There’s just something about being on top of a mountain. Any hikers here?? I’m sure you can agree-- there’s just something about standing way up there on top of a mountain, looking out over this fantastic view, drinking in God’s creation. Every time I’ve hiked up to the top of a mountain, and I’ve always done it with other people with me-- and there is always this brief moment when we just get up there and we look out and we are speechless. In awe. It’s a moment suspended in time, when we realize just how great God really is to have created and sustained the world around us.
And throughout history, mountains have been places of direct encounters with God, perhaps because people felt closer to God by being closer to heaven. Ancient peoples built altars on mountains. Oracles and prophets hung out on mountains—think of the typical “old wise man” who chills up on the mountain, waiting for people to hike up to him and ask him life’s questions. Cartoons always show this old guy with a long, flowing white beard sitting on top of a mountain, giving advice (sometimes sarcastically with wise cracks!)
And as we heard in the Exodus reading for today, Moses communicates with God on the top of a mountain numerous times, including the time God wrote down the 10 Commandments. While up there, God would usually give the people a revelation, an important realization.
And in the Gospel story for today, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up to the top of a mountain. Not surprisingly for us reading, knowing that divine encounters sometimes happen at the top of a mountain, God causes something amazing to happen. Or really, to be clear, God causes lots of amazing things to happen.
Jesus is “transfigured” in front of the three disciples. In the Greek, the word is “metemorphothe,” what we get “metamorphosis” from, like how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Jesus is changed, transformed in that moment. Who he truly is, is revealed. His face shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white. The disciples couldn’t see it before, but now all is revealed. Jesus shows them his true identity. He is God, in human form.
And then, amazingly, Moses and Elijah show up, and talk with Jesus. Moses. The guy who was chosen by God to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, who received the Law, the 10 Commandments, from God. And Elijah. The prophet who did incredible miracles, called God’s people to repentance, and was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. These are no schlubs. These are two of God’s uber-famous representatives, from times past, showing up on a mountain to talk to Jesus.
No wonder Peter wants to do something. His offer to make dwellings for God’s three heavy-hitters is almost comical. Some have said that his offer is because he wishes they all could live there, stay up there on that mountain in that amazing moment, forever living in that “mountaintop experience.” Some people have even said that it was his attempt to “domesticate” the experience, make it into something more understandable.
But the more I read this passage, the more I think that Peter’s offer was really his need to do something, ANYTHING, in the face of God’s greatness. He ends up babbling, offering something completely ludicrous, because he is at a loss for what to do. He is flabbergasted by this divine encounter, this awe-inspiring moment of God’s power and might.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, while Peter is babbling on, offering to make dwelling places, God’s voice comes down from heaven in a cloud, interrupting Peter, echoing much of what was said when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!” It’s too much. The disciples, experiencing God in such a powerful way, are overcome with fear. They fall to the ground.
Which makes perfect sense, actually. We are only human. God is all powerful, all knowing, beyond our human comprehension. And in those moments when God’s power breaks into our everyday lives, as God still does today, one of the typical reactions is to feel overwhelmed and fearful. We are being touched by the One who gives us life, who created the world, who gives us everything we need. We don’t expect it. We can be overcome and overwhelmed, scared of what how much we don’t know, afraid of the awesome power God has.
I had an experience like that once. When I was helping lead the Alpha Course at another congregation before I came to Zion--- Alpha is the intro to Christianity class which I’ve mentioned a few times in sermons before, that we’ve also run here at Zion-- there is a retreat as part of the course where we focus on who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does. During the retreat, we have a prayer time, during which we invite the Holy Spirit to be present in a new and perceptible way.
And during that prayer time at that retreat, I started to feel… overwhelmed with God’s power. I felt like I was so aware of God’s power that I literally couldn’t hold myself up anymore. I was standing at the time… but because I had never experienced God’s power in this way before, I was scared. I tried to hold myself up, like this—I was scared of what might happen, so I stood like this, bent over, holding myself up with my hands on my knees. And as I stood there like that, scared and overwhelmed, not knowing what would happen, I heard a voice in my head—“Let go.” And then immediately I fell to the ground, in a heap.
