Living With Purpose, Matthew 17:1-9
Plymouth First United Methodist, February 23, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
I remember the first time I saw mountains. Scott and I were married by then, and we were driving to Denver to check out the seminary he planned to attend. We had driven through the flatlands of Iowa and Nebraska and were in eastern Colorado. There wasn’t a lot to see, pretty desolate with many miles between towns and people, all of which seemed to be a long way off the main highway. And then at one point I remember seeing a dark place ahead, above the horizon where the sky was a little less blue. There wasn’t a lot of definition for a (long) while, I couldn’t really distinguish what I was seeing. And then it became clear—they were mountains! As we drove closer I could see they were incredible. We weren’t in Indiana anymore.
In the three years we lived in Colorado, we took every opportunity to drive into the mountains: to hike, to explore, to go camping. We saw some amazing sights…beauty that took my breath away…cold rushing streams, deep valleys, the Aspens, Columbine. When I think back to those years, though we both worked hard, we didn’t have a lot, and missed our family and friends back home, I think of that time as a mountaintop experience. One of the highlights of my life and in Scott’s and my life together.
Your life and mine can become rather ordinary. We appreciate the security of home and routine, of having friends and family around us who we know and care about. A certain amount of predictability is a good thing, we believe. But then, every now and then, something happens: we see something we didn’t expect to see, or we see it in a new way—and that moment blesses us.
Maybe we’ll find ourselves in a conversation when we realize the moment has suddenly become holy. We come to know the person we’re talking with in a way that we hadn’t known them before, or we realize that we’ve moved beyond the flow of the usual conversation to a new place, a greater depth, to a moment that is defined by truth and absolute trust. Or maybe that moment comes when a newborn is placed in your arms, or when that little one speaks your name for the first time, or when you watch them walk down the aisle with confidence and expectation as they graduate, or as they prepare to exchange vows with the one with whom they intend to spend the rest of their life.
These are mountaintop experiences, and they renew us, refresh us, refuel us so we can carry on in the everyday routine, or survive when life takes a dive.
After 6 days, our scripture tells us, Jesus took Peter and James and John and led them to the top of a mountain. By this time, they have experienced many things together: Jesus has been teaching them, he’s been teaching the crowds, speaking in parables, challenging all of them to live in a new way. He has healed the sick, confronted injustice, reached out and offered love and acceptance to those who were rejected and scorned by society. He has given the disciples a new purpose. He has challenged them to follow him, to give their lives totally to him…to God.
But then the day had come when he explained to them that he would go to Jerusalem, he would suffer, he would die, and on the third day he would rise. They listened, but they didn’t understand. How could they? He was with them, he was strong, he was taking on the Pharisees with such confidence—with authority! And the people loved him! The crowds followed him everywhere, they wanted to hear, they wanted to know. The disciples could see that people’s lives were changing because of who Jesus was. Die? How could that be? What purpose would that serve? And rise again? That made about as much sense to them as it does to us. Really? Dead for 3 days then rise again? Who in their right mind would accept that claim at face value?
Peter had actually said that to Jesus: Absolutely not. That’s not going to happen. Why would you say such a thing? Peter “rebuked” Jesus scripture tells us: scolded him. Jesus responds to Peter saying, Get behind my, Satan. You’re in my way! You don’t have in mind the things of God, but you’re focused on the way of the world! And from that point Jesus begins to speak more directly about what is to come.
By now, the disciples have had a little bit of time to deal with what Jesus has said and they have such conflicting feelings. They’re hoping, praying it isn’t true. They don’t want to lose him! And yet now they realize that Jesus is heading down a different road than they had anticipated. Jesus speaks of glory, but it isn’t the kind of glory they’d imagined.
But we can imagine the pleasure these 3 must have felt at Jesus’ invitation to accompany him to the top of the mountain. These men are his inner circle, his closest friends. They aren’t all on the same page at this point, but they love Jesus and they know that Jesus loves them. They have committed themselves to following him, to being with him, no matter where that might lead. No matter what might happen. Although they are surely still hoping that the outcome will be different than what he’s been alluding to.
So now, here they are, up on the mountain. If you’ve ever climbed a mountain, even a little mountain (I’m not sure there is such a thing) that doesn’t require special gear and picks and hammers, you know it’s a challenging experience. (I’ve already told you, I’m pretty sure, about the mountain Scott and I and our friends climbed in Colorado when we were young and in decent physical condition—about how the cadets from the Air Force Academy unloaded from a bus and began running up the very same mountain we’d chosen, going past us, making it to the top, then running back down again and getting into their bus, leaving us humiliated and winded in their dust, still short of reaching the summit. So, I won’t tell you that story again. Won’t mention it. It’s not like I still hold a grudge or anything.)
