Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Many people think of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, which we observe today, as one last mountaintop experience before we head back down into the valley of Lent. A glimpse of Christ’s glory before a long road through a dark time in the church year. There is some truth to the understanding of Lent as a somber time of reflection, where we focus upon the sinfulness that led to the necessity of Christ’s suffering. The time between the Transfiguration and Easter Sunday was certainly a long road for Jesus, and the disciples who walked that road with Him, at least most of the way. Which is one of the reasons it was so important for Jesus to show His glory to Peter, James and John as they prepared for that journey. And it’s why the Transfiguration’s positioning here on the final Sunday before the season of Lent is so important for us. So that we don’t lose sight of His glory while we practice the disciplines of Lent and look forward toward the full revelation of His glory on the cross, and in His resurrection. We, like those disciples who were treated to the experience of the Transfiguration, have to come down from the mountain and into the valley at times, but in those times we are promised that God walks with us. In those times we’re reminded of the words of Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” But coming down from the mountain is often more difficult than getting to the top.
Shortly after college, I took a weekend trip to the White Mountains in Northern New Hampshire with my brother and a couple of friends. The White Mountains are also referred to as the Presidential Range, and are the home to the highest peak in the Northeast United States,
Mount Washington. Our mission that weekend was not to take the cog railway to the top, or to drive our car up the roadway to the top to get the bumper sticker which says This Car Climbed Mount Washington. Our mission was to hike in to a base camp and then spend two days taking the hard road on foot up the mountain, hitting the peaks of Mount Adams and Jefferson, before summiting the back side of Mount Washington.
There is a fairly straightforward trail up the front side of the mountain, but our early-20s mentality was to take the road less traveled, which we soon discovered had a very good reason for being less traveled. The back side of Mount Washington is basically an exercise in bouldering, which means there was as much climbing over rocks taller than we were as there was hiking on a well-worn path. And even in late May, there were many places where a considerable amount of snow remained. It was a challenge, and took quite a bit longer than we expected, but we were determined to make it to the top, and we did. 6,288 feet above sea level and the place where the wind had once gusted up to 231 MPH. Even on a fairly calm spring day, we experienced 60 MPH winds and took shelter in the weather station/gift shop at the peak. But we knew we couldn’t stay long. It was already mid-afternoon, and we needed to make it back to our camp before dark. So, having had a brief glimpse of some of the most glorious views in all of God’s creation, we began our descent. Our map showed us a more direct path down the side of the mountain which we figured would get us where we needed to go much faster than retracing our steps. But what we didn’t think about was that the shorter the path is down the same number of feet, the steeper that path is going to be. At one point the path took us right to the edge of a 12 foot rock cliff. There may have been a way around, but we didn’t immediately see it, and the rock seemed smooth enough, and at just enough of an angle that we
felt we could sit down and slide down it. Two of the other guys went first and had no trouble, but as I hit the ground at the bottom, my ankle buckled, and I fell forward into a bush. Hobbling, and bloodied from my fall, with rain beginning to fall, the rest of our trek down the mountain was certainly not the adventure we had been planning, and nothing compared to the mountaintop experience we had at the summit.
We’ve probably all experienced it at one point or another. That letdown on the other side of the mountain. Having ascended to the top and then hoping the experience would last. The disappointment of not being able to continually live at the peak. It’s exactly what Peter and James and John knew would happen. Which is why they pleaded with the Lord to let them stay at the top. Peter says, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He wanted that mountaintop experience to last forever. It’s what we all long for. Seeing and being in the presence of the unbridled glory of the Lord. It’s what we’ll experience when He returns. But like the disciples, here on this side of eternity, we can’t remain on the mountain forever. We’ll catch a glimpse of His glory here and there, but in this world of imperfection, we also have to come down from the mountain and walk in the valley. The promise we have is that whether we’re on the mountain, or in the valley below, He walks with us.
And we have seen His glory. Those glimpses of glory are more abundant than we might imagine. It’s not only the times when the energy around us and the encouragement of others strengthens our faith. It’s not just in the uplifting feeling of singing your favorite hymn as everyone around you sounds like a choir of angels. It’s not only at the youth gathering, like some of you attended yesterday, where you are reminded that you’re not alone in living out
your faith. These are all positive things, but they’re like us climbing the mountain, as if we could generate the life-giving and sustaining faith on our own. The more profound mountaintop experiences are when God brings the mountain to us. Sometimes when we least expect it. And we are strengthened by a word of Scripture. When we walk the aisle and approach the altar of the Lord to receive the grace He so freely gives.
These are the mountaintop experiences we often overlook, because they sometimes seem so ordinary to us. And they often don’t elicit the same emotional response as some of the other mountaintops we’ve found ourselves on. But being in the presence of the Lord is never an ordinary experience. And it should elicit a great emotional response from us. An awe and wonder that’s far beyond anything that happens anywhere else. When I reached the top of Mount Washington, I paused to take in the beauty of God’s creation. But that experience was more about my accomplishment of getting to the top than it was about what God was showing me while I was there. The greater mountaintops in our lives are when we realize that we don’t have to climb the boulders. We don’t have to trudge through the snow. We don’t have to take the harder road. We don’t have to take the road less traveled. Because Christ did all that for us. Carrying the weight of our sin the whole way as He took the cross we should have borne upon Himself. He brought the mountaintop to us. And we get to experience it every time He comforts us with His Word. Every time He reminds us He’s with us. When we feel like we’re on top, and when we’re trudging through the valleys. When He offers us the cup of salvation, and the bread of life. These are the times we should be in awe and wonder at the fact that the glory of the Lord shines all around us. This is where we should desire to stay and abide with the Lord.
But as it was with those disciples, our Lord knows that the world needs us to take what we have received here in this place out into the world. He sends us down from the mountain where His glory is so evident, and out into the world, where the only glimpse of that glory may be the reflection of Christ that others see in you. But like my trip down the mountain, the descent can often be much more difficult than the climb. It can often feel like we’ve been sent out to endure the long, dark road on our own. There will be times when we come back with figurative sprained ankles and bloodied cheeks. And that’s why we come back. Because the mountain is where we’re renewed for the battle out there. It’s where we hear God’s Word and receive His sacrament. And where we’re reminded that no matter how difficult the road, He is with us.
After the disciples fell down in awe of the transfigured Christ, “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” Let this be our posture as well. Eyes lifted and fixed firmly on Jesus, who calls us to deliver the message of His glory to the world around us. And what a wonderful season we enter into this week to do just that. Lent is a time to fix our eyes on Jesus and the road He walked for us. And an excellent time to remind the world, through our words and actions, of the salvation accomplished at the cross and celebrated on the other side of Lent in the resurrection on Easter Sunday. And remember, He doesn’t send you down from this mountain alone. He walks with you, to guide and strengthen, comfort and uplift you, everywhere you go. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.