Rev. Izzy Harbin
Mark 9:2-8: Mountaintop Experience
2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
The transfiguration of Jesus is the culmination of our series on Change and Transformation. We arrive at the moment in the biblical text where Jesus is changed right in front of the eyes of Peter, James, and John. This proves to me that change is possible, even though I doubt that Jesus’ transfiguration is the kind of change that occurs in us as we are molded and shaped by God over time. This is certainly a miraculous story told by those who witnessed the event, but I’m not sure that Peter, James, and John entirely got the point. The writer of the Book of Mark tends to paint the disciples as sublimely daft and this story follows that trend.
What strikes me most is the location of their encounter and how folks continue to have remarkable encounters with God on the mountain. (Any mountain really. If you are like me, you intentionally go to the mountains to meet God in a more intimate way. I have never failed to have a close encounter with God on the mountain.) Here’s what doesn’t happen on the mountain: I don’t drive all that way, hike all that way, sit all that time, pray all that time to, at the last minute, disrupt the encounter with a statement like, “Let us make three tents…”
Yeah, that’s where I get stuck.
Peter pointedly illustrates just how insecure we humans can be when we encounter God. After climbing the mountain and having intimate moments with Jesus, Peter wrecks the whole experience for everyone. We are masters at the art of wrecking intimate moments with God. The mountaintop is one of those places where we SHOULD be able to let go of all the stress and strain of the day and just relax into the presence of God. Usually, though, we are hesitant to engage God fully. It’s as if when we do glimpse the glory of God—the brightness that shines out from Jesus—we immediately recognize our own unworthiness. We, like Peter, wonder if we should even be present for the moment, even though we have been invited to participate in this relationship we share with Jesus/God.
Unfortunately, too many of us find this kind of invitation counter to that which we are most comfortable. Instead, we are looking for ways to control the outcome of our experience rather than letting the experience unfold. We are busy looking for ways to manage all the parts of the journey rather than allowing the parts to be what they are. Peter’s need to quickly find the materials necessary to build three separate tents speaks to his anxiety in the situation and how he needed to quickly redirect everyone’s attention to practical solutions to a problem that did not need to be fixed in the first place. And his solution was to usher everyone off to their own designated space, speaking again to the manageability of the situation.
Peter’s actions mimic someone who was terrified at what he saw. He, no doubt, was thinking, “No one should be that white and glow-y, especially on a mountaintop.” Just about the time Peter was most likely coming completely unhinged, they were shrouded in clouds and God spoke to them all saying, “This is my beloved son; listen to him.”
In some ways, Peter missed the point of Jesus’ encounter with Moses and Elijah—the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration—because he was unable to see why he was worthy to be there in the first place. God is consistently calling us to participate in the life of Christ, to engage all of our senses in this intimate relationship that we have with the divine. It is we who are quick to dismiss, redirect, avert, or otherwise downplay our encounters with a life-affirming, life-changing God who longs to see us shine as brightly as Jesus.
Being able to lean into these encounters with God is what takes us deeper into a faith that informs our ability to live justly, to be compassionate toward self and others, to remain humble with a continued thirst for knowledge and wisdom, and to recognize that these connections are made and cultivated because, we too, are beloved by God, made in God’s image. Instead of running from these moments, or erecting tents that physically separate us from the presence of God, we need to find ways to sit in God’s presence without fear or fixing.
This metamorphosis of Jesus is available to us all, but we must walk boldly into that space where we are willing to be shrouded in all of God’s glory. I would like to believe that God is waiting patiently for us to submit willingly to the process of transformation. May we pray for the willingness to be willing if that will lead us toward a deeper more inspired relationship with God.