What happens up on a mountain?
In the text from the book Exodus today, we are reminded that Moses spends time up on a mountain. It is during his long journey out of Egypt and towards the promised land. Moses says to the elders of the people: “Wait here until I come for you again.” And Moses goes up towards the glory of the Lord, which is like a devouring fire on the top of Mt. Sinai. Moses stays there for forty days and forty nights, receiving the law and the commandments. Then, he comes back down, to share them with his people.
The Prophet Elijah we hear mentioned in the gospel spends time up on a mountain, too. Elijah is in deep trouble; he is fleeing for his life as a result of his prophetic actions. After only one day on the run, he is filled with despair. Elijah sits down under a broom tree and says, “it is enough; O Lord, take away my life.” But as he sleeps there, under the tree, an angel wakes him twice and feeds him. This gives him enough physical and spiritual strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mt. Horeb. It is there, in a cave on the mountain, that he encounters a God who speaks in the silence. God tells Elijah what he needs to do next – how to continue with his work.
Jesus goes up and down mountains a lot; there are plenty of stories from the gospel of Matthew, which we are following this year. Jesus is tempted by the devil on the top of a mountain (4:8). He spends three chapters giving a sermon on a mountain (Ch.5-7). Not long afterwards, (14:23) Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray by himself. A little later, he heals on a mountain (15:29).Today Jesus decides it’s time for another hike.
I wonder what kind of a mountain trip Peter and James and John think they are on. These three earliest disciples of Jesus are the only ones invited to go with him up on the mountain this time. Whatever they expect, Peter and James and John, I have to guess it isn’t what actually happens. When they arrive at the top of the mountain, Jesus doesn’t preach, or pray, or heal; he doesn’t do any of the things he’s done on mountains before. Instead, Jesus is transfigured before them. His appearance changes, and they can actually see God shining through him: in his face, which looks like the sun; in his clothes, which dazzle the eye.
Peter and James and John hardly have time to take this in, though, before Moses and Elijah appear on either side of Jesus and begin talking with him. What would I give to hear that conversation? It’s hard to overstate what a big deal it is, how incredible it is for Jesus to have these particular two people show up to talk with him: two amazing faith freedom fighters, back from the dead. It’s as if one of us climbed a mountain and Sojourner Truth and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared on either side, and started shooting the breeze with us.
Jesus is blazing with light and chatting with Moses and Elijah and Peter feels his heart grow three sizes. He blurts out, “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.” But while Peter is speaking, God herself interrupts. A bright cloud overshadows them and a voice declares, “This is my son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
This is all too much for Peter, and James, and John. The voice of God: this is the final straw. The disciples fall to the ground in abject awe, in utter amazement, in holy fear. But again, in a moment, the scene changes. Jesus comes, and touches them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” It’s only Jesus there, now. His famous companions have disappeared. He no longer shines. Suddenly they are all walking back down the mountain, Peter and James and John and Jesus.
What happens up on a mountain? Mountains are a good place to meet God. Other things can happen there too; other things do happen there; but the mountain, in our tradition, is a good place to meet God. Mountains are places where we might see God, like a blinding light; or hear God, like a voice in the silence; or witness God’s glory showing forth in a human face.
Where are your mountains?
In the sessions I’ve been leading this month, we’ve been talking about God in unexpected places. Because, of course, God does not only show up on mountains. God shows up in all kinds of places, and in all kinds of practices, and in all kinds of relationships. God is always and everywhere, but most of us only manage to tune our hearts to a God frequency a small fraction of the time. Sometimes, it is a complete surprise when and where we encounter God. Sometimes, we can begin to recognize patterns and paths of where our hearts are most likely to be ready.
Where are your mountains? Few of us have seen God face to face, like Moses; or received clear instructions from God, like Elijah; or witnessed the amazing events of the Transfiguration of Jesus, like Peter and James and John. But there is wonder and meaning and love beyond reason in every life I’ve witnessed so far. Where are your mountains?
It’s an important question for all of us on journeys of faith. It’s an important question right now.
We are, here, a non-partisan organization, and there are people in our community of a variety of political affiliations and voting records and policy opinions. Everyone is welcome. No one should be treated with disgust or disregard. And, it is our responsibility, all of us, to consider the current events in light of our Christian tradition. We can see that the first few weeks of this new administration has created suffering and fear for the people Jesus was most concerned about: the poor, the shunned, the stranger. So many people are suffering and afraid. We are afraid: of hate crime, of bullying, of deportation, of loss of health care, of treaty violations, of the destruction of creation.
All of this takes spiritual energy. Even if our privilege protects us from a great deal of the suffering and fear, there is a spiritual cost to witnessing the suffering and fear of others; a spiritual cost to witnessing the deceit and callous disregard of some of our leaders. There is spiritual energy demanded, too, in discerning each day how to care for ourselves, and how to care for one another in the midst of this.
We need some time up on a mountain.
In this transfiguration story, Peter usually gets ridiculed. Simon Peter is known for his reckless enthusiasm. In story after story, he almost gets it right because of his big faithful heart – and then he gets it wrong, because he takes it too far. It’s clear from our text today that it would be foolish, and impossible, to follow Peter’s suggestion and build dwellings on the mountaintop for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Peter is so enraptured by this moment of bliss that he tries to make it a permanent thing; and that’s just not how God works.
But Peter is right about one thing. He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” It is good for us to go up on a mountain: to seek out the places, and practices, and relationships we often find God in: to fiddle with the frequency dial on our hearts, trying to listen in to how God is present in this moment. We need glory. We need to see it, and hear it, and soak it in.
You could say, “Hey! There’s no time for that! There’s so much to do!” Yes. There is so much to do. There is so much change to make, in our own hearts and in our neighborhoods, in our government structures and beyond them. There is so much to do. It is so important.
And we won’t know what to do, or have the strength to do it, if we don’t keep coming back to our mountains. We need time to listen for a voice of guidance. Time for prayer. Time to listen to the wisdom of the ancestors. Time to bask in God’s glory. I’m not worried that anyone will stay up on the mountain for too long. When it’s time, we’ll feel Jesus’ touch on our shoulder. We’ll hear his voice, telling us, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” We will head back to work, with him by our side.
God, help us to trust that prayer and worship and wonder of all kinds are not a waste of time, but rather necessary fuel for the discipleship you call us to. Teach us to be disciplined in seeking you out, again and again, so that when we return to our work, we do it with strength, with courage, and with you. Amen.