The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

February 10, 2013

Maltby Congregational Church

Snohomish, WA

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

II Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Luke 9:28-43a


A Mountaintop Experience

Good Morning!

        ‘Let’s go up the mountain.

        Let’s go up to the place where the land meets the sky

        where the earth touches the heavens,

        to the place of meeting,

        to the place of mists,

        to the place of voices and conversations,

        to the place of listening’...

    These words were written by William Loader, a biblical scholar from Western Australia.  I think they make a lovely Call to Worship.

    I am Dianne O'Connell, a Presbyterian minister currently living in Edmonds, just down the road.  Some of you met me three or four weeks ago when I stopped by to worship with you on Sunday morning.  I liked your church -- and your stained glass window reflection -- so I talked with Mr. Hamlin and, well, I came back.  :-)

    By way of further introduction, I am new to your area.  I moved here about a year and a half ago after living 45 years in Alaska – 34 of which in a house five miles up a mountain road overlooking Anchorage.  It was a mountaintop experience every day just getting home, especially in the winter.

    I mention this because today is Transfiguration Sunday, representing a major “mountaintop experience” for Jesus and a real jaw-dropping one for the disciples who were on the mountain with him.    

   The Easter season really begins today with this story. I think of it somewhat like a movie trailer, or “sneak preview of coming attractions,” special effects and all.

   With due reverence to the Scriptures, I cannot help but reflect on what Cecil B. DeMille might have done with a script entitled, The Transfiguration! It’s a Paramount Pictures extravaganza all the way: flood lights, holograms, clouds and loud speakers. But I, frankly, think the special effects can be a distraction keeping us from hearing two or three simple, but crucial messages.  The story identifies Jesus as “The One”, greater than all others before him, and foretells the resurrection of Christ. It also tells the reader, in no uncertain terms, “Listen to him!”

   Let’s take a look at the script for a moment. Jesus takes three of his disciples up a mountain to pray. Most suggest it was Mount Tabor.  While there, a great light shines from within Jesus himself, he and his clothes turn radiantly 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 are frightened. And Peter, for one, helplessly looks around for something useful to do, like maybe build three tents. But tents are not the point. The flashing lights and other special effects are not the point. The message is, “Listen to him.”      “Moses brought you the Law, and Elijah was the greatest of the prophets, but times are changing, this is my Son, I am proud of him and what he is doing and what he is teaching.  This is The One you’ve been waiting for.  Now listen to him.”  

   Moses and Elijah fade into the mist.  Jesus remains.

   It would take the disciples some time to process this Mountaintop Experience, and it might take us a little while, too.

   The Transfiguration narrative is contained virtually verbatim in the three synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke, with the exception that in Mark and Matthew it is said that this experience occurred six days after Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection, and in our Luke reading, it says it was about eight days.  I think we can live with the discrepancy.

   In the Bible, revelations take place on mountaintops. The morning readings began in Exodus with Moses being called to go up to Mount Sinai to meet with God.  On his return, carrying two large stone tablets, we are told that his face was shining so brightly that it frightened the Israelites.  So Moses went around with a veil covering his head and face which he only removed when he was talking to God.

   When Jesus went up Mount Tabor it was no small matter that his very being changed dramatically, his clothes turning dazzling white and his face shining radiantly. If case we missed the connection with Moses, it is made even more obvious when Moses himself appears on the mountain beside Jesus, along with Elijah.

   There have been some great preachers over the centuries, but the one in our times who seemed to really understand the significance of mountaintop experiences was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This disciple of Jesus once wrote and delivered a famous speech entitled, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop.” King was to lead a protest march of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, the following day.  

   “I’ve been to the Mountaintop,” he told the crowd, “I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people, we’ll get to the Promised Land.”

   That evening, April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room, King was assassinated.

   Martin was right. He’d been to his own mountaintop, seen the future and his role in it.  I think this is what the Transfiguration experience meant for Jesus and his disciples, whether it happened just as written or not. A great discussion occurred, metaphorically or not, lights went on, understanding radiated forth.  The participants came back enlightened and empowered for the work and events yet to come.

    Moses and Jesus – even Martin -- encountered their God in very direct ways.  Their lives and ministries were validated. What about you and me?   

    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 great 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, renewed, we return to the real world.

   As a child growing up in the flat, middleclass suburbs of Chicago, I was unfamiliar with mountains or mountaintop experiences.  Never saw one.  Never felt one. Really.  But in the summer of 1967, I found myself on the road to Alaska. And I experienced mountains.  It was an “aha,” life-changing, experience. No longer would I be a 22-year-old girl from Illinois. My destiny was to be an Alaskan.

   Later, my family and I made our home on the slopes of the Chugach Mountains. My understanding of life and my place in it continued to unfold while I lived on this mountain. Eighteen months ago, it came time for me to come down off the mountain and move to Puget Sound.  From my kitchen window, I can still see mountains across the Sound and I feel a Presence, and I feel at home.

    Some spiritual thinkers identify special locations where communication between humans and the divine are more likely to occur.  They call such locations “thin places”, in this case geographical locations where the veil between the material world and the spiritual world is particularly fluid and easily penetrated. Sometimes one can even pass through to the spiritual world and return. Iona off the coast of Scotland is said to be such a place. Pilgrimage sites around the world.  It doesn’t have to be a mountaintop, of course, could be a wide open field, seashore, or the wide open seas.  Could be a building, perhaps this very church.  Perhaps the spiritual thin place could even be a favorite chair.  The point is to be open to God; we know where we have to go for the connection to be the best.  

   Then, perhaps with a sigh, we must come down from the mountain, or in from the field or the sea, get up out of that special chair. We may be “new” people, but the world around us 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. Martin Luther King’s world hadn’t changed much – yet. We return to the everyday tasks, the routine chores, the tedious busy work that seems to take up so much of our day.  But, with the affirmation, direction and encouragement received on our personal mountaintop, we carry on.   

    So what am I saying? Most of us, particularly me, are relatively average folk, living relatively average lives. We might not be Moses.  We might not be Martin Luther King. But should we not try to rise above our ordinary routines and reach for mountain top experiences – listen – hear the Voice of God for us – experience incredible awe – and maybe understanding and guidance for our lives?  Can we do this as individuals?  As families?  As a whole church?  

    I believe that it is essential for us to find a special time, or a special “thin place” that works for us. I think of it almost like a Native American vision quest.

    Hear our prayer, O Lord. We’ve come this far, but now, what next?”  

        ‘Let’s go up the mountain.

        Let’s go up to the place where the land meets the sky

        where the earth touches the heavens,

        to the place of meeting,

        to the place of mists,

        to the place of voices and conversations,

        to the place of listening’...                               



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