On this, the final Sunday before the season of Lent begins, we’re presented with a couple of accounts of what you can only call “mountain-top experiences.” There is something utterly strange and other-worldly about the both of them. There’s Moses being summoned up Mount Sinai for a forty-day sojourn, while “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” And then there is this story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up a mountain where they see something utterly new—and utterly telling—about their friend and teacher Jesus. “It is as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels,” writes Frederick Buechner.
Even without the voice from the cloud to explain it, they had no doubt what they were witnessing. It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they’d tramped many a dusty mile with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they’d seen as hungry, tired, and footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded.
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More than just seeing Jesus in this startling and new way, the gospels tell us that the disciples also saw these two other figures. “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures in the story of the people of God, representative of the Law and the prophets; of the deep and great tradition in which Jesus is grounded, and over which and into which his very life will speak new truth. There’s 2000 years of Christian reflection on the meaning of this event—of the significance of Jesus standing with Elijah and Moses—but Peter, James, and John didn’t have the benefit of reading scholarly biblical commentaries and insightful theologians…
“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” How typical of the Peter portrayed in the Gospels; always the first one to jump to do something, always the first to leap in with a response. As you read the Gospel accounts, you often get this sense that Peter couldn’t sit back and be still if his life depended on it. He’s a fisherman, a hands-on kind of guy. Give him a project to work on, and he knows what to do. “Lord, I’ll make three dwellings right here and now, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” It is maybe not quite as odd a response as it seems at first glance, as markers were often erected in response to an experience of the divine. Maybe, too, Peter was wanting to hold on to this moment; preserve it, sustain it, keep it in a way. Maybe Peter was really wanting to stay on the mountain top, where dazzling things held him in awe; where the struggles of life down below faded away to nothing. Peter wouldn’t be the first one to want to preserve a mountain top experience.
I’ve talked to any number of people who attended the CMU Outtatown program, experienced it as something really powerful, and then six weeks or six months later were finding it hard to connect with the stuff of daily life; were finding, in fact, that while faith had been so central to Outtatown, faith was now feeling somehow almost peripheral. Same thing can be true for people for whom a summer camp experience was a mountain-top for coming to belief. I’ve known some summer camp staff who return year after year after year, because that camp is the only place where they find it possible to have faith.
Maybe any one of us who has experienced one of those eye-opening, life-changing moments of realization that this—this—is what it really is all about… we can relate to Peter. That’s not only true of what you might narrowly call “religious experiences” either. Same thing can happen in our relationships and romances, same thing can happen through traveling, same thing can happen in the creative process, same thing can happen when someone gets a bit of a glimpse of his or her life’s vocation. This is what it is all about… this is what matters… this is me. If I could only hold things right here, stay in exactly this space or this mode forever, all would be well.
Matthew tells that it was while Peter was still talking about building those three dwelling spaces that “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” In other words, Peter is pretty much interrupted in his plans to hold things as he wants them, and walloped with the thing he most needs to know: “Listen to him.” “When the disciples heard this,” Matthew continues, “they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them”—that’s a very comforting detail, to notice that Jesus touched them—“saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”
And apparently at this point it is all back to normal. Sure, they’re up on the mountain still, but those other figures have just gone, there is no bright cloud or revelatory voice, and Jesus looks like his old self again. And that familiar Jesus—about whom the three of them now know something deep and true—that familiar Jesus begins to lead them back down the mountain.
Do you know why they go back down the mountain? Well clearly there’s work to be done, and Jesus seems more clear than ever about his needing to turn toward Jerusalem and the crisis that will unfold there. But the other reason they need to go back down the mountain is that not much actually grows on mountain tops, including people… particularly disciples. Those peak experiences are great for helping us to see which direction we might be headed—you can see a long way from the top of a mountain—but to actually get there you have to keep moving.
It is not accidental that we read this story on the final Sunday before the season of Lent begins. It stands as a declaration—“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”—that we need to hear proclaimed before we enter the season in which we’re challenged to voluntarily move into a metaphorical desert space, and to consider some of our own vulnerabilities and brokenness. Not mountain-top, but—for a season—wilderness. Starting with this week’s Ash Wednesday liturgy, the word “alleluia” will disappear from our liturgy, our prayers, and our songs, and will not reappear until Easter. Our first reading each Sunday will be a psalm, most often a raw psalm of lament or sorrow or lostness. And as I do every year, I’d encourage you to look at some part of your own life and practice, and give it a shift over the forty days of Lent. Part of the tradition has been to give something up for those days and that might be a good practice for you, but for some it is more helpful to take on something extra—a daily prayer, reading, or devotional practice, for instance, or maybe something more concrete and “hands-on” (we’ve all got a bit of Peter in us…) like intentionally putting aside $2 or $5 or how many dollars a day and searching out some ministry or project to which you’d like to donate it on Easter Monday.
Something. Fast from something, take on something, give away something… do all three if you can, but just do something that will keep reminding you that you’ve now come down that mountain trail, and are seeking to walk this stuff day by day by day, attending to the lead of the Son, the Beloved—“Listen to him!”—and to see where this path across the wilderness terrain might be taking you.