I’m not a very good mountain climber. I always end up at the back of the group and sometimes I don’t even make it to the top. On the occasions I do make it to the peak, I often experience waves of vertigo as I am not particularly comfortable with heights. Yet, there’s nothing quite like the view from the top of a mountain. The world looks so peaceful, picturesque, perfect even. If I’ve made it to the top to enjoy the view, I need to sit a good long while before I can begin the climb back down. And sometimes, if the view is particularly good, I don’t want to leave. It would be so nice to just stay.
When I hear Peter’s desire to stay on the mountaintop in the presence of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah I understand. If I am enthralled by the landscape views, how much more so by the view of the Glory of God? While building tabernacles and hanging out on a mountaintop isn’t exactly what God wanted for the long term, Peter endeavored to respond to the spectacular, incomprehensible events unfolding before his eyes. And it isn’t like the voice from heaven was scolding Peter. There was a command to listen without comment on anything else.
It’s also, at least in Luke’s account, likely that they spent the night on the mountain. Perhaps this was purely practical in terms of resting. Maybe it was also imperative. Maybe they had to stay put long enough to soak up some of those remaining rays of glory so they would have what they needed for the coming days. Capturing the Glory of God in a permanent dwelling wasn’t a good idea, but taking time to sit still and rest in the aftermath of divine radiance was the best possible response.
Peter, James, and John probably had no idea what they would encounter after they came down from the mountain. Likely, Jesus did. The crowd that gathered there with their ignorance, fear, and needs is the same crowd that always seemed to gather around Jesus then and now. They didn’t grasp that God was in their midst, but they knew that Jesus could do something for them that they couldn’t do for themselves. He could calm, quiet, and cast out their demons. And he did. And people saw the glory of God yet again. However, no one was suggesting building any tabernacles where the demon had been cast out. Funny how that is.
In this very familiar text the glory of God is revealed in spectacular fashion – twice. The brilliant radiance on top of the mountain was the first. The exasperated casting out of a demon was the second. The former has become a metaphor for the mythic search for intense spiritual experiences that are coveted by so many and rationalized as rare and fleeting. The latter has become a metaphor for “real life,” the valley in which we should be living and working. We are told so often that we can’t stay on top of the mountain because there is work to do. Really, we can’t stay on top of the mountain because it isn’t practical. God doesn’t live in tabernacles built by human hands in a particular place, no matter how beautiful or sacred the place.
Similarly, that crowd that was ignorant, needy, and demanding isn’t necessarily everyday life and work, either. Sometimes we are crowd. Sometimes we are the confused disciples. Sometimes we are the one possessed. How often do we notice when Jesus has cast out one of our familiar demons albeit less literally than that described in the Gospel account? We might notice later, when we are moving on to somewhere else.
Somehow, over the centuries we’ve managed to twist this Transfiguration story into an either/or and life is almost always a both/and. We don’t always live on top of the pristine, radiant mountain nor do we live constantly with messy crowds and demanding demons. Mostly, we are in between. The point of the story, though, is that God’s glory is revealed in both places. Yes, differently, but God is there in all God’s glory on top of the mountain and down in the crowd. And for all those in between times, God is there, too. Remember that Jesus traveled with his disciples – up the mountain, on top of the mountain, down the mountain, and in the midst of the crowd.
Maybe the real point is to look for God and listen to the voice that claims us wherever we find ourselves and not linger too long as we soak up the glory because there are other mountains, other roads, and other crowds and God is waiting for us there, too.
RCL – Year C – Transfiguration –
February 7, 2016
2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2
Luke 9:28-36 (37- 43)
Top photo by Rachael Keefe. Bottom photo from Pixabay. Used by permission.