The disciples climb together with Jesus to the top of the mountain, huffing and puffing, working to get their breath. When they reach its summit, something extraordinary happens. The appearance of Jesus changes. His face, the Bible tells us, “shone like the sun.” His clothes become dazzling white. And then, if that isn’t enough, they see they are no longer alone. There with them, at the top of the mountain, is Moses the lawgiver, and Elijah the great prophet. Generations after they lived on earth, long after their bones have turned to dust (or just disappeared, as Elijah didn’t die but was swooped up in a chariot and taken to heaven in a whirlwind [2 Kings 2:11-12]), these 2 figures from the Old Testament show up on the mountain and they begin to carry on a conversation with Jesus.
If they had any questions of the divinity of Jesus now, those questions are gone. Peter wants to preserve the moment. He has to do something! “Lord, this is so good! If you want, I can build 3 shelters! One for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah!”
But before he can say anything else (while he is still speaking, scripture tells us), a cloud moves in and covers the mountain. James and John and Peter, good Jewish men, faithful to scripture, would remember how God has a way of speaking to people while they’re on the top of holy mountains. They would remember how God has a way of speaking out of clouds. And then they hear it themselves—they hear God’s voice coming out of the cloud: God says, “This is my Son whom I love: with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
It is too much to see…too much to hear…too much to believe. And yet they are witnessing it with their own eyes. God is there…on the mountain…with them.
They are overcome. The fall on the ground.
Jesus comes to them as they lay there on the ground and he touches them…pulls them to their feet. He tells them to get up. To not be afraid.
Isn’t it amazing that the God who created all that is and all that ever was—the heavens and the earth—knows the significance of such a small thing as touch? Don’t be afraid, Jesus says. I am with you.
God is with us in Emmanuel. On the mountain. In the valleys. In our lives.
On the mountain, James and John and Peter see who Jesus really is. They recognize—as much as they’re able to perceive—his divinity. They understand now, like they haven’t before. Their time on the mountain helps the 3 disciples to persevere, to “hang in there” with Jesus. And later, their time with Jesus on the mountain will help them to see light in the midst of the chaos that is to come as Jesus moves toward Jerusalem…as he goes to the cross.
Because of their experience on the mountain they can lean into the future with hope and in confidence, trusting God who came to them, who spoke to them, who told them through Jesus that he would be with them always.
C.S. Lewis writes a final word from Aslan in The Silver Chair, the fourth book of the “Chronicles of Narnia”: “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take good care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”
God prepares us in the mountaintop experiences of our lives to endure the world below, the world of the cross, the world that has the ability to break us…and yet is never beyond God’s redemption. These moments might happen with a blinding light for some, but for most of us they happen in the ordinary moments of our classrooms, our ministry team meetings, as we’re working across the table on a project, sharing a meal together, or maybe even at home—any place where we make a space for the Holy to be present.
I have this photograph of my grandma’s hands and mine. It’s probably been 20 years ago or so, Scott was taking a photography class in South Bend and I had a need for him to photograph our hands. So he took these of my grandma and me, and there’s another photograph somewhere with my hands and my mom’s and Dominique’s. I realize I need him to take another one with Olivia included, and then another one with each of my granddaughter’s hands in it along with mine. I’m thinking that Olivia’s current habit of painting each of her fingernails a different color will add some fun pizazz to the photo. I know that in 20 years, seeing that photo will bless me in the same way that this one does now.
When I see these photographs, I remember my grandmother and how much she loved me, and how much I still love her. I remember the moments we shared; how her love shaped me. These photographs together remind me of where I’ve been and where I’m going…of who I am and what I’m a part of. It’s kind of funny: today my hands look more like my mom’s did back then. Hers now are more like my grandmother’s. And Dominique is no longer a little girl. She has her own little girl! But whenever I go back to these photographs, I remember those moments of love and grace, how those hands have touched me, graced me—as a little girl, and still today.
I think the Transfiguration was one of those moments for Peter…he talked about it later. Jesus told he and the others not to tell anyone, and I’m guessing he honored that request for a time. But he reflected on it later. In 2nd Peter he speaks of a lamp shining in a dark place (1:19). He loved telling others, showing the picture as he described what happened, letting them know what that moment meant to him. How that moment had carried him through…how it helped him survive when things got tough.
I wonder: what photos do you carry with you that hold you up and keep you strong? What pictures of faith, of light, of hope do you carry? Who needs to see them, who needs to hear about the light that has shined into your life? Will you share?
I hope you will.
May your sharing of that light bring your life purpose.