A View from the Mountain
It starts off ordinary enough. Jesus and the three closest of his friends: Peter, James and John. Together they are going up on a high mountain. Nothing strange about that, either. Jesus often went up on a hillside to pray – and to rest. And, I’m sure that’s what the disciples thought they were going to do this time: pray, and catch their breath, and talk a bit. All very ordinary.
But, from there on in, there is nothing about this story that is ordinary. No sooner had they arrived than Jesus was suddenly “transfigured!” “glowed from within”, we might say.
Rather out of the ordinary, don’t you think? Even out of this world – which is, of course, the point. And, if that’s not “out-of-the-ordinary” enough, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear by his side.
Now, they had not been seen, or heard from, for hundreds of years. And yet, here they are, talking with Jesus. Moses, the great law-giver, paying his respect to Jesus, the great law- fulfiller. And, Elijah the great prophet, bowing before Jesus, the greater prophet. They are the sainted elders, if you will, coming to worship the one they had waited for – and pointed to.
This must have dumbfounded Peter and James and John. For it was not the ordinary!
But wait, we’re not finished yet. A cloud hovers overhead and God speaks from the cloud pronouncing God’s beloved son as worthy of being listened to.
Glowing face and clothes, visits from champions of the past, hovering clouds and heavenly voices; no, there is nothing ordinary about any of this. In fact, it is so extraordinary that when it’s all over, and Jesus and Peter and James and John are heading back down the mountainside, Jesus says to them: “Tell no one of the vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
Well, that made sense! No one would believe it anyway.
But, the three of them believed it. They had been there – and those moments on that mountaintop would forever mark their lives. It changed the way they looked at everything.
Certain moments have a way of doing that, you know. For instance, this true story of Larry Walters and the event that took place in his life on July 2, 1982. He was a 33-year-old truck driver who was sitting in his lawn chair in his back yard one day wishing that he could fly. For as long as he could remember he had wanted to fly, but he never had the time, or the money, or the opportunity, to be a pilot.
Hang gliding was out of the question because there was no good place for gliding near his home. So, he spent a lot of summer afternoons just sitting in his backyard, in his ordinary old lawn chair, the kind with the webbing and the rivets.
But then, one day Larry decided to hook 45 helium-filled, surplus, weather balloons to his chair. He put on a parachute, put a CB radio in his lap, tied a paper bag full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to his leg, and slung a BB-gun over his shoulder to pop the balloons when he wanted to come down. He lifted off in his lawn chair expecting to climb a couple of hundred feet over his neighborhood. But, instead, he shot up 11,000 feet right through the approach corridor of the Los Angeles International Airport.
When asked by the press why he did it, Larry answered: “Well, you can’t just sit there.” And, when asked if he was scared, he answered; “yes . . . wonderfully so.!”
Well now, Larry Walters will never be the same after his trip to the mountain in his lawn chair. He had seen things, and felt things, that would shape the way he lives – for the rest of his life. Now there would never be anything he couldn’t face.
And, so it was with Peter and James and John. Up there on that mountaintop, they had been given a glimpse into the future. They were able to see past the suffering and the death that Jesus had predicted a few days before; they were even able to see past their own doubts and unfaithfulness.
For one, brief, shining moment, God had cracked the door open to reveal the end of time – and the disciples had seen how history would be worked out, their own and the whole world’s. And they would never, ever, be the same again.
You see, when you’ve seen how everything turns out in the end, it does affect how you view the present. That’s how it was for Peter and James and John. There would be days of suffering ahead, dark days and dread. But, recollection of this outlandish event would forever color the way they viewed their suffering.
If Jesus’ suffering and death would not end his life, then what surprise might God hold in store for anyone who believed in Jesus Christ?
If an ordinary trip to a mountaintop could suddenly be filled with light – and visiting elders – and clouds – and voices, then what surprises might any day hold, if lived with this Jesus
I have heard that one time a delightful story came to the New York Times. It read: Dateline – New York. And, the scene: the corner of Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Center. A big stretch limo pulled up at the curb in front of an impeccably dressed, rather elderly, woman with curly salt-and-pepper hair. A rear door opened and a young, tall, good-looking man, wearing a tuxedo, got out. A black bow tie hung in his hand.
“Can you tie one of these things?” he asked.
“I don’t think that I’ve forgotten how,” she replied. “I’ve had lots of practice over the years.”
She then deftly tied a perfect bow, patted it and stood back to admire her handiwork. The young man leaned down and kissed her on both cheeks.
“You’ve saved my life,” he told her.
“And, you’ve made my day,” she replied.
He climbed back into the limo and with a wave of his hand he was off.
Would that woman, with salt and pepper hair, ever have guessed in a million years that her day would have had such a marvelous interruption?
Well, the same is true for Peter, and James and John. And, after what happened up there on that mountaintop, they must have lived in a state of perpetual expectation.
Now . . . I wonder how God will ambush us today – while getting ready for work tomorrow – or sitting in a chair in our own living room – or during our coffee break tomorrow morning? Iwonder …
And just like in this story, a man by the name of John Vannorsdall, who, by the way, was President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia when I was a student there taking short term intensive courses in 1985 – another side note: Pastor Vannorsdall died on Palm Sunday, April 5th, last year from the Coronavirus. Pastor Vannorsdall wrote this story about an evening walk one summer – a lazy walk-through back alleys near a railroad track. It seems that he and his wife happened across a surprising little garden. They stopped to talk, as best they could, with an elderly man who spoke mostly Italian.
The railroad embankment was mostly a disaster of broken bottles and empty cans, weed trees and brambles. He said It was like “Good Friday’s” land.
But, twenty-five feet wide, from alley to tracks, it was terraced and neatly rowed with beans, and leaf lettuce, and tomatoes. “Good Friday’s” land, wounded and scarred, had become Easter’s garden – where the trains still rattled – yet evening strollers paused before the witness of reversal – and healing.
After being on that mountain, there was, in the eyes of those three of the disciples, no such thing as a hopeless situation. They had seen the future. God had drummed death out of town. Now every circumstance they faced was open- ended and filled with possibility. Every railroad embankment of life was a place for a garden to grow.
With that in mind, please do not think that what you and I do here on zoom today is ordinary. There is nothing that is ordinary about this hour. Every hymns we hear or sing, the confession we make, the hope we take from the scripture, the meal we share in the Lord’s Supper, it is all a foretaste of the feast to come; it is anything but ordinary!
Through it all, God is cracking a door open to let us see the rest of the story, to see how it will all turn out one fine day.
You and I may not know all that will happen to us along the way. But we have seen Christ risen for our forgiveness, in the space of this hour.
In a few minutes we will go back down the mountainside, to the valley below (our live-a-day world), to take up the task. For, there are still bows to be tied and favors to be asked; there are Easter gardens to be planted in Good Friday’s land.
No, it is not ordinary, what we see and do here, not ordinary at all. In fact, the truth is that what we see and do here is so out of the ordinary that no one would believe it if we told them. But, we will tell them, won’t we? Just as the disciples must have done, or the Transfiguration Story would never have made it into our scriptures, or to our thoughts, this morning.