It starts off ordinary enough. Jesus and his three closest friends – Peter, James, and John – go up on a high mountain. Nothing unusual. Jesus often went off from the crowds to pray and rest. All very ordinary.
But from here on, ordinary ends. No sooner do they arrive than Jesus is suddenly “transfigured.” He “glowed.” As the text has it, “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” Not only out of the ordinary, but absolutely out of this world – which, of course, is precisely what the story wants to convey.
And if that is not out-of-the ordinary enough, two of faith’s most honored heroes suddenly appear by Jesus’ side. Moses, the great law-giver, and Elijah, the prophet par excellence – the Law and the Prophets – paying respect to Jesus, in whom both are brought together.
This is both literally and figuratively a “mountain-top experience.” No wonder Peter, James, and John are terrified. Of course, a little terror never stopped Peter from speaking up; for lack of any other ideas, he suggests erecting three shrines to commemorate the event!
A big enough deal so far, but now, a cloud overshadows the mountain. The damp air closes in and all the world slips away into a grayness. Then the voice of God echoes around them saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Glowing face and clothes, visits from famous figures of the past, hovering clouds and heavenly voices…Wow! It was so extra ordinary that when it was all over, and Jesus and Peter and James and John were headed back down the mountain, Jesus told them to “tell no one about what they had seen.” That made sense. Who would have believed it anyway? But the three of them believed it. They had been there, and those moments on that mountain would forever mark their lives and change the way they looked at everything. Certain “WOW” moments have a way of doing that.
There is a true story of a 33-year-old truck driver by the name of Larry Walters who was sitting in his lawn chair in his backyard one day wishing he could fly. For as long as he could remember he had wanted to fly but he had never had the time nor money nor opportunity to be a pilot. Hang gliding was out because there was no good place for gliding near his home. So he spent a lot of summer afternoons sitting in his backyard in his ordinary old aluminum chair – the kind with the webbing and the rivets, the kind most of us have. One day Larry hooked 45 helium-filled surplus weather balloons to his chair, put a CB radio in his lap, tied a paper bag full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to his leg, and slung a BB-gun over his shoulder to pop the balloons when he wanted to come down. He lifted off in his lawn chair expecting to climb a couple of hundred feet over his neighborhood. But instead he shot up 11,000 feet right through the approach corridor to the Los Angeles International Airport. When asked by the press why he did it, Larry answered: “Well, you can’t just sit there.” When asked if he was scared, he answered, “Yes…wonderfully so.”(1) Wow!
Larry Walters will never be the same again after his trip to the mountain in his lawn chair. He has seen things and felt things that will shape the way he lives the rest of his life.
T’was the same with Peter, James and John. Up on that mountain they had been given nothing less than a glimpse into the future. They saw past the suffering and death of Jesus which the Master had predicted a few days before; past their doubts; past their fears. For one brief shining moment God had cracked the door to the end of time and they had seen how history would be worked out, their own and the whole world’s.(2) And they would never be the same again, having taken that ride. Wow!
What do you think? When you have seen how everything turns out in the end, will it affect how you view the present? Of course, it will.
One of my cyber-friends has recently moved from full-time hospice work to full-time parish ministry. Brice Hughes has been at the bedside of many persons who have had experiences of “seeing past the veil.” He writes,
Among our hospice, we frequently explained this with the metaphor that as one nears death, the boundary between this life and the next becomes thinner, more permeable…We have had our patients report lots of visits. Several of them have reported visits from Jesus; others have visits from passed-on family members. A fascinating number (men and women) have reported feeling the presence of babies in their bed. (Wonder what the meaning of “babies” is?)
At any rate, after over three hundred deaths in our hospice, all of the Near Death Experiences have resulted in an increase of the sense of peace. One patient I became particularly close to had a typical experience. While in the hospital, (he was not a hospice patient), his heart stopped. Aggressive intervention returned his heartbeat. When I came on-shift the next day, he had been moved to ICU. As I entered his bay, his face broke into a big grin. The first words out of his mouth were: “I’ve seen the light.” He described a fairly typical Near Death Experience: bright light, overwhelming sense of peace, etc. The upshot of this…was that he insisted his doctor issue a “Do Not Resuscitate” Order. To get his doctor to make him a No Code, he practically had to twist the doc’s arm. He was THAT convinced by what he had witnessed. (3)
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I wish everyone could have that WOW experience. I am reminded of a “Murphy Brown” episode in which for some reason she asks the staff about their thoughts or feelings about God. There were different responses from different characters – one was an agnostic, one was a Baptist, and so on. But the response of the character Jim stands out. He said he was a Presbyterian and went to church every Sunday with his wife. He said something on the order of, “I haven’t had any experience of God. I go because it is obvious to me that the people who attend are experiencing God, and I am hoping that one day I will too.” (4) Sound familiar? I wonder how many real-life “Jims” there are in our pews waiting…waiting. Plenty, no doubt.
