The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

March 6, 2011

First Congregational Church

Exodus 24:12-18

II Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9


The Mountaintop Experience

Good Morning.  A look at the church calendar tells us that today is Transfiguration Sunday.  The Easter season is upon us. Kathy Means is fixin’ pancakes for the Dine and Discuss evening Tuesday, the day after tomorrow.  The pancakes are in honor of Shrove Tuesday, the Tuesday before Lent begins.  To “shrove” somebody, by the way, is to hear their sins, assure them of God’s forgiveness, and to give them appropriate spiritual advice. I think we’ll just go with the pancakes. Shrove Tuesday is also called Fat Tuesday.  Mardi is French for Tuesday and Gras is French for “fat”. The idea is to use up all the “cooking fat” around the house before Lent starts. A good way to use fat is in the preparation of pancakes.

Ash Wednesday follows Fat Tuesday.  Ash Wednesday is the seventh Wednesday before Easter and the first day of Lent, on which many Christians receive a mark of ashes on the forehead as a token of penitence and mortality.  We will hear more about these observances next Sunday.  But the whole series of observances and the Easter season begins with the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, a sort of precursor, a “sneak preview”, if you will, of what was to come. Three disciples -- Peter, James, and John -- are chosen to attend the event.

With all due reverence to the Scritpures, I could not help but reflect on what Cecil B. DeMille might do with this story. It’s a Paramount Pictures extravaganza all the way: flood lights, holograms, clouds and loud speakers. But I think the special effects are a distraction that can keep us from hearing two simple, but crucial messages.  The story foretells the resurrection and glorification of Christ and states, in no uncertain terms, “Listen to him!”

Let’s review the script for a moment. Jesus takes three of his disciples up a high mountain to pray. Most suggest it was Mount Tabor.  While there, a great light emerges from Jesus himself, he and his clothes  turn white, Moses and the prophet Elijah appear out of nowhere, and the Voice of God calls out from the heavens, “This is my son.  Listen to him!”

The disciples were flabbergasted. They were frightened. And Peter, for one, helplessly looks around for something useful to do, like maybe erect three tents. But tents were not the point.  The message was, “Listen to him.”  It would take the disciples sometime to process this Mountaintop Experience, but they knew for sure that something significant had been revealed to them.

Setting aside the Paramount Picutres light show for a moment, what was it again that the Voice of God said? 

“This is my son. Listen to him!”  Here the disciples were in the presence of the greatest leaders of their faith – Moses, representing The Law, and Elijah, representing all the prophets, and God says, “Listen. Listen to this One, this is my son.”  Moses and Elijah fade into the mist.  It’s an important message as Jesus enters into the last phase of his earthly ministry, trying again and again to explain his true mission. 

Now, I’ll admit that the whole thing may not have happened just exactly like it’s been reported – with all the holograms and pyrotechnics. But as the message took root in the disciples understanding, it was mind-boggling.  Their friend, companion, teacher really was who people said his was – the Son of God, whatever exactly that meant.  For them, everything changed.

In the Bible, mind-blowing revelations take place on mountaintops.  The ten commandments were given to Moses on Mount Sinai.  The Sermon on the Mount was preached on – well – a mount. And such glimpses of understanding, “aha” experiences, life-changing revelations can, and do, happen to all of us.

As a child growing up in the flat, middleclass suburbs of Chicago, I was unfamiliar with mountains.  Never saw one.  But the semester before I was scheduled to graduate from Southern Illinois University, my first husband, Bob Anderson, completed officer candidate school and announced that the United States Army respectfully requested his – and my -- presence in the great state of Alaska, Fort Richardson to be specific.  We would be driving there, and I would experience my first Rocky Mountain High.  We drove across country, up and through Canada, across the border into Alaska, through Tok Junction, and down the Glenn Highway. It was the summer of 1967.

At a place called Summit, we stopped to view four mountain ranges: the Alaska, the Chugach, the Talkeetnas, and the Wrangells.  Continuing on, we crawled along the narrow, winding roadway carved high into the mountainside overlooking the upper Matanuska River Valley.  I bet most of you have travelled that road. It was treacherous. It was also dangerous to gawk while driving, so we’d pull over and gaze hungrily, then reluctantly move on. It was a spiritual experience involving fear, indescribable beauty, and the endless light of an Alaskan summer.  The mountains did their magic and I was no longer the same person. No longer would I be a 22-year-old girl from Illinois. My destiny was to be an Alaskan.

