A few years ago I worked as a camp counselor. Each camp I’ve worked at has been located in the midst of hills or mountains. Never alongside a lake. But these camps were amazing places. We have a tradition of people feeling close to God when they are at a higher elevation. I know that I myself have experienced that. There was one time in particular that I will never forget. I got up at 4 in the morning, woke up about 10 teenagers and one other counselor, and started a mile-long hike that ended with us walking up a hill to overlook the prairie. At the top of this hill was a rugged cross. And we sat at the foot of the cross, we watched as the sky continued to lighten and we saw the sun finally show up. The sky was full of pinks and oranges. And we sat in awe of what God could do.
I remember sitting there and thinking that I wish the moment could go on forever, but we had to head back to the campsite. We couldn’t stay up there, no matter how much we wanted to, and so we climbed down and walked back to the rest of the camp.
How many of us have had a mountain-top experience? A time when we have felt so close to God and all the glory that we have a hard time coming back down to reality.
Here we have three disciples with their own mountaintop experience. Peter, James and John go with Jesus up the mountain. They leave the rest of the group behind as these few were chosen to behold something special.
And special it was. They got to meet the great and powerful prophets of old: Moses and Elijah.
Why these two?
We know that Moses was great because of the movie “Ten Commandments” or “Prince of Egypt” where we encounter Moses going head-to-head with Pharaoh using the plagues, then later parting the sea and then giving the 10 commandments. Moses was close to God.
Elijah was also powerful. If you are reading the books of First and Second Kings, you will hear the stories of Elijah. He was so powerful that when he said it wasn’t going to rain, God decided to uphold his decision. Elijah performed miracles much like what Jesus was capable of doing.
But what sets Jesus apart is death.
In the OT, we never read of anyone who witnessed the death of either Moses or Elijah. We are told that Moses wandered off on his own, but no one knows what happened. And Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind with the chariots of fire around.
These two great prophets could come back at any time, and they do for a brief moment on the mountain.
So Peter, James and John see these two prophets with Jesus, and they recognize something is changing. Their teacher is now an equal with the rock stars of Jewish history.
And of course, they want the moment to last forever. Peter offers to build dwelling places for each of them. This may be partly due to the fact that at the time the Jews were celebrating the Festival of Booths, which is when people build little huts to live outside and remember the travels through the wilderness with Moses.
But I think Peter is asking because he doesn’t want this experience to change, that he wants Moses and Elijah to stay where people can find them. He may be terrified and extremely nervous, but he knows enough to at least make the offer to stay.
But it is not meant to be.
Because just then a cloud rolls in and we hear a loud voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”
This is not the first time that a loud voice comes from the heavens talking about Jesus as the Son. In the gospel of Mark, one of the first stories is about Jesus’ baptism where the voice announces for all the world to hear that Jesus is the beloved Son. Only that time, the voice talks directly to Jesus and says “with you I am well pleased.” This time the voice is talking to the disciples. At the end of the gospel, we will hear a centurion speak and recognize that Jesus was the Son of God.
This mountaintop is a shift in the story.
The first time we hear the voice, Jesus begins his ministry of healing the sick, possessed and needy. He has been walking around the countryside helping people and sharing the good message that he brings. He was acting like a prophet performing miracles and bringing God’s word to people.
But now, with the voice back, the shift moves from Jesus as a prophet to something new. After this story, when they go back down the hill, Jesus will start talking about his death. He will be preparing his followers for the trials that are to come.
This mountaintop is a pivotal moment in Jesus’ life and in our church year.
Because today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the season of Lent. The past few weeks we have been talking about light and glory in the season of Epiphany. But on Wednesday we will wear ashen crosses on our foreheads that remind us of our mortality. We will shift to the season of Lent where we will be preparing ourselves for Holy Week when Jesus will once again be betrayed and die upon a cross.
We cannot stop the change and stay on this high note. As much as we would prefer to spend our time with Peter, James and John, with Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the mountain, we have to head back down the hillside.
As much as we would like to stay and bask in the glory of our own mountaintop experiences, we can’t. we can’t stay separate from the rest of the world because life continues on whether we want to hit the pause button or not. We have to go back to where people are sick, where people are hurt and grieving, where people die.
But even in the midst of all this, we have the memory of the mountaintop. We remember what it felt like to be so close to God and all the glory. The three disciples went back, but I’m willing to bet that they never forgot what they saw and how they felt. And no matter what happened, they knew that they witnessed something amazing. They saw something that they never fully comprehended, but it changed them. The story must go on, but the important task for the followers of Jesus is to remember the moment but then to continue on with life.
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