Carlos Wilton, February 19, 2012, Transfiguration of the Lord, Year B; Mark 9.2-9
“As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
– Mark 9:9
We have a couple of cats at home, and I’ve learned a few things about watching them over the years. Now, there are some who claim that cats are ornery and unpredictable, but we’ve learned that’s not the case. There are certain things you can always – or nearly always – count on cats to do.
For example, if you turn your back on an empty box sitting in the middle of the floor, chances are that when you turn around again, a cat will be sitting in it.
If a pair of ankles appear in a room with a cat in it, chances are that, before a few moments have gone by, the cat will be rubbing up against them.
Should it happen that a paper bag falls to the floor, and there’s a cat in the general vicinity, chances are that before too long, it’s going to be dancing.
And finally, if you go into a room looking for a cat – and the room doesn’t contain any boxes or bags, nor anything large like a bed to hide under – chances are good you’ll find the cat on the high ground: on top of a dresser or bookcase, stretched out across the top of a couch, maybe even holding court on top of the refrigerator.
Cats prefer the high ground for the same reason army officers do: it provides them with a beneficial combination of good intelligence and defensibility. If you also happen to have a dog in the house, as we do, and said dog has not yet figured out that chasing cats is a futile and pointless exercise, even after more than two years of living with them under the same roof, then locating and claiming the high ground takes on a certain understandable urgency.
Cats are not the only creatures drawn to high ground. People are, as well. The summits of mountains have long exerted a magnetic pull on the human spirit. We’re drawn to such places in spite of ourselves – even if the footpath is rough, the going is tough, and there’s nothing really to do once we get up there except look around.
Looking around is a big part of it, of course: and that was even more true for people who lived in earlier centuries, before there was such a thing as powered flight. From the window seat of an airliner, you and I are privileged to behold vistas the ancients could scarcely imagine. To them, the commonplace view of the earth would have seemed a God’s-eye view: for they did imagine heaven to be “up there.” That meant that, the more up-there you could somehow get yourself, the more of a divine perspective you could claim to have.
I sometimes think about that when I’m on an airplane, looking around at all the frequent travelers, the road warriors: hunched over their laptops, hiding behind their newspapers, or simply dozing. Outside the window – just inches from their face, if they’re in the window seat – is a sight that was utterly unavailable to the human race just a couple hundred years ago, let alone a couple of millennia. And they’re so blasé about it, so jaded. The patchwork quilt of farm fields, the glint of sunlight off a distant river, the feathery-white plume of troubled water trailing behind a ship at sea, are just what they expect to see when they look out an airplane window. No big deal, as far as they’re concerned.
It was a big deal to the prophet Isaiah, who famously wrote: “It is [God] who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in…” (Isaiah 40:22) I’ll bet ol’ Isaiah would have traded in his Prophet’s Commission without batting an eye, just to have the chance to soar above “the circle of the earth” for an hour or two, on a clear day!
As for Peter, James and John – even Jesus himself, during his earthly life – the best they could settle for was to walk up to the top of a mountain, and see what they could see from there. It was no airplane flight, but it was pretty dramatic. Such views are dramatic, still, which is why tourists still shell out a lot of money to drive up to the top of a mountain in New Hampshire, and come back with a bumper sticker that proclaims, “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.”
Did Jesus and his companions make the long, slow climb up Mt. Tabor for the view? That could have been a part of it, but by far a more important reason was that they were going there to pray. In the Bible, you see, mountains also have a reputation for being holy places, for being literally – according to that primitive, heaven-is-up-there way of thinking – close to God.
What Peter, James and John experience, there on the summit of Tabor, turns out to be closer to God than they could ever have imagined.
The details of their mystical vision are sketchy – even though there were at least three witnesses, and the incident’s attested to in all four Gospels. The appearance of Jesus changes, in a way that makes him seem indescribably beautiful and fearsome, at the same time. Suddenly, he has other companions, beside his disciples: the great prophets Moses and Elijah are at his side, conversing with him.
Peter, James and John feel like third wheels. They’ve been as close to Jesus, in recent months, as friends could possibly be, but friends like Moses and Elijah – especially friends whose faces and clothing are dazzling white – are in a whole different league.
Peter offers to build those famous “dwellings” – sometimes translated “booths” – for the celebrities to dwell in. But Jesus pays him no mind. Peter’s idea is quite beside the point. He hasn’t come there to put on a spiritual light show. He’s come there to commune with God, so he can be resolute for the remainder of his journey. As Jesus has just reminded his disciples in the previous chapter, the road he’s on will soon take an abrupt turn towards Jerusalem, and his own death.