But something also happened while I was on the ground. I was no longer scared. Because I had heard that voice that said “let go,” I knew that I didn’t have to be afraid anymore. I knew that God was doing something, moving me in a way I needed to be moved.
Although I had been overwhelmed and scared at the beginning, I knew in those moments while I was on the ground, without a doubt, that God was with me, and loved me. The overwhelming power of God I was feeling was the overwhelming sense of God’s love, for me and for everyone. I had been touched by God, experienced God in a way I never had before, and although it was scary at first, it became an experience of love and mercy and grace that I will never forget.
And the disciples at the top of that mountain would never forget their experience, either. They had been scared and overwhelmed by all they had seen and heard and experienced—God’s power literally knocked them to the ground. But then Jesus came over to them and touched them, and they heard his voice: “Get up, and do not be afraid.” And then all they could see was Jesus.
It doesn’t say how the three disciples felt after that, but I imagine that-- like how I heard God’s voice and felt after I fell to the ground at the Alpha Retreat-- they were no longer afraid and felt Jesus’ love in a powerful way. Jesus literally touches them and tells them that it’s OK, that they can get up and not be afraid. And then all they see in that moment is Jesus, his loving face, loving them no matter what.
I say that Jesus loves them, because of what he says to them. The Greek word Jesus uses for “get up” is actually the verb egeiro, that means “to raise up.” Jesus literally tells them “Be raised.” They are being raised to new life, after this experience of seeing that Jesus is truly God. Their lives are changed forever, knowing Jesus’ identity—their old ways of thinking and living die on this mountaintop, and their new ways of thinking and living begin on this mountaintop. Knowing who Jesus is, is truly life-changing, bringing them to a new life, a life lived with new purpose and meaning.
Because-- although this transfiguration moment of Jesus is important-- what’s most important is how it changed the three disciples that were present. The transfiguration of Jesus, that metamorphosis, didn’t change who Jesus was—just like how a caterpillar changing into a butterfly doesn’t change who it is. It’s still the same caterpillar—it just looks different as a butterfly. Jesus was always God in human form. This mountaintop moment doesn’t change that. It only revealed to the disciples Jesus’ true identity.
And knowing that true identity is what makes all the difference for the disciples. They are changed. Forever. Knowing that Jesus is God and tells them not to be afraid, and tells them to be raised, means that they are not only raised to new life at that moment, but also they will be raised, just as Jesus will be raised. As they come down from that mountain, Jesus tells them that he will suffer—but that he will also be raised from the dead. They share in Jesus’ raising—that resurrection promise is for Jesus, AND for them.
It’s not just the disciples who have this experience. When WE know and experience Jesus’ true identity as God in human form, we are changed, forever. We are raised to a new life, with him. That is the life-changing part.
These revelations, or what some people call “mountain top experiences” in themselves are not the point. It is not about the cloud, or the voice, or the vision, or the shining face and dazzling clothes, or the falling down. The point is what these revelations do to us, how they change us, how they help us to experience God’s love and look at God in new ways.
And this raising up that Jesus talks about, the one that he did when he died and rose again, is something that we share in. Like the disciples, Jesus tells us, “be raised.”
And this raising up is not just something that will happen when we die and when Jesus returns. Jesus raises us up here, now, in the present time. Like the disciples, when we are afraid and can’t stand on our own, Jesus raises us up. When we feel alone, and God feels far away, Jesus raises us up. When life feels like too much for us to handle, Jesus raises us up. Jesus raises us up!
Jesus gives us hope in a world where things can sometimes feel hopeless. Jesus gives us love in a world that can sometimes feel loveless. Jesus, the one who died to save you and rose again, gives us love and mercy and grace and raises us up when we need to be raised.
And when we are raised each time, and Jesus’ true identity as God is revealed to us in those revealing moments—whether they be “mountain top” experiences or just hearing the Good News in a new way-- we are able to say what Peter on that mountain top: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
So, as Jesus told those three disciples on that mountain, and as he tells us every day, “Be raised!” Amen?