When I married my second husband Chuck thirty-four years ago, we built our home on the slope of the Chugach Mountains. As we drove home each evening, we watched the light and shadows play on the mountain peaks in front of us.Once home, we could look down on the lights of Anchorage. My understanding of life and my place in it has unfolded while living on this mountain.  Watching the sunrises and the sunsets, the dusty sticks we call trees turn green in the early summer, and golden in the fall, and the snow and the ice fog turning everything a translucent white in the winter.  My world is transfigured from day to day, season to season.  As the landscape changes, so do I.  In some ways, my whole life has become a variation on the mountaintop theme, and for that I am very grateful. 

It’s a bit bold to compare my life epiphanies with the mountaintop experiences of the two greatest figures in the Bible, Moses and Jesus. But Jesus did invite his disciples to accompany him up the mountain.

The morning readings began in Exodus with Moses being called to go up to Mount Sinai to meet with God.  This is the same mountain where Moses had earlier encountered the Lord in the burning bush.  At that time, God had called him to go to Egypt and lead the people of Israel out of slavery.  Moses had been faithful to that call and now was called back to Sinai to hear from God once again. This time, God delivers to Moses the Law, the covenant by which the Israelites were expected to live. 

For forty days and nights, Moses has the unprecedented opportunity to converse directly with God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Forty, of course, is a special number.  It rained for forty days and forty nights in the story of Noah; next week we will focus on the forty days and forty nights Jesus himself will spend in the desert with not God, but with Satan.          

But this week, its the transfiguration. The experience almost sounds like it lasted maybe forty minutes rather than forty days, but it was no less dramatic.  Let’s look at the similarities between Jesus and Moses and their mountaintop experiences.

First of all, Jesus' appearance was completely changed.  We’re told that his face began to shine and his clothes turned a dazzling white.  Moses himself had a similar experience on another visit with God on Mount Sinai after the passage we just looked at.  He, too, came down from the mountain with his face glowing so brightly that he had to put a veil on so that others could look at him.

The connection with Moses' mountain top experience is made even more obvious when Moses himself appears on the mountain beside Jesus, along with Elijah.  Clearly, this is an indication of the importance of Jesus' mission.            

Then, just as happened on Mount Sinai, God is present in a bright cloud.  And out of that bright cloud God's voice speaks.  But this time instead of giving the Law, the voice says, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."

Jesus is affirmed as not only the latest in the line of great prophets; he is recognized as being greater than Elijah—greater even than Moses.  His words are confirmed as having as much validity as the Law of Moses and more. Listen to him.

So out of these great mountain top experiences, Moses and Jesus both receive affirmation of their work and direction for their future.  Both of them encounter God in a very direct way.  And both of them are empowered to continue the work which they have already begun.     

I’d like to take a moment and invite you to remember a life-changing, spiritual experience from your own history.  Maybe the experience didn’t affirm you as a great prophet of God, but hopefully it affirmed you as a person and gave you encouragement and direction for your future.  Maybe you felt lifted above your normal existence and reached beyond the usual events of life.  There may be great emotional release or profound intellectual insight or deep spiritual renewal. Such transformative moments come in big and little packages and they often last for just a short while – but it’s a significant moment -- then it’s back to the real world.

We may be “new” people, but the world is often depressingly much the same. Moses returns to the people only to find them dancing around a golden calf.  Jesus and the disciples return to the broken world they left for only a short while. We return to the everyday tasks, the routine chores, the tedious busy work that seems to take up so much of our time and energy.  But, perhaps, with the affirmation and encouragement received, we can carry on.   

So what is the lesson here?  Most of us, particularly me, are relatively average folk, living relatively average lives. Should we not try to rise above our ordinary routines and reach for mountain top experiences?

I believe that the examples of Moses and Jesus show us the value, perhaps even the necessity, of spending some time on the mountain top.  I think of it almost like a Native American vision quest. We’ve come this far, O Lord, but now, what next?                      

Like the people of Israel and the disciples of Christ, we may not find inspiration or renewal in the same things that our friends do, but you know that’s not the important thing.  Mountaintop experiences – messages from God – are very individual and very personal.

So next time you find yourself moved closer to God by a speaker or a song; next time you come face-to-face with Christ in an encounter with another person; next time you feel the tug of the Spirit in meditation or prayer, pause to give thanks to God for the gift you have been allowed to hold, at least for a moment.  Know that the moment itself may be fleeting, but the experience of the mountain top will be with you always.


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