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From ancient times, people have found themselves transformed by mountaintop experiences.
Think of Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai at the same time he experienced the terror and majesty of God’s dazzling, dangerous presence.
Or Elijah, hiding in the cleft of the rock, waiting through wind, and earthquake, and fire for God to reveal the divine presence.
And here, this inner circle of Jesus, Peter, James, and John, after being taken up the mountain by Jesus, see an unbelievable transformation. They see Jesus’ garments as an unearthly white, and he is flanked by… well, Moses and Elijah. Who better?
There is something about this reading that makes my hair stand on end. There is something about an unveiling—because that’s what this is, it’s a revelation, an uncovering of who and what Jesus really, truly is—there’s something about it that makes my heart beat just a little faster, even here, even now.
And it makes me remember my own mountaintop experiences, as well as those others have shared with me.
I’ve always loved sunrises and sunsets; I have albums filled with fading photographs of them I took as a young a teenager. But when I moved to the southern tier of New York, I began to experience the sky in a whole new way. For some reason, the sky seemed bigger here, more extravagantly beautiful. My children grew used to me saying to them, “Look! Look!” and pointing as we drove home from school or play practice. They even coined a term for a particular kind of sky—the kind in which beams of sunlight pierced through a cloud formation to make spectacular rays. They called it “God light.” And to me, that’s exactly what it was.
The play of light in the sky stirs my heart; it awakens something in me that has been dozing. It reminds me that there are forces… there is A Force… that is mysterious, and, even if science can do a decent job of explaining the cloud formations or stunning displays of color, it still remains somehow out of my grasp. The glory of a beautiful sky reminds me of the One who created it, and it fills me with wonder.
Presbyterian writer Anne Lamott, has a book called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. In it she writes,
The third prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder. We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp, by the sight of a birth, or images of the World Trade Centers towers falling, or the experience of being in a fjord, at dawn, for the first time. “Wow” is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes… Wow, because you are speechless, but not quite. You can manage, barely, this one syllable.[i]
That’s exactly it. And we are all different as to what makes us say “Wow.” About 20 years ago I had the pleasure of attending an APCE conference—the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators—with one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever known. Her name was Betty Stewart. Betty was a tiny woman with a lion’s heart, a soft voice who spoke powerful words, a single woman who was part of the spirit and faith formation of children for her entire life: the year we went to APCE, Betty was 84 years old, and had been teaching Sunday School at West Presbyterian Church in Binghamton for more than 60 years. I thought she might like to go a conference like APCE. It took place in a big Boston hotel, with workshops by wonderful teachers and preachers, and offered worship experiences in which we were among close to a thousand people joining together in song and in prayer.
Still, I worried that the conference might be overwhelming. As the days went by I recognized that it was a tiring experience for her; she took some time every afternoon to rest in our hotel room. As we drove home from at the end of the week I asked Betty how she’d liked it.
Betty was quiet for a few moments. Finally, she said, “I don’t know what to say. I’ve never known anything like it. It was truly a mountaintop experience.” That was the first time I’d ever heard anybody use that phrase.
For Betty, the mountaintop was worshiping God almighty with a great throng of people, her singular smallness joining with the many to create a thunderous song of praise. For me, it is the moments of wonder when nature reminds me of its Maker. For you it may be something different—leaf? Birdsong? Volcano? What makes you gasp in wonder? What makes you say “Wow”?
One thing is for certain: you can go looking for mountaintop experiences, but there are no guarantees you’ll find them where or when you expect them. You can’t force them, and you can’t manufacture them. Writer Jon Krakauer was an experienced climber when Outside magazine offered him the opportunity to go to Nepal on a paid expedition to climb Mount Everest in 1996. He jumped at the chance, realizing that, even with his experience, it was risky and possibly foolhardy. “I knew better but went to Everest anyway,” he wrote. Months later, Krakauer described his arrival at the summit:
Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.[ii]
Even at the summit of the world’s most storied and dangerous mountain, there is no guarantee that you will have a mountaintop experience. By their very nature, these are gifts. They come from outside us, and they pierce us with their beauty and power. The question is, what do we do with them?
When Jesus takes his friends up the mountain, it’s not clear what his objective is. We’ve already noticed that, from time to time, Jesus goes off by himself to pray. Maybe he has decided to include his friends this time. And while they are there, not only do they see something—this dazzling vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—they also hear something. In fact, their seeing is interrupted, as if they need to stop focusing on how very dazzled they are. “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’”
There it is. It’s as if God gets their attention with the fireworks, and then turns down the visuals so that the divine Word can enter into their hearts without the distraction of glory.
This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!
We have a slight logistical problem in interpreting exactly what God is getting at. Due to the liturgical calendar, we have skipped eight chapters between last Sunday and today. When last seen, Jesus was still in the early days of his ministry. Now, he has reaching a turning point significant enough that God sees fit to mark it with this remarkable unveiling of who Jesus is. And our best hint about that comes at the end of our passage:
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. ~Mark 9:9-10
We last saw Jesus at the beginning of his work; this passage points us towards the end. Jesus has already spoken to his friends about the death he expects to face, and now he talks of resurrection. And nobody knows exactly what that means. It is still a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
Have you ever known something you couldn’t express? Felt convinced of something you couldn’t explain? That seems to be the experience God has given Peter, James, and John. Jesus shines with a radiance not of this earth. But he is still, somehow, Jesus. Moses and Elijah, towering figures from the story of God’s people, are Jesus’ companions for a time. But Peter, James, and John, late of the fishing game, are his companions too. Still. Something extraordinary is shown and then clouded over, revealed and then hidden again. They have been given a revelation, an uncovering of who and what Jesus really, truly is… but it was theirs for only a few moments. The only thing that is clear is that voice, telling them to listen to God’s beloved. Listen.
And the first thing God’s beloved says is: keep this to yourselves for now… until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead. Don’t rush to interpretation, Jesus says. You won’t understand this one just yet. Not for a while.
From ancient times, people have found themselves transformed by mountaintop experiences. We can have those experiences and understand them in an instant. And we can have “Wow” moments that need time to seep into us, that need reflection and experience to help them to unravel.
We cannot make mountaintop experiences happen. But we can open ourselves to them, we can create space for them. And when they come, we can notice our sharp intake of breath, or the quickening of our pulse, and let wonder overtake us. We don’t need to understand immediately. We may not fully understand ever. But God has unveiled something to us. God urges us to keep listening. And so, we are changed. We are transformed, in the light of God’s glory.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, (New York, New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 71, 73.
[ii] Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster (New York, New York: Villard Books, 1997), 5.