"Mountains Beyond Mountains" – Luke 9:28-36
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"—not knowing what he said. 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!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
As many of you know, Haiti is on the horizon for a group of mission trippers from Cross of Grace. We leave a week from today, for a week in the mountains of Fondwa. So, I have Haiti on the brain. This will be my sixth trip and I’m looking forward to it, just as much as ever. But I’m also excited and anxious this time around in a different way, because my son, Jackson, is going along with the group.
To be honest, I’m a little more excited about all of it than he is, but he’s warming up to the idea, I think, and he’s playing along like a champ. And, to be honest, his mother is starting to get more and more nervous as the date for our departure gets closer, but she’s still on board and hasn’t changed her mind yet. (She told me the other night that half of her heart was about to climb onto a plane and head for a third-world country, without her, and that she’s not at all convinced she’s ready for that.)
And in a strange way, it made me think about this Transfiguration story again, because Peter’s reaction to what he experienced on that mountain was something like what Jackson, and Christa, and myself – to be honest – are considering as our trip to Haiti draws near. What I mean is, Peter doesn’t want to let Jesus go.
Jesus takes three of his disciples – Peter, John and James – up to the top of a mountain for a prayer vigil of some kind. And while he prayed, something magical happened… something mysterious… something mystical: his face changed (it “shone like the sun” is what Matthew’s Gospel tells us) and his clothes became dazzling white (“such as no one on earth could bleach them,” according to Mark’s version of the same story). Then the disciples realize they’re not alone on that mountain top – that they have guests. And not just any guests, but Moses and Elijah, prophets of God they’ve heard so much about and read so much about and learned so much about, presumably over the years.
That’s why Peter wants to keep them around. That’s why Peter’s first reaction is to savor the moment – to hold onto whatever miracle and magical and mystical experience they were sharing. “Master,” he says to Jesus, “it is good for us to be here. Let us build three dwellings – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” “Let’s cherish this moment.” “Let’s set up camp so the three of you can stay right where you are.” “Let’s keep this mountain-top thing going – with all of its dazzling white miracle, majesty, and prophetic power.”
Maybe Peter wanted the rest of the disciples to see what he’d seen. (Who would have believed it, after all, unless they could see it for themselves?) Maybe he had some questions of his own to ask Moses and Elijah about when their time with Jesus was done. Maybe, Peter just didn’t want a good thing to end because deep down, he knew he may never get those precious moments back. Whatever the reason, Peter wanted things to stay just as they were.
And then comes a voice from the cloud that covers the mountain, “This is my son; my Chosen. Listen to him.”
What Peter wasn’t hearing; or seeing; or willing to accept just yet, perhaps, was that God had very deliberately set Jesus alongside these prophets from the past. We’re told they were talking about “his departure,” which is a very nice way of saying they were talking about how Jesus was headed for the cross; how he was about to be betrayed; how Peter, himself, would deny he even knew Jesus; how he would be beaten and abused and crucified and left for dead.
What Peter wasn’t hearing; or seeing; or willing to accept just yet, was that Jesus was the one the world had been waiting for – the Messiah he had proclaimed himself to be; that Jesus was the last in a line of prophets like Moses and Elijah and that his power and prophecy would be revealed in a way no one would believe until they had seen it for themselves. What Peter wasn’t ready for, as we’ll hear again in the days of Lent that are coming, was the deadly destination of this discipleship journey they’d been traveling with Jesus.
Who wouldn’t want to stay safe on the mountain top when what lies ahead in the valley is so dark and scary and painful and hard to swallow – or, at the very least, so uncertain? Who can blame Peter for being scared of what Jesus was about to do – and ask him to be part of? Who can blame Peter for wondering if there might be some way to avoid all of that struggle and suffering and sacrifice?
I don’t think Jesus blamed Peter, any more than he blames us when we try the same – and we all really do try the same a lot of the time, don’t we? It’s more tempting to be comfortable, than to embrace the call of discipleship to give more of our selves and our stuff away. It’s more tempting to stay safe – to stick with what we know – than it is to try new things for the sake of God’s grace. It’s easier – and more fun a lot of the time – to keep a good thing going, to avoid taking risks, to stay up on the mountain tops instead of stepping down into the valleys where God’s love is waiting to be shared.
But today reminds me that Jesus is up on the mountaintops and he’s down in the valleys, too. And real transfiguration, true transformation, and meaningful change happens in both places. Through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are promised that God is already in whatever future awaits us, even if we’re unsure of just what it may take to get there.
Did you know that “Haiti,” as a name for the country, means something like “land of high mountains,” or “land of many mountains?” And there’s an old (Debbie Downer kind of) Haitian proverb that says simply, “Déyé món gen món,” which means, “beyond mountains there are mountains.” It’s kind of a downer because, if you walk everywhere, and if you live in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, mountains are something other than just nice to look at. Mountains are also difficult to climb… and obstacles in the way… and hardships to be overcome. “Déyé món gen món.” “Beyond mountains there are mountains.”
And the people of Haiti, surrounded by mountain after mountain in every way, live with the kind of grace and faith and courage and generosity and strength I’d like to think I could find, if/when I need it.
And that’s why I love taking people to the mountains of Fondwa, in Haiti. It’s why I want my son to go. It’s why I’m proud of Christa for letting it happen. And it’s why I feel compelled to spend time there, myself. Because it’s an opportunity to step away from what’s comfortable; it’s a chance for some real perspective about what matters and what doesn’t in our lives; it’s a gift of grace to see God alive and well on the mountaintops and in the valleys of this world where we live.
So that’s what I hear from the Transfiguration story this time around. God is always calling us to something bigger and better and more holy than we may even recognize if we always do what’s familiar and stay only where we’re most comfortable. And I’m not just talking about getting on a plane for someplace like Haiti. It might mean ending a relationship or beginning a new one. It might mean asking for forgiveness or saying you’re sorry. It might mean leaving a j.o.b. to respond to a calling or embracing a loss you never thought you could do without. It might mean saying goodbye, watching your children grow up and go away, whatever. There are mountains beyond the mountains of our lives for each and every one of us.
So our call as beloved children of God, and as faithful followers of Jesus, is to hear the Good News of God’s invitations to us, to step down from the mountaintops of our experience every once in awhile – or to climb a mountain we never thought we could – and to trust that new life in Jesus Christ awaits us with every step. And when we live with this kind of courage and faith and openness and humility, our eyes and our lives will be opened, and our world just might be changed… transformed… transfigured by grace in Jesus’ name.