Life in the Valley
On one of the youth mission trips to Alaska we decided that in addition to some white water rafting we would also spend some time hiking. Bushwhacking our way from our campsite, our river guides decided that we would climb the mountain behind us. There was no trail and the guides had never climbed this particular mountain before but you know how the old saying goes, “why do you climb the mountain?” – “because it’s there.” So off we went. It was a tough climb, at least for me. Patrick Stickler will always have a couple of bonus points toward sainthood for putting up with my grumpiness that seemed to increase with the altitude. I love to hike and climb, but I was out of shape and feeling old. With every step I was forced to face the reality that I was no longer 25 or even 35 and I was at least 20 pounds overweight – hence my uncharitable mood.
However, when we reached the top it was all worth it. The view was fantastic. We could see below us the confluence of the two rivers where we were camped. We could also see a large swath of Denali National Park spreading out in all directions. It was breathtaking. I still have a photo taken from the peak on my computer desktop. We didn’t want to leave – me especially – because my feet were killing me. But after about an hour we started back down the mountain, back into the valley, back to camp and back onto our journey. The truth is, you just can’t stay on the mountain. Henry Drummond, the Scottish theologian once wrote, “God does not make the mountains in order to be inhabited. God does not make the mountaintops for us to live on the mountaintops. It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below.” Life takes place in the valley, not on the mountain peak. However, from that height you can get your bearings and a better sense of your place in life. Moreover, memories of a mountaintop experience can sustain you for a long time, if you let them.
To the ancient Hebrew mind, there was something mystical about mountaintops. Such places were associated with God’s dwelling place. The cosmology of the Bible saw the earth as a flat plain floating on a bed of water and protected from more water overhead by a dome-shaped firmament, or sky. Beyond the firmament, and the water it held back, were heaven and the throne of God. With that ancient three-storied view of the universe, it was only natural that mountaintops would achieve mystical significance, as they were the spots on earth closest to God. For both Moses receiving the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai and Jesus receiving the blessing of God on the Mount Tabor, the experience was one that shaped not only their own future, but that of the people of God for many years to come.
In our lesson for today, Peter, James and John are given a spiritual gift. On the summit of Mount Tabor with Jesus they are shown our Lord’s true identity. They witness Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah, the greatest leader and the greatest prophet in Israel’s history. They hear a voice from heaven proclaiming that Jesus is the Chosen, the Son of God, and come what may they should listen to him. This vision, this mountaintop experience, was a gift intended to fortify Jesus and his disciples through their long journey in the valley – a journey that would shortly lead them to Jerusalem, to Jesus’ arrest and to his execution on the cross.
It is no wonder that Peter would want to build a permanent structure in which Jesus – as well as Moses and Elijah – could dwell. There on the mountaintop, in the presence of the Holy, no one could harm Jesus. However, this was not the way it was to be. Jesus had His moment of glory, but the real glory would come in a much different way. They needed to return to the real world, to a world that needed God’s mercy and grace. They needed to go back to the crowds, to the dis-ease, to the oppression and Jesus had to go back to the hatred and rejection that would send Him to the cross. In the last section of this passage – the section that doesn’t seem to belong – we see something far more real than the moment of glory on the mountain. Here God’s power is not found in transfigured images or miraculous moments. It is found in the everyday opportunities we have to share God’s love and mercy with others. I am sure that the seizure-possessed boy must have been difficult to witness. It must have been terrible to witness a body out of control, hurting itself and throwing itself on the ground. Yet there was the real glory, when God’s grace touched the needy and brought healing and peace to a life of suffering. In spite of that mountaintop experience our gospel reminds us that Jesus was most glorious when He was sharing the kingdom of God with those in need.
So, what does this passage have to do with us? What’s our takeaway for this morning? We may not have been on Mount Tabor with Peter, James and John and seen Christ’s glory revealed – but every day you and I have an opportunity to reveal Christ to others. We may not see Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, but we can allow Jesus to transfigure us for the sake of those who live in the valley. All those weeks Melissa was home recovering I saw a little bit of Jesus every time I opened my front door and someone was standing there with a casserole, salad, arrangement of flowers or box of cookies. I’ve seen Jesus sitting with a little girl at the Peter Paul Development Center helping her to read. I’ve seen Jesus chatting with a homeless man waiting in the Michaux House for a warm place to sleep. I’ve seen Jesus hauling cinderblock in Haiti, brick in Honduras, wood in Alaska. I’ve seen Jesus making meatloaf for the hungry, building ramps for the handicapped, taking ice cream to a wounded vet. I’ve seen Jesus singing to the aged and lonely, buying toys for the poor, and looking after a young child who is far away from home and facing major surgery. Make no mistake about it, what happens on the mountaintop gives us good memories, but what happens in the valley changes lives.
Next Wednesday begins the season of Lent. During these forty days ask yourself if you can be the means by which Christ is revealed in the valley of life. Can you be Christ for another? Because that’s all that really matters. That’s what discipleship is all about. As our collect for today says – O God, … Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of Christ’s countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness … Amen.