Mountaintops and Messiness
|"Thin Place" by Roger Hutchinson|
The disciples follow Jesus to the mountaintop to pray. All of a sudden, Peter, James and John are stunned to see Jesus standing with Elijah and Moses - the key figures of their faith, all glowing and shiny, and chatting like old friends. In an instant they see all of history standing before them represented in these figures, the unfolding of God’s story – the people of God led out of Egypt, called and guided by God, restored by God, and the Messiah, the future, standing there with the past - together, like a complete picture, a glorious glimpse of timeless wonder.
Peter, not knowing what he is saying, all swept up in the moment, suggests they freeze the moment, capture and honor it and stay right there in the awe and mystery and the thrill of witnessing eternity, and he is still speechifying when he is interrupted by a bright and terrifying cloud encircling them and a booming voice proclaiming “This is my Son! For the love of God, listen to him!” – and they open their eyes and everything is gone, just them and Jesus, and Jesus tells them not to tell anyone and then leads them right back down the mountain.
And to make matters worse, as soon as they set foot back on flat ground, here comes the distraught father with the demon possessed son, the one they had tried to heal but couldn’t, the one that reminds them that the world is full of desperate fathers and ill sons.
Life has transcendent moments – glimpses of glory. Times where we experience something out of the ordinary, encounters with the supernatural that you can’t explain. I have had them.
It could be a moment alone where the beauty and stillness of nature takes your breath away, and you feel yourself connected to everything around you,
or perhaps it is the witnessing of an actual miracle – when fervent prayers are answered and someone is healed right before your eyes. Or a clear answer from God - a door opening and sure direction on path you are to take or choice you are to make, or perhaps it is a particularly exquisite moment in worship, where you sense God’s presence and hear God speaking directly to you.
A supernatural vision, a powerful dream, even a near death experience.
On occasion, human beings have these experiences that seem to pull us completely out of ordinary life into something holy, divine, mysterious, maybe frightening, maybe thrilling, maybe both.
And we long for these – as human beings we crave these tastes of the beyond. Moments where the space between what is and what will be thins out, when the gap between earth and heaven, natural and supernatural, ordinary and extraordinary becomes narrow - the thin places where God feels close.
There is more to reality than we can see or understand; God is able to break through time and space surprise us with things that flip the universe on end. And we long for these glimpses.
So, then when they do happen, what do we do with these experiences? How do we understand them? Maybe we try to stay there, to recreate them, to grasp onto them and make them our focus, to shape our lives around them. That is what Peter tried to do.
Or maybe these moments are simply baffling. They can’t be incorporated into what we know to be true. They feel so removed from what we see around us on a daily basis that we simply trudge back down the mountain and breathe not a word of them because they don’t make sense. And we need things to make sense.
So if we don’t try to spend our lives trying to live in them then often we discredit the supernatural experiences, or at the very least marginalize them because we have no idea how to integrate them into our lives.
We, (as Presbyterians especially), are not afraid to talk about the real “stuff” of life, we’ll talk about sex trafficking and famine and politics, we’ll lament injustice all week long, but we get all stuttery and bashful to discuss the moments when God is right there in our face, when we taste transcendence.
Or we think others wouldn’t understand – and why would they? We have trouble understanding them ourselves. We want to be able to explain them, to find what the meaning is, and why they happen and how they happen and what they are telling us to DO.
When Moses saw God on a mountain he brought back down the Ten Commandments – he brought specific words and instructions of what to do, how to live, what the people were supposed to take with them from supernatural encounter with God into their ordinary lives. God told them what to do, God told them what it means.
But when the disciples see God on a mountain the only instruction they have from God, the only words God gives to them up there come in a brilliant frightening cloud, and echo the words God said when God claimed and pointed out Jesus for the first time – at his baptism – This is my Son, my Beloved. And then the only thing God tells them to do is: LISTEN TO HIM. Listen to him.
