Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our redeemer Jesus Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you all. Amen.
I studied abroad in Türkiye the summer between my junior and senior year of college. It was so hot the whole time we were there. I really don’t even know how I survived sweating that much. I was worried, especially, about the heat the day we decided to climb a mountain. We arrived at the foot of this serious hike, got out of the bus, and the air was cool and damp. Fog rolled through the small peaks above us. And we began the trek.
When we got to the top – to an untouched Greek-style theater, built into the rock – it was breathtaking. We spent the better part of that morning just climbing all over those rocks to get as many different vantage points of those mountains as we could. Looking at that photograph from that day in Termessos, I am reminded that it is easy to think of the Holy Spirit from the high vantage point of a mountaintop. The wind whips across your face as you look out over all that God has created, in that moment created it all just for you to see and hear and touch and breathe. The world is so beautiful at the top of a mountain – the whole, impossible world is within your reach. This is the mountaintop experience with the transfigured Jesus.
In the 8th chapter of Mark’s gospel, the story just before this one, Jesus is asking the disciples who they say that he is. It seems the ever-stumbling disciples are finally beginning to understand! Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah! And then Jesus explains what that will mean – that he will die – and Peter, after all, has not understood who Jesus is. So much so, that Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” because Peter is stuck in this human understanding and not growing toward the divine understanding. It is following this altercation that Jesus leads Peter, with James and John, up a mountain. Maybe, this time, they’ll get it.
Can you imagine what was said during the climb? If I’d been there, I certainly would have asked where we were going and why. And Jesus probably would not have directly answered me. You know how he is. But we’d made a commitment to follow Jesus wherever he led us, and so up that mountain we’d go.
The story goes that when these three disciples and Jesus arrived at the top, Jesus was suddenly transfigured before them – and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. What a sight to see. No wonder Peter had no idea what to do. And as if the dazzling whiteness were not enough, suddenly there appears the founder and the restorer of Israel – Moses and Elijah.
So far in Peter’s memory, Jesus has spent his life with a bunch of fishermen…and suddenly he is on a mountaintop with the two greatest heroes of Peter’s people. Who is this man, Jesus, that Moses and Elijah would appear before him? This is a defining moment for Peter. This is a moment he wants to last forever. And how to do that? Build a home, there, so that these great leaders could stay. So that this moment could be preserved.
Peter says we should build a house – a dwelling place, a tent, a tabernacle, a temple, depending on who you’re reading – one each for Moses and for Elijah and for Jesus. Peter sees that this mountaintop experience is one he will never forget for the rest of his life. He can’t even figure out what’s happening. Is it real? Are Moses and Elijah really there? Who is this man, Jesus, that has led Peter and James and John up to this mountain peak? What is going on? He doesn’t know.
And there’s more to the story of my Turkish mountaintop, too. It’s why I hold so tightly to Peter’s part in this story. We spent our next bus ride – hours long, across the Turkish countryside – plotting just how wonderful our lives together could be if we moved to Türkiye permanently. I had this conversation with two of my closest friends from college. Jocelyn, my roommate, had graduated. She was off to graduate school in New Hampshire when we returned from Turkey. Cassidy was a year behind me, but soon his life would cease to be my everyday, as well. The three of us felt deeply the poignancy of this, our last mountaintop experience.
We wanted to build ourselves a home and a life in this place so we could be this way forever. Even as we were plotting, we knew it didn’t make sense but that didn’t matter. The words of where we’d live and where we’d work and where we’d study tumbled out of our mouths as though it were already truth. This is what happened to Peter on the mountaintop with Jesus.
And just as our future in Türkiye was fleeting, the mountaintop world ends for them, too. Just as suddenly as Moses and Elijah had arrived, they are gone. And instead is the thundering voice of God from the clouds, “This is my son, the Beloved; Listen to him!” As though the disciples were not terrified enough, already! There’s no way Peter could ever need further convincing of just how special this man, Jesus, was.
When Jesus was transfigured, the Greek text says his garments began to shine. You know, like the hymn, “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” The first verse goes, “Lord, the light of your love is shining, in the midst of our darkness – shining. Jesus, light of the world, shine upon us! Set us free by the truth you now bring us.”
The radiant image of Jesus, transfigured, will never leave the minds and hearts of these three disciples. The words of God will stick with them. They’ll listen to Jesus for a while longer. They’ll keep asking their questions and offering up misguided guesses and just trying to get along in a world that doesn’t quite have eyes for the light of Christ. We as hearers of this story share in that with them. "Here in this place, a new light is streaming."
As Jesus was transfigured on a mountaintop before three of his friends, so does the light of Christ transfigure us here, now, before our friends. It may, at times, be confusing. We may, at times, wonder just what’s going on, what we should be doing, what part we will play. But we have made a commitment to bring forth the kingdom of justice. We are the people who will shine Christ’s light to the world. We are the bumbling disciples, that is for sure.
But those bumbling disciples went on their way preaching and teaching and people told their story for generations until finally some people started to write it down and it somehow became that book we read out of this morning. You may feel like Peter felt, gazing upon Moses and Elijah and Jesus when you think back to Peter and to Paul and to all the apostles whose stories we tell. And just because this book is finished does not mean the story ends, here. The story begins, here. This incident in Mark’s gospel is a turning point. From here on out, everything points to Easter. Lent begins in a few days. All signs point to Easter. And so we cannot stay here, in this place where we have encountered the light of Christ. We must go on, toward Easter.
"As we gaze on his kingly brightness, so our faces display his likeness….mirrored here, may our lives tell the story."
Shine, Jesus, Shine.