The Rev. Thomas W. Traylor
When I was a boy growing up in a Baptist Sunday School, the mountains of the Bible lands came to seem almost as familiar to me as the Appalachian foothills of my Georgia home. Week by week, my teachers used pictures and maps and vivid storytelling to teach the great mountain stories of the Bible: the story of Noah’s ark coming to rest atop Mount Ararat after the Great Flood; Abraham taking his son Isaac up Mount Moriah to offer sacrifice; Moses going up Mount Sinai to meet with God and coming down with the Ten Commandments; the prophet Elijah in his great showdown with the false prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel.
Then there were the Gospel stories of Jesus going up to the Temple Mount as a boy; the account of his temptation on the top of the mountain where the Devil took him to show him all the kingdoms of the world. Stories of how he called disciples and traveled with them among the hill towns of Galilee. His great Sermon on the Mount. His final journey up to Jerusalem, where he prayed in the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives on the night he was betrayed. And, finally, the story of how he carried his cross through the narrow streets of Jerusalem to a hilltop outside the city wall and was crucified there.
Many of the Bible’s great stories are set on hills and mountain peaks, especially mountain peaks. It is as if the contours of the holy land mirror the territory of the spirit. Today’s gospel story takes us with Jesus and three of his disciples up yet another mountain. To be a follower of Jesus must have required strong legs and sturdy shoes. Of all the mountaintop stories in Holy Scripture, this story of the Transfiguration counts as one of the strangest. What are we to make of it? Why do we have this unexpected story heavenly light on a mountaintop breaking into the ordinary cycle of daylight and darkness?
In Luke’s gospel, this moment of light comes just as shadows have begun to fall across Jesus’ path. Until now in the gospel story, things have been sunny. The blind see, the lame walk, the hungry are fed. Demons are cast out. The disciples themselves are sent out to preach and heal and return with reports of success. Popular enthusiasm for Jesus is running high. The road ahead looks promising. Then Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he is going up to Jerusalem. Not to be hailed as the Messiah, but to die.
With that announcement, the lay of the land stretching out before Jesus and his followers changes. Immediately before Luke gives us the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus had put it to his disciples starkly: “If any would be my disciples, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” You can hear the disciples asking themselves, “Could this be right?” Could this really be the road ahead for Jesus, and, more alarmingly, was this the road they were meant to be on as well? Had they followed the wrong man down a dark path?
In our lives as Christians, we sometimes retreat to a mountaintop—an actual mountain or an interior one—when we are troubled or afraid. Sometimes we go up a mountain to think and pray. Sometimes we go up a mountain to get our bearings, to see the great panorama, and to catch a glimpse of where we’re headed. On this day, on that mount of Transfiguration, Jesus and his disciples do all of those things. In the face of this dawning realization that what lies ahead is the way of the cross, Jesus and those closest to him climb a mountain. There, the gospel writer tells us, as Jesus prays, his face and clothing begin to shine with heavenly light and the disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, surrounded in the light of glory.
Moses and Elijah were mountain men, too, you’ll remember. They had known deep valleys, but they had also stood upon the spiritual high places in the history of God’s dealings with the people of Israel. Moses had led the people through deep waters and empty deserts. On Sinai he met with God and received the Law. Through him God called the people into a way of life rooted in covenant with God and neighbor. Great Elijah stood alone with God on Mount Carmel against an army of false prophets. He and all the prophets who came after him called the people to return whenever they turned away from God or dealt unjustly with their neighbor.
Now on this mountaintop the disciples catch sight of Jesus standing in their glorious company, and they in his. Whatever darkness may lie ahead for Jesus, and for them, this transfigured moment comes as a shining confirmation that they were not following the wrong man down the wrong path. Christ glimpsed in unveiled glory was an affirmation that all that God had led his people through across the landscape of biblical history had come to radiant focus in Jesus. Seen through the eyes of their dawning faith, the disciples up on that mountain top began to understand that Jesus was no misguided holy man who would die a senseless death, but the Holy One of whom Moses and the Prophets had spoken.
You have to love how Simon Peter responds to what they see. “Wow, this is great! The three of you, the three of us, let’s stay right here!” That is a rather free translation, but you get the idea. Peter, for all his impulsiveness, says what timid folks may only have thought. Who does not want to hang onto life’s high moments when they come along? Who does not wish they could stop time in those rare moments when life seems “just right”? We call such moments “mountaintop experiences,” after all. When you reach the summit and see the world below bathed in sunlight, it is hard to turn your feet down toward the valley. We know what Peter must have meant when he said, “Let us stay here.” Up here is safety; down there is danger. Up here is solace; down there is challenge. Up here is glory. Down there is a cross. Don’t ask us to go back down. Let us stay up here.
