This Sunday is a transition Sunday in the church year as we move from the time after Christmas and the Epiphany into Lent and then Easter. And this is the Sunday when we read the story of the Transfiguration of our Lord – a story found in three of the four Gospels. It is also a Sunday, I have noted over the years, (like Trinity Sunday and a few of those other “interesting” Sundays) that preachers like to take off. And if you are in a big church, you assign it to one of the associate ministers. But alas I did not think that far ahead to schedule any vacation time, and there are no associates here! So, the task of preaching this strange story falls to me.
The Gospel according to Mark tells us that Jesus had taken with him to the mountain three of the disciples: Peter, James and John. Mark tells us that when they were on the mountain with Jesus alone and suddenly his whole being changed and his clothes became a dazzling white. In that moment, the disciples looked up and saw something they could not have imagined. Jesus was being joined by two of the great figures from Israel’s past: Moses and Elijah.
William Willimon, writing in the Christian Century some years ago, noted that that this experience on the Mountain of Transfiguration is “Christian worship as good as it gets.” I suspect that every minister and everyone involved in planning worship would hope for this kind of experience –people caught up in a vision and revelation so powerful that in the end everyone there was silenced. It’s a moment in time when the heavens are rent asunder and for a brief moment, we are given a glorious glimpse of things beyond this world.
We begin by noting that Jesus brought his three disciples up to the mountain all by themselves. By the time we get to the ninth chapter of Mark, Jesus had gained considerable notoriety. There were crowds pressing in on him. With every miracle he performed, there were more people showing up and wanting Jesus to perform a miracle on their behalf. There is energy that comes with being part of a crowd, especially when that crowd is following a charismatic leader. But in this story, Jesus and the disciples take time to be alone, He “led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.”
Have you ever known people who can’t stand to be alone? Someone once quipped: “If you can’t stand to be by yourself, imagine how the rest of us must feel when we’re around you!” I had a relative who, in nearly every room of the house, had some form of television or radio or noise making gismo. Among the greatest of all anxieties is that of loneliness. We need either the sounds of our radios, TVs, or whatever… or we need the mental distractions of social media, like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. But, of course, electronic devices prove be a rather poor substitutes for human contact, as we’ve become all too aware during this pandemic. But then, ultimately, human contact itself is no substitute for God. Somewhere is told the story of a wise nun who once asked her students to make a list of the ten most important things in their lives. Then she said, “Suppose you have ten days to live; prioritize the order in which you will give up those most important things.” The writer says, “What a sobering exercise that was. Thankfully, I had put God on that list. When I gave up God on the last day, I discovered to my great joy that God did not give up on me!”
Where do you feel closest to God? Some people will mention the beach, or in their gardens, or even the golf course. In the ancient world, mountaintops were the places where people went to connect with God. A mountain, as the highest point of elevation, was as close as you could get to heaven, and so that’s where people often went to pray.
One of the interesting things to think about is the frequency with which Jesus prayed. George Buttrick (who was the father of my preaching professor), in his book titled Prayer, notes that Jesus prayed at every critical juncture in his life. He prayed when he was tempted in the wilderness. He prayed when he chose his disciples. He prayed when they wanted to make him a king. He prayed in Gethsemane. He prayed on the cross. If Jesus, the Son of the living God, made prayer a priority in His life, then how much more should we make prayer a priority in our lives?
So much of our prayer life today is little more than what Reinhold Niebuhr once called “lobbying in the courts of the almighty for special favors.” We present God with a list of requests, asking for this or for that. And when we don’t get what we want, we become upset with God for not meeting our needs the way we wanted them met.
This week, I was reminded about a different approach to prayer, and perhaps you will find it helpful, too. It’s described as affirmative prayer, or praying affirmatively. The thought behind it is that we tend to turn to prayer only when things are going wrong. Now, it’s perfectly acceptable and even expected that we would go to God with our concerns. But if the only time we turn to God is when something is wrong, then prayer tends to take on a negative association. So, to turn it around and pray affirmatively means we focus our prayers on the positive outcomes rather than the negative situations.
For example, think about praying the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.” You would affirm: “Lord Jesus Christ, you are my Shepherd, and you are the Good Shepherd. Out of your abundant riches, you provide everything I need.” “He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me besides still waters.” “No matter what I face in life, you give me rest in the beauty of your presence. You satisfy my thirst with living water and give me the peace that surpasses all understanding.” That’s just a simple example. Or, think about the prayer Jesus taught us, as we say it every week: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” It’s affirmative. It turns us away from ourselves and toward the reality of God.
So, it was up on the mountain that Peter, James and John had this experience. When they were alone, away from all of life’s distractions and their own problems, they had this wonderful, mystical experience. Jesus appeared with Moses and Elijah, signifying that he was in fact the One who would fulfill the law and the prophets. Then they heard the voice of God telling them who Jesus was: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In Jesus’ baptism, he heard the words, “You are my son, the Beloved.” But this mountaintop experience is for Peter, James and John a moment of revelation. They now know in a real and powerful way who this Jesus is.
My favorite image is of Peter, the extroverted disciple, the compulsive talker, the one always putting his foot in his mouth. You can hear him just chattering away: “Wow! Isn’t this something? Will you look at that – Moses and Elijah? I wonder what they’re talking about up there. I sure wish we could hear them…” He’s just going on and on. And I love how the Bible puts it: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” What Peter did say was this: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” And in that sentence Peter captures for us a deeply human impulse. For you see, when we experience something profound, we want to capture it. We want to freeze the frame in time and told on to it like a precious treasure.
When I was growing up my grandparents had a lake house on a large reservoir formed out of the Sabine River on the Louisiana/Texas border. Some of my best childhood memories come from that place, a proverbial “happy place” in my mind. It was a marvelous time, with just the right mix of people and circumstance and age. But, of course, we all grew older with time. As kids, we got busy with school and extracurricular activities, and my grandparents aged to the point where it was no longer a pleasure to go up there. It was too much work to keep up the place, and they were not up for it. So, they made the decision to sell their house. It was hard to let go in a way, but it is part of life – letting go. We have to move on. But for some folks, that’s harder to do. Certain members of my family, at different times, have had a strong desire to recreate those memories – those wonderful experiences. And so, some years later, one of the houses just a few lots down from our family camp house became available for rent. And so it was rented, and we all went there, just like old times. Some things had changed; others had not. It was overall an enjoyable experience, but it was not the same experience. Because you can never recreate the past. It always ends up being a caricature of its former self – it never is what it was.
The Chilean writer Isabelle Allende lost her young adult daughter unexpectedly. And in the midst of her grief, she said: “I finally understood what life is about; it is about losing everything. Losing the baby who becomes a child, the child who becomes an adult, like the trees lose their leaves. So, every morning we must celebrate what we have.”
Sometimes we have to lose something – we have to let go of something – in order to get it back. When Peter was able to let go of that experience, he was able to cherish it for what it was. No booth, no dwelling, no monument could ever serve as an adequate substitute. God gives us these wonderful experiences in life; they shape who we are. But we must hold them very lightly.
So, with the disciples, we find ourselves going back down the mountain – back to the life and the work to which God has called us. But we return from that time apart as different people; we are changed, because we now know Jesus – the transfigured One – is God’s beloved Son. In Him is the fulfillment of all things. In Christ’s transfiguration we have a glorious glimpse of things to come, a vision of the Eternal Kingdom – a realization of our deep longing for that place where we are no longer strangers or guests, but we are at home as God’s beloved children.
 “Come on Down” by William H. Willimon, The Christian Century (February 10, 2004)
 George Arthur Buttrick, Prayer (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1942), pg. 36