Skene is the Greek word for “shelter” or “dwelling” Peter uses. It’s very much a temporary structure: like building a lean-to or pitching a tent. Interestingly, it’s the same word early Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures use for the Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting. That’s where the ancient Israelites kept the Ark of the Covenant when they were on the move. The Tent of Meeting is the place, in the book of Exodus, where the elders of Israel are called together for an audience with none other than God.
Peter can be excused for his foolishness. It’s not at all surprising he’d jump to that conclusion! The Transfiguration stories are overflowing with Exodus language and imagery – particular those that call to mind direct encounters between God and the people. Once Peter and his companions get over their shock and awe, they realize how incredibly privileged they are to be witnessing this rare scene.
The Transfiguration makes it doubly clear to them – as it would have been doubly clear to the first-generation readers of mark’s Gospel – that Jesus is the Messiah. For no other person would be found in such company, and displaying such a wondrous physical appearance, than the Son of God who is coming to save the world.
Yet, this is not to last. The transformation of their teacher and friend is not permanent. A short while later, and everything is back to the way it was before. There is nothing to do, then, than walk back down the mountain.
If you’ve ever walked up a mountain, or even a sizeable hill, then you know how different the way down can be, compared to the way up. First of all, it’s more grueling for the body. Experienced hikers will tell you it’s the journey down from a steep height that produces the most pain in the joints, and presents the greatest risk of injury. That’s because of the force of gravity. On the way up, gravity is a weight trailing behind you, causing you to become more exhausted and out of breath. Yet, it’s when your way turns downwards that your feet pound down onto the rocky trail again and again, jarring your entire frame until you’re a mass of aches and pains.
So, too, with coming down from any spiritual experience. In those rare and beautiful interludes when you or I sense the presence and power of God near at hand, it’s wonderful to behold. Yet, the hard times come when the experience is over, and it’s time to return to life as we know it.
Yes, there’s a part of us that would rather make our abode on the mountaintop. There’s a part of us that would rather build those shelters Peter’s talking about – and, even more, would like to make of them a far more permanent sort of dwelling. Yet, God doesn’t behave in such a way as to make that possible. As Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3, verse 8: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” He’s answering, of course, a question Nicodemus asked about the Holy Spirit: how it is that a person can be “born from above.” The Spirit of God, Jesus is telling him, is as changeable and unpredictable as the wind. It’s a force to be reckoned with, to be sure – but, it’s not something human beings have the power to control or manipulate.
There’s another sense in which heading back down the mountain can be harder than going up. It has to do with our sense of direction. If the goal is to reach the summit, it’s very clear to us, nearly the entire journey, which way we have to go to get there. Sure, on a bigger mountain there may be complexities of vegetation or terrain that shield the summit from view for a time, but by and large the trend is for all lines to converge and meet at the top. Finding your way to the top of a mountain is relatively easy. It’s picking your way back down again that’s hard.
Everyone knows, of course, that the way off the summit tends downward, but simply following the pull of gravity is not enough. There are 360 degrees of direction to choose from, as you leave the mountaintop. Sure, even if you pick a path at random, you’ll reach the lower elevation eventually – but you may end up miles from your destination, on the wrong side of the mountain. There are perils to the descent that are not present on the upward way.
So, too, with any journey back down from a spiritual high. I wonder what it was like for Isaiah to return to the Temple, the day after his remarkable encounter with God – when the cherubim and seraphim were flying around like planes circling a control tower, and one seemed to hold out a burning coal to touch the prophet’s unclean lips, and a voice called out “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?” and Isaiah boldly replied, “Here am I, send me!”
The next time Isaiah was there, and there were no angels, nor booming voices, nor burning coals touched to the lips, I wonder if he felt a bit disillusioned? I wonder if the Temple ritual that had once seemed so impressive now looked to be a tawdry imitation of true holiness? Yes, Isaiah’s visit to the Temple on that auspicious day was life-changing for him, but his next visit could have proven to be just the opposite.
Peter wants to build those shelters on the mountaintop, so he doesn’t have to undertake the journey downward – at least not for a while. It’s the same spirit, actually, that has led to the construction of a whole lot of churches. For what is a church Sanctuary, after all – what is our church right here, for that matter – than a booth or shelter meant to capture the elusive Spirit of God? We go through our order of worship, week after week; we say our prayers, sing our hymns, listen to an anthem or two. Linda or I give a sermon, and you listen to it. From time to time we baptize a baby, or – on rare occasions – an adult. We break bread, symbolic of the body of Christ, and pass it around, along with grape juice symbolic of his blood. Can you hear the pounding of the hammers as we do so? Can you imagine the sheets of plywood being cut and laid together haphazardly, atop a hastily-constructed framework? We know God’s been to this neck of the woods before, and we hope God will show again, but we can never be certain when or where it may happen. Let’s just keep perfecting our spiritual dwelling-place so we can be ready when that day comes.
