In today’s story, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to the top of a mountain, and there, they encounter something extraordinary.
We have no video footage of the event, and the Gospel of Mark was likely written 30 years after his death, so it’s likely that the author was not an eye witness to the event. So we’re not sure EXACTLY what happened that day.
But we do know that SOMETHING happened. And that Peter, James, and John were changed as a result.
So why Peter, James and John?
Maybe they were the Disciples who were closest to Jesus. Maybe they were his top leaders.
Or maybe…they were actually the biggest troublemakers, and so Jesus wanted to keep them close to keep an eye on them.
My own sense is that Peter, James and John, and Peter in particular, were the disciples that needed this experience most.
Peter was a law and order guy. His name was actually Simon-Peter, Simon meaning listener and Peter menaing rock.
But most of the time, Jesus calls him Peter, because Peter, the rock, is solid, trustworthy, but also stubborn.
Peter is an institutional guy. He believed in the value of organized institutional religion. There are reasons he became, according to legend, the first bishop of the church. He liked structure. He liked buildings. He liked monuments and control and logic.
Most of the followers of Jesus, crowds of people surrounding him wherever he went, believed he was capable of healing them and performing miracles.
But Peter had a very different view of Jesus.
Yes, Jesus was the Christ, the son of God. But for Peter, Jesus was also the one who was supposed to transform organized religion. And set the Jewish people free from the influence of Rome. In Peter’s world view, the messiah, Jesus, was supposed to be a traditional political and religious leader who would enact reforms from within the confines of religious law and structure.
Of course, we know now that Jesus did not fit that mold.
And it troubled Peter that Jesus wasn’t living up to Peter’s expectations.
Even more troubling was that before the events in today’s scripture, Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples that soon, Jesus will suffer and die.
And so when Jesus says this, of course, it throws Peter into a tailspin. So Peter takes Jesus aside and tells Jesus that Jesus dying is not a part of the plan.
That’s not how things are SUPPOSED to happen. The savior of the world needs to live longer in order to transform organized religion. Jesus’ work is not done. He can’t go yet.
And to Peter’s complains, Jesus responds by turning to Peter and to all the disciples and says this: “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus calls Peter the devil. That’s a pretty strong critique.
Jesus calls Peter out, very publicly, and says, listen, suffering is a part of what is going to happen, whether you like it or not, and there is more to this world than what you can see and explain through reason and logic. And more to spirituality than organized religion.
So get out of your head and outside the walls of the synagogue for a second and pay attention to what’s really going on here.
Just 6 days later, Jesus takes Peter to the mountaintop.
Peter needed that experience to break him free.
On the mountaintop, Peter witnesses something he absolutely cannot explain, the appearance of Elijah, the prophet, and Moses, the writer of the law, people who died over a thousand years ago.
And Peter is terrified. Understandably. And so he turns to what he knows – structure and substance.
He witnesses something supernatural, and his instinct is to put his visions in a box. To build a tent or a monument of stone—houses for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus to contain them up here in on the mountaintop.
But of course, visions cannot be contained within stone walls. And the visions of Elijah and Moses disappear. And at that moment, as if the message wasn’t clear enough, a cloud overshadows the mountain, and the voice of God says to Peter and the others, “This is my child, my beloved. Listen to him.”
To Simon-Peter, whose name means both listener and rock, God says, Simon-Peter, be more of a listener, and stop being such a rock.
Peter needs that encounter. He needs something to break him loose from the confines of his world view.
And like Peter, as Christians, as members of this community and as human beings, it sometimes takes this type of experience to shake US loose from our OWN needs to put God and humanity into static, explainable, rational structures.
Sometimes, it takes a mountaintop experience. Or a deep VALLEY experience, to engage our curiosity instead of our instinct to know it all, to be right, and to explain.
Certainly in nature, many of us experience awe and connection with the Holy Spirit. In the quiet of the morning sunrise, perhaps surrounded by wildlife and the flora of the desert or the forest, many of us find clarity.
Others of us find that clarity and connection in music. We connect with its heartbeat, with its soul, and we release our bodies and minds to the experience as we become one with the moment.
Both are true for me.
Donna preached once about thin places.
Those places where God is so clearly present.
And I think many of us have experienced those at one time or another.
And sometimes, they’re not where you would expect.
Have any of you ever been to a dance club and had a religious experience?
I used to go to a dance club on weekends when I was in college, and that club, for me, was absolutely a thin place.
