From the Mountain of Glory to the Valley of Sorrows
There’s a phenomenon known as the third man factor that many stranded explorers, shipwrecked crews, and mountaineers have felt when they were lost or in danger. The third man factor is the sense of another’s presence helping the ones in danger and guiding them on their way. One famous example happened to Sir Ernest Shackleton, leader of a 1914 expedition to Antarctica, when his ship was wrecked and the crew stranded in Antarctica for nearly two years. At one point Shackleton left most of the crew and traveled 36 hours straight with two others to seek rescue. He wrote in his memoir, “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia [Island], it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.” To Shackleton it seemed there was an extra person with them. Modern author John Geiger wrote book called Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. It describes different stories like this one. And it has a sequel called The Angel Effect: We Are Never Alone. Thankfully for Shackleton and his companions on those mountains in Antarctica, they were not alone.
Fortunately, Jesus and his disciples did not encounter such a life-threatening experience on top of the Mountain of Transfiguration. But they certainly had a life-changing encounter. One that was just as transformational, if not more so, than all those who’ve experienced the third man factor.
During this season after Epiphany, we’ve been covering the firsts of Jesus’ ministry. Now we jump ahead 12 chapters in Matthew to encounter the Transfiguration, something that happened toward the end of his life, traditionally 40 days before Good Friday. The theme of Epiphany is the revealing of who Jesus is. That’s what we’ve been reading about in the weeks leading up to today. And now we have the ultimate revealing: Jesus Christ shining like the sun and the voice of God proclaiming the same thing said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the beloved with him I am well pleased” with the added statement “Listen to him!”
So, there we have it, that’s who Jesus is: the Son of God. And the one we need to listen to. Obviously, we knew this before this morning, but put yourself in the disciples' shoes. They knew Jesus was special before this, they even understood he was the Messiah whatever that might’ve meant in their minds. But now they hear the voice of God declaring this Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Now they really get who Jesus is.
On this day, they experienced the glory of God high and lofty on the mountain. They were filled with awe, they were excited, they were afraid. Peter even suggested they stay there, offering to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. They understood how special this was. They were truly having a mountaintop experience to top all mountaintop experiences.
But mountaintop experiences don’t usually last very long. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a powerful spiritual experience yourself, you know that most of life is spent down the mountain, on the ground level, and sometimes even in the dark valley. It’s a wonderfully accurate representation of life that after this powerful mystical experience, the disciples look up to find Jesus alone and then head back down the mountain. And Jesus tells them where they’re going: to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. They’re leaving the heights of glory for the dark valley of suffering. And not just Jesus’ suffering, but that of the disciples too. They are leaving the amazing mountaintop experience and entering what will be a valley of sorrows.
But the important thing is, that they are not leaving God up on the mountain. God is coming with them. As one commentator points out: the disciples see God on the mountaintop, and then God walks down the mountain with them. God incarnate in Jesus does not stay on the mountain of glory but descends to the world with these frightened disciples. They do not have to leave the presence of God on the mountain, because the Incarnation means God is with us on the ground level too and in the deep valley. In Jesus Christ God comes down from the heights and walks with us. This is the truth of the Incarnation. Emmanuel, God with us.
There was a Catholic monk in 16th century Spain we call St. John of the Cross. He sought to reform his Carmelite order the same way St. Teresa of Avila had done for the women of the order. John had many mountaintop experiences of the spiritual life. He was a mystic and wrote spiritual poetry about his profound experience of God. He is also the one who coined the term “dark night of the soul” referring to a feeling of spiritual abandonment. Some of his contemporaries hated him for trying to reform the order and kidnapped him, imprisoned him, and tortured him for 8 months until he escaped. John experienced the heights and depths of the spiritual journey as well as the heights and depths of the physical life.
Maybe we don’t all experience the darks of the soul to the degree that John did. Or that Jesus and the disciples did. But we all experience such darkness to some extent. We all have our dark nights. We all descend from the mountain and enter the valley of suffering. When a loved one dies unexpectedly. When we’re caught in times of fear and uncertainty. When we watch those we love fall into addiction or depression. When we enter the valley of the shadow of death and believe all hope is lost.
It is at those times that we should remember how Jesus left the glory of the mountain to join us in the valley of sorrow. Jesus’ descent from the Mount of Transfiguration reveals that our God is not just a God of power elevated in glory. Our God is also one who enters into the fray, into the chaos and violence, into the sin and suffering of this world—and by experiencing it himself, redeems it.
We are about to begin the season of Lent, where we turn our focus to Jesus’ journey to the cross. That’s where Jesus is headed when he descends the mountain. Today the disciples see Jesus in all his majesty, in 40 days they’ll see him nailed to a cross.
But for now, on this Sunday of the Transfiguration, we admire Jesus on the mountaintop and understand the revelation shown to the disciples: that this is God’s Son, shining brightly, and we are called to listen and follow him. And we know that no matter what we are going through in life, whether we’re experiencing the heights of glory or the deepest darkness, Jesus Christ is with us. Jesus Christ loves us. Jesus Christ suffers with us. Jesus Christ walks beside us our whole life long. Thanks be to God for that.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.