Last Sunday after The Epiphany
February 15, 2015
Christ Church, Denmark
II Kings 2:1-12
II Corinthians 4:3-6
The encounter on the Mount of the Transfiguration – described in our Gospel reading – can mean many things. In fact, this is one of those biblical passages that offers preachers all kinds of topics to consider. One of my favorites is that the encounter described in today’s reading opens a window into the future. That is, through this window, the disciples see Jesus in his resurrection glory, prior to the event of the crucifixion. Thus, the transfiguration is like a window in time, showing a view of what the future will look like. Another favorite topic here involves the impulsiveness of Simon Peter. In his fear and discomfort, Peter spoke impulsively and inappropriately. In fact, a professor of mine offered this translation for part of the passage: “Peter – not knowing what to say – said…” Peter’s impulsiveness, therefore, is on full display.
But I want to reflect on a different topic today. After all, the event described in the reading took place on a mountaintop, quite literally. And, this event possesses many characteristics of what we call “mountaintop experiences.”
Of course, mountaintop experiences represent life changing moments. These are times which transform our world view … or experiences which require us to change our priorities in life … or encounters which challenge us at a profound level of our very being. Such are our mountaintop experiences in life. The world looks different from the perspective of a mountaintop … and in many ways, the world becomes different for us because of these moments.
I remember that our reading today was also the Gospel reading just after I returned from a mission trip to Haiti, years ago. One day on that mission trip, we had crossed a lake in dug-out canoes. Then, we climbed a hill on the other shore. At the top, we encountered a village full of eager schoolchildren and committed Christian folks. The obvious and sincere faith of those poor Haitian people became a profound inspiration for me. And, you had better believe that my congregation that next Sunday heard all about my mountaintop experience!
The world does look different from a mountaintop perspective … and in many ways, it is different. Thus, for most of our lives we live in the valleys. However, in a real way, we live for the mountaintops.
This Gospel passage affirms the significance of mountaintop experiences, it seems to me. However, in addition, it offers us something of a warning as well. For that warning, I want us to return to Simon Peter at this point – not for his impulsiveness, but for his misunderstanding of what he saw. Remember that Moses and Elijah appeared that day on the Mount of the Transfiguration, along with Jesus. Their role, though, was to bear witness to the Lordship of Christ. In response to their appearance, however, Peter offered to build three dwellings or shrines, as though the three of them were equal. And Peter’s misunderstanding had to be corrected by a voice from the cloud … a voice that I imagine Peter never forgot!
Today, then, I suggest that we have before us certain warnings about mountaintop experiences. Wonderful as they can be, some dangers come with them. Life-changing though they may be, we do well also to heed the warnings.
The first warning is this. At times of profound experience, sometimes we may jump to the wrong conclusion. When we find ourselves overwhelmed by circumstances in life – whether positive or negative – that probably is not the time to make a quick decision about anything. When Peter was confronted not just with Jesus on the mountaintop but also with long-departed Moses and Elijah, that probably was not the best time to say anything. He should have been quiet in response to the awe of that situation … as indeed the voice from the cloud indicated.
Likewise when we face momentous events in life, we do well to assimilate what has happened before reacting to them. After all, mountaintops are not crossed every day – and each one of them is different. Our previous experience may not include information needed for us to respond wisely. Time to assimilate what has happened, therefore, is critical. In such circumstances, we do well to avoid jumping to conclusions.
The second warning is this. Enthusiasm is contagious, but excessive enthusiasm can shut down communication. Instead of turning people on to an opportunity, it may turn them off in terms of any interest at all. Thus, in our reading, the disciples witnessed a remarkable sight. Moses – representing the Law – and Elijah – symbolic of the prophets – had appeared with Jesus on the mountaintop. Yet, on the way down, Jesus told those disciples “to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mk 9:9). In effect, Jesus was telling them to curb their enthusiasm.
In our own lives, we probably can identify times that we may have been excessively enthusiastic about some experience … and other times that such enthusiasm from our friends had a negative effect on us. In sharing my Haiti experiences, for instance, I probably went up to the edge of that divide, if in fact I did not step over it. Also, I can think of retreats that have changed parishioners’ lives, but in reporting the benefits later to their friends, they seemed to be engaging in “spiritual one-upmanship”, rather than encouraging their friends’ future involvement.
I remember a particularly humorous example of this kind of excessive enthusiasm which comes from my earlier pastoral experience as well. A lady in a congregation I served needed cataract surgery, although she resisted it mightily. Eventually she had no choice other than blindness, so she submitted to the surgery. All went very well, and she was amazed that she could see so well once again. In fact, she became an enthusiastic convert on behalf of cataract surgery. However, some days later, I visited one of this lady’s friends. And I learned from her a result of excessive enthusiasm. The second lady indicated that her friend had become a bother in her support of this surgery. This second lady had eventually told her friend that she did not want to hear any more about it and, besides, she did not need the surgery herself. However, her friend responded that it surely would be in her best interests to have the surgery done anyway!
We live most of our lives in the valleys. However, we do have mountaintop experiences that offer our lives new direction and hope and profound meaning. With those experiences, though, come challenges about which our Gospel reminds us. Therefore, on our mountaintops, may we take care to avoid jumping to unwise conclusions, and may we also resist excessiveness in conveying our enthusiasm. Through it all, may we give thanks to God, who is with us in the valleys, as well as on the mountaintops. Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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