February 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday
When you behold a mountain for the first time, there is awe in the beauty and sheer scale of it. Growing up in Mid-Michigan, I never really had the opportunity to see a mountain in person. I grew to appreciate the photography of Ansel Adams and the many photographs he took in our national parks which showcased the beauty and magnitude of the mountains. A respect for nature is nurtured when being in the presence of these towering behemoths. This is some of God’s creation at its finest.
I recently watched a documentary on Alex Honnold. If you have not heard of him, he is a mountain climber and is well known for free soloing the faces of many mountains. To free solo a mountain means that you are not using any ropes, harnesses, or protective equipment. Imagine climbing the face of a mountain that looks nearly flat to the naked eye without any equipment, simply using your hands, feet and own sure strength. The documentary, Free Solo¸takes the viewer on a journey from the time Alex Honnold decides he wants to be the first person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Climbing to a height of 2900 feet without a rope, harness, or protective equipment. One bad move and your family and friends would be planning your funeral. Alex had friends and knew of other climbers that had encountered such a fate.
Alex’s determination guides him, and he scales El Capitan in just a little under 4 hours. While he rejoiced on the mountain top, he came back down and started thinking about his next challenge. He reached this pinnacle, but there are so many more. He had friends and family waiting for him at the bottom and there was nothing more to do on El Capitan.
Our story from the gospel this morning is one of many mountain top stories in the bible. With our human minds, there is no way we can fully comprehend what has taken place on that mountaintop. It is truly a mystical experience that we are not meant to fully understand at this time, yet Jesus draws his disciples and us into a deeper knowing of who he is. The Transfiguration reveals to Peter, James, and John the full divinity that is within Jesus Christ. Immediately preceding this lesson, Jesus is talking with the disciples in Caesarea Philippi. He has told them of his impending death and resurrection. Peter rebukes him and Jesus tells him, “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus’ prediction does not fit Peter’s image of the Messiah. Perhaps Peter would fully understand with a trip to the mountaintop.
The mountain plays a significant role in the Transfiguration. It is not just about what takes place on the mountain, but also the connections with Moses and Elijah. Two figures in the ancestry of the Jewish people that had their own personal mountain top experiences. If you recall, where was it that Moses had to go to talk with the Lord? Yes, he had to ascend Mount Sinai to receive the tablets from the Lord. However, these first tablets were not enough because Moses descends the mountain to find that the people have made a golden calf to worship and he destroys the tablets in his anger. He returns to the mountain top to talk to God and prepares another set of tablets. The Lord now has the people’s attention as Moses continues his work among the people. Nothing was going to be accomplished on the mountaintop.
Elijah’s mountain top experience was one of patience. Elijah flees from Jezebel and finds himself on the mountain in Horeb and is told to wait for the Lord to pass by. The Lord was not in the earthquake or the fire but in the silence as Elijah exits the cave and begins to converse with the Lord. Once again, he cannot stay on the mountain top for the rest of his life. After he has spoken to the Lord nothing is really happening there. The Lord tells him to return to the wilderness of Damascus. The work he is called to is among the people.
I can understand why Peter would want to stay on the mountain top. Not only has Jesus revealed something to the three of them that no one else will encounter, but they are also blessed by the appearance of Moses and Elijah. These are ancestors of the Jewish faith that they have heard stories passed down through many generations. While they were amazed and terrified at the same time, something had to be done to make this moment last as long as possible. Surely, they could build dwelling places or memorials for the three prophets.
Peter thought they had reached the pinnacle and there was nowhere else to go from there. It is the voice of the Lord this time that breaks into the moment and tells the three terrified and huddled together disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” This is the same voice that made the proclamation at Jesus’ baptism. However, at the baptism the voice was for Jesus and he had not even gathered his disciples yet. This time they are present and hear the voice loud and clear. And just like that, they are left on the mountain top alone with Jesus as Moses and Elijah vanish. Jesus proceeds to lead them down the mountain while instructing them to tell no one of what they had seen or heard until after his death and resurrection.
How many times have we reached the mountain top or pinnacle and thought that there was no place left to go? If you have played on a sports team and won a championship you may revel in that for some time. However, that is only one season and you must come down and put in the hard work for the next season. It is easy to get caught up in the destination and lose sight of everything that is happening around us.
As Christians, it can sometimes be easy to get stuck in the notion of heaven being our main focus. In this moment, when we equip ourselves with tunnel vision, we block out all that is happening around us. This is not what Jesus is calling us to when we are called to proclaim the good news. Jesus walks with us down the side of that mountain to be with the people in valleys. How can we care and love people when we have our sights set on something that is not even of this world? By caring for and loving those around us, friend and enemy, neighbor and family, we begin to get a glimpse and have a role in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.
Instead of naval gazing, Jesus invites us to set our eyes on the people around us. To care for and love them. We accomplish that in a variety of ways through supporting Gleaners, the local Richmond Food Pantry, and providing bicycles for those in need to just name a few. We do so when we make a phone call or send a card to someone we have not seen in a while. We do so when pray for the health, safety, and wellbeing of our friends and family. We can only do this when we are among the people where life happens and not gazing down from the mountain top.
There is excitement in reaching the mountain top. Just ask Alex Honnold after he bursts through any trepidation to free solo El Capitan. I think it would be safe to say that there are not many of us that would even feel comfortable climbing 20 – 50 feet up the face of a mountain free solo, let alone with the proper equipment. It takes a lot of courage and willingness to be proactive in anticipating what may come your way. It takes grit and determination to reach the mountain top and it is easy to want to stay there and revel in the glory of it all. Jesus does not intend for us to stay there. He walks with us down the side of the mountain because he wants to be with the people. The work that Jesus calls us to is in the valley where life happens. Life happens in our joys and challenges, accomplishments and struggles, freshness and tiredness. Jesus climbs the mountain with us, encourages us to stop and take a breath, and then descend back down because there is work to do where life is happening.