There was something about being surrounded by people who were free to be themselves, coupled with music that had good bass and that talked about love and liberation—something about that brought me closer to God.
I remember wanting to raise my hands. I think I probably did sometimes, the way some Christians do in worship.
Because in that place, I felt God was alive.
Peter needed more moments like that….
We all do. Because in those moments of connection,
The nonsense of the media and politics and family and work and personal drama—they all fall away, and we find ourselves connected to the mysteries of the universe, connected to that with that which is beyond ourselves, that which is awe and love in its purist form.
But it’s not just ecstatic experiences that connect us with God.
In Lent, we also talk a fair amount about suffering and loss and mortality.
The valleys of our life are also opportunities for the veil between humanity and God to be lifted and God’s love and presence revealed.
The morning I learned of BD’s death, I was devastated.
I came to the church early, and through my tears, I watched the sun crawl across the valley.
While I sat there in my car, facing the land below, three hawks appeared – two on the telephone wire, and one on a telephone pole about 100 feet away.
And they started talking.
Two of them looked right at me, and I could swear, they were talking to me.
And those of you who at this moment feel open to the supernatural and to mystery will probably not be surprised when I tell you that one of those hawks looked like my dear friend Marcia Dimbo, who passed away last year, and the other one looked like my good friend Orp Christopher.
The other hawk watched all of this from a distance and seemed amused at the whole situation.
I actually called LouAnn to ask if hawks were significant to BD, because I had a feeling he was showing up that morning to say goodbye.
I haven’t seen any of them since.
But in that moment, in my grief, and in my reflection on the life of BD Shafer, I found myself open to the possibility that God was close by. And that those people who had died, were also close by.
The hawks closest to me would not stop talking, by the way.
And I felt like one was heckling me.
And so I rolled down the window and said to one of them, “Shut up, Orp. It’s okay for me to be sad.”
The hawk didn’t stop making noise, but it did change its pitch slightly. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was laughing.
And so I laughed too.
And then the hawks all flew away.
My friend who’s a bird expert told me that my story makes no sense. That hawks don’t hang out together usually, nor do they look people in the eye and talk to them.
And yet that experience is something that’s still in my mind and on my heart. And something that felt absolutely real and awe-inspiring in the moment.
Whether it was a random encounter with the natural world or Orp and Marcia and BD coming to cheer me up, I can’t say.
But I can say that I’m still thinking about it.
And as a result of being in one of those valleys of life, I found myself a little bit more open. More able to connect not just with memories but with mystery and with the real presence of God and God’s manifestation in nature and in the lives of people I loved who I do believe are still very present with us now.
One of the most beautiful gifts of death is actually how close it can bring us to the living presence of God and those we love.
The rational explanation is usually easier to talk about, and it’s more palatable to people who are not open to supernatural experiences.
And there are scientists and researchers who even today will try to explain what happened to Jesus on that mountaintop. And Christian scholars still interpret the text from today with a surface-level reading. Very simply: Jesus’ clothing and body were changed, and he momentarily glowed with a supernatural light.
But what if, what really happened, was not that Jesus changed at all. What if what happened was that the veil between life and death and the veil between God and humanity was lifted, just for moment, and that Jesus’ true nature was revealed?
What if, the real miracle was not the radiant glowing light of Jesus on the mountaintop? What if the miracle was simply that Peter and the disciples were finally enlightened to a point where they could see what was there all along.
What is remarkable to me is not that the world has a spiritual heartbeat or that people who have passed on find ways to connect with us.
It’s not remarkable to me that God breaks through into our lives when we need God most.
What is remarkable is that we have become so adept at ignoring the divinity all around us. And within us. And within those with whom we interact.
If you think about it, can you remember a time when God showed up for you this week?
Can you think about a time this morning, where the mysteries of the universe and the presence of God was made known to you in some small way?
Maybe something as simple as the smile of a child? Or an uplifting or inspiring piece of music? The savory taste of chili on a cold afternoon? Or the beauty of the flurry of snow falling on the mountain? Maybe a phone call that offered healing? A dream that revealed something new to you? A sign from a loved one who’s passed? An unexpectedly kind word? Or he manifestation of God’s love here in this community?
My challenge to us this week is simply to pay attention. To be more listener than rock.
And to notice when that imagined division between the human world and the divine world is lifted.
May we all glimpse God’s glory, on the mountain top, in the valleys, and in the everyday wonders in between.