From the Mountaintop to the Cross - Luke 9:28-39
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the final Sunday before Lent, the bridge between Epiphany and Lent. If you remember the first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus in which a voice from heaven declared “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased!” That voice was apparently heard by Jesus alone. Now, on the final Sunday of this period of the church year, we read of this voice from heaven speaking again, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” This time the voice from heaven was heard by Peter, James, and John and they were given instructions: Listen to Jesus!
The command to listen to Jesus interrupted Peter as he was bumbling out an idea about setting up three dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. And instead of speaking when he didn’t know what to say, Peter is told to LISTEN. And after the voice speaks and the vision ends, we are told: “They kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”
There’s something about silence that seems the only appropriate response to great mystery. After being told to listen, Peter, James, and John are silent and take time to reflect and wonder and integrate all that they saw. There’s something important about taking time to integrate spiritual experiences and not sharing them right away—but giving them time to work on you and change you before you share them and give away their power.
Catholic priest and spiritual author Richard Rohr reflected on this in one of his daily devotions in the book On the Threshold of Transformation. He writes:
“Jesus often instructed his disciples not to talk about the wonders they had seen him perform; he also would say to a person he had healed, ‘Do not talk about this to anyone.’ When we at the Center for Action and Contemplation take [people] through initiation rites or other intense experiences, we tell them not to talk about what has happened to them, not even to their [spouse] for maybe a couple of weeks. We say, ‘Don’t give away your gold until it is really your gold!’ Once you verbalize something, it’s as if you have done a freeze-frame, stopping it at that level, and this often stops further growth. You sort of capture it in words and, frankly, should expect little more from it…So never hand over your deepest experiences until they have become integrated as your very own.”
Powerful spiritual experiences have a way of transforming us. And we need time to reflect on them, to integrate them, and to let them work on us. And once they do, we have a sacred encounter full of meaning, a divine experience of our very own that will empower us for the rest of our lives.
The phrase “mountaintop experience” comes from this passage. Peter, James, and John had such a profound experience and it changed everything. It strengthened and prepared them for the tough road ahead. The road they were about to embark on with Jesus, the road to Jerusalem, the road to the cross. Their mountaintop experience gave them strength and encouragement. And hopefully we too have had mountaintop experiences that provide us strength and encouragement.
Whether it’s experiencing the glory of God on a literal mountaintop looking over a beautiful vista. Or other experiences of nature like looking up at the night sky and marveling in awe and wonder at majesty of the universe. Some may have a mountaintop experience in worship or through a powerful experience of music that leaves you breathless. Others experience it in prayer and meditation or reading scripture. Others through a profound dream or a life-threatening experience that leads to recognition of the reality of the divine. And some do have actual visions and mystical experiences like the ones described in scripture.
Hopefully most of us have had some kind of experience where we’ve encountered God’s presence in some way. And whatever our mountaintop experience has been, those memories give us strength in difficult times. They keep us grounded in the Lord and make it easier to trust even when life is falling apart. They can help us get through our worst days, the dark nights of the soul, the times we’re trudging through the valley of the shadow of death, the times we feel like we’re on our way to the cross. And to be honest, there’s so many more days like that than there are mountaintop days.
There’s much of that in our world right now. As we’re finally emerging from a two- year pandemic, Russia has invaded Ukraine and the world is on edge. Concerns about a confrontation between nuclear powers is on everyone’s mind—and our hearts go out to the people of Ukraine for the terror and violence they’re experiencing. The world’s future suddenly feels less stable. I don’t know what will happen and I don’t know what should happen. Our prayers are for peace and for the wise discernment of our world leaders. We long for peace, we long for a better world, we long for God’s vision of shalom to become reality. We long for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
But the promise of a better world declared so often in scripture—whether by the name of the peaceable kingdom, the kingdom of God, or the new creation—that promise of a world of peace and harmony, a world of shalom, that promise seems so far away. War and violence have been so rampant throughout human history, a fact we are reminded of by what’s happening today. But during these times of the dark valley, we remember those times on the mountaintop with God’s presence, and remember that we can trust in God’s love and guidance.
And even if we’ve never had a mountaintop experience ourselves, Jesus had the ultimate mountaintop experience. And he left that mountaintop of the Transfiguration for our sake and for the sake of the world. He left the mountaintop to go to the cross. He left the glory of union with God to enter into the consequences of sin and death. He left the comfort and joy of God’s presence in order to die for the salvation of the world. He left the mountaintop out of love for us.
So no matter how crushing life gets, no matter how dire things look, we know that Jesus Christ suffered the worst that evil could throw at him, and through his death he brought us life and salvation. He brought us forgiveness and reconciliation. He brought us healing and liberation. He brought us freedom and abundant life.
And after the cross came the empty tomb. Jesus rose from the dead and continues to walk with us as we endure the trials of this life. So do not be afraid. Trust that your life is in God’s hands. Trust that our world is in God’s hands. Seek to discern God’s will and to follow it. Remember your own mountaintop experiences—and especially remember Jesus’ mountaintop experience—and how he left the glorious light of the mountain to join us in the dark valley. All because of his love for us and for the world. Thanks be to God for Jesus’ love. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 2/27/22