No sooner has Peter spoken these words than a thick cloud shrouds the mountain. Peter and James and John, who for one brief moment had seen so clearly, suddenly see nothing. They are afraid, as a novice pilot might be when she flies into a cloudbank, or as sailor in a small boat out in the Pacific might be afraid when he is suddenly engulfed in heavy fog: No bearings, no landmarks, no guide. Don’t we all know what that feels like? When suddenly the fog rolls in, and what seemed so clear a moment ago suddenly doesn’t seem clear at all? Then, up on that mountaintop, out of the cloud, comes a voice: “This is my son, my Chosen. Listen to him!” Then the cloud lifts, Moses and Elijah are gone, and there stands Jesus, alone.
“Listen to him!” says the heavenly voice. This is the real climax of the Transfiguration story. Not the unearthly light, not the heavenly visitors or the shining glory. Beautiful as all of that may have been, this command is what the Transfiguration story has been driving toward: Listen to him. The heavenly vision will fade. The light of glory will dim to ordinary day. They will have to return to the valley below. Still, the heavenly voice commands, “Listen to him.”
It may seem to many of us that we have spent the past year in the life of this parish not on a mountaintop but walking a valley. This congregation has faced unusually difficult challenges which have tested the strength of the fellowship and stirred anxiety about the future. It has been a long year. You may have been in the valley, but you’ve started on the upward climb now. And nothing will matter more to this parish fellowship in the days ahead than to obey the same command that came to those first disciples up on the mountaintop: “Listen to him.”
Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. When you are tired of keeping on keeping on, listen to Jesus, who says: “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” When you’re worried that you are facing too many challenges and have too few resources to meet them, listen to Jesus: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all that you need will be given to you.”
When you wonder what difference a small parish church can make in the world and where your power to make a difference will come from, listen to Jesus: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”
When you need reminding what the ministry of this parish in this neighborhood is, listen to Jesus, who said: “As much as you have done it unto one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.” When you’re afraid that you’re walking the path alone, listen to Jesus: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Listen to Jesus.
When you’re tempted to settle for a watered-down faith and a half-committed Christian life, listen to Jesus: “If any would be my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” But also remember the joy that comes from following Jesus. He said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Nothing matters more for the people of All Saints now than this, that you listen to Jesus.
Today in the church’s calendar is the last Sunday after the Epiphany. Come Wednesday Christ will call us to go with him down into the valley and along the way to the cross. “Let us stay up here,” we may think to ourselves. But the voice comes also to us: “This is my Chosen One. Listen to him.” It is, I think, the first commandment of Lent, that we listen to Jesus. How might we go about that? Let me suggest some ways.
Start your day with prayer. Take out your Prayer Book and pray Morning Prayer. If that seems like too much, read the gospel passage for the day. You can find it in the table in the back of the Prayer Book. Or you can easily pull the Daily Office up on your computer or phone. Take your time, read it through again, listen to it. Then let it rattle around in your head through the day.
Let it echo in your mind as you move through your daily tasks at work or home. Ask yourself, what does the part of the gospel story—the Jesus story—I read today have to do with the choices I make today? In the evening, when you spend time with friends or loved ones, or simply have time for yourself, ask, what does the gospel say to me about my life with the people closest to me? When you look back over your day before you turn out the light for the night, ask yourself, how did what I heard in the gospel story affect the way I lived this day? And when your thoughts turn to this parish church and this beloved community and you wonder what lies ahead, listen to Jesus.
Listen to Jesus when you come here during the forty days of Lent that lie ahead. Be faithful in coming here, keep showing up. And when you come, come listening for Jesus. Listen for his voice in the hymns, the readings, the preaching. Listen for his voice in the voices of your fellow parishioners. Listen to Jesus in the beautiful movement of liturgy, in the wordless language of gesture and ritual. Above all, listen for the welcoming voice of Jesus as you come to meet him at this altar.
Listening to Jesus is an act of faith, faith that when we listen, he will speak. Listening to Jesus is an act of hope, hope in God’s sure promises. Listening to Jesus is an act of love, for to really listen to Jesus is to open not just our ears but our hearts. Up on the mountain and down in the valley and every place in between, the heavenly voice still rings: “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.”
The Rev. Thomas W. Traylor
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, San Francisco
3 March 2019