Even as a child, I loved to watch clouds – as they moved, changed shapes and colors – they fascinated me. If you follow my Facebook page, you know I am frequently posting hundreds or maybe even a thousand pictures of sunrises and sunsets and the formation of clouds that surround them. Some people have even accused me of being obsessed with clouds. When I was a little girl, my friends and I would lie in the grass and analyze cloud shapes – a horse? a boat? a dragon? a face? The interesting thing was that rarely did any two of us see the same thing – different experiences conjured up different impression in our minds.
As in so many passages in the Bible, we read about the Transfiguration of Jesus told in a language we can only accept as a metaphor.
In this modern world, we do not expect, or even look for, a literal appearance of God on mountaintops, . . . in clouds, . . . in mystical or supernatural appearances, . . . or actually talking to us today. But that is exactly what our gospel reading is about
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
The ancient Biblical writers often used clouds when they depicted important occasions when God was dealing with his people. We can recall:
- When the Israelites fled from Egypt, a pillar of cloud led them by day.
- When Moses climbed up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, a cloud descended upon the mountain, obscuring it. The people looked up, and they could no longer see Moses.
- When God instructed the Israelites to construct a portable tabernacle, God filled the tent with his Presence in the form of a cloud.
- And, later, when Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, once again a cloud filled the sanctuary.
So, in our Scripture reading, when the cloud descended over the mountaintop with Jesus, Peter, John and James…
we shouldn’t be surprised.
The scripture writers, once again, were depicting a time when the Presence of God was enveloping them, as the Presence of God has done time and time again to His faithful people.
It is this Biblical account of Jesus’ transfiguration occurring on a mountaintop – as well as the experience of Moses at Mount Sinai in the Hebrew Bible, that has given rise to the commonly used term ‘mountaintop experience’ – a moment of such intense joy and beauty in one’s life that we are somehow changed – and never forget it.
To depict God, appearing as a cloud, says something important about God. Clouds are not crystal clear, but rather dense and opaque. But, also within clouds is brilliant light, reflecting from and off the clouds. That is a great mystery; how can something opaque and dense put forth brilliant light.
So, perhaps then, it is fitting that clouds are used to remind us of the mystery of God – the lack of clarity and precision, the sense of wonder and transformation.
In our world we want to know things. We want Google at our fingertips to tell us everything about anything, and we want Facebook to instantly tell us everything else—like what our friends had for dinner, or how mom’s cruise is going. We humans have a hunger and thirst for knowledge; we have always been curious and wanted answers, the facts. And, as technology has advanced through the millennia, we want more and more knowledge, provable tangible facts within our grasp immediately and at all times.
And, as Christians, we are no different in our quest for answers about our relationship with God. We want to know specifics about God, and our relationship with him. Moreover, we want to know why we are here, what is the meaning of life, where is God, and where will we be after death – none of this ‘now we see through a glass darkly’, or in a cloud. We want to know how this story, or that proverb, or this anecdote applies to our life. What it really means. And, we want to know right now, on demand. We don’t want to wait!
So, what really did happen to Jesus and Peter and James and John on that mountaintop? How could we understand what this biblical story means for us? Can we be transfigured on a mountaintop? Or do life-changing moments of mystery and wonder not happen today? Does God no longer ‘speak’ to us?
Life is full of mountaintop experiences. They are the times when we find healing, or unexpected love, when we suddenly have an ‘aha’ moment and clearly know the answer to a problem or important life decision.
Sometimes mountaintop experiences are visions of the intense beauty of nature: the Grand Canyon, the Redwood forests, the Rocky Mountains, a field of sunflowers.
For many mountaintop experiences are inspired by music, art, poetry, . . .or perhaps gathered with others around a campfire, . . .or in an energized and inspiring worship service. Almost always, words cannot express or explain these moments – they are ‘of the spirit’ and involve deep feeling and an ‘inner-knowing’ that is, in fact, more real and true to us than anything we can find on Wikipedia.
It’s tempting to want our life’s journey to be made up of only mountaintop experiences. Then we might bypass the chaos, the challenges, and the struggles. In our mountaintop moments, something inside us cries out, “it is good for us to be here. Let’s just bask in the glory of this place.”
