Have you had that mountain top experience? I really like the idea of hiking and mountain climbing, on trails. And mostly I like the idea because I haven’t done much of it so I can’t really say for sure this is something I enjoy. But I’ve done some. There is something about being above everything else around you. It gives you the sense that all of time is spread out before: what has been, what will be. Maybe you can see the path you took to get where you are and the path you’re going to continue on, you can see the twists and the bends and the times it turns into the trees. You can plan how the rest of your hike will go, even if, when you get started, it doesn’t turn out that way, as sometimes it doesn’t. But in that moment, there is clarity.
Of course, mountain tops come in metaphors as well. I went to church camp as a young person and loved it! However, they included strategically developed services that bring those in attendance to an emotional peak! We met God. I met God. There was some understanding that God was real and I was part of what God was doing in the world. Such an emotional high didn’t really last long because life wasn’t camp, and life had to go on. That’s the way I was taught to think about these experiences, ones where we get so close to heaven that everything is clear and perfect, where we reach into heaven, and then we return to the real world that is completely different. Being back in the real world meant being a teenager, and your parents are always wrong, and your siblings are always wrong, and your friends don’t get it, and everything is more complicated. No matter how much we’d want to stay on that mountain top, we couldn’t. I spent many years of my life trying to return to those moments, cling to them.
So I don’t blame Peter. When he, and his companions, probably James and John were on that mountain with Jesus, when they saw Elijah and Moses, when they saw their faces glow with the presence of the divine, I don’t blame him for wanted to cement that place as something special, to mark it, to stay there. Something happened. In context, before this when Jesus asks who they think he his, Peter answers “the Christ.” Here is confirmation of that. Peter wanted to mark this moment of celebration. There was probably so much struggle in their daily lives. The religious leaders were started to gather around and ask questions. They were occupied and some of their occupiers were ok but most of them… even the people in towns seemed to shift their opinions like weather on the Galilee. But here, this is something, this is amazing, this is good.
And God speaks to them, like God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved, listen to him.” Which had to be strange because here is Jesus saying no to these booths and haven’t they been listening? They’ve been following and listening to Jesus for months, maybe years. Why the reminder now?
And Jesus leads them back down the mountain. They don’t talk about anything, not really. And Jesus is approached by this father, a desperate man, who’s come looking for Jesus, or anyone, to heal his son whose life is on the edge of living. He lives in this real world, not so far from the mountain top that Peter just experienced, but worlds away. His son has been gripped by forces that have been diminishing his life. Life diminishing forces that sap joy and hope. Jesus comes down a mountain and runs directly into a health crisis no one seems to be able to manage. The father, the son, the followers who couldn’t save him how easy it might be to lose hope.
How easy it can be to lose hope. We don’t really have a theology of demons, they aren’t really part of how this community and denomination understand how the world works. But we do understand forces that diminish our lives.
In the United States, our COVID deaths have now reached 481,000 people, nearly a half a million. I know I’m very lucky, privileged even, to not know anyone personally who has died. family of friends and acquaintances, but no one I know personally. And what that means is that sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are names attached to each one of those numbers. Each had a name, a life, a story, someone who loved them, someone for whom they were more than just a number. COVID has literally by life diminishing, extinguishing life as it moves through our families, towns, lives.
There have been consequences of COVID, the quarantine, the isolation, the loneliness. It widdles at our souls, it effects how we living in the world, it can diminish our lives. And honestly, even before COVID, there was a pandemic of loneliness.
There are forces around us that are life diminishing. Depression, anxiety, addiction. Hatred, abuse, racism, There are so many ways that we can be affected by the forces that diminish life.
But in the middle of Jesus ministry, in the middle of not being able find an answer, in the middle of such overwhelming odds, in the middle of life diminishing forces, heaven broke in. There was an experience of the Divine, a reminder that there is something to hope.
Up on that mountain, Peter and James and John had an encounter with the Divine. They wanted to stay and celebrate. With all the other stuff that happened around them, that was happening to Jesus, all the threats and the illnesses, the negative talk and the advisories, they wanted to enjoy this moment. We’ve wanted to enjoy special moments this year. Christmas decorations came out early and stayed up late, maybe Valentine’s day has become more celebratory, every National pie or peanut butter day is cause for a special dessert.
Some celebrations are different than others.
Those days are different than say, an inauguration, one that happens in the midst of struggles and uncertainties, one that presents a a possibility of a new future, a better future, a more just future. It doesn’t have to be the most recent inauguration, there have been others, that present this kind of hope so that the next day, when the world seems to continue on the same trajectory, we have something to hope in.
Peter, James, John. had an encounter with the hope of all that could be–what the world that could be, what the world ought to be. It’s a moment like this, this hope, this heaven breaking into earth, that can give them courage, the strength, the hope to carry on. Yes, with our regular lives, but really, when there are forces that are trying to diminish our lives, that are outside of what God has planned for the world, outside of what God’s vision for the world, what we see when God breaks into to earth.
But we don’t climb mountains very often, real or otherwise, or at least I don’t. And I spent so many years chasing the feeling from camp! Hoping to feel the all the certainty of the top of that mountain. But God breaks into our world still, from time to time. God breaks through in the lives of us, in the lives of congregations. God breaks through in the generosity of a community for those in need, bringing food for the pantry on one of the coldest days of the year.
God breaks in when we join in community and when we support one another. God breaks in when we show up for one another in the midst of each other’s heartbreak, and betrayal, and grief. For each other’s joys and celebrations. God breaks in when we are present, when we represent what God is doing in the life of Jesus, when we show up with love. God breaks in when we love. It give us the hope in the midst of the every day, the pandemic, the sadness, the loneliness, in the face of injustice it will give us hope to stand up. Because, the light of the transfiguration wasn’t just that one moment on the mountain for Peter, James and John.
As Amanda Gorman spoke last month:
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it