Sunday, February 22, 2009

Walk Down This Mountain

Texts: Psalm 50:1-6; Mark 9:2-9

I don’t know if it’s true but I have heard that our Gospel story this morning is where we get the phrase “mountain top experience.” It certainly seems like it could be true – because this wonderful, cinemascope moment we have with Jesus and the three disciples, encapsulates what we mean when we talk about “mountain top” moments.

Those moments when you feel and see and believe that God is here, bright with love, as amazing as we have been told in Sunday school classes and as glorious as we sing about in our worship, when you feel just a little bit closer to God – these are our mountain top experiences. Some of us actually have them on mountain tops – when we look out at the vista below and marvel at the hand of the Creator who formed all this; if not on a mountain, some of us have them while enjoying other parts of God’s or perhaps when we are with our family and friends.

And some of us may not have experienced a transcendent moment where God reveals Godself to us in a clear, bright way. We can’t talk about our own personal experience but we listen to the stories of others and wonder what that would feel like.

Wherever we may have known God’s bright clear presence, or whether or not we have personally known such a moment – we all can, I think, imagine that the disciples’ mountain top experience is probably as overwhelming as anything we have experienced or heard about. While we may have experiences where we feel God so close, I wonder how many of us seen the dead come back to chit chat with God.

Peter, James, and John – the inner circle of the disciples as some describe them – go up to high place with Jesus. It is six days after Jesus has told all his disciples about his death and resurrection, days after Peter has proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, and now Jesus is going to share with these faithful few a theophany – an encounter with God and an epiphany – a making known of some Good News.

This moment is unlike any other in the disciples’ journey – at least before Jesus’ death and resurrection. Oh they’ve seen things - healings and exorcisms, miracles including people being raised from the dead, but this moment goes beyond all of that. On this mountain top, the disciples get a glimpse of the fullness of who Christ is – beyond the earthly Messiah to the heavenly Son. They see clothes so bright they cannot be of this world and then... well if Jesus’ razzle dazzle clothes weren’t enough to convince his disciples something else was afoot – the return of Moses and Elijah probably confirmed Jesus this was not the average day in the life of a disciple.

Now before we continue with the story, it’s probably a good idea to stop and acknowledge that this tale sometimes seems a bit of a whale. Even though this moment is mentioned in all 3 of the synoptic Gospels, it doesn’t get a lot of coverage in our conversations – rarely is it mentioned in people’s top ten Bible stories. Perhaps it’s because this encounter leaves us with so many questions that we have a hard time wrapping our minds around what is going on.

Was Jesus actually transformed – or was this one moment where the disciples saw who he truly was, saw beyond their earthly perceptions and preconceptions to the fullness of God’s glory revealed in Christ?

We too might wonder why Moses and Elijah came to speak with Jesus? And how the disciples even know it was Moses and Elijah? Were they wearing “Hello My Name Is...” nametags or is that part of the whole life after death thing – we’ll just know one another?

Whatever the answer to these questions, we know that they point to Jesus’ identity. The scene itself may seem like a brilliant blockbuster moment, but it has more meaning than just show. We know that in speaking with Moses and Elijah, Jesus is showing the disciples that he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. In speaking with Elijah in particular, we are reminded of the Hebrew prophecies that say when Elijah returns, the kingdom of God is at hand. And in speaking with those who have gone before, Jesus shows us that in him there is promise of life beyond death.

We learn so much about Jesus in the glimpse of this encounter. And even though we don’t hear the words these three holy figures exchange, we do hear what God would say. In a scene that echoes Jesus’ baptism, a voice from the sky breaks through and announces: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”

And just as soon as it began – not but 6 verses later – this transcendent moment is over. The disciples don’t build any dwellings or shrines up on that high place, instead they walk back down the mountain. And as they walk, Jesus tells them to keep quite about all they have seen, heard, and learned until later.
Surely that sounds strange to our ears. We hear over and over again that we are to share the Good News; go forth and make disciples of all nations; speak of Christ in all we do and say. So why, then, does Christ tell the disciples with him to keep quiet? Why not share this amazing story that confirms Christ’s power and glory to all?

