The mountain-top experience
Second Sunday in Lent, 20 February, 2005
Fr Tom Brown
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
"Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves."
Climbing mountains has always been one of my enthusiasms. Many people wonder why. It's not always easy to get them to understand the attraction of climbing a mountain. You can speak of a sense of achievement, of the views from the top, the fresh air and the peacefulness. But all this is only part of it. For me, and I'm sure for others, to climb to the top of a mountain can be quite a profound spiritual experience. From there you often see things more clearly. You're able to stand back from life, to stand above it, and to see everything from a different perspective. Often God seems closer and more real on the mountain top: there's less to distract you and take your attention away from God.
So it's no surprise at all to me that mountains play a significant part at key points in the bible. In the Old Testament, Mt Sinai is where God reveals himself to both Moses and Elijah. In the New Testament, it's on a high mountain that Jesus is transfigured and revealed as the Son of God in glory.The traditional location of the Transfiguration is Mt Tabor, a steep sided mountain which rises abruptly in the Galilean countryside. From the top of Mt Tabor you can see many of the places where Jesus spent much of his life. Nazareth is visible, and the village of Nain, where Jesus raised the widow's son; and you get glimpses of the Sea of Galilee, around which Jesus spent much of his ministry and called his disciples. We can imagine Jesus, with Peter, James and John, looking down from the mountain and being reminded of the many places they'd been to and the people they'd come into contact with; being reminded of their successes and failures.
But not only the past was in Jesus' thoughts. It's clear that he was looking to the future as well, and that he had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen. Just before and again just after the Transfiguration he tells his disciples that he's going to suffer and be killed. In St Luke's account of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about his departure, his death, which was about to happen in Jerusalem. And then shortly after the Transfiguration Jesus leaves Galilee and begins to travel towards Jerusalem. In the gospels the Transfiguration is a turning point in the life of Jesus. He now moves on from the successes and failures of the early part of his ministry, and heads for its climax in Jerusalem. The horror of the Cross with its pain and suffering and loss begins to loom large. How did Jesus feel about this? Of course we don't know. But he was a human being like us, and the prospect of a painful death was no more attractive to him than it is to us. He can only have been apprehensive.
It's significant that it was Moses and Elijah who talked with Jesus on the mountain. They too went to the top of a high mountain at times for them of discouragement, difficulty and despair. Moses came down from Mt Sinai the first time with the Ten Commandments only to find that the Israelites had abandoned God and were worshipping the golden calf. In his anger and frustration he smashed the stone tablets. But then God called him up the mountain again, and again revealed himself. Elijah was being hunted by the authorities because of his actions against pagan gods. In fear of his life he fled into the desert in despair, ready to give up. And he too climbed the mountain, where God revealed himself in the still, small voice, and encouraged and renewed him.
And so it was for Jesus and for his disciples. For them too what happened on the mountain of the Transfiguration was an encouraging and affirming experience: the glory of God visibly shining from the face of Jesus, the presence of Moses and Elijah, these great heroes of Israel's past, and the voice of God: "This is my Son, the Beloved". So the Transfiguration was preparing Jesus for what he could clearly see lay ahead, and his disciples for what they could not yet see.
And there are times when we too need mountain-top experiences. We too need to be encouraged and affirmed, as Moses and Elijah and Jesus himself were. For there is a lot these days for us to be discouraged about when we look at the church.
Fr John celebrated the Silver Jubilee of his ordination last week. Without for a moment wishing to upstage him, on 2nd February I celebrated the fortieth anniversary of my ordination. As I look back over these 40 years there is of course a huge amount I have to be thankful for. But there are also temptations to be discouraged. When I began my theological training in 1960 I had the sense that I was throwing in my lot with quite a flourishing show. The Church of England (as we called it then) was in many respects booming. Churches were full, there were many vocations to the ministry and to religious life. But from almost the moment I put my foot through the door of St Michael's House, Crafers, things began to decline, and the picture now is very different, as we're all aware. I'm of that generation of priests which has lived across the watershed from boom to decline. What have those of us ordained in the past 40 years done wrong that our predecessors did right? Is it our fault that things have got into this mess?
The way the church tends to cast around looking for means to get out of the mess might suggest that we do think it's our fault, that it does all depend on us, and that if only we can find the right approach we can restore the glories of the past. Perhaps if we evangelise more effectively (remember the Decade of Evangelism?), or if we restructure the diocese more efficiently (restructuring was in progress when I became an archdeacon 16 years ago), or if we find ourselves a clearer vision, then all might come good again. But I wonder. Surely it's resurrection, not resuscitation, which must take place in the church. They're not the same. Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation, the restoration of the way it used to be. Resurrection leads to something new and different, not simply to a revival of the past. On several occasions the disciples didn't recognise the risen Christ. Will we recognise a risen church? What will a risen church look like?
In the meantime we wait. What we see is not always encouraging. There may be times when we feel despairing as Moses was of the people of Israel, or ready to give up like Elijah, or apprehensive about what the future would hold, as Jesus was. Where do we find our experience of the mountain-top, of God overshadowing us, making his presence known, reassuring and affirming us, encouraging us, and giving us the strength and the courage to persevere?
And I suggest that where this must happen is right here, as we celebrate the Eucharist day by day, Sunday by Sunday. Here we come together as God's people. Here we come to listen to the words of God, as from the cloud on Mt Sinai, as on the mountain of the Transfiguration. Here we come to receive food for our journey, the living bread. Here we come into the presence of God. It is an awesome experience to come into the presence of the living God, the creator and Lord of the universe. "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." Here we bow down in worship, and here we have a glimpse of heaven, where angels and archangels sing in adoration: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of his glory." Every Eucharist can be for us an experience of the Transfiguration, where we know the presence of God, where we are built up in our faith, and encouraged and strengthened.
After the Transfiguration Jesus and the disciples had to come down the mountain, back to earth, to face the future. The glory faded. And when we go out from here it's still the same old Melbourne, nothing seems to have changed. Yet in another sense, everything is changed, everything is transfigured, for we know, and are affirmed in this knowledge, that all shall be well; for our God is a God of resurrection, of new life, new hope, and new possibilities.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.