Listen to the sermon from Sunday, February 26, 2017 titled “Mountains and Valleys” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
What is it about mountains? In every culture they’re imbued with a sacred aura. We love to see them in the distance. We’re drawn to be near them. We’re compelled to climb them. Is there anybody here has never scaled to the top of a hill just because it was there?
There is something innately spiritual about mountains. We even call our moments of mental clarity, holy epiphany or mystical ecstasy “mountain top moments.” Is it the exertion of the climb or the lack of oxygen to the brain, our heightened sensitivity to location or the scarcity of other people, the Godlike view or the danger of falling makes a mountain feel so holy to us?
Hardly a mountain but more than a hill, Mt. Tabor in northern Israel was a holy shrine in Canaanite times long before the Hebrew people even entered the land. Of course, in those days they believed the gods lived up above in the sky so they scaled mountains or at least built mountain shaped temples to climb up closer to the power.
The shrine on Tabor today is a Christian church marking the spot where Jesus climbed with Peter, James, and John to be closer to God, that is, to pray. They had a great view of the valley below but the view that mattered that day was Jesus himself, who suddenly metamorphosized before their very eyes.
Say that word with me: “metamorphosized.” That’s the Greek word Matthew uses. “Transfigured.” “Transformed.” “Transmogrified” “Changed.”
And they experienced it. They saw the light! They saw his shining face! They saw his saw his clothes dazzling white. They recognized Moses and Elijah, of law-and-prophets fame, the pillars of their holy scripture. They heard the VOICE, the bath qol of the shekinah cloud, that is, the very VOICE of God saying, “This is my beloved child; Listen to him!”
Maybe Jesus was always the same, as Hebrews declares, “yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb 13:8), only on this day, in this place, they suddenly saw him as he truly was. Something happened on that hilltop, so that they never saw him the same way again.
The story of the Transfiguration is strange, even after all these years. 2 Peter says it is no “cleverly devised myth,” but it sounds like one. Like several Bible stories it is so dense with symbolism it hardly seems historic at all: Moses and Elijah, the pillar of cloud, the VOICE speaking from the mountain, the glory of the God-light shining around them…
Is it myth disguised as history? Is it some kind of stress-induced hallucination? A post resurrection appearance pushed back in the story to become a pre-crucifixion prophecy? Or maybe a mystical experience of God that remains forever beyond description as if the author just couldn’t find ordinary words to describe what happened.
Poet Edwin Muir asks for the disciples:
Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
To be sure, epiphanies are rare. Those moments of sudden awareness, clarity, elation, engagement when we know Something indescribable or Someone unnameable we call “God” is awesomely present, almost visible, even tangible, engaging us in ways too glorious to verbalize. And we are no longer the same. We try to tell what happened, what we saw or thought or felt, but we end up saying, “You would have had to been there.”
Epiphanies are rare. You can’t make them happen or control them when they do. God doesn’t give “command performances.” Epiphanies are rare, but not so rare that most of us have not experienced one or two or maybe a few.
I experienced a mountain top moment in the hilltop town of Assisi of St. Francis fame where the basilica built over his grave looks across the land he and his followers with St. Clair and hers reformed the Christian faith in their day.
I swear it wasn’t the amazing food or the Italian wine that made Assisi holy for me (though I suppose that didn’t hurt). But from Assisi you could look down into the valley below to the Basilica of Santa Maria delgi Angeli where Frances gathered his disciples and repaired the ancient churches of the area, several of which are also visible from the hilltop.
We walked down to it from the town above through fields covered with poppies. It was a long walk and the day grew warm, but I never felt closer to Gina or closer to God. Come to think of it, that wasn’t a mountain top moment. It was a valley moment.
But I can tell you another mountain top moment, the first time I took my twin boys to the top of Mt. Bonnell. We climbed all those stairs and they said, “Wow!” and one was scared of falling and the other scared me about falling. But I felt this amazing love and Godlike responsibility for their care, and it was like I heard God say, “This is how I feel about you.”
Come to think of it, the real experience of that came after we climbed down from Mt. Bonnell and came home. I felt that father-me/Father-God connection in the exhaustion of that evening when they were still demanding even though I was so tired. I guess that was a valley experience, too.
Chances are most of us are here today worshipping God in a church because we’ve had at least one mountain top moment. And what do we do? Like Peter, we try to camp out there, recreate that experience, capture the genie in a bottle. But God is no magic genie and won’t be domesticated and regulated that way. We can’t camp on the mountain top. We have to go back to the valley. But if we are paying attention, God meets us in the valley, too!
The valley is day after day of same-old, same old. We get tired and bored. We begin to question those mountain top moments we’ve had. They didn’t last. We can’t repeat them. Maybe they weren’t real. Especially on those days when the going is tough and we’re so weary with pushing the stone up the mountain, we don’t feel the Presence, we don’t see the glory, we don’t hear the Voice calling our name. Where is God then?
That’s when we need to remember – I feel silly saying it, it’s so obvious – every life is a roller coaster with ups and downs, twists and turns, slow, boring climbs and surprising drops, unexpected jerks, sudden scares – and lots of fun. The Transfiguration story tells us as much. You can’t dwell on the spiritual mountain top. You have to get back to the valley. But God shows up in the valley, too, and you will know it, if you pay attention.
The glory of God shines on the mountain top and the disciples are sure of it. But remember the story. The glory of God shines through Christ in the valley, too, when he heals a man’s epileptic son. And which of those two is more glorious when you think about it? The spectacular appearance on the mountain top? Or the hard work of healing in the valley?
Here and there, now and then, we see the glory of God in the mountain top moment. We see everything in a new light, and we are metamorphosized.
It prepares us for the challenges of the valley below, where the glory may be harder to see, but the God-light still shines in the ordinary flow of life. The glory of God is right in front of us, everywhere, all the time.
In our hard days, in the low places, we don’t expect to feel Christ near or imagine there might be any glory to behold. But all these transfiguration stories say the greatest glory of all is in our everyday walk through the valley. And we will experience it, if we only look for it…
So look for it.
Amen! May we pray?
Thank you, God, for the mountain top moments. For times when we feel you near, see you work, know your love. Help us when your glory is obscured by fear and pain, by sadness and struggle, by doubt and distraction to find the grace you have implanted in each moment, to seek your presence in every experience, and to see your glory in all its disguises. Lord, when we cannot see your light, help us to be your light that others might rejoice in your love, through Christ our Savior. Amen.