Exodus 34:29-35
Mark 2:2-9

Preached by Rev. Bob Dunham

The odd story Jeremy just read about the transfiguration of Jesus presents readers of Mark’s Gospel with a pause in the action so that Mark can offer a foretaste of what is coming. Mark sets this narrative just after Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah and just prior to Jesus’ turn toward Jerusalem and all that will happen to him there. In its liturgical setting, this Transfiguration Sunday is also a pause in the action, well-positioned at the end of the season of Epiphany and just before the shift in focus that will begin this Wednesday, when we impose ashes to set our faces to the Lenten journey. And here today, gathering with Westminster’s faithful remnant while a bunch of our fellow congregants are up cavorting in the mountains around Montreat this weekend, it seemed to me a good time to revisit this story of the original “mountaintop experience.”

Because Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of what happened on that mountaintop, this moment in Jesus’ ministry comes around in the lectionary every year about this time. Over the years, therefore, we’ve likely heard lots of sermons on this story. I can’t speak for your experience, but most of the sermons I have read, heard, or preached on the transfiguration have taken one of several tacks. One has been a focus on the glory itself, the mysterium tremendum at the heart of the story, as Jesus is transfigured and becomes dazzlingly radiant before Peter, James and John – a foreshadowing of his eventual glorification as the Son of God. This approach focuses on Jesus’ divine glory. A second approach has been to focus on Peter’s misunderstanding of what is happening, which is representative of the disciples’ apparent cluelessness about Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Yet another approach, also faithful to the text, has had as its focus the valley of need that awaits Jesus and the disciples at the end of this wonderful mountaintop experience. Today’s final hymn will offer just such a treatment of the story.

But this time around I am struck by something different – something that comes only partly from the text itself, but which speaks to the way the text converges with the life experiences of many of us here. What strikes me in Mark’s story is a theme that echoes also in our Old Testament reading from Exodus and in the final verse of Psalm 99, which we read together as the opening two lines of our call to worship this morning. Each of these texts speaks of a holy mountain of God. Each of them tells of experiences on those mountains, at those summits, and of what happens upon descent from the mountain. But none of them say more than a whisper about the ascent. What about the trek up the mountain? Exodus says the Lord summoned Moses to the top of Mount Sinai and Moses simply “went up” (Ex. 19:20). Mark says that Jesus took Peter, James and John and led them up a high mountain apart (Mk. 9:2). Now, I’ve climbed mountains of varying heights and degrees of difficulty before, and I have to say that there’s more to it than these texts suggest. Indeed, if we think of the mountain as a metaphor for the human encounter with God – and Scripture offers plenty of warrant for such an understanding – the climb up the mountain is in itself a worthy metaphor for the human approach to God.

So, I am drawn on Transfiguration Sunday this year to the ascent – not so much to the clouds and the light and the mystery at the summit, as central as they are, nor to the descent at the other end of the experience, as important as it is to Christian discipleship, but to the climb itself as a way of talking about our approach to the experience of God. Robert Morris writes that the mountain ascent is,

“a particularly apt symbol for the challenge of changing vistas, climates, and dangers the psyche is likely to face as our… capacity for God is stretched and strengthened. As in climbing a mountain, [our first encounters with God] may begin easily. The unskilled mountain climber setting off into the foothills with naïve excitement at this “wonderful” experience quickly discovers, upon reaching [even] the lower slopes of the mountain, that the body has limits and the soul has fears brought out by the very climbing itself. Both body and soul need to be challenged, stretched, and strengthened for the journey to continue.”[1]

Reading Morris’ words, I thought of Cheryl Strayed setting out with very little preparation to hike the Pacific Coast Trail, a journey she chronicled in her memoir called Wild. I thought of Reese Witherspoon portraying Strayed in the film version of that story, strapping on a hiking pack almost as big and surely as heavy as she was and staggering toward the trail’s beginning. Any of us who have hiked or climbed know the weight and strain of such a beginning, and the limits and fears that quickly come to the fore once on the trail.

I also thought of Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods, that funny story of the author’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail some years ago. Early in the book Bryson described his first day of hiking, which began on the gently sloping access trails that lead to the trailhead on Springer Mountain in north Georgia and then on toward an ultimate destination some 2,200 miles away on Mount Katahdin in Maine. Despite all his excitement, all his planning, and all his preparation, Bryson said that first day on the trail was simply awful:

“First days on hiking trips always are. I was hopelessly out of shape – hopelessly. The pack weighed way too much. Way too much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle.