It is poor Peter—the one who sometimes gets it so right and sometimes gets it so wrong—that helps us understand why Jesus told his disciples to remain silent instead of bear witness.

Peter’s response to seeing Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah is almost comical. He doesn’t know what to say so he just babbles the first thought that pops into his head. “Let’s build something – a booth, a house, a permanent place. Perhaps Moses would enjoy a small bungalow and Elijah a nice split-level.” Peter wants to set a marker down for the whole world to see – or at least for the inner circle to come back to – that says “here was where we saw God.”

What Peter wanted to build would have been a perfectly good and traditional expression of something that transcended what he knew before. Before, people built booths, permanent dwellings for their Gods, a place to mark and be able to come back to and say “God was here!” Before, people—like Moses and Elijah—went to mountain tops to seek out God. Before, it was thought that on the high places you could come closest to God.

But this was all before Jesus. Before the full story of God Jesus came to tell. And Peter’s reaction to the transfiguration shows Jesus and us that the disciples – even though they knew he was Messiah, knew he was God’s own – that they didn’t understand the full story Jesus was trying to tell.

Jesus instructs them to remain silent about what they had seen until after he has risen from the dead because then and only then can they understand what this mountain top experience means in the fullness of God’s story.

It is not until after the resurrection that the disciples – then and now – can comprehend that this moment isn’t just about light shining, Elijah and Moses appearing, and God’s voice coming through the clouds. Only until the death and resurrection of Christ can we come to know in our hearts that the God we see on that mountain—the one who is full of light, the one who is the fulfillment of all promises and prophecies—is the same God who walks down the mountain, the same God who continues to teach and heal, the same God who suffers, dies, and is risen from the dead.

Peter, James, and John are terrified of what they witness; in their fear and trembling, they don’t appreciate who the God revealed in Jesus is, that God is with them – not just on mountain tops or mountaintop experiences, but in the mundane and even in the miserable. God in glory they get; but God in the darkness, in the grave – that will be so much harder. They don’t understand that God doesn’t need a permanent place because God is in every place – the bright, shining spots as well as the dark and cold corners.

It’s hard for the disciples – even this inner circle – to fully understand that God is with them—in everything. It can be hard for us too.

Hard to hear the news that this little spot the doctor’s found is that dreaded thing called cancer – hear that and be completely sure and assured that God is with you. Hard to be in the middle of a painful break-up that tears apart your self-confidence and believe that God is there, loving you and promising you that you are worthy of love. Hard to find out that the security you thought you had – the job, the retirement savings, the house – isn’t as secure as you thought and trust that God is with you in those moments. Hard – but not impossible.

Jesus transforms our understanding of God. Through his life, death, and resurrection, we know that God isn’t just on a mountain, isn’t just in those mountain top experiences: God’s in the hospital room when the doctor give you the bad news; God’s sitting next to you, hand on your shoulder as you cry your eyes out after a new heartbreak; God’s standing in the unemployment assistance line with you when you swallow your pride and ask for help.

Jesus doesn’t just show off his power, his authority, his glory and then leave the disciples alone. He walks down the mountain with them, continues to teach and heal, and then faces the cross – takes upon himself the sins of the world.

When the disciples do get to tell the story about Jesus on the mountain top, they tell it with the fuller understanding that Jesus isn’t just about power and glory, isn’t just about amazing feats and a who's who of biblical proportions. The story Peter, James, and John tell is one about a God who loved us all so much as to come among us, die for us, and defeat death for us. A God who is no ordinary God, no mountaintop God. Rather, they tell and we'll tell about a God who is a God who is with us everywhere and in everything. We may know God more clearly on a mountain top, but God knows us fully and is with us forever. Praise be to God. Amen.

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