The Transfiguration, and Coming Down the Mountain (Mark 9)
Certain moments stick with us more than others, those times when we come face to face with the unforgettable. And the experience changes us. Jesus hiked with his closest friends up a mountain for a dream getaway in Mark 9. I can imagine they enjoyed a chance to breathe, away from the crowds. Their little retreat turned into much more than a simple trek but ended with a “mountain top experience” where these weary men got what they needed so much that they wanted to stay forever. And it changed them.
Our family got away from the farm to the mountains often when I was a child. I remember one where my fearless three-year-old sister ventured down the side of a mountain on a tube all by herself. My Mom’s panic sent us all running, and we found her several hundred feet into the trees and safe.
Many years later, I went backpacking with several youth ministry colleagues to the Collegiate Peaks near Colorado Springs. We hiked 4 peaks in 7 days, packs on our backs, for 3 Seminary credits. I was the only female student, and my brothers in ministry were loads of fun but not people I could keep up with. I trudged along most of the time with only my thoughts to keep me company and started to wonder if I was cut out for youth ministry. The guys had all this energy I was worn out and weary. On the last day, I had managed to start feeling sorry for myself when I came to a ridge a short hike above our campsite. I heard whooping and hollering from the boys as they set up camp and went swimming. But I stood there, heart stilled gazing at the sight of shimmering bright blue water framed by wildflowers of so many colors and fragrances against the backdrop of snow-covered peaks. Stilling my doubts, God said directly to me in that mountaintop moment “see Tammy, you may not do it like them, but you will do it and you will see different things along the way”. And God was right.
One of the most life-changing experiences I’ve had wasn’t on a mountain at all. I remember it well as it was a year after one of my inner circle of friends died suddenly in a mountainside snowmobile accident. Though life goes on, it seemed like everything had turned black and white. I knew I was in the depths of grief, but I didn’t notice how colorless my world was until that day on the highway, on an I70 road trip through the plains of Kansas to see my parents. It was stormy, and if you’ve ever driven across the Midwest prairies, you would know that you can see a storm coming. On the horizon, rainclouds gather and darken the wide-open sky and when the clouds move to block the sun, the vibrancy and hues of colors are sharpened, and then the storm passes, and everything shimmers from the rain. At that moment I saw how gray my world was and how beautiful the world could be, and I knew it was God saying “hang tight girl, we’re not done. Your heart is broken but we’re not done”. I slammed on my brakes and pulled over, sat equally sobbing and laughing at the power of it. God had seen me on the highway. God had seen ME.
In Mark 9, I see the disciple Peter, not wanting to see, especially when it’s stuff that turns the world upside down. I’m like Peter, willing to just set up camp on the mountain if it means not wanting to face hard stuff that’s waiting. Who wouldn’t want to pitch a tent, tell stories around the fire with old guys like Elijah and Moses, learn and bask in the glow of conversation? No maddening crowds, no people begging for bread, pleading to be healed, no demons to battle or past friends and teachers to reject them, no running out of town fearing for your life. It seems maybe Peter missed his calm and quiet life fishing all day. And Peter’s level of escapism is real, and shows, that like us, sometimes the hard things are too hard to face.
Though I don’t claim to know Peter’s heart, I can imagine he wants to stay on the mountaintop because facing the future Jesus says is coming overwhelming and confusing and so not what he had planned or pictured. “Let’s just stay here God, in this safe place where we can just be and learn and not feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, can we? Can we stay?”
Yes, Peter saw miracles happen beyond understanding. He heard new teaching that made the disciples scratch their heads. There were moments when their fear got the best of them – like when your new rabbi comes to you walking on water. Peter and the other disciples also had moments of elation when they could hardly fathom how they fed thousands with little food. Peter knew. He answered, “you are the Messiah, the Christ” when Jesus asked “who do people say that I am” yet, he simply couldn’t grasp that the Messiah would be talking about death like it was going to happen. That wasn’t the Messiah he had been taught about in Sabbath school.
