Last Epiphany (B): Remember the Mountaintop
By: The Rev. Anna Tew
I once served as a hospital chaplain for a year. I was often rendered speechless by the pain I saw, and many times, silent accompaniment was what my patients and their families needed. Other times, I was called on to offer a word of hope.
Some of the most difficult cases were there was no clear happy ending. This could be because of a sudden crisis, or because of chronic pain or a bad diagnosis. In Atlanta, where I served, I was often tasked with offering hope to patients who were deeply religious, but were having a hard time seeing God’s presence in their lives at a particular moment. They sometimes called on me to help.
In time, I learned that often, the words of hope that patients wanted so desperately were not my words, but their own. It was my role as chaplain to be something of a midwife for hope; I was called only to ask the right questions.
Once, as I sat at the bedside of a patient, he described his deep faith but wondered if now God had abandoned him, because his health was failing. I assured him that God is not so cruel as to punish people by making them sick, nor do I believe that God abandoned him.
With tears in his eyes he said, “But I feel like God has left me. Has God left me?”
“Of course not,” I say, gripping his hand. “Can you tell me about the times in the past that you’ve felt God’s presence before?”
Nearly very time I had similar conversations, the results were always the same: the person would suddenly, even through tears, launch into praise as they narrated time and time again how God had been with them, about what they viewed as miracles — proof positive to them that their faith in God was well placed. They described mountaintop experiences.
“Do you believe that same God is still around today?” I asked this man gently.
“Of course! God is the same yesterday, and today, and forever!”
“Then I think that God is most certainly with you now as then.”
With that, he smiled and slept.
When we feel like God has abandoned us, it’s the times when our faith felt sure that can call us back.
In today’s Gospel, we venture with Jesus up to literal the mountain top. Peter, James, and John are there. They have come, they think, to pray. We don’t know how long they were there, but Luke does tell us: “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep…” Perhaps they waited and prayed for awhile, and night fell.
But then. Then, suddenly, everything changed.
Luke tells us that “since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” Suddenly, before their eyes, Jesus is transformed, his clothes radiating with a dazzling white, radiating with all the glory of heaven. Moses and Elijah appear at his side, and there he is — the Son of God, shining in glory, flanked by Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets. All is as it should be in that one shining moment. The disciples must have been floored. They must have imagined that this is why Jesus called them — to see this very moment.
I admit that I’ve often both related to and chuckled at Peter in this story. He reacts pretty practically, actually: “Let’s build something.” Let’s fix it. Let’s build shelters for all three of you. Depending on the time of year, this could have been very practical — if it was very hot or cold. Peter assumes, wrongly, that they are going to stay here. I can’t blame him. This miracle — this revelation — surely this was the ultimate revelation, right?
I imagine that they, at the very least, wanted to tell someone about all this, but Luke says that in those days, they kept quiet. Matthew adds a little more depth to the story; Jesus says to them on their way down the mountain: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” That line always gives me chills. This isn’t it. That wasn’t all. There’s more. And what comes next will be painful.
You see, they thought this was the end of the story. They thought this shining moment was the pinnacle of everything. But they hoped far too small. Because our God is not only or not even primarily found in those moments shining on the mountaintop when everything seems clear and where our faith seems certain. If that were the case, we should hope for more mountaintops and direct revelations.
Our God is found, most commonly, when things are at their worst. In the cross, we see that Christ is ever-present in human suffering. Certainly, we all marvel at mountaintop moments, moments when our faith seems sure and our call seems certain. But if you think that God is amazing because Jesus’ clothing is sparkling — you just wait until God takes what is dead and makes it new again.
The Transfiguration, the mountaintop, is not the end of the story. It’s only the beginning. It will be the confirmation that the disciples think back to when things get hard. When things seem impossible. When things seem dead and irreconcilable. I imagine that, when the disciples were locked in the upper room after Jesus was killed on the cross, when all hope seemed lost, that there were whispers among James and John and Peter about the Transfiguration. “Remember?” they whispered to each other. “That was real. I saw it too.” The Transfiguration, I imagine, just maybe offered a glimmer of hope that this wasn’t the end.
“Remember?” I imagine Peter whispering. “Maybe… just maybe… maybe it’s not over.” And that is what mountaintop experiences will do for us — those shining moments aren’t extinguished easily. They give us hope in dark times.
So let’s look around and take this mountaintop moment in. Jesus is before us, transfigured, with the law and the prophets at his side. God speaks about him from the sky and tells us to listen to him. For one shining moment, we get proof beyond all doubt that we are following the right guy — that this Jesus isn’t just a great rabbi — he’s God made flesh, and he’s our only hope.
Remember the mountaintop moments in your life, too — times when it feels like God is right there and when your purpose seems so clear. Mark them, remember them, bless them. Because mountaintop moments like the Transfiguration aren’t for God’s benefit, they’re for ours. So that we can be sure that we are on the right path. So that we can know that even if the path leads to death, take heart, because even death leads to resurrection. And next week, as if on cue, the challenge of Lent begins, and we will venture even deeper into God’s unfailing grace.
And when Lent gets into full swing, let’s remember the alleluias today even as we anticipate the much larger alleluias of Easter. When Lent drags on, let’s whisper to each other, “Remember?” Let us look around on the mountaintop, so that we can remember that God, made flesh and true to his Word, is certainly, certainly still with us. Amen.
The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.