But it’s also true that life – especially if one is a Christian– continually calls us down from those breath-taking moments, down from the mountaintop, and out into the world. We inevitably must descend from our moments of profound glory, celebration, clarity and joy, into the valleys of this world where life is messy, confusing, challenging, and inhospitable.
To follow the teachings of Jesus in a relationship with the Creator isn’t easy. God isn’t composed of a series of facts; the Creator of life is a series of mysteries and questions we can’t easily or quickly understand. God’s Presence is enveloped in mystery. In fact, coming into God’s Presence is like entering a thick cloud where definition is not always precise, but it is there -where answers are not linear and logical, but they are there – and in that cloudy presence, that mountaintop experience we are transfigured – changed for the better, enlightened for a time, aware at the core of our being that there is Order, Reason, Mercy and Love at the heart of everything.
Our encounter with God in mountaintop moments changes our lives. Changes how we look at the world by making us very more aware of how we are to live and what God is calling us to do in the world. It is in these mountaintop experiences that we learn the most, are often brought to uncontrollable tears, inexplicably changed even though there is no way we can explain it to anyone. And in most cases, we don’t totally understand it ourselves.
Encountering God, whether on the mountaintop OR at your kitchen table, leaves you with a sense of awe and joy – often something that you can’t even explain. But you know you have somehow been changed. And you will never the be same ever again. That you have a feeling of being surrounded with love and joy. For at least a time, you suddenly understand what is not understandable.
Moses came down from that clouded mountain with a radiant face—forever changed. Jesus was changed on that mountain – enveloped in the love and light of God, given the highest blessing anyone could ever receive from His Father.
Peter, James, and John were changed on that mountain—forever. And, not because they learned lots of facts. In reality, they probably descended with more questions than answers. But they saw Jesus changed and heard God’s voice. They didn’t know why, but they knew that they would never be the same again.
For like Moses, they met the Presence of the Living God. And, that’s what changed them and what changes us. That’s what alters the course of our lives. And, as Christians, that’s what we’re all about: seeking God’s Presence, experiencing an epiphany, an enlightenment, an awakening.
We try to move too fast in the world today. We want what we want, when we want it. Right now! We want it handed to us on a silver platter, all wrapped up in an explanation. We want no uncertainty; no fogginess; nothing that we have to think about.
But meeting God doesn’t work that way. It is in the time and way of the eternal Creator that we learn and find answers. Our task – our challenge – is to stay open to experiencing the mountaintops, to hearing the voice, to receiving the answers, to following the directions.
It isn’t an accident that Mathew, Mark, and Luke, the three gospel-writers who mention the Transfiguration, infuse the story with foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. In our scripture reading for this morning we are told that Moses and Elijah were speaking to Jesus about “his departure”, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. “Departure” here is another word for death. We are meant to understand that the distance between the mountaintop and the cross is not so great, and that Jesus’ followers should never lose sight of either one of them. In our mountaintop moments we must recognize the sacrifices that we are called to make, just as Jesus did. In our lowly moments of despair we are to remember God’s sovereignty reigns over all things – that indeed “all will be well”, despite the pain and loss and struggle. The mountaintop cannot be separated from the cross. In the struggles also lies the glory.
In the end, the test of any mountaintop experience is what happens back at ground level. Whatever mountaintop experiences we have individually, or as a member of the Body of Christ, what we do with these experiences here on earth in our daily lives is really what matters. Our transfigurations must
change us for the better in the way we live and the work we do. . .
enlighten and sustain us . . .
and motivate us to follow Jesus in every aspect of our lives.
As transfigured children of God, we must heed God’s voice
This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him! (Luke 9:35)
So, in my obsession with clouds, maybe that is my mountaintop experience – seeing and hearing God in the opaqueness and light of those clouds over Columbus.
What and where are your mountaintop experiences?
I only know that we must stay open – through prayer, meditation and calm reflection through shared study and service – to be willing to walk into the cloudy mist and seek the Presence of God. And then go forth to work for the transfiguration of the world into a world of beauty and holiness, of joy, and of love.
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 6 August 2017