Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
February 19, 2012


Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

When you’re talking about spiritual things you just can’t use simple, declarative language. When you’re talking about connecting with the spiritual dimension of reality, that is, with God, ordinary factual language just won’t do the trick. So we use a lot of metaphors. Metaphors are words or phrases that talk about a thing by saying something else. They are using images expressed in ordinary words to point to an extraordinary experience. For example: For as long as there have been humans, humans have had extraordinary experiences of the presence of God, experiences of an unusually immediate presence of the spiritual, of the holy, of the numinous. There are no words to describe those experiences directly, so people created metaphors for them. One of those metaphors is “mountaintop experience”. A mountaintop is of course a real, physical place. In a prosaic sense standing on top of Mount Rainier is a mountaintop experience, an experience of being on a literal mountaintop. Used as a metaphor, however, the phrase mountaintop experience doesn’t really have anything directly to do with being on top of a mountain. You may a metaphorical mountaintop experience of feeling the immediate presence of God on top of a mountain, but you can also have that experience in the deepest valley. It is still, metaphorically, a mountaintop experience. As a metaphor, mountaintop experience points to a closeness of God. The ancients thought that being up on a mountain brought you literally closer to God, which is, I suppose, where the metaphor comes from; but for us the phrase is a metaphor that conveys a spiritual experience, not a literal one.

Mountaintop experiences are really powerful. Many people never have one, and for just about everyone they are really rare. They are rare, but they are a rush. They are getting high—another metaphor—not on drugs but on God. They are, or at least can be, experiences of indescribable joy, indescribable peace. They are seductive. They feel so good that we don’t want them to end. We wish we could stay in them forever. Yet we never do. We can’t. We don’t seem to be constructed that way. Mountaintop experiences always end. Even for the saints and mystics who have more of them than the rest of us they end. We come back down off the mountain.

Our Gospel reading this morning recounts a mountaintop experience of three of Jesus’ closest disciples. The story is set on a high mountain, but that’s not what I mean when I say they had a mountaintop experience. They had a profound spiritual experience, a mystical experience, of the presence of God shining through Jesus. They heard a voice, presumably the voice of God. They had a vision of Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, together with Jesus. We can only imagine what such an experience must have been like to them. It apparently confused Peter, or at least produced strong but mixed emotions in him, for Mark reports him speaking to Jesus; but then Mark says that Peter did not know what to say. Mark says they were “terrified,” yet he also reports Peter saying that it was good for them to be there. He may have been “terrified,” but Peter also apparently wanted to make the experience permanent when he proposed building dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

It seems Peter was confused by mixed emotions, or maybe not. Maybe what we’re dealing with here in these seemingly contradictory statements is Mark’s difficulty in putting into words an experience that can’t be put into words. Maybe Mark’s contradictory statements point to the paradoxical nature of mountaintop experiences, experiences that enthrall us but that are so beyond the realm of our ordinary experiences that they also frighten us. After all, mountaintop experiences are encounters with God, and there is often something frightening about an encounter with God. That’s why the first thing God’s angels say to people who are having mountaintop experiences is “fear not.” One thing is certain. Mountaintop experiences like the one Mark describes in his story of Jesus’ Transfiguration are unlike anything else we may experience in this life.

Mountaintop experiences are immensely powerful. They change us. Or at least they have the potential to change, to transform us. After a true mountaintop experience we are never quite the same person as we were before. After a true mountaintop experience we know something about the nature of reality that we didn’t know before. Oh, maybe we knew about the reality of God intellectually. Maybe we acknowledged the reality of God with our minds before. After a mountaintop experience we know the reality of the spiritual realm, we know the reality of God, at a much deeper level. We know God in our hearts. We know God in our souls. We know that reality is so much richer, so much deeper than the one dimensional reality our rationalistic, materialistic culture believes in. On the mountaintop we have been in the presence of God in an immediate, intimate way, and we can never be the same.

Yet the three disciples who went up that mountain with Jesus learned more than the reality of God. As people of the ancient world they probably never had the doubt that we moderns often have about the reality of God in the first place. They learned that in Jesus, the one they had left their former lives to follow, God was with them. They saw God not in some generalized way but very specifically shining in and through Jesus. And they didn’t just see. They heard. They heard a voice from heaven telling them to listen to him. Listen to him, meaning don’t just hear him, follow him. He’s the one. He’s the one to show you the way. He’s the one to show you who God really is. Listen to him. Follow him.

Mark’s story of the Transfiguration recounts one mountaintop experience of the disciples encountering God in Jesus, but the Transfiguration isn’t the only story in the New Testament of Jesus’ disciples having such mountaintop experiences. The stories of Jesus’ resurrection are very similar stories of mountaintop experiences. So is the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciple community. So is Paul’s experience of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Early Christians had many mountaintop experiences of the presence of God in Jesus and in the risen Christ.

It was precisely those mountaintop experiences of God in Jesus that created the Christian movement. It was precisely those mountaintop experiences that gave the first disciples the courage, after Jesus’ crucifixion, to stay together and to keep proclaiming Jesus’ message. Their mountaintop experiences of God in Jesus sent the first disciples out into the lands of Gentiles with the news of a Jewish Messiah. Their mountaintop experiences of God in Jesus gave the early disciple community the inspiration and the courage to live a countercultural, counter-imperial life, life the way Jesus taught and lived it, a life of peace, radical rejection of violence, inclusion, care, and justice for the poor and the excluded. Without those first disciples’ mountaintop experiences of God in Jesus there would be no Christianity. There would be no Christian community. The Jesus movement would have died with its founder and inspiration, Jesus Christ.

Friends, whether we have personally had mountaintop experiences of the presence of God in Jesus Christ or not, we are the inheritors of those mountaintop experiences of the first disciples. Even if we haven’t had those experiences ourselves, we have the testimony of our predecessors in faith that God truly was present in a unique way in Jesus Christ. Their experience formed them into a transfigured, transformed community. Our call as Christians is to let our own experiences and the testimony of the early saints of our faith transform us into transfigured, transformed community as well. Their experience of God in Jesus transformed them into a transformed community that rejected the world’s ways of violence and exploitation and lived the kingdom life, the life they learned from Jesus.

Even if we haven’t had powerful experiences like theirs, we are the inheritors of those experiences and the transfigured community they created. Today many Christians are rediscovering the virtues of early Christianity. We are rediscovering Christianity as a way of life more than a way of mere belief. The first Christians lived, as much as they were able, as people of the Way, the Way of God, rejecting the ways of empire. God in Jesus Christ calls us today to do the same, to reject the ways of empire by which we are surrounded and to live the life of the Kingdom of God. A life of peace. A life of justice. A life of care for God’s good creation. A life of prayer not consumerism. A life of spiritual values not material ones. God called the first disciples of Jesus into transfigured community. God calls us into transfigured community too. The voice on the mountain said of Jesus “listen to him.” God says to us too “listen to him.” Can we? Will we? Amen.