Peter struggled when hearing Jesus describe a different kind of Kingdom, one that didn’t include conquering enemies and ruling power. This wasn’t what they planned. Why would Jesus choose this way? So, Jesus decided to show Peter and James and John more of himself with a small glimpse of “someday” for all who followed Jesus. Jesus wanted them to see the wonder of being in the presence of God, His glory, and others who had walked this walk before.
And show them He did. Peter, James, and John saw the shimmery glory of the God-side of Jesus on that mountaintop. They saw Jesus changed into something else. They saw the God of the Kingdom who hold them up when the crosses they would carry were too much to bear.
They saw this Messiah who declared he would suffer, and die was no ordinary man. He was Someone more ~ Son of God and Son of Man. And Peter? Peter can’t believe his own eyes, both terrified of being in His Presence yet never wanting to leave.
Just like my sobbing turned laughter moment on the highway, God filled up this moment so much Peter couldn’t handle it. Have you ever been there too, when God was so present you couldn’t handle it, you didn’t know what to do? That was this moment for Peter. How could he take it all in? First, God sent two of their heroes from generations ago. Moses came, the leader of the nation of Israel out of captivity, the one who met God on his own mountaintop called Sinai, and God gave laws made to help them live the covenant life with God. And then Elijah showed up, a power-filled prophet of God whose experience resulted in him being taken to heaven in a tornado. They were all there and that was glory enough and then God, He spoke! God spoke and said:
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to Him!”
Peter didn’t get it then, but I hope we can see it clearly in the Gospels, in Jesus’ life and teaching, in His words and choices. Moses was a great leader and keeper of the law. Elijah was an amazing prophet. But we can see now there is One greater than the law and prophets. One came to fulfill the law and prophets and He is Jesus, the much-loved Son of God to whom we should ALL listen.
The disciples struggled to understand what Jesus said and did because they weren’t listening to Jesus. They allowed old beliefs of how things “should be” close their ears to the eternal future they were promised when they chose to “give up their own will and follow Jesus” no matter where it led.
We get trapped in misunderstanding and confusion about what Jesus teaches and what He asks from us because we might know Him, but we expect Him to be different. We aren’t ready to do as He asks of us because our eyes and ears and heart want the glory of His Kingship, but not the costs of following Him. We are like Peter who wanted to set up camp and bask in the goodness. But like Peter, we must take those mountaintop experiences and come down and live following Him, every day and always, even when it’s hard.
Peter makes me sad, probably because I see myself in him often. He was on the mountaintop with the chance to see Jesus in all His Glory. Peter’s denial of Jesus a few days later while Jesus was on trial to be crucified became a big part of the cross, he bore in his ministry life. We see it in his writings. He was full of shame. It would be a lifelong journey to overcome that shame of not truly seeing what was right in front of his eyes.
What can we learn from the Transfiguration story about living daily life when every moment is far from a mountaintop experience? We learn we must not take for granted the extraordinary moments when God shows Himself to us. We must let the power of those moments allow us to live each day as if it is extraordinary. We must let every encounter with God inspire us to live in a way that our obedience, hard or not, to the words and work of Jesus is obvious, whether we're in the shimmery surreal mountaintop or the dregs and danger of valleys. We must spend time with God listening, letting Him speak, and allow those moments to energize our daily commitment to take up our cross and follow him.
I can’t leave without sharing yet one more story of a glorious moment that made facing hard obedience possible.
On the day before he died, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a famous speech in defense of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Based on conversations he had with loved ones at the time, we now know that he believed death was near. Life was hard in the work he was called to do, and he knew it wasn’t going to get easier. He closed this speech with a report of his own transfiguration experience:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
I invite you to think about what you have experienced ~ seen or heard or felt ~ on your mountaintop experiences. Has this experience transformed you into someone who has something to give God the obedience He asks for?
Did it give you the motivation to give up your time and energy for others?
Would you allow your time with God to give you the power to reflect the shining, shimmery light that lives in you because you have been in the presence of God?
SHARE YOUR STORY. Think of a time when you felt the presence of God in such a way that it changed your heart to prepare you to share God’s love with your neighbor. I’d love to hear about that moment in the comments!
Lord, let it be so,
that we listen to you, Jesus,
that we reflect your beloved Son to those around us.