“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”
– Mark 9:2-10
Strange things happen on the top of steep hills and mountains.
I have learned this from experience. Several years ago, when Jonathan and I were in Ireland, we decided we would walk St. Brandon’s Pilgrim Path, an 11 mile ancient Christian pilgrimage that is believed to have first been walked in the late 500s. This path begins along the seaside and then takes you through fields with beautiful scenic views and ancient heritage sites along the route.
When Jonathan and I asked the one taxi driver in the small town we were staying in if she could pick us up at the end of the path, she laughed… and then told us: “Just call me when you get tired…” And when we looked a bit confused, she added: “It’s not as easy as you might think.”
And boy was she right! The trail was hilly and windy, often taking us through long patches of tall grass and weeds that were up to our knees, private fields, thick mud, and rugged terrain.
Once we passed Kilmalkedar Church, an early Christian and later Medieval site, the next several miles of the path were even more difficult and off the grid. As we hiked up a very long, steep hill with only a few small hand painted trail markers to show us the way, the incline got steeper, the winds stronger, the sky darker, and the fog thicker.
When a trail marker directed us to walk through a closed gate, we found ourselves walking uphill through a private sheep farm. This final part of the journey was fun… at first. But after a while, the fog got so thick we could barely see anything around us, not to mention: where we were going. At one point I screamed, as two sheep seemed to appear out of nowhere – frantically running through the fog just two feet in front of us.
And when we tried to backtrack our steps so we could find a place to call and meet our taxi driver, as I took a step on what seemed to be the ground, I ended up falling through one of the many thorn bushes that we soon realized we were surrounded by and that were quite deep and wide. By this point, we had not seen a trail marker for about an hour, we had no phone service, and I was starting to wonder if we were ever going to make it back to our cabin.
Our only hope was to keep going up to the top of the hill, which we still could not see. So we just kept cautiously walking.
But once we eventually got to the top, something else strange happened. The fog thinned out, we could see things a lot more clearly, and the exhausting and – yes – quite terrifying – journey we took to get to where we were all of us sudden seemed worth it. As we looked out over the other side of the hill, we could see some of the most incredible views of Mt. Brandon and miles upon miles of the beautiful Irish countryside. And as we looked down the side of the hill that we had just climbed, we could see the tiny steeple of Kilmalkedar Church off in the distance down below, and the path we took from there seemed to be a little more apparent than before. (Although, I am not going to lie, our journey back down to Kilmalkedar Church was still a bit terrifying.)
Yes, strange things happen on the top of steep hills and mountains.
And this is the case for the disciples in our Gospel text this morning. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and leads them on what is most likely a long, arduous journey through windy, hilly, and rugged trails and unmarked fields up a high mountain. And when they finally get to the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured before them. His appearance changes, and he begins to glow. His clothes become dazzling white, so much so that no one on earth could bleach them, our text says. And then – when you think things could not get anymore weird, they do. Because suddenly out of nowhere, the long departed Moses and Elijah appear before the disciples and begin talking to Jesus.
Such strange things are happening on top of this mountain, that you might expect David Harpour – star of the popular Netflix show Stranger Things – to suddenly appear saying: “It must be a tide ad!” (If you watched the Super Bowl commercials, you know what I am talking about.)
But this is not a tide commercial. It’s the transfiguration. And it is a very strange scene.
So strange that Peter stumbles over his words because he doesn’t know what to say, for he and the other disciples are terrified.
And it’s no wonder they are. They had just seen this strange thing happen on the mountaintop. Here, for the first time, they see Jesus in a completely new light. (Both figuratively and literally).
And many of us know that once we see Jesus in a completely new light, there is no turning back. Everything changes. Sure, eventually we have to go back down the mountain to our every day life, but we do so with a new perspective and with a heart that is open to being transformed.
This is true with any kind of “mountain top” experience where we encounter Jesus in a new light. We begin to see things more clearly. These mountain top experiences may take place during a powerful worship service, at a large Christian gathering (like a conference, prayer retreat, or an ELCA Youth Gathering), or on a mission or service-learning trip.
Or maybe this mountain top experience takes place when we hold our child or our grandchild for the first time, when we hear someone else’s story, when someone sits with us in our pain, when we spend time taking in the nature around us, or when we develop relationships with our neighbors of other faiths and realize that God is so much bigger than we had imagined.
