The Mountain Overlooking the Valley
On a summer evening in July, years ago, I was sharing a cup of tea with a woman named Bernie at her kitchen table. We sat in her cozy rural Irish home, in a village near Westport Ireland. For the months I lived there, this ritual of sharing a cup of tea together had become a nightly occasion for us, and we would always inevitable end up talking about faith. Bernie was a devote catholic, who’s brother had just recently entered the priesthood, and who’s youngest daughter had celebrated her first communion only weeks before… she was steeped in religious events at the time. And she was also curious about this young protestant women sitting in her kitchen. So, we talked about faith and tradition a lot.
And that night, she told me about her life and faith when she was a young woman about my age at the time. This was a time when she was scared about all the unknowns in life and worried about her future. Then she said to me, “Ya know Sarah… with all that fear I was carryin’ around, there was only one place to go… and that was up. So, I un-strapped my boots and set on the way.”
Now that ‘way’ Bernie had mentioned was a mountain named Croagh Patrick, only about 40 miles away from the kitchen where we sat that night. And it is an ancient tradition to make a prayer pilgrimage up to the top of the mountain starting at the Ballintubber Abbey. It is about a 23-mile hike. And if you are like Bernie, and meaning to do it right (as in pray-fully and seeking) you hike it barefoot.
Bernie told me that night all about how she had made that great pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick (barefoot) twice in her life. Once shortly before she left for college, as a way of asking God to guide and protect her while she was away from home. And again a year after she finished college as a prayer for God to bless her with a husband and a big family.
She said to me, “Sarah, all that I have now is thanks to God. And when my life is in trouble, I know where to find Him… He is right up there on top of that mountain. It’s comforting, that is.”
A few days later, I asked Bernie to take me to Croagh Patrick so I could climb this mountain for myself.
“Ah” she said, “I’ll set ya up on the way. I’ll also make sure you have a good stick.”
So, Bernie dropped me off at the foot of the mountain. And, true to her promise, she found me a good walking stick.
Now the climb to the peak of Crough Patrick is not for the faint hearted. It begins as a rocky climb by green fields and rivers that slowly meander their way up to look out over the Clew Bay. And then the mountain takes a steep, nearly vertical, climb along a gravel like path. Near the top the gravel what so deep… that for every three steps you take, you are going to slide back down one.
I learned along the way, that if someone tells you “You’re nearly there!” they are most certainly lying.
But after a relentless three hours you arrive at the peak of the mountain, where a little whitewashed church stood. They say this small stone church was build at the same location where St. Patrick fasted and prayed some 1600 years ago.
I was a little distracted by my wheezy breathing and aching calves to notice it at the time… but, in reflecting on that climb…I now can see why our sacred places, our pilgrimage destinations, are often high up on mountaintops. There is something centering and clarifying about praying with your whole body, mind and soul. Where the act of movement, the strain of your body and mind all work together for a singular purpose… to pray. The climb becomes your prayer. When Jesus sought to be with his heavenly father he did so by climbing a mountain. Going somewhere that was set apart, that demanded the effort of your body… somewhere that was above, the business of the world below.
And what do you find at the top? Perhaps stillness. For the pilgrims of Croagh Patrick it’s a little stone church. And for Jesus it was a place for him to prepare for what was to come.
Last week, our Scripture text was set in the portion of Matthew’s Gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount. When we talked about being Kingdom Reflectors, and how to honor our call to “Be perfect, because our Heavenly Father is perfect.” Last week we sat in the dust of another significant mountaintop to hear Jesus speak. But this week, we have moved on to another mountain. We’ve made the climb with Christ yet again. And it is here that we celebrate the transfiguration.
If there were ever a churchly insider lingo-like word, this would be it. Transfiguration simply means: change in appearance. And we celebrate this unusual event every year at the end of the season of Epiphany (a season of light), just before we begin the season of Lent (which begins on Wednesday).
So, the obvious question for us now would be: why would we celebrate a change of appearance? And why is that important as we begin Lent?
For those answers we need to back up in our scripture text a little bit. Jesus, just six days before had revealed to his disciples the struggles that they were about to encounter: Jesus told them
– That they had to go to Jerusalem – A place they were very unwelcome.
– That he would suffer a brutal death.
– And that three days after that death, he would rise back to life.
Jesus had, just days before, dropped a major information bomb on them.
Now, that was a lot to reveal to his disciples.
Soon Jesus was going to suffer, die, and reclaim life… that’s a lot to take in.
In the Gospel of Mark’s version of this conversation, he states that Jesus spoke plainly about what was to come his way in Jerusalem. It is hard to image ‘plain’ speech when addressing the brutality of what was to come Jesus’ way!
And apparently not all of his followers took the news very well, his disciple Peter pulled him aside and yelled at him (thinking he knew better), saying “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!”