The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill. The thing about being on a hill, as opposed to standing back from it, is that you can almost never see exactly what’s to come. Between the curtain of trees at every side, the ever-receding contour of rising slope before you, and your own plodding weariness, you gradually lose track of how far you have come. Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that slope there is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible than any hill could run on this long. Eventually you reach a height where you [believe finally that you] can see the tops of the topmost trees, with nothing but clear sky beyond, and your faltering spirit stirs – nearly there now! – but this is a pitiless deception. The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you press forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view, you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?”[2]

Now, Bryson was describing a hike on the Appalachian Trail, but he might just as well have been describing metaphorically the journey of human life or of human faith… at least the kinds of life and faith journeys many of us have experienced. When we are young – like Millenials, say – our lives may seem most of the time like level paths, smooth-going with scarcely a tree root or an icy patch to trip us up. But as we grow older – once we become more like Perennials – and the plots and treks of our lives get more complex, our lives and our faith are more often defined by the hills we must climb, by the sweeping upslopes, the sometimes steep and rocky mountain paths, the strenuous treks we must take, fraught with perils and pitfalls.

The truth is, all stages of life have their perilous treks. Think of the unsteady footings of adolescence in an age of social media, or the slippery slopes of one’s college years, or the regularly shifting paths of parenthood, the taxing switchbacks we encounter through the sandwich generation. There are times during any such treks when not just reaching our destination, but even our survival is in question. Indeed, in our advancing years, the climbs may seem relentless, wearying. And through it all, we may find ourselves asking questions about where God might be. Out there? Beside us? Here? Nowhere to be found?

We may find it easy to forget about God in the flatlands when everything is smooth, and we are betrayed by our own progress into illusions of self-sufficiency. But when the path gets steep and treacherous, in anxiety or fear we may be more likely to cry out to God. Ultimately, in those times when we do reach a summit, when we do come to the end of an arduous and frightful journey, or at least reach a plateau or resting place, there… there is where we may catch a glimpse of grace and even glory… there where we may experience a profound measure of gratitude.

It’s no wonder then that when one does finally reach the high ground, one wants to stay. That was surely the case with Peter in Mark’s story this morning. Having reached the summit – not just the top of the mountain, but that profound experience of holiness and mystery and glory – he didn’t want to leave. He wanted to stay, to freeze the moment in time.

One scholar of Christian spirituality, John Mogabgab, understands the metaphor of the mountain in our spiritual journeys. After all, in encounters between natural geography and human endeavor, he asks, what is more remote, more unapproachable, and more immoveable than a mountain?

“Mountains rise out of the lowlands in a massive show of power. Ancient, solid, imposing, they permit only the most minimal human footprint. Mountains wear a stunning succession of ecospheres, from forests and high meadows to scrub brush and sheer rock adorned with … snowfields. At high altitudes, air becomes as thin as a veil. Larger mountains are a presence so prodigious they create their own weather systems.

The Bible portrays mountains as settings for God’s self-disclosure. Moses receives the Law and looks upon the Lord on Mount Sinai. On Mount Horeb, Elijah communes with God in a mysterious silence. From a wilderness rise, Jesus teaches the blessed ways of the kingdom. Atop [a mountain] Peter, James and John see Jesus in the fullness of his divine glory. Mountaintops are regions in which discernment sharpens and contemplative visions crystallize, but only after the rigors of the ascent.

‘When confronted with an increase in altitude,’ writes mountaineer Jon Krakauer, ‘the human body adjusts in manifold ways, from increasing respiration, to changing the pH of the blood, to radically boosting the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells – a conversion that takes weeks to complete.’ The physiological changes needed to sustain life in the higher reaches of the great mountains have their spiritual counterparts in the soul’s ascent to God. Love’s desire for intimate communion with the Holy One will demand adjustments to the frame of our thinking, the content of our feeling, the direction of our willing – a conversion that takes years to take hold.”[3]

No wonder Peter didn’t get it immediately! It takes time, you see… a long time… maybe years… maybe a lifetime.

I can’t say for certain how long it takes. I only know that it is worth the climb, and that at the end of the path we may well see the glory of God, and that along the way we will discover grace. But even those promises do not reduce the dangers or difficulties of the climb. There is so much to learn and understand about our limits, so much to grasp about proper discipline and preparation, and so much strength needed beyond our own perceived strength if we are ever to reach the summit.

The fourth-century mystic Gregory of Nyssa said, “The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb.”[4] I know first-hand that it’s a difficult climb. That much I know. How long it will take, or what kind of effort, I don’t know and can’t say. I don’t know because, like most of you, I am still climbing. And some days the ascent feels treacherous and demanding, and I find myself more than a bit shaky and frightfully short of breath.

But it is worth the relentless climb; of that I am absolutely convinced. It is worth the climb. For who knows what grace we may discover as we press forward… or what glory we may witness when we finally reach the summit!

[1] Robert Morris, “Riding the Wild Mountain Ox,” Weavings, XVI: 4, July/August 2001, 7.

[2] Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, New York: Broadway Books, 1998, 35.

[3] Mogabgab, Weavings, XVI: 4, July/August 2001, 2-3. The citation from Krakauer is from Into Thin Air: a Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, New York, Doubleday, 1997, 90.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, II, 58, trans, Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978, 93.