UCBR: February 15, 2015 “Go to the Mountaintop”
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday in the season we call Epiphany – the celebration of light and insight and revelation – our understanding, in particular of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us. The Epiphany season began, as you may recall, back at the beginning of January when we celebrated the visit of the Magi, or the wise men, to the child Jesus. On that Sunday we saw how the enlightened foreigners acclaimed Jesus as “The King of the Jews.” They were filled with joy and they worshiped him – Jesus as this little kid, and brought him gifts. Today, Jesus is all grown up – and now it is Peter, James and John, ordinary Jewish people, who become enlightened as to Jesus’ true nature – not by the Bethlehem Star, but as Jesus transfigures, or changes, before them on the mountain top. Up there at the summit Jesus appears as light, his clothes dazzling white. Two visitors from Israel’s past – Moses and Elijah, join Jesus. They see Jesus as he truly is: not just a amazing new rabbi, or a miracle worker, or healer, but as the voice from heaven proclaims, Jesus is God’s Son, the beloved to whom we should listen.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah, two esteemed figures from Jewish history, confirm Jesus as the long-awaited messiah.
Mountains throughout scripture, indeed throughout the ancient world, were places when people encounter the sacred. Moses encountered the burning bush that was not consumed, and later received the Law on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:15). At the end of his ministry, Moses stood on the mountaintop of Mt. Pisgah to see the Promised Land right before he died, knowing with satisfaction that his task in God’s plan was accomplished. Elijah the prophet also had a sacred encounter with God on Mount Horeb (1 Ki. 19:8). Fleeing for his life on the top of the mountain, depressed, Elijah encounters God not in the earthquake or fire, but in the silence that followed. In the aftermath of encountering God, Elijah’s mission to speak out on behalf of God in the face of danger is revived.
Now the disciples, James Peter and John encounter the divine, but not in the earthquake and fire, a burning bush, or a piercing silence, but in the very person of Jesus. In this moment of revelation they see Jesus in conversation with Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the prophets) – the totality of Jewish faith. The disciples see Jesus as the bridge, the fulfillment of all which the Jewish people have longed for.
Some scholars have even found it curious that the gospel writer Luke reports two men at the empty tomb (Lk. 24:4; Jn. 20:12) and in the book Acts he describes two men at Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Acts 1:10). The ‘two witnesses’ described in the book of Revelation (Rev. 11:3) are often identified with Moses and Elijah. So at Jesus transfiguration, resurrection and Ascension and in the end of the ages, there are divinely ordained witnesses bringing the old and new together – pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of revelation and God’s work among us.
Jesus, knowing what mountaintops signified for the people, chose to take Peter, James and John to the summit, to witness the transfiguration. Mountains are a perfect choice: they are place of refuge and where we can step back and see the big picture. In the effort of going to the mountaintop today, we too find inspiration and the potential of spiritual transformation. We find God – and we find who we are—beloved children of God.
In 2011, Former Navy rescue swimmer Brian Dickinson, an experienced mountain climber, and motivational speaker, was roughly 1,000 feet from the summit of Mount Everest—also known as “the death zone”—when his Sherpa became ill and had to turn back, leaving Brian with a difficult decision: should he continue to push for the summit, or head back down the mountain? After carefully weighing the options, Brian decided to continue toward the summit—alone. Four hours later, Brian solo summited the highest peak in the world. But the celebration was short-lived. Suddenly, his vision became blurry, his eyes started to burn, and within seconds, he was rendered almost completely blind.
All alone at 29,035 feet, low on oxygen, and stricken with snow blindness, Brian was forced to inch his way back down the mountain relying only on his Navy survival training, his gut instinct, and his faith. Brian slowly started down the mountain. Very tired, Brian was tempted to close his eyes and become a permanent member of the mountain.