No great mystery. After all, life is lived in the valley, not on the mountain top. Things are different between the two. If you read ahead a bit in Mark’s gospel, the contrasts are stark. [Read Mark 9:14-24]
On the mountain, we encounter almighty God;
in the valley, there is an encounter with the demonic.
On the mountain we encounter our faith’s heritage;
in the valley, we encounter those who consider questions of faith as occasions for battle.
On the mountain, God’s calming voice is heard;
in the valley, human argument is heard.
On the mountain, disciples are in a mood for worship;
in the valley, the disciples are spoiling for a fight.
On the mountain, the glory of God is revealed;
in the valley, the power of sin and unbelief is revealed.
“O Lord, carry me away to the mountain,” might be our prayer. YES, Lord! But then we remember the place of our ministry is with those who need our help down in the valley.
That being the case, how can we arrange those energizing, even life-changing, mountaintop experiences during the course of our journey? The easy answer is that we cannot! Sorry. We wait…just like Jim. If you remember, Peter, James, and John were there with Jesus because they had been invited – there were nine others who were not. I suspect the reason is that some were ready, others were not.
A friend of mine has noted that, when children are small, parents discover that there are some words that we cannot say at the dinner table. As soon as we say words like “cookies, candy, or cake,” our kids do not want to eat supper any more. They know what “cookies, candy and cake” mean, but they do not seem to understand the word “later.” They want the dessert now. Forget the main course. If we let them eat the sweet stuff, we know they will not be interested in the nutritious stuff. They would never have a healthy diet. (5)
A mountaintop experience is like dessert. If that is the extent of our spiritual diet, we will be poorly fed. Our faith will be unhealthy. It will be not much more than a spiritual rabbit’s foot, something that protects us from problems — divine cures for sickness, financial worries, the anxieties of life — the glory on the mountain top. We need some preparation before we can truly appreciate the WOW.
Do you want to be ready for an invitation to the mountain top? Let me make a few suggestions.
First, make yourself available. Peter, James, and John were invited up the slope because they were already in the company of Jesus. The company of Jesus in the year 2000 is right here – the church. Those who, for whatever reason, choose to absent themselves from the fellowship will not be ready to respond to the invitation.
Second, learn all you can about your faith tradition. Sunday School, Midweek Bible Studies, personal devotions. All the surveys indicate that biblical literacy is at a low ebb these days, and going down! Sad. The text does not tell us how Peter, James, and John recognized Moses and Elijah, but they did, and they knew how incredibly important these men were. Had they never heard of them, the moment on the mountain would not have been nearly so special.
Third, listen to Jesus. Only twice in the gospels does God (the Voice) speak – once at Jesus’ baptism, and again here. God minces no words. “This is my son, the Beloved; Listen to Him.” Listen to Him. We hear him as we worship. Listen to Him. We hear him as we study scripture. Listen to Him. We hear him in the voice of other Christians. Listen to Him. It is SO EASY to listen to other voices to the point of drowning Jesus out. Not good. Listen to Jesus.
Fourth, remember where your work is. The valley. The church is the only institution I know of that exists primarily for the sake of those outside it. If we listen to Jesus, we hear him say again, “GO…make disciples.”
One final suggestion (and this I get not from the text, but rather sanctified speculation grown out of a lifetime of observation). If you would be truly prepared for Christ’s invitation to the mountain top, have about you an air of joyous expectancy. When you come to this holy place from week to week, prayerfully begin your trip through the doors ready, not to run into someone you would rather not see, not to sing a hymn you don’t know and would rather not learn, not to mumble through a prayer and a creed without thought, not to suffer through a sermon that somehow misses you. No. Rather come in ready to meet Jesus…in a person, a song, a word. The older I get the more I realize that ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING. When the ATTITUDE is right, then the invitation can come and be received with the joy it deserves.
Five suggestions in preparation for a trip to the mountaintop: make yourself available; learn all you can about your faith tradition; listen to Jesus; remember where your work is; and finally, ATTITUDE. Then you will be ready when the WOW presents itself.
All this “mountain” talk puts me in mind of Martin Luther King’s last sermon. He delivered it April 3, 1968, on the eve of his assassination, at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the largest African American Pentecostal denomination in the United States. He concluded his remarks that night:
I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (6)
1. Robert Fulghum, Everything I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, (New York: Villard Books, 1988) p. 139
2. Ellen Madison, Weldona, CO, via PresbyNet, “The View from the Mountain,” 1994