Maybe this mountain top experience is when we are volunteering at the local food pantry and realize for the first time that Jesus is not just working through us and our acts of service to our neighbors experiencing homelessness or hunger. Rather, through our neighbor, Jesus is actually speaking to us.
Or maybe our mountain top experience is when we first attend an anti-racism training or read a book on economic injustice and we begin to recognize our own privilege and prejudices and how they contribute to systemic inequalities.
Here on the mountaintop, Jesus transfigured before the disciples, and now the disciples are being transformed.
The journey the disciples had taken thus far in following Jesus is now seen with news eyes. And the same goes for the journey they would soon take in following Jesus back down the mountain, into the valley, and soon thereafter onto Jerusalem and toward the cross.
But this is – indeed – terrifying. Having this mountain top experience meant that their lives were going to change going forward. For the disciples, this means that soon Jesus will no longer be with them on this earth. How could they continue this ministry on their own? Were they even qualified to do this work? Were they good enough? Were they adequate enough?
It’s no wonder Peter suggests they build three dwellings – or tabernacles – at the top of the mountain (a common ancient practice to mark places where God’s people had a holy encounter.) For these disciples, this was surely a holy place. Plus, if they built the tabernacles, the disciples could stay in this holy space for a while, which could buy them some time before they had to come back down from the mountain top and face the hardships that come in the valley below, knowing who Jesus is and what and who Jesus stands for.
But just as Peter suggests this, a cloud overshadows the disciples, and a voice comes from the cloud saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved.”
I love this response to Peter and the other disciples as they are overcome with fear. Because it reminds us of Jesus’ baptism, when the voice from heaven cries out: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I love this because whenever we recall Jesus’ baptism, we are also reminded of our own. Just as Jesus was named God’s beloved child in his baptism, so too are we – in ours.
No matter how terrified Peter may have been about what was to come and about how Jesus was calling him to live, and no matter how inadequate or unqualified to do this work he might have felt, Peter is God’s beloved child. No matter how terrified, inadequate, or unqualified we might feel about coming down from the mountaintop and living out our call in the valley alongside those most vulnerable and marginalized, we are God’s beloved children, as well.
But the voice in the cloud does not end there.
“This is my Beloved Son,” the voice calls out. “Listen to him.”
When Peter saw Jesus in a new light, he was quick to speak. To give his two cents. To find a quick fix for the situation and for his fears.
And to be quite honest, aren’t we all quick to speak and slow to listen?
But the voice from the cloud calls on Peter to listen first.
You see, when we see Jesus in a new light, we are not just immediately transformed. This is a process and it requires a lot of listening and a lot of self-reflecting. We must be slow to speak and quick to listen. We must listen to God. Listen to our neighbors. Listen to ourselves.
I love what Mother Teresa told CBS anchor Dan Rather when he asked her what she said during her prayers. She answered: “I listen.” And when Dan asked her: “Well then, what does God say?” she smiled and answered: “He listens.”
It might seem strange that this morning we are on the mountaintop for Jesus’ transfiguration – which takes place toward the end of his public ministry – and then next week we go back to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – before Jesus’ ministry even begins. And yet, I think it makes sense that we are on the mountaintop this morning before we begin our Lenten journey through the wilderness this Wednesday.
Because I think this is similar to real life. Isn’t life often like a roller-coaster ride, bringing us from the mountaintop right down to the valley and into the wilderness and then on toward the cross before we can experience the resurrection… just before the roller-coaster ride begins again.
The disciples needed the mountaintop in order to see things more clearly before they followed Jesus toward the cross and onto what came next. They needed this as a holy place to begin their journey of transformation.
And so do we.
As Thomas Jay Oord wrote in his commentary on this text in the Christian Century magazine this week: “Mountains can bring us to attention. Sometimes we need to be atop a mountain to remember our reason for the journey. Mountains can give us the novel perspective we need to make sense of things; they can renew us. And sometimes only atop a mountain – after a grueling hike, with an aching body, oxygen-starved lungs, and sweat-drenced skin- can we truly hear the voice of wisdom: ‘this is my beloved son. Listen to him.’”
So this Lent, as we take this journey down from the mountaintop and into the wilderness, may we open our hearts to being transformed. May we choose to do this holy work of listening.