Yet he pressed on. But things went from bad to worse. He start falling head over heel. He landed upside down, his mask is ripped from his face, and my bottle of oxygen’s coming out of my pack. His oxygen wasn’t working. At that point he dropped to his knees and just surrendered. It was a simple prayer he said, ‘God I can’t do this alone. Please help me.’”
At that moment, on the other side of the world, friends and family were suddenly compelled to pray for Brian. His climbing friend, David Heiting says, “I felt God just talking to me saying, ‘You need to pray for Brian to get up and move. Things are going to be hard and he just has to power through.’ That’s what I prayed for. Joanna felt compelled to pray. “I just got this feeling that maybe something was wrong, and I kept praying about it, for God to bring him home safe.”
“And at that moment, I witnessed a miracle.” Brian says, “It was as if God reached down by the back of my down suit and lifted me up. I mean I just had this unexplained energy. To have that life re-enter my body was just unexplained. To be able to stand up, to feel strong, and just have hope. Then Brian tried the oxygen tank again. This time it worked. He made it down to the camp at 26,000 feet.
With help Brian made it the rest of the way down Everest and home to his family. One month later his sight returned to normal. Brian says he is thankful God was with him every step of the way to the top of the world, and back down again. “In my moment of need He was there. I believe He was there the entire time. He’s always there. That Presence I felt I was never alone. When I needed to be lifted up He was there. He got me down the mountain.” Brian concludes, “People give up on themselves but God’s not giving up on you. No matter what, God is always there. He’ll lead you through the toughest times and help you survive the impossible.”
Brian found God up there on Mount Everest – and he wrote a book about his saga called “Blind Faith.” Like Brian today we are invited to that mountaintop with Peter, James and John. We get to see Jesus in all his glory, alongside Moses and Elijah. Today, God wants to overshadow each of us with the Holy Spirit as he did those disciples, and speak to us. God has a message for each of us, straight from the mountaintop.
Some of the mountains God has called us to are a part of the glory of creation, the wonders of the world that we scale, we ski on, we plan treks – and in the beauty of nature we are renewed. God also calls us today to those mountain ranges of our culture, to those peaks of justice, mercy and righteousness, difficult summits that are too often left un-tread except for the most spiritually intrepid.
God is also calling each of us to those mountains here in our hearts—mountains of faith and prayer we are invited to climb, as described in “The Seven Story Mountain,” the renowned autobiography of Thomas Merton a Trappist monk, writer and mystic of the 20th century. Merton choses as the title of his book the image from Dante of a purgatorial mountain that we must ascend if we are to reach paradise. About this ascent Merton writes: “Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example. Yet if this sublime fire of infused love burns in your soul, it will inevitably send forth throughout the Church and the world an influence more tremendous than could be estimated by the radius reached by words or by example.”
Today in our climb to the mountaintop God helps us see who we really are and what we are called to do in this life. There is nothing more important than this: to take from the mountaintop “this… love that burns in our soul,” that experience of glory, and share it. To make a difference. To someone - Somewhere.
That, my friends, is the challenge of the season of Lent. Starting Wednesday, until Easter Sunday we are called to this special task. Forget about giving up chocolate or TV. We are called to something greater. To take that knowledge of Jesus, his glory, the love that burns in our soul, and to apply it to daily life. To take like Brian, the knowledge that God is always with us. To take, like Martin Luther King Jr., the long vision of racial and social justice and give people hope.
Today we’ve been taken to the mountaintop. We’ve seen the glory. We got to share it.
This Lent, I invite all of us to listen. I invite us to renewal that comes from knowing ourselves so loved by God that we must, we must, pass it on. Dare to share what a difference faith in Jesus has had in your life. Stretch your prayer life. Get more invested in God’s work. Get more involved in the mission of Union Church and around the world. Work for racial justice and social equality. Be a guide and lead others to the mountaintop – to Jesus. This Lent, may love be energized, mobilized, concretized – realized proclaimed and celebrated by each of us, by all of us. This Lent let us truly change. That’s how we’ll know that we’ve been to the mountaintop. Amen.