So we come to this text at the end of Epiphany every year – the very last text we use in the season of talking about God being revealed in Christ. The story that comes just before we begin Lent is this story, of the disciple’s witnessing Jesus’ strange and momentary transformation, and then going right back down to face the father of the tortured kid they couldn’t heal – it comes up this way, these two parts of the story, back to back, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, like they belong together.
The disciples go from this terrifying exhilarating experience immediately back to this troubling, frustrating and humiliating experience. They swung from great confidence and sureness, absolute faith and a sense that it all makes sense, immediately to impotence and impossibility, confronted by the ministry they could not do and tagging along after a Messiah who is headed for a cross. No wonder they never talked about what happened up there.
So what is the point? What are they supposed to learn, or do, what does it mean? We don’t know. Maybe they don’t know. It never says. It doesn’t interpret for us what God is up to by showing them this.
Except, EXCEPT that when Jesus calls them back down the mountain and heads off towards Calvary, they follow now as people who have been up the mountain. They follow as those who have glimpsed glory, who have tasted transcendence.
Maybe that makes his suffering and death that much harder for them –they have seen who he really is and this feels so utterly in contrast. Maybe it makes their despair deeper, their sense of all things being turned on end nearly debilitating, because they know they way things really ARE, and they carry this secret inside of them of what they witnessed and can’t even begin to describe or explain. And it leaves them with nothing but agonizing questions, Why God? Why don’t you stop it? Why are you letting this happen?
Or maybe it gives them confidence, trust. The deep awareness that in everything there is more going on than they can see in the moment. Maybe it makes them strong enough to keep following when all looks lost and Jesus is put to death.
Who knows what it did to them?
And what do they actually take down the mountain with them? Not power. Not commandments. Not even something they understand. They take an inexplicable experience which they can’t really rationalize but they can’t ever shake either. It has happened to them.
And we are never told how it does impact them – maybe each one differently. There is no clear message or implication – only that God wanted them to have this experience. And that God wants them to listen to Jesus.
How are we supposed to take extraordinary experiences with us into the ordinary? How do they shape us? What does God intend with them?
Perhaps the goal is not to understand, to grasp, to keep or to do, but to follow. To watch, to listen. We follow him up the mountain into the unknown, let ourselves be open to meeting God in ways we could never predict or even desire.
And we follow him back down the mountain, into suffering, into confusion, into a world with sick sons and desperate fathers and our own inability to do anything about any of it. We follow him there too.
Jesus goes both places with his followers, God is there in both realities, in the extraordinary glory and in the ordinary pain. In the moments of transcendent mystery, and in the times of terrible struggle and suffering.
So great is God’s glory that it encompasses past present and future and doesn’t hesitate to speak in a booming voice from a cloud with no explanation whatsoever. So great is God’s love that God comes back down from the mountain and dies among and for the people.
How do we follow? How can we be open? How can we see God who both meets us in mystery, and comes near in the messiness?
As we walk into Lent, as we enter a time of deliberate pause, recognition of the world’s desperate need for God, we take these questions with us. We follow the God of all eternity on his road to death. We let ourselves speak out the contradictions, hold up the confusion, pause to sit in the soup of God’s mysterious presence and painful absence, and then continue to follow where Jesus goes. And however the journey shapes us, we walk it as people who have been up the mountain.
Come to the table of God.
The mountaintop is here, where earth touches heaven,
the place of meeting,
the place of mystery,
the place of epiphany,
the place where the glory of God is revealed.
The valley is here as well, where heaven invades earth,
the place of suffering,
the place of shadows,
the place of sorrow,
the place where the humanity of Christ is made known.
When we gather at this table,
we both proclaim mystery,
and embrace reality.
we recount what God has done
and proclaim what God will do.
When we gather at this table,
we both speak words of promise,
and remember words of pain,
recounting the past.
and God meets us here.
In this bread and this wine,
In this gathering and this breaking,
In this sharing and this eating,
We declare again, that
Truly great is the mystery of our faith:
Christ has come,
Christ has died,
Christ has risen,
Christ will come again.
(copyright Kara K Root, liturgy may be used with permission).
(copyright Kara K Root, liturgy may be used with permission).