Epiphany Last C
In the rural countryside of Burma, in a part of the country where no electric or telephone lines mar the landscape, is a mountain. Even today it is accessible only by foot, and climbing its well-worn paths is not an easy task.
But people do climb it regularly, and not just for the spectacular view that rewards those who make it to the summit. On top of this mountain is a centuries-old magnificent temple, and people come here to pray.
One wonders what kind of enormous effort it took for people to carry heavy stones up the steep mountainside to construct this beautiful place of worship. Surely it would have been much easier to build the temple in the valley.
But this Buddhist temple on this remote mountaintop is not unique. In remote high spots around the world are places of worship – for Buddhists, for Muslims, for Jews and Christians. What is it about mountains that leads them to be designated as holy places, as places for worshipping God?
In both the Old and New Testaments mountains are more than just big piles of dirt and rocks adding variety to the terrain. In the biblical landscape mountains are a dominant feature. When we come across one in our reading of scripture we had better play close attention.
Mountains are frequently places where people encounter God. Some of the most significant events in the lives of the Bible’s most significant characters occur on mountaintops.
It was on a mountain that Moses spotted the burning bush and was commissioned by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery into freedom. It was from the mountain that God spoke the Ten Commandments, establishing the covenant between God and the people of Israel.
The great prophet Elijah also encounters God on the mountain. Standing on high, Elijah endures ferocious winds, a great earthquake, and a raging fire, then experiences the presence of God as “a sound of sheer silence.”
So when in today’s Gospel we hear that Jesus is taking his inner circle of disciples – Peter, James, and John – up the mountain, we can anticipate that some great event is about to take place.
And it does. When the foursome reaches the mountain’s peak there is suddenly a radiant, dazzling light and Jesus is transformed before them. Surely the brilliant light would remind the disciples of the story we heard today of Moses’ face glowing with radiance after he encountered God on Mt. Sinai.
Then Moses and Elijah, Israel’s two greatest prophets, both dead for centuries, appear and talk to Jesus. It is a magnificent moment, one that Peter wants to contain forever. He quickly blurts out an offer to build dwellings for the holy threesome.
Before Peter even finishes speaking, a cloud overshadows them –like the cloud that overshadowed Moses on Sinai – and the voice of God booms out, speaking the same words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism – “This is my son, my Chosen. Listen to him!”
The funny thing about biblical mountains is that no matter how glorious we find the light of God’s presence, we aren’t supposed to stay there. Mountaintops are only temporary places of rest and sustenance before we proceed along the rest of our journeys.
Every year on this Sunday, the last Sunday of Epiphany, we hear a version of these mountaintop stories – the transfiguring light of Jesus and the dramatic encounters of Moses or Elijah with God.
Coming right before Ash Wednesday, these stories are also the hinge for us between Epiphany, the season of glorious light, and Lent, the season of somber repentance. This week our journey of faith moves from the mountaintop of glory into the valley of the shadow of Jesus’ suffering and death.
Like Peter, we may be tempted to avoid the rest of that journey to Jerusalem and Calvary, and stay on the mountain, enveloped in the cloud of God’s glory, basking in the radiance of a transfigured Christ.
But scripture tells us again and again that mountains are never places where we can stay for long. Rather, we are always called by God back into the world with all of its joys and sorrows.
The prophets knew that. Moses came down from his mountain meeting with God to discover that his people were worshipping a golden calf. Because of this betrayal, Israelites spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness until they were ready to enter the promised land.
Elijah came down to face warfare and slaughter.
Jesus left his mountain peak experience to begin his final journey to Jerusalem and his own suffering and death.
Modern day people of faith know it, too. Martin Luther King’s biographer Taylor Branch writes that the Civil Rights leader faced a temptation similar to Peter’s after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
While receiving the prize in Norway he was at least temporarily removed from the ongoing struggle for justice and civil rights in this country, a battle waged with nonviolence on one side, and answered by jailings, bombings, beatings, snarling police dogs, and murders on the other.
There were those around King who encouraged him to make winning the Nobel Peace Prize a personal turning point, a time to move from the frontlines of battle to a more removed role, still involved, but above the fray.
As Branch puts its, winning the prize offered King the opportunity to spend the rest of his life resting on his laurels, being toasted at chicken dinners across the country.
King acknowledged that such a life was tempting. But in his first speech in this country after his return from Oslo, he made it clear that he would not succumb to the temptation of a life of ease.
“For 10 days I have been talking with kings and queens, meeting and talking with prime ministers of nations,” he told a crowd gathered to hear him in Harlem. “That isn’t the usual pattern of my life, to have people saying nice things about me.
“Oh, this is a marvelous mountaintop. I wish I could stay here. But I hear the valley calling. I hear the valley calling.”
That valley’s call led King to places far removed from royalty and prime ministers. It led him to Selma, Alabama to march for voting rights on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. It led him to Washington DC to speak to thousands about poverty and the immorality of war.
Finally, it led him to his death in Memphis, where he had gone to join forces with garbage workers seeking a better life.
King, like Jesus, was not naïve about answering the call of the valley. But his faith would not let him turn his ear to the cry of those in need. His faith would not allow him a life of ease on the mountaintop.
Mountaintop experiences are glorious moments. But the validity of any such moment is what one does with it afterward.
Great transcendent moments are not calling us to stop, to remove ourselves from the world, but to follow, to keep moving, to continue. These moments strengthen us and reassure us that we are not alone as we reenter the valley and confront its sufferings.
Jesus and the disciples are given a glimpse of God’s glory, enough to get them through the pain ahead.
Like them, we are called to leave the safety of the mountain, the security of the church pews, and go into the world with God. Believing in Jesus does not exempt us from the troubles that beset the rest of humanity.
Indeed, following Jesus will often lead us straight into those troubles, into the world of pettiness and pain, of squabbling and suffering, of disease and death.
The church has at times promoted the idea that true spirituality happens only on the mountaintop, and that those who want to live a spiritual life must remove themselves from the world.
The story of the transfiguration tells us just the opposite. This story reminds us that spirituality is not just for times and places set apart, but is always manifested in the routine and every day. Spiritual disciplines, when removed from the material realities of life and the world, run the risk of becoming meaningless abstractions.
And so, as we begin the season of Lent this week, we are urged to follow Jesus down the mountain and into the valley. Into a place where poverty exists, where guns are valued more than human life, where health care is often inadequate, where governments tear children from their parents’ arms.
Into a world filled all too often with fear and despair. Into a world where impoverished bodies lead to impoverished spirits. Into our ordinary work-a-day worlds.
Surely Lent should be a time of increased prayer and reflection, of taking stock of our lives, of discipline and self-denial. But the object of our reflection and discipline is to make us better able to listen to God’s beloved Son, to take up his tasks, and to follow him into the world’s valleys, wherever he leads.