the grace, the love that we receive? But, like the disciples, we are called to go back down the mountain to both experience the painful parts of life and to share the glory of God with others.
We must not tend only to ourselves, but we must seek out the pain in the world. Jesus sends us back down the mountain to be the type of people he modeled for us. To be followers of Christ who strive for equity, and not just equality for all…followers of Christ who look out for the needs of others over ourselves…followers of Christ who love and even embrace our enemies.
In spite of Peter’s plans for everyone to stay on the mountain, Christ could not stay. This was not the pinnacle of his ministry like the disciples might have thought. Calvary was still waiting. He had to go back down the mountain to continue to fulfill his calling and even to suffer for it. There was another mountain for him to climb, but first, they all had to leave the safety and comfort of this holy place. They had to go down the mountain.
Aside from this crazy warm February we’ve had, this is normally the time of year when I have snow on my brain. I love snow. I love sledding. I love building snow men. I thrive in a winter wonderland. So, it makes sense that I would really enjoy skiing. And I’m proud to say that I’m not a terrible skier. I even have a title that describes to you the type of amazing skier I am. I am confident that I am absolutely the. slowest. skier. In the world.
I didn’t really learn to ski until I was an adult. So, I learned to ski at the same time I was starting to better understand my own mortality. I learned to ski when I was old enough to realize that barreling down a mountain as fast as possible could result in some really tragic physical consequences. So, I ski down the easiest trails and I go down really. really. slowly. I take my time cutting across the mountain with my skis pointing more toward the wood line far more than they point down the mountain. I wish I were a less cautious skier, but I do have a really good time going down the mountain, and I very rarely fall!
And so God calls each of us to get to the top of the mountain, but to remember that we must return down. Some of you are going to fly down the mountain, with passion and excitement- to tell others what you’ve experienced at the top of the mountain, and then you may go right back up the mountain again. Some of you are a little more cautious returning from the top of the mountain. You take your time; you process things a bit more slowly, but you have to get down the mountain. Some of you might even opt to take off your skis, carry them in your arms, and walk down the mountain- because the prospect of getting out of control is just too high. But even you, must go down the mountain.
When we are given the gift of seeing and understanding who Christ really is, we are transformed. And we can’t unsee it. The goodness, the glory, the radical nature of who Christ is changes us and we have to do something with it. We can’t keep it to ourselves. In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus tells the disciples they are prohibited from sharing what they’ve seen until much later. Can you imagine how hard that must have been? If we saw Jesus standing before us, radiating and glowing, and heard the voice of God above us, that would be hard to keep to ourselves. And thankfully, we are not given the restriction that the disciples were.
But, how often do we see the truth of who God is, and we are reluctant to share it? We are reluctant to allow God to transform us. We are scared that we will be asked to be uncomfortable. Afraid that we might have to love someone that we don’t want to love. Nervous that we will have to give up lives that are easy and secure. God reveals God’s self when we do the hard work of going up the mountain. God gives tasks, words, and prophetic voices for us to use after we’ve been transformed.
And so sometimes we don’t seek out the mountains at all. We seek out the plains- the easy places. The flat places that don’t require a hike up the mountain or a trip down. They’re not too high and not too low. We settle. We feel comfortable. We don’t look for the prophetic voice, because that might challenge our current understanding of who God is. But Jesus sought out the mountains. He knew the risks of experiencing the joy at the top, and then the suffering at the bottom. And yet he showed us that there are always mountains to climb. There are always ways we can meet God anew- that we can be refreshed in our faith- that we can be inspired by catching another glimpse of Christ’s face, and another hint of God’s voice.
Each time we walk up the mountain, we get a little bit stronger, we breathe a little easier, we become more confident, and we’re able to lift our eyes up to have more perspective of the world and the needs around us.
Are you willing to look for what God might want to show you that could transform you? Perhaps you want to run up the mountain- learning all you can about who God is and who God wants you to be in the world…talking and sharing as you go up the mountain, and flying down the mountain to get to work in a life that reflects how you’re being transformed. Maybe you are strong & steady- making your way up the mountain methodically and purposefully…asking questions, searching for answers, and then meandering back down the mountain with caution and intention. Or you may need a little help getting started and your heart might be weary from the mountains you’ve hiked before, and when you come down you are thoughtful and deliberate. Regardless of the way you meet the mountain or the way you return down, we are still called to rediscover the mountains- to willingly move ourselves into that transformative experience with God.
After Jesus was transfigured to show that he is clearly the son of God, the disciples were further convinced of who he was and that his life was to be a guide and inspiration for them going forward. Jesus wants to reveal himself to each of us. But our eyes must be open to who Christ really is. Our ears must be open to hear God speaking. And our hearts must be willing to live out that radical change in the world.
As we go from this place and seek to rediscover the mountains to which we are called, what does God long to reveal to you on the top of the mountain?