The truth – the truth that often escapes us – is that God doesn’t want us to dwell here all the time, any more than Jesus wanted Peter, James and John to take up permanent residence on the summit of Mount Tabor. God knows, you see, that we’re not a mountain-dwelling species. We are, instead, people of the valley. And it’s in the valley where you and I are meant to dwell most of the time, where we’re meant to live out our call to serve as Jesus’ disciples.
Unless you’re like Linda or me and actually work for the church, you’re not meant to be here all the time. If you were, there would be something wrong, some massively misplaced priorities. Worship is a beautiful thing. Church work performed in and around the church building is a beautiful thing. But it’s not the sum-total of Christian discipleship. No by a long shot. Our faith is nothing if we never take it on the road, if we never engage in mission.
Remember that parable Jesus told, about the Great Banquet? A king decided to put on a huge wedding-feast for his son, and invited all sorts of people to come as his guests. But none of them did. So, what did the king do? He said to his servants, “Go out into the highways and the byways, and compel them to come in!”
The highways and the byways! That’s where Christians are meant to be. That’s the genius of our faith, the characteristic that led to such remarkable growth in the early centuries, and that’s been repeated every time God’s people have caught fire with a powerful sense of mission, going out into the world to make their faith real in the everyday!
So much of our faith-practice is focused on special days and seasons, on festivals like Christmas and Easter – and even the weekly holiday (or holy-day) that is Sunday worship. Yet, it’s not these special times that are the point, as far as God is concerned. It’s all about what we do with our faith in the meantime.
That word “meantime” is an interesting one. The word “mean,” as you know, has several definitions – one of which has to do with cruelty and anger. The world – down in the valley, anyway – can often be a places of meanness in just that way. Christ calls us to love one another, and turn back that tide of meanness and hatred, if only just a little.
Another definition of “mean” has to do with averages and ordinariness – as in the sort of “mean” statisticians cite, when reporting on research studies. The Greek philosopher Aristotle tried to give this a positive spin with his concept of the Golden Mean, a way of living our lives being neither too hot with passion nor too cold with disdain, but just right. As Christians, we’re meant to bring into the drab and ordinary lives of our neighbors something of joy and wonder: to mix it up a little, to share a zest for living.
There’s also a definition of “mean” that has do with cheapness or stinginess. A person who’s “mean,” in that sense, is a skinflint. Well, we all know Christ calls us to live differently, to be people of true generosity – even if it means making sacrifices ourselves, for the sake of others.
It’s not always an easy place to live a Christian life, here in the valley. It’s much easier on the mountaintop in many ways, where things are clearer, where there’s no ambiguity, where there’s no fear of embarrassment or ridicule for speaking the name of Jesus Christ in a way other than a curse.
Here in the valley, it’s often dark. The days are actually shorter here. The mountaintop, by contrast – where there are no obstacles to interfere with the angle of the sun – is bathed in light.
Here in the valley, we seldom see much further than what’s right in front of our faces. On the mountaintop, we can see for miles in any direction.
Here in the valley, where we must often perform the same mind-numbing tasks over and over again, we can fall into the trap of treating one another impatiently, even with harshness. Back when we were ascending the mountaintop, though, it wasn’t like that. Then, we shared a special sense of friendship and camaraderie with our fellow-travelers. Come to think of it, there’s no reason why the journey back downward has to be a grim affair. Knowing what we know about what happens on the summit, there’s no reason why we can’t bring a spirit of joy and celebration to the downward path..
Here in the valley, we easily get lost and confused. We lose our way. On the mountaintop, our route is clear.
In the valley, we often encounter obstacles. In the clear space at the summit of the mountaintop, there are none.
Any one of us could come up with plenty of reasons why life is better on the mountaintop. The only problem is, we can’t dwell there – and even if we could, transfigurations are few and far between. We’re valley people. This is where we belong. This is where the Lord has placed us – and where even Jesus himself dwelt for a time, an ordinary man, exuding no beams of supernatural light, just so we would know it can be done.
The last speech the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered, just days before his assassination, has been known ever since as his “mountaintop” speech. It was all about a rather mundane bit of business: a labor action by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were seeking a fair wage. It’s hard to think of a better example of a “valley” sort of problem than that.
Yet King’s rhetoric didn’t stay in the valley. It also took his listeners – and us as well, every time we hear his words, right back to the mountain summit. The summit he was referring to was not Mount Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration, but Mount Nebo, the place where Moses died, after looking out towards the promised land he would never enter. Yet, even so, the mountain and the valley imagery is the same:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. 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. So 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.”
Such is the vision of the mountaintop. Such is the power of that vision when it is shared, back down in the valley. May all of us learn more and more, each day, to cherish the visions of God’s love we have experienced, so their light may shine into all the dark places!
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.