In the calendar of the church year, we are encountering a shift. After weeks of epiphany and encountering God in all sorts of unexpected places, Jesus calls us up to the top of a desert mountain. On the church’s calendar, today is Transfiguration. In The Message, this moment is depicted as Jesus’ “…appearance chang(ing) from the inside out, right before” the eyes of James, John, and Peter. “Sunlight poured from (Jesus’) face. His clothes were filled with light” (The Message, Matt. 17:2). In all the glory of that moment, I can’t help but think about what it took to get there—to the top of the mountain. The long, dusty, uphill walk. Sand, rocks, scraggly brush. Hauling up food. Water. Hiking up is not easy. But in a flash, a God-moment, life changes. Inside out.
In three days, Wednesday… Ash Wednesday… we will step into Lent. A time of wandering in the wilderness. But first, we remember those long, long hikes up life’s mountain. Matt Skinner points out that in the Matthew, “On either end of Lent you get a mountain… on (today’s) mountain you get the Jesus we want arrayed in power with glory, lit up like the Vegas strip. Peter goes, ‘Yeah! I like this God!’ And then on the other mountain you (encounter) the Jesus we (actually) get—darkness, death, and the disciples running away—except for the women—and Jesus crying out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
Throughout human history mountains have provoked both fear and awe. They can be hidden, veiled by clouds, or illuminated by great lights: radiant sunrises and sunsets, fire, lightning. I think it is interesting that none of the 3 gospels which describe the transfiguration tell us which mountain it was that Jesus, John, James, and Peter hiked up, only that it is “a high mountain.” Early in church history this “high mountain” was assigned to Mt. Tabor. Here, as Belden Lane notes Jesus, “takes a handful of disciples up… and shows them a vision of his messianic glory to come.” Peter is so excited about this “good news” that he wants to preserve the moment. Transcend the problems of the world. Cling to this space in which heaven and earth collide. But the mountaintop experience turned out to not to be what Peter expected.
It was during my first trip to the high desert of northwestern New Mexico in 2002 that I began to understand the concept of “mountaintop experiences.” That summer, I spent a week on a spiritual quest led by two pastors, one Presbyterian and one from the United Church of Christ. The first day of the retreat, after a day of orientation, we hiked along a hot, dusty, red sand trail. Cacti, sage, junipers, and piñon pines dotted the landscape. It was late in the afternoon. We were purposefully setting out for a dusky trek up a nearby mesa, and downward hike after dark.
The walking was not easy. In some places, the loose, red sand, shifted beneath our feet. Along an extended stretch the path was narrow. There was a steep cliff rising to the left, with a dramatic drop-off to on the right. From time to time, a sense of slipping off the steep slope and falling welled up inside my gut. Near the summit, my fear of falling didn’t lessen as I realized the only way to the top was an even narrower, rocky, straight up, 30-foot channel. As I slowly found hand and footholds, I didn’t dare look down.
The treacherous hike was worth the view at the top. On the mesa as the sun set, the day’s final burst of oranges and purples reflected off of the red sandstone cliffs below. We sat silently at the crest, as a storm cloud slowly rolled in from the north. It was monsoon season. Bolts of pink lightning streaked across the sky appearing to strike nearby cliffs. Time was suspended as I sat with this small group of people whom I had just met. There was a both/and in the moment. Both awe in the holy beauty and fear in the danger of the darkness. The great height. The storm. Awe… and the thought that “This is amazing, but oh… are my parents ever going to be mad at me…”
The mountaintop experiences read today from Exodus and Matthew echo the grandeur, great light, and awe I encountered that night in New Mexico. Yet many people will never have the opportunity to physically climb a mountain. And for those of us who do, there isn’t always a fire devouring (like in Exodus 24:17), blinding cloud (as in Matthew 17:5), encounter with God. Even fewer people report hearing God’s voice reverberate across the heights. So, my question for you is, do we need to climb literal mountains to have a God-encounter? Or put another way, are there other mountains in life that we need to climb in order to hear God speak?
For me, this weaves in wonderfully with Karen and Joy (Dementia Specialists) joining us this morning to share stories of, and resources for, people living with cognitive changes. For 20 years, I worked as a speech and language pathologist in hospitals, skilled care facilities, and homes. I know how important it is to provide environmental and communication supports to people with short term memory loss and/or dementia. Memory loss can be a slippery slope, a mountainous journey—up and down—with nothing to hold onto.
Gregory of Nyssa, an early church father who lived in what is now Turkey in the 4th century, “had a deep fascination for desert-mountain terrain.” He invites us to “Imagine… a steep rocky crag of red sandstone, out in the wild, desert expanse. You stand at the top of this high ridge on the edge of a cliff, looking down into what seems a bottomless chasm below. You feel a sense of vertigo. You reach for something to hold onto, but nothing is there. Your foot begins to slip on the rock beneath you and you find yourself overwhelmed by a sense of dread. This, he insists, is what it is like to know the incomprehensible mystery of God… There is terror, he knows, in the experience. The slipping of the foot on the edge of the cliff is an entry into darkness and fear. But the place of fearfulness—the place of risk—is also, paradoxically, the place of being known and loved.” Inside out.
In his book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane shifts between his mother’s wilderness journey with Alzheimer’s disease, and the spirituality found in wild places, particularly high mountain deserts. Of his mother Belden writes, “Two weeks before my mother finally died… The long and lonely wait on the desert mountain was finally nearing its end. Over the last few months my mother had begun moving away, spending more and more time in a place distant from the nursing home around her. She’d gone inside. At first I interpreted this as despair… But one day when she was more alert than usual, I asked if she was glad still to be alive—having been through so much, having lasted longer than any of us had ever expected. Her answer surprised me. ‘Oh YES!’ she cried, with a joy I found astonishing.”
In her own desert journey with Alzheimer’s, Lane’s mother seemed to have grasped a glimpse of God’s incomprehensible mystery. Life’s mountaintop experiences are often shrouded with fear, anxiety, pain, anger, hopelessness. Yet there, God speaks and encourages to say “yes” to being known and loved by God.
This is the good news: That we are known and loved. High on life’s mountain tops, down in the darkest valleys, along slippery slopes. In all of our journeys, God is there, knowing us and loving us. On these paths, a community of witnesses travel with us. Here Jesus touches us and says, “Get up. Do not be afraid” (Matt. 17:7).
~ Pastor Kris
Reflection on Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9 offered February 23, 2020.
 “Sermon Brainwave #708 Transfiguration of Our Lord.” Sermon Brainwave – Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, February 15, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx.
 Lane, Belden C. Solace of Fierce Landscapes Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. Cary: Oxford University Press, USA, 2014. 132.
 Lane, Belden C. Solace of Fierce Landscapes Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. Cary: Oxford University Press, USA, 2014. 106.
 Lane, Belden C. Solace of Fierce Landscapes Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. Cary: Oxford University Press, USA, 2014. 151.