Every year, just like clockwork, three days before Ash Wednesday, the Biblical text sends us to the mountaintop. In an incredible event, recorded by the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus and a couple of disciples find themselves in the presence of Elijah and Moses. It would be the equivalent of climbing Humpback and having a conversation with Jefferson and Lincoln. Moses was the liberator and giver of the Law. Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets, defied a thousand followers of Baal on Mt. Carmel, proclaiming Yahweh to be the only God of Israel. Moses stood toe to toe with Pharaoh. Elijah stood against Jezebel. Both were triumphant and now both were standing beside Jesus, essentially crowning him to be the Son of God. We call this event the Transfiguration of our Lord.
It is good to go to the mountaintop. It is refreshing to stare out at the world below our feet and know God is still God. Sometimes a mountaintop experience actually happens on a mountain. Twenty years ago I lead a retreat of about 75 middle school kids at a ranch in West Texas. The plan was to take all the kids up a very large hill behind the barn/conference center. I had planned to do it late in the afternoon and have everyone back off the hill by sunset. At the last minute there was a change in the schedule causing the afternoon session to start after dinner. Seeing this as an opportunity rather than a setback, I strategically placed folks along the trail with flashlights and up we went. We reached the summit after sunset. In every sense of the word, darkness had fallen upon us. Kids were nervous yet curious to see what would happen next. The adults were planning my lynching should any of us make it back to the barn.
My written notes were useless. I asked everyone with flashlights to turn them off. You can imagine the buzz THAT created. Fortunately I love the Book of Psalms. In a loud voice I proclaimed, “O Lord, our God, how majestic is Your name in all the earth. You have set your glory above the heavens. When I look at the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them?”
Then I invited them to look at the stars and search for God. My improvised plan was to let them do this for 90 seconds while I figured out what would happen next. The first 30 seconds some kids nervously giggled. One minute into our adventure someone hollered called “Boo” but amazingly he was immediately greeted with shushes. Then there was silence. For better than ten minutes middle school kids starred at the sky and I believe into their hearts. Finally I broke the silence by repeating the words that had begun the exercise. “O Lord, our God, how majestic is Your name in all the earth.” Then led by the light of the stars, we slowly and safely made our way down the hill. At the bottom of the hill one child came up to me and described her newly discovered image of God. I smiled, knowing that soon that image would be forgotten, because while the mountaintop is wonderful, we must always return to the valley.
That is the mystery and the bewilderment of Transfiguration Sunday. While the mountaintop exhilarates my soul, I understand the necessity of 40 days in the wilderness. Lent gives us permission to examine the dark side of our souls. Psalm 8 gives way to Psalm 13, “”How long will You hide your face from me?” Or Psalm 22, “My God why have you forsaken me?” And eventually Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, according to Your steadfast love.”
Who doesn’t love the mountaintop? I love to head into the mountains either on bike or on foot. I ski just so I can stop and capture views rarely seen from my car. But I live in the valley, amidst the twist and turns, the holy and unholy moments, the joys and the pain that are life.
Forgive me for a moment while I reflect on a person who has lived in the wilderness of 92 years. He has shaped and molded me. He is a person whom I love and yet whose idiosyncrasies have more than once blinded me with rage. Lent is his favor time of the year. Maybe my father understands Lent because he grew up in The Great Depression. Maybe he has always seen Lent as a time of reflection because it was in the midst of serving in two wars that he began to question the sanity of such insanity. Maybe he has always seen Lent as a time of cleansing because early in his life, as a Southern man, he radically chose to stand against a system that enslaved human beings. Maybe he just always liked the Blues and Lent is the one time the church sings songs with discordant melodies and lyrics.
Whatever the reason, my father often seemed in a hurry to race from the mountain and head back into the wilderness. On the mountaintop we see God. On the mountaintop Jesus stands beside Elijah and Moses and everything seems perfectly clear. On the mountaintop we stare into the star lit sky and are filled with a tranquility that defies the reality of places like Nelson County where too many children are without clothes, too many homes are without running water, and too many meals are served without nourishment.
My father always wanted to fix the brokenness around him yet like most of us, could be blind and powerless to the brokenness within his arm’s reach. The God of the mountaintop declares we can perform miracles if we only have faith. I know my father believed this yet his time in the wilderness helped him understand Jesus as a holy response to our frailness and unbelief. The God of the mountaintop is Almighty. The Jesus of the wilderness was humbled by death. Which is more important, God’s power or Jesus’ example? I suspect we are caught somewhere in between.
As a child, I thought my father had all the answers. Perhaps he thought so too. As a young adult, I questioned his sanity, but no more than he questioned his own. Now I am 67 and he is 92 and I think our vision has become similar. I’ve not lived through a depression. I’ve not experienced actual combat but I have witnessed my fair share of brokenness. Solutions that were so clear thirty years ago now seem delusional. Insights from the mountaintop crumble before I reach the valley. Perhaps most of all I want to bring God down from on high and so that God might witness life the way it really is down here.
I guess that’s when I remember God has already done that. No wonder my father is so fond of the wilderness. Like the rest of us he eventually discovered if you want to find Jesus, you go where Jesus has always been. True, once a year Jesus stares down from the mountain and sees perfection through holy eyes. But the rest of the time he is down here with us, trying to make sense of our unholy mess.
50 years ago my Dad and I sat in my room listening to Sam Cook sing, “A change is gonna come”. It was weeks after Dr. King had been murdered. Dad said, “God didn’t make the world to be like this. We need to try harder.”
Today, let’s go to the mountaintop to remember what God imagined. Then tomorrow, let’s head toward the wilderness, find Jesus, and try a little harder. Amen.