In response Jesus delivered that well-known line, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
And Jesus goes on to say (and when reading this… I see him turning back to the crowd of his followers and offering this very clarifying and challenging message… ): “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
This was a very ‘are you with me or not?’ kind of speech.
So, all of that news, information, and that challenging speech had been hanging in the air for six days… We can only image what must have been going through the minds of the disciples: fear for the safety of their beloved Messiah, fear for themselves as his followers (especially since Christ had said something about needed to take up their own cross), concern and confusion over this idea of rising from the dead.
All this was hanging in the air. For almost a full week
Then, Christ takes a select group of his disciples to a nearby mountaintop: Peter (who had earlier sought to correct Jesus), along with James and John. And there he was transformed: his face shone like the sun, and his clothes were light, and then next to him appears Moses and Elijah.
This is a very strange and extraordinary scene… What does it all mean?
We can assume that there is some kind of blessing happening here… but might I also suggest that this moment is Jesus putting on battle amour. Clothing himself in light for the darkness to come. That this was a moment of fortification.
Moses who represents the law, and Elijah who stands for the prophets. Their presence says that the whole of the Old Testament Scripture testifies to Jesus as Lord. So, they are offing their very important seal of approval. And then God’s own voice comes down and says, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” These are very similar to the words spoken by God at Jesus’ Baptism: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” But notice that God adds: “Listen to him.” God is affirming that Jesus has got it right, that he knows the path in front of him.
God, our Father in Heaven, along with these rock star figures of the Old Testament are saying “Listen to this guy. He knows what he is talking about.”
If Jesus says that they are to go to Jerusalem, that he will suffer and die, and that he will conquer the grave… then that is what’s going to happen.
Up to this point, we have seen ‘Jesus the miracle worker’ – we have heard ‘Jesus the teacher’ – seen ‘Jesus the Messiah’. But this Transfiguration, ushers in Jesus the Lord of all. In this moment, the disciples must understand that they are about to embark on a journey that is more glorious, more heart wrenching, more trying than anything they had seen up to this point. And for this journey… Jesus has chosen to put on the battle amour of light – to show the world that He is Lord of all before starting on that path.
The moment that Christ steps down from that mountaintop, his feet will be pointed towards Jerusalem. More importantly they will be pointed towards his next mountain stop… a mountain called Calvary.
Here Jesus is clothed in light and glory, surrounded by great men of faith.
At his next mountain stop he will he stripped of his dignity and surrounded by thieves.
Here Peter says “This is great! Lets set up camp and stay a while!” as Peter did.
At his next mountain stop Christ will be forsaken and handed over to sin.
This scene, what we call the Transfiguration, shows Jesus in all his glory, brilliance and light. It shows us everything that our eyes cannot see- that Jesus is indeed the very Son of God, the Lord of All.
Yet the reality is… we cannot stay upon this mountain. And that is the very point of this text! This is simply preparation for the journey ahead to the next. And it is there that Jesus will fulfill what he really came to do – die for the sake of sin and sinners.
When Good Friday comes our way, this is the scene we must remember back to. This is truly Christ – Light and glory – yet he will be stripped bear and bleeding for us. That is the very heart of our faith. The Lord of All broken for us.
So when we ask, what is this peculiar scene, the Transfiguration? And why is it important to us? The answer is because of who is on the Cross. The Transfiguration reminds us that the guy on the cross, isn’t just some guy – but God’s own Son. And also, the Transfiguration gives us just a peak of the Kingdom that is to come. A Kingdom of light, and glory, filled with spiritual rock stars like Elijah and Moses and so many more… where we can set up a tent and stay awhile! It is a promise that even with all the suffering that is to come… there is perfection and light waiting on the other end.[i]
If you can remember back to our Scripture readings… you will notice that Moses climbed a mountain to be in the presence of God as well. He would emerge from that great cloud, awash in light – bearing the laws of God. He would step out of that cloud fortified for the journey ahead of him, as he led the people through the desert.
Important things happen on mountaintops. They seem to be a place of great clarity and peace. They are the calm before the storm. Mountaintops are great, but the reality is… for there you overlook the inevitable valley below them. The valley that holds struggle, the valley of darkness… the valley of death.
Once Jesus takes a step off that mountaintop his feet will be pointed towards Jerusalem… and then on to Calvary.
This week is the beginning of that great journey. And what did Christ say, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
You are asked to take that step as well. To say, “Yes, Lord. I will take up my cross and follow you. No matter what comes, I will be at your side. For you are indeed the Lord of All.”
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. And as is tradition, we mark ourselves for the journey of Lent. Not with light and glory like Christ… but we put on ash… we put on sacrifice… we put on the weight of the cross… And we put those things on together in fellowship…
And that is something I will leave you to ponder for a few days….
We will continue this message on Wednesday night at the First Presbyterian Church at 7pm… There we take that very careful and very precious step off the mountaintop together.
[i] Chryst, Tom. Sermon: “Just a Peek: The Transfiguration of our Lord”