St John’s, Decatur—Matthew 17:1-9
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and have lived once again in the midwest for the last ten years. But most my adult life has been spent on the west coast, in California and Oregon. Perhaps the principal feature that distinguishes the midwest from the far west is that the midwest is mostly flat, especially central Illinois, while hills and mountains abound in California and Oregon. Living in the flatness of the central time zone, it’s easy to forget what a lift to the spirit it can be to get some elevation and be able to look out over a few hundred square miles.
I think this is a virtually universal human aspiration. We use the expression “mountaintop experience” as a metaphor, a figure of speech for any experience that either thrills us or moves us emotionally or gives us an unusually clear insight into some aspect of our own lives, an experience that gives us a “birds-eye view” of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.
On this last Sunday after the Epiphany each year, the liturgy invites us to celebrate a mountaintop experience. Jesus took Peter and James and John and climbed what the gospels describe as a “high mountain,” though no other identification is given. Once they were at the summit, they enjoyed a birds-eye view of the entire region of Galilee. It must have been breathtaking.
Mountaintop experiences. Your favorite team winning a championship after a cliffhanger of a game—like the seventh game of the World Series, in extra innings, just to choose a random example! Or, falling in love. Performing or listening to a special piece of music. Taking a trip to a place you’ve always fantasized about. Seeing a long-lost friend or relative for the first time in twenty years. These are the truly special moments of life, to be remembered and treasured.
Peter and James and John and Jesus got more than a great view, however, on their mountaintop experience. Jesus’s appearance changed. He glowed, not with reflected light from some other source, but from within, with an inexpressible glory that revealed him unmistakably as the messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God. And while this was going on, the disciples saw two other human figures with Jesus, holding a conversation with him, figures whom they recognized as none other than Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest heroes of Israel. And as if all this weren’t enough, they heard a voice booming from heaven, confirming their impression that, although they already knew Jesus was special, he was a lot more special than they thought. Peter and James and John were having a spiritual mountaintop experience of monumental proportions.
You and I, of course, were not privileged to be there on the mountain with those three lucky disciples. But virtually all of us have had, at one time or another, some kind of watershed spiritual experience. When I was a teenager, my church youth group went on retreat a couple of times a year. These were not the traditional sort of silent retreat, but were filled with lots of games and recreation, lots of community among peers, and a good dose of solid teaching on what it means to live as a Christian. The group always came back, as it were, “higher than a kite.” We were ready to conquer the world for Christ! Many adult Episcopalians have had a similar experience with Cursillo, coming home fired up with the love of Jesus, ready to live the “fourth day” like it’s never been lived before. Others have had spiritual mountaintop experiences in the context of worship: Midnight Mass on Christmas eve, or the intensely moving liturgies of Holy Week and Easter, or maybe the contemplative restfulness of Evensong sung by a well-trained choir.
After Peter and James and John heard the voice from heaven, they decided they’d had enough mountaintop experience for one day, thank-you very much. They were filled with holy fear and awe at what had transpired, and they made the only response that seemed appropriate: they fell to the ground and hid their faces.
Very often our mountaintop experiences put us in touch with truths—truths about God, truths about ourselves—that demand a similar response. Very often there is some wrestling, some agonizing, that needs to take place while we’re at the summit, before we can go back into the valley with our faces aglow with the glory of what we’ve seen. I often wonder what happens in the mind and heart of a presidential nominee on election night, when it becomes clear that he has won. After more than a year of hard work, and several years of planning, and against some formidable obstacles, one person has been elected President of the United States. I would wager that, even as the Secret Service tightens its net of security around him, and the aura of the presidency begins to descend on him, most presidents-elect have experienced a moment or two of humble fear and awe at what is to come, moments in which he feels like falling to the ground and hiding his face in the presence of the terrible, though magnificent, burden that will shortly be his to bear.
While they were on the ground—the evangelist doesn’t tell us how long they were there—Jesus approached his three disciples and touched them gently and spoke to them reassuringly: “Get up and don’t be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw … Jesus alone. Only Jesus. The outward vision, apparently, was over. Moses and Elijah were gone, as was the bright cloud that had enveloped them. The disciples no longer heard the heavenly voice. Jesus looked like his usual self again.
But because of their experience, the inward vision of Peter, James, and John was clearer than it had ever been. They knew Jesus in a way they had not known him before. They had received a revelation of insight into the nature of Jesus’s identity and the nature of their relationship with him. With their vision re-focused, they were ready to leave the mountaintop and go back into the valley, changed and empowered not to avoid what was there, but to engage what was there.
The experience of Peter and James and John on the mount of the Transfiguration provides us with a pattern by which we can understand and assimilate our mountaintop spiritual experiences. There are four elements of that pattern that I want to briefly point out.
First, they followed Jesus onto the mountain. If they hadn’t climbed the mountain in the first place, they wouldn’t have seen what they saw. When opportunities for us to be with Jesus present themselves—whether in the form of retreats, study or prayer groups, or just being in church for Sunday and feast day worship—we need to avail ourselves of them, or we will miss out on what God has for us.
Second, once they were on the mountain, then they were gifted with their special revelation, their moment of insight. They had a glimpse of the very glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus wants to share that glory with us too. My observation is that, for most of us, such revelation of divine glory indeed comes in glimpses. Perhaps, in his mercy, he knows that to allow us to gaze uninterruptedly would be too much for us to bear. So when those fleeting moments come, savor them. Treasure them in your heart. Re-live them in your prayers. They are a wonderful gift.
Third, the disciples fell to the ground in reverent and holy fear. A good test for whether a mountaintop experience is really of God is if it humbles us or not. If we don’t at some point feel the urge to fall to the ground and cover our faces, then we might question the origin of what we experience.
Finally, when the vision was over, they saw Jesus only. Their vision was clarified. “Jesus only” was not only a description of what they saw, but a motto for their lives. With that knowledge, they didn’t try to remain on the mountain. Real life is lived, not on the mountain peak, but in the valley. What happened to them on the mountain gave them the strength and the power to engage whatever it was that lay waiting for them in the valley. It sustained them until their next mountaintop experience, on Easter morning as they gazed on the empty tomb. We would do well, living in the valley as we do, to feel Jesus’ hands gently touching us, to hear his voice reassuring us, and to make “Jesus only” the motto for our lives. Baptized into his dying and rising, our lives our hid with God in Christ. We are not strong apart from his strength, we have no hope apart from our hope in him, we have no boast save in the cross of Christ.
My friends, the valley of Lent awaits us. But today let us sing our alleluias and exult in the rare air of the mountaintop and bask in the ineffable glory of God made visible in the face of Jesus, our savior and our lord. Alleluia! Amen.