1Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
John Muir, a conservationist and environmentalist, was born in 1838 and died in 1914. He authored several booked, hiked many miles, and climbed many mountains. He lead a fascinating life while he spent much of his adult life in natural solitude. And he coined a phrase that still resonated with nature lovers today. “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
My wife and I lived in the mountains of western North Carolina for a little while and one of our favorite things to do would be to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, stop by the Folk Art Center, and continue on to Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River. You could drive most of the way up, really, but reaching the top of that mountain was still a breathtaking experience. You would stand on the top, stand at the ends, and see the whole world around you and everywhere you looked, you saw the peaks and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, the oldest mountain range in the world.
Mountains are places of transformation and imagination. Mountains are places of beauty and danger. And rarely do you ever hear of someone climbing a mountain and not being transformed by you. There is really little mystery in why they play a big part in several stories in the Bible. Mount Sinai was where Moses received the 10 Commandments. Mount Zion was where the Temple in Jerusalem was built. Jesus prayed at the Mount of Olives. Elijah experienced God in the silence he experienced on a mountain. Several psalms mentions the mountains trembling before the LORD. And Jesus was transfigured or transformed on a mountain in our reading today.
But I’ve often wondered if simply calling this event (and this Sunday when we celebrate it) Transfiguration Sunday is quite the right way to say it. Because Jesus didn’t become anything different from being there. The disciples who came with him simply saw him differently. Jesus was transfigured before their eyes, they saw the glory and power he held, and they saw him talking with two pillars of the Hebrew faith. In a moment, their friend and teacher became their Lord. In an instant, things would never be the same.
And transformation and realization like that can be overwhelming. The gospel says that their reaction, upon hearing God’s voice, was to fall to the ground in fear. And I think that’s pretty common. There is a sense of fear in majesty and grandeur and power. It’s the feeling that this thing, whatever it is, is so powerful, so big that it could be our undoing, but it’s beautiful and good and full of wonder. That’s what “awe” is – that mix of fear and wonder, beautiful and powerful and unpredictable. On that mountain, they were in awe of God.
But then, they had to come back down. They had to return back to daily life. And that’s the struggle with mountains – you can’t live there because the work is down in the valleys. You can experience great transformation and transfiguration on a mountain, your eyes can be opened to a reality larger than you would ever comprehend, your life will never be the same again, but eventually we all come down.
What is true for Christ is true for Christian life, too. We can experience the mountain, but we work in the valley. We experience the transformation and we leave to transform. And I think it’s important to say that, because when often idolize the transformation, don’t we? We can build our whole spiritual life around transformation, but that can lead to a lot of resentment, disappointment, and a false sense that if you aren’t on the mountain top every day of your life, you aren’t doing it right. Many Christians, whether new to the faith or a long-time member of the Body of Christ, become disillusioned by the fact that they can’t live their lives on the mountain top, they can’t stay on the peak, they can’t remain in that place that fills them with awe all the time. I get it; it’s frustrating and it breaks down the illusion that by being a Christian, you’re anything different than you were before. It makes us recognize other places where transformation is needed, both in our lives and in the lives of our communities.
But there is good news about leaving the mountain. There is good news. Because we see Jesus walking with the disciples back down the mountain. The Son of God, the one who they had just seen transfigured before their eyes, did not stay up there, even when presented the opportunity. Jesus chose to come back down that mountain and that is where we find Jesus, working in the valleys. And that’s where we follow Jesus to – the valleys. The valleys of illness and addiction and abuse. The valleys of poverty and violence. The valleys of prejudice and inequality. Jesus comes down the mountain, transformed in the eyes of his disciples, and enters life as he finds it. Jesus came down the mountain, not because he had to, but because the work is rarely on the mountain top. The work of God is in the valleys. The Christian faith is not about climbing a mountain to get to God, but it is about recognizing God in the valleys and following God in the valleys.
Now, it is worth saying that God’s work is often one of transformation, but it’s not always in the way we want or expect. Of course, there are times when transformation occurs quickly and unexpectedly, just as there are times when we feel we have stalled. In the presence of true, authentic, unconditional love, transformation will happen, but it doesn’t happen because you have climbed the mountain. Transformation happens because the God we see in Jesus Christ came down from the mountain. Transfiguration happens when we see the image of God in others and they become changed in our eye. And it all happens in the valley and it all happens because Jesus chose the valley, rather than the mountain top. Jesus chose a crown of thorns, rather than a crown of gold. Jesus chose the cross, rather than the throne. Jesus chose life among us, not life above us. Jesus chose, and still chooses, you as you are, not you as you will be. Jesus loves you, right now.
I loved my time on Mount Mitchell. I loved seeing the mountain peaks, feeling the unblocked breeze, experiencing that odd sensation of thin air and a full heart. But I could never stay. Life changes on the mountain, but life happens in the valley. Our lives are filled with both and they should be.
The challenge is to see the valleys as a blessing, because they are. They are a blessing to be in because the valleys is where Jesus is. The challenge is to recognize it – recognize the image of God in others, recognize that you are taking part in the work of God in the valleys, and recognize that it is in the valleys that Christ meets you. Amen.