In the English language, there is a special term for those times in our lives that are extraordinary, elating, and enlightening: we call such moments ‘mountaintop experiences’. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent for this expression in the German language – ‘Berggipfel-Erlebnis’ doesn’t exist.
But I think even the Germans among us get the idea: there on the mountaintop, something special happens. Heaven and earth touch. And whoever has climbed a mountain probably knows what a rush that is: to be on top of the world. To be so far removed from the rest of the world. To experience the sound of silence. To get the big picture. To feel elated. And, yes, maybe even to feel closer to God, to the divine.
Many religions of this world imagined their gods and goddesses to live up there somewhere, be it on the top of a high mountain or the heavens, and the closest people would ever get to them would be by getting up there. And such mountains are often holy and very sacred places: Mount Olympus in Greece. Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Mount Fuji in Japan. Mount Tamalpais and Mount Diablo right here in the San Francisco Bay Area. And while on Maui, we discovered the holy mountain there, Haleakala. And these are just a few of the holy mountains in this world.
Our holy scriptures know of sacred mountains: Mount Ararat in what today is Turkey, where Noah’s Ark landed; Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horeb, in what today is Egypt, the place where Moses received the 10 commandments; Mount Nebo in what today is Jordan, from which Moses saw the Promised Land. Mount Zion, the place where Jerusalem and is situated and where, for many years, God’s holy temple stood. And there are many other examples of people encountering God on a mountaintop, primarily the prophets of the Old Testament. Often the encounters with God would be glorious, spectacular, and quite intimidating.
Today’s gospel story of Jesus’ transfiguration fits right into the tradition of people encountering the divine on a mountaintop. Six days later, we hear, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain. And he was transfigured before their eyes, and his clothes became dazzling white. And then there appeared to them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
What a spectacle! If the disciples who accompany Jesus haven’t understood yet who Jesus is, now there is no doubt about it anymore. He is the Christ. Just like Elijah and Moses in the olden days talked to God on mountain tops, so they now talk to Jesus, the Son of God.
But let’s look back at the first words of today’s gospel story: six days later. So what happens six days before that? Six days earlier, Jesus tells his disciples for the first time that he has to die – and rise again. The long journey to Jerusalem has begun. And I can imagine that the disciples must be in a sullen and confused state. Why would Jesus have to suffer is he is the promised Messiah?
It almost seems like the experience on the mountaintop and the display of the glory of Jesus Christ are meant to reassure the disciples, who witness all this, that, despite the fact that Jesus will go through the valley of the shadow of death, he will be victorious in the end. However, it seems that this mountaintop experience is rather causing more confusion. We hear that the disciples are terrified – and who wouldn’t be? – but especially Peter’s reaction shows that the disciples are still far from understanding what is happening.
Peter, not knowing what to say, stammers, ‘Let’s build three dwellings here, three monuments, to immortalize what we’ve just experienced.’ Peter, who heard just a few days ago that Jesus would have to die soon, wants to capture, set in stone this moment – the glory of Christ, the mountaintop experience, and somehow pass by the experience of suffering and death. And who could blame him?
But before he even reaches the valley again, Peter is disillusioned: there is the admonishing voice from heaven, telling the disciples to listen to Jesus – and the moment of glory is gone, just like that. It’s back to a harsher reality. A reality where, in the end, heaven and earth will touch in the most profound and painful way in a very different kind of mountaintop experience, on a hilltop that has become known as Mount Calvary, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion.
I think we all know a thing or two about trying to capture special moments. Before there were digital images, there were ‘Kodak moments’, beautiful moments that just had to be captured on film for all posterity. Through monuments, we still try to immortalize special people or events in history. We pass on stories of the good old days, times of glory, and dwell in nostalgia – and I think most churches like to do that, too. How often do people here recall the stories of a more glorious past and would like to relive those days?
Don’t we all want to hang on to the mountaintop moments in our lives – the time we met the love of our life, and it changed everything? The time we accomplished a goal and felt so happy that we did it? The times when we proudly witnessed the milestones of our children and grandchildren? The times we celebrated special events, like a wedding or a baptism? I am sure you all recall such mountaintop moments, moments that were special, elating, transforming.
We look at children like T and N, who will be baptized here today, how precious they are, and sometimes wish that they would stay that little and cute and adorable forever, right? Don’t you as parents and family sometimes want to hold on to that? I at least have to admit that, looking at T and N, I wished I could relive the days when my kids were that age.
Yes, it would be wonderful if we could capture mountaintop experiences, like the baptism of these two precious children of God this day, a moment when God joyously says ‘yes’ to N and T and promises them to be with them always – but, as we all know, such moments won’t last. T and N will grow up, reach their terrible twos; they will enter school, they will cause you moments of worry and frustration, and all too soon, they will be grown up and live their own lives. There will be many more moments when you will make it together through the valleys, the quite ordinary places of your life, than mountaintop moments – but, and I am very confident about this, there will be many more mountaintop moments to come.
And think about it: if we held on to all the moments that are so special, we’d miss out on future possibilities, new and exciting things yet to come.
And just as Christ showed his glory in the quite ordinary moments of people’s lives, going to where they were, healing, teaching, forgiving, transforming – I hope you will find beauty and deep meaning in the ordinary times of your life together as a family.
I hope that, even when the going is tough, you will remember – and remind T and N – that this special mountaintop moment of their baptism carries over in all the days of their lives. That God says to them, each and every day, you are my beloved child, and I am with you, always.
And for you, M and Z, and for all of you who are assembled here today: may you remember that the special mountaintop experience of your baptism carries over in all the days of your lives. That God says to you, each and every day, you are my beloved child, and I am with you, always.
In extraordinary, elating, and enlightening moments – and in those moments when all the magic seems to be gone, in times of hardship and even in the face of death: God is there. On the mountaintops of our lives and in the valleys. Thanks be to God for that!
Photograph by Fred Weidmann
This post is also available in: German