Sermon for Sunday before Lent 2014
Exodus 24, 12-18; 2 Peter 1, 16-21; Matthew 17, 1-9.
I read an article once about a man who had been the youngest member of the team that climbed Mount Everest for the first time in 1953. He had high hopes of being part of the group that made the final assault on the summit; but just as he was ordered to lead a team of Sherpas to beyond Camp 4, the final jumping off place for the attempt on the summit, he contracted ‘flu, and was sent back to lower altitudes to recuperate. However, he recovered in time to be back up on the mountain as Hillary and Tenzing returned from the summit; and in later years, he went on to climb other unconquered peaks like Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, technically a harder climb than Everest.
Apart from the exhilaration of being so high, these climbs engendered a tremendous sense of comradeship between the members of the climbing teams – and every year, the surviving climbers met up to relive the experience in a Victorian hotel at the foot of Mount Snowdon in Wales.
We are doing something similar here today, remembering the Transfiguration. As a congregation, we hear about the experience of the disciples, and feel at one with them.
I don’t go in for mountain climbing, but I have taken many holidays in mountainous regions, especially the Alps. We usually go up to the peaks by railway, with lots of other people, but almost everywhere we have been, it is possible to get away from the crowds, to enjoy the silence and the glorious views. I remember one very special moment, when we were on the top of a peak near Luzern on August 1st, the Swiss National Day. As we stood looking over the snow capped peaks, and the green mountain side going down to the lake, we heard a group begin to play music on Alpenhorns – haunting harmonies that re-echoed around the peaks – heavenly music indeed!
Mountains in the Old Testament were very often places of encounter with God. Moses went to the top of a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, and Elijah was on Mount Horeb when God spoke to him in the ‘still small voice’. These were two major figures of the Jewish faith, representing the self-disclosure of God through the Law and the Prophets, and these two were expected to appear again on earth at the end of time.
And in the New Testament, some of the high points in Jesus’ ministry – the great sermon, the Transfiguration and the Ascension – take place on mountains.
We can see why people who believed in a ‘three-decker universe’ – heaven above, the earth in the middle, and hell or the abode of spirits beneath – would feel closer to God at the top of a mountain. There is also the fact that mountain tops are often covered in cloud; to be within the cloud makes you feel small and lost and vulnerable – and the cloud or shekinah was a sign of the presence of God in the mind of the Jews. And all of us who have been up mountains can appreciate that the view from a mountain, of creation spread out before you, is a powerful illustration of the glory of God. What’s more the silence and the thinness of the air there are conducive to religious ecstasy.
So it is not surprising that three of the Gospel writers set the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus from his earthly form into the glory of heaven on a mountain top. In this experience, witnessed by his three closest companions among the disciples, Jesus is shown conversing with Moses and Elijah, and is acknowledged, as at his baptism, by a voice from the cloud, as ‘My beloved Son’. It must have been a thrilling moment for Jesus, and for those who witnessed it. No wonder Peter suggested that they should build some shelters on the mountain, and stay there.
But human beings cannot live on the top of mountains. The air is too thin, and there is not enough food or water there to support life. Human beings always have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life at ground level.
And that is just what happened to Jesus and his disciples. All three Gospel writers put the
story of the Transfiguration at the turning point of their Gospels. From this moment, literally and spiritually, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. From this time onwards, his teaching is about the suffering and opposition the Messiah must suffer, and the certain death that is to come.
The disciples resist this process of being brought down to earth with a bump. They argue against Jesus’ interpretation of his Messiahship. They have seen his glory; surely, they only have to tell others of their experience for everyone to believe. Or perhaps, they think, the transfiguration can be repeated at ground level, to force people to believe.
Only later, perhaps, will they look back and see that the mountain top experience was what gave them the strength to carry on, through the agony of the trial and the cross, to the experience of resurrection.
Many of us will have had ‘mountain top experiences’ in our religious life – though not necessarily at the top of a mountain. There are, for most of us, times when our faith is strengthened, and we are encouraged to carry on by an overwhelming experience.
Perhaps it is the experience of worship, in a large crowd as at Taize; or in a quiet spot imbued with centuries of prayer, like Holy Island or Iona; or supported by glorious music, such as you find in Kings College Cambridge. Or perhaps a course of teaching prompts us to see our faith in a completely new and exciting way. Perhaps we may have experienced an unexpected healing of body or mind; or perhaps a kind act by someone, or an encounter with a person of spiritual depth, brings revelation and a deepening of faith.
But few of these experiences last for long. Sooner or later, we all have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life in the valley, life in all its ordinariness, and with all its problems. Most of us, like Peter, would much rather stay on the mountain, where the glory of God is right in front of our eyes, and there is no room for doubt. However, the voice of God from the cloud will not allow us to stay there. It tells us to listen to Jesus; and Jesus is leading us down again, and along another path to glory, one which goes through the depths, through failure and death, rather than along the heights.
We cannot stay on the mountain top. But we can carry the mountain top experiences with us, to inspire us when the going is tough, and to give us a goal to work towards.
In our New Testament Reading, we heard how the Christians of the Apostolic Age were sustained in their faith through times of darkness and challenge by the memories of those who experienced the vision of the glorified Jesus, drawing on the mountain top experience as a light shining in the dark places of life.
Those of you who have visited the fjords or Norway may have been told that, during the winter months, the sun doesn’t reach the settlements at the base of the mountains for months at a time. Sometimes, living the Christian faith can feel like living in one of those settlements on the edge of the valley floor, in perpetual gloom.
When we feel like that, we need to treasure our memories of the peaks of faith to give us hope that the glory is there, though hidden from our sight.
And we need to build into our lives opportunities to visit the spiritual mountain top on a regular basis, either through reading the Scriptures, through prayer, through using seasons like Lent to strengthen our faith, through being part of the Church’s campaigns or through contact with people through whom the glory of God shines, so that our belief in the possibility of Transfiguration is maintained when we come down from the mountain – as we must.