2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9
I think the closest I’ve ever been to a “mountaintop experience” was on a riverboat.
I had just arrived in Louisville, Kentucky to start attending seminary. Crescent Hill Baptist Church always rented the Belle of Louisville for a Wednesday night cruise around the time a fall semester started, and they always gave free tickets to incoming seminarians.
So in the fall of 1986 I hitched a ride with some classmates I barely knew and rode out to the riverboat to see the sights and maybe make new friends before plunging into my classes.
I assure you, my expectations for the evening were every bit as mundane as that. But as that great theologian Forrest Gump has said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re going to get.”
What I got was an impromptu hymn-sing in the middle of the Ohio River. I had already figured out that the guys on the second floor of Sampey Hall weren’t plain, normal Christians like me. We were a pretty diverse crowd of liberals, conservatives, closet Pentecostals, and Episcopal wannabes. To be honest, it had only been a week on campus and I was already beginning to wonder if I had made some kind of massive mistake.
But somehow, sitting around in a circle on the uppermost deck of the Belle of Louisville, as the sun was setting and a cool breeze was blowing, somebody—I don’t remember who—suggested a song, and two or three others joined in.
It didn’t take long before all of us were sharing our favorites: “Amazing Grace,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Those who knew how to harmonize did so. Those who didn’t just tried to keep up. It didn’t take too long for me to feel that everything was going to be alright in this strange new world of seminary education.
There were no bright lights, heavenly voices, whirlwinds, or chariots of fire. To be honest, there wasn’t much of anything but a cool river breeze and a bunch of guys who thought they could sing.
But somehow that gave me a fleeting glimpse of heaven.
I tell you this story because we have before us today two stories about mountaintops and the kinds of experiences people of faith sometimes have there. And I tell you this story because, strange and unlikely as it may seem, the Bible says that our destiny as Christians is to be like Jesus: not just in our ordinary lives, but in glory. “We shall be like him,” the Elder says in 1 John, “for we shall see him as he is.”
The Bible says we are destined for glory—a glory like that of Jesus, a glory that will make us shine with heavenly light.
On the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, the church traditionally reads the story of the Transfiguration. We climb to the top of the mountain each year, and we do it for the same reason Moses climbed Mount Nebo: to catch a glimpse of the promised land.
And that’s foolishness to a lot of people. You know what I mean. We’ve all heard the saying that some Christians are so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good. We all know we need to be engaged in feeding the hungry and working for a better society because the gospel of Jesus isn’t just about getting our ticket to heaven but about doing God’s work in the world. I’ve heard those sermons. I’ve preached those sermons!
Elijah rode to heaven on a whirlwind. The disciples caught a glimpse of Jesus in his heavenly glory. But I’ll forgive you if you think it might be somewhat abstract or irrelevant—and maybe even just a tad selfish—to think much about heaven.
You may have heard how Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, declared in a recent interview with the British newspaper The Guardian that there is no heaven. In fact, he called it a “fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.”
Now, Dr. Hawking is obviously a brilliant scientist, and he has every right to his opinions, but it strikes me as rather strange that someone whose work in theoretical physics opens the door for an infinite number of parallel universes would be so dogmatic about how many levels reality is allowed to have.
But I can’t fault him for wanting certainty. There’s a part of me as well that isn’t always comfortable with ambiguity, with mystery. It’s just human nature to want things tied down.
And, if we’re honest, maybe that desire for certainty has an influence on how we read these stories of heavenly chariots and divine voices. Believe me, I can understand how some people will read the Transfiguration story, arch their eyebrows with Spocklike skepticism.
It feels good to be able to sit back and admire how all our ducks line up in a row. If only that were what we were called to do. But in fact, God is not so much interested in whether we’ve got all our questions answered but rather that we follow.
Following doesn’t always seem like a great deal!
Did you notice that Elijah tried to convince Elisha to quit following him three times? But he wouldn’t. Elijah was his teacher and mentor, and Elisha was determined to stay with him until the end.
It wasn’t exactly a good time to be a prophet in Israel. Ahab’s unholy dynasty was still on the throne. Their imperial ambitions were about to be tested by a rebellion brewing in Moab, and Elijah had already been commissioned to go anoint Jehu, the army commander who would soon lead a coup against Ahab’s successors and proclaim himself King of Israel.
It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to hang around with Elijah during those days of turmoil.
And do I really need to spell out the turmoil in the life of Jesus? Six days before the scene in Mark 9, Jesus announced for the first time what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem— “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Three times in three chapters, Jesus predicts his coming death. Each time, he follows this up by teaching about the nature of discipleship: deny self, take up your cross and follow me; whoever wants to be first must (like a little child) be last of all; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and the greatest of all will be the servant of all.
Amazingly, six days after Jesus first called them to deny themselves and take up their crosses, the disciples—like Elisha—were still following.
But I don’t know if they felt good about it. I’m pretty sure they wished someone could explain to them precisely what was going to happen.
But then Jesus takes three of them—Peter, James, and John—on an unannounced mountain-climbing expedition. For a moment, they receive a glimpse of glory. It’s just a glimpse, just a momentary flash, but it gives them an inkling of where they are heading.
In the midst of their human fears and struggles, they see heavenly power. When Jesus arrives at the mountaintop his figure is changed, and the outside of him, which had always been ordinary and like us, shone as if he was not like one of us at all.
Now, the nature of the Transfiguration is not obvious. Was it a “literal” metamorphosis or transformation of Jesus? Was it an ecstatic vision on the part of the three disciples? Was it, as some scholars suspect, a misplaced resurrection story?
