Down the mountain

A sermon I shared with two congregations this morning…

Let me start with a story. Several years ago, once both me and my younger brother had finished school, my parents discovered a new level of freedom, the freedom that came with the realization that we were old enough to look after ourselves and keep the house running if they went away. And I’m not just talking about the freedom of a one-night getaway, but the freedom of running away overseas for up to a month at a time.

And these trips away have been a big deal for them, particularly for my mum. For months beforehand she will be planning and researching what they could do and what they would see, as she anticipates the experiences that are coming. And then while they are away they’ll send me pictures of what they are seeing because they can’t contain their excitement. And then once they are back there will be all the reminiscing about the trip, as they try to mentally remain in the excitement of the ‘mountaintop’ experience, even though physically they have returned to the ‘normal’ world.

Today’s gospel reading (Mark 9:2-13) tells of a similar ‘mountaintop’ experience by three of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, James and John. We heard about the four men going up a high mountain where the three disciples witness Jesus become dazzlingly white, and Peter declares that it is good for them to be there.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, where the divinity of Jesus is revealed as “his clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (v3). Today is also the final Sunday of the season in the church calendar that we call Epiphany, a season that starts with the revelation of the child Jesus, a season that is about the revelation of Christ not only to humanity but also as a human.

So Epiphany – revelation of Christ as human, Transfiguration – revelation of Jesus as divine, and then this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent, a period of preparation as we remember what Jesus’ humanity would mean for him. I suppose you could say that we are currently in a part of the church calendar that asks, what is Jesus’ identity, and what does that mean for us?

In the gospel of Mark there are three unmissable revelations of Jesus’ identity as divine. There is at Jesus’ baptism, where a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (1:11) There is this week’s reading at the Transfiguration, where a voice comes from a cloud saying, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”. (9:7) And the third time is at the cross, when a Roman soldier, a centurion, confesses, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (15:39) We are left with no doubt about who Jesus is, that he is the Son of God.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus, as well as Peter, James and John, go up a high mountain and Jesus’ identity as divine and a voice from a cloud says “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (v7). Peter’s response to this was, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (v6) The Passion Translation describes Peter’s reaction as this – “Peter blurted out, “Beautiful Teacher, this is so amazing to see the three of you together! Why don’t we stay here and set up three shelters: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah?”” (TPT v6)

‘Why don’t we stay here?’ Isn’t that something that we are likely to think, even if we don’t say it, when we are away on a really good holiday? That ‘why don’t we stay here, just lounging around beside the pool’? And it’s probably an even more pressing question, when the thought comes of what it will mean to go home, back to ‘normal’ life, back to bills and housework and stress and reality. Yes, being on holidays and the biggest decisions being about what you are going to eat and drink suddenly does sound much more appealing!

Peter was ready to, literally, set up camp at the top of the mountain, he was in no hurry to come home.

I wonder what it was that made being on the mountain so great. Was it because of just how obvious God’s presence was there? Or maybe the disciples were pleased to have the opportunity to escape from what was going on down in the normal world? In the preceding chapter, Mark chapter 8 has had Jesus predicting his death for the first of three times, and then ended with him telling the disciples what the cost is for following him, what the cost of following the way of the cross is, that “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. (v34) I’m not sure I would blame Peter or the other disciples if they wanted to stay on the mountain!

And yet what does Jesus do, with the three disciples tagging along behind? Jesus comes back down the mountain. Back to ‘normal’, back to humanity. Jesus left a place where God’s presence was obvious. And Jesus knew the reality of what he was coming back down to, that he was coming back down to brokenness, a place where he would suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he would be killed. (v31)

But it was also a place filled with people that Jesus loved…. Jesus came back down to be with those he loved. He came down and spoke words of healing and comfort, he taught his disciples, he ate with friends, he prayed with them. And Jesus was just simply present with them, present with them in the midst of ordinary life.

Late last year a friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer. A few weeks ago they had surgery to remove it, and thankfully do not require further treatment, although will be monitored for some time. What struck me as they shared their journey was how they felt carried by the kindness of God that was being expressed to them through others. They felt God with them in the midst of the scariness and the pain and the fear. In a beautiful reflection they wrote when they shared their pathology results was the reminder that God is present in everything, that God is present in life and death, God is present in pain, in sickness and in health, that God is present in the waiting and the hoping, present in joy and in sorrow and struggle, that God is present in every situation. God wasn’t some far away being, but God was present with her.

And that’s a reminder we see in the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. That Jesus doesn’t stay at a distance but comes and joins us and is with us in life and death, in both pain and joy. He’s not standing at a distance, up on some high mountain, but is with us in the midst of life, whatever it throws our way. Jesus is present with us.

I mentioned earlier how you could say that we are currently in a part of the church calendar that asks, what is Jesus’ identity, and what does that mean for us? What it means for us is that it’s a reminder that God is with us. Jesus came back down the mountain to be with all people. God’s presence in our life isn’t like our experience of going away on holidays, we don’t have to look forward to spending time with God, to then have that period where we are with him, and then afterwards be left reminiscing about what that time was like. No, God is with us always, whether we are away on holidays or back in the throws of ordinary life, whether we are in good times or in bad, God is always with us in every situation and wherever we are. God has come down the mountain to us.