Whatever we think of this episode, we must tread carefully. Nothing is easier for Christians who have become over-familiar with the Gospel texts and traditions than to domesticate and diminish them. We have become quite accomplished at taming and trivializing these indescribable moments of grace.
We’ll open the door for a little bit of mystery—but not too much! Best to keep these things manageable, domesticated, under control. The Transfiguration exposes our inclinations toward sucking the life out of the Gospel stories lest they make us uncomfortable. Let’s face it: it’s easier to deal with the Jesus we’ve got figured out—even if he doesn’t look an awful lot like the one who meets us in the pages of Scripture. In her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard asks:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets! Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews! For the sleeping God may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return.
We have become quite adept at managing mystery. Sometimes we manage it to within an inch of its life. One way we attempt to manage mystery is by shoving it to one side when it gets too threatening. But there’s something else we can do. Sometimes we try to turn it into a commodity.
What do you say when heaven breaks out all around? The old hymn says, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand.” I don’t think Peter knew that hymn!
Leave it to Peter to provide us an unfiltered commentary on the events in this passage. First he says the obvious: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
Then he begins to make a plan to prolong the experience. “How about we just stay up here on the mountain, Lord? We can set up tents for you and Elijah and Moses. Does that sound like a good idea?”
Now, Mark tries to cover for Peter by telling us he didn’t know what to say because they all were terrified. He’s probably right. When something scares us, we want to feel we can control it, make it conform to something we understand. A tent or three would provide some structure for what was happening and hopefully keep it going—just at a safe distance. Peter saw mystery as something like a power source that ought to be available whenever needed and directed towards the ends he desired.
In college I visited for a while New Hope Baptist Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan before I finally landed at the church where I spent the remainder of my college years. There was a nice older fellow there (let’s call him John) who sort of befriended me during those few months at New Hope.
John and his wife seemed to be the kind of plain, simple Christians that makes up the majority in every congregation in the world. He was sincere in his faith and very welcoming toward me. But I heard he left New Hope not too long after I did. I don’t know the details, but I remember him complaining later that he had left New Hope for another church because “that’s where the Spirit is.”
Later, I suppose the Spirit came back to New Hope, because John did, too. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” And that ought to warn any of us against getting so wrapped up in mountaintop experiences that we fail to notice the Spirit’s elusive blowing.
Some believers seem to think they should be in a constant state of spiritual stimulation. If the Spirit won’t cooperate, we’ll pull up our tent stakes and move from one experience to another, looking for more and more amazing things, like a drug addict for whom a lesser fix no longer has the kick it used to.
Do you remember what happened in the story six days previously, when Jesus announced he was going to die in Jerusalem? Peter rebuked Jesus for even raising that possibility. And Jesus had to remind him to focus on divine things, not human things.
Peter had problems with figuring out which was which. And in his defense, it isn’t entirely obvious that the most divine thing is not to be a conquering, triumphant messiah but to face a humiliating death.
Getting stuck on Peter’s mountaintop wasn’t part of Jesus’ plan. He was still on a journey, you see. He was on his way to his own mountaintop in Jerusalem. And getting there meant his death.
The voice of God rings out: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And we know what Jesus is saying. Follow me. Follow me all the way down this mountain, and into Jerusalem. Follow me all the way to the cross.
What if, instead of managing mystery, we decided we simply tried to accept and embrace it? We do, after all, need heavenly strength sometimes in the midst of human trials.
But accepting and embracing mystery means that God is at liberty to either show up or not. And so an attitude of openness to mystery requires that we also accept and embrace the ordinary. God doesn’t just show up on mountaintops. God also shows up on riverboats, or picnic tables, or hospital rooms, or even (I’ve heard it rumored) church sanctuaries.
The problem with ecstatic experiences is that they never last. They’re not supposed to. Maybe the problem with us is we think they should. But things like this are meant to be rare. We can’t have Easter every Sunday, either. We’d wear ourselves out if we did.
The most striking thing about the Transfiguration story is how it ends. Actually, both stories end similarly. There is blazing glory. There is fear in the presence of the Holy. There are things to see and hear.
Then, suddenly, everything is back to normal.
Right? Maybe normal, but hopefully different.
Mountaintops don’t last, but they do have staying power. My faith is still strengthened by something that happened to me twenty-five years ago on a riverboat. We can travel far on the unearned and unexpected blessings God provides. By God’s grace, we can even receive a glimpse of Easter that will help us get through Lent.
In the midst of daily struggles, doubts, apprehensions, and frustrations, every now and then, when we least expect it and have done nothing to earn it, we find heavenly strength.
We find it not by managing the mystery but by following the Savior. Like the disciples, and like Elisha, we must accept and embrace not only the mountaintops but also the deserts and the valleys. Because Jesus promised he’d be with us—whether we see his glory or not.
Which brings us to this table. What an ordinary thing it is! It’s kind of silly, if you think about it. How odd to think that God could wrap a mystery in a nibble of bread and a sip of wine. But let’s do ourselves a favor and resist the urge to manage, organize, quantify, and domesticate whatever it is that Jesus intends to do when he breaks the bread and pours the cup.
It’s not our job to manage the mystery. It’s simply our job to follow—and sometimes, through pure grace, to receive a glimpse of glory and be good stewards of it.
Brothers and sisters, Christ is here. The top of Poplar is a stop on his road to Jerusalem. The Beloved Son of God is with us, speaking to us, urging us to follow. Listen to him.
And be careful when you celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s supper. Think twice before you receive that bread. Watch out as you lift that cup to your lips.
The God you serve is full of mystery, and you don’t know what you’re going to get.