1995 was a glowing time in South African history. Close on the heels of our first democratic election, our rugby team won the World Cup with a close win over our arch-rivals, the New Zealand All Blacks. When the final whistle blew, we were all brothers and sisters, and we were all filled with a euphoria born of hope and seemingly limitless possibilities.
Since those days, we have had a difficult and sometimes disheartening journey. Crime rates have remained unacceptably high and have led some of our citizens to leave the country for ‘safer’ places to live. Racism and xenophobia has raised its head from time to time, and poverty, unemployment and AIDs remain huge challenges. Yet, we keep going back to 1995, to the glory and hope of those days, and to the possibilities that we imagined.
The same pattern is found in almost every individual life. We have moments that live forever in our hearts surrounded by a glow of hope and possibility. We remember our achievements, our loves, our happiest experiences, and return to them often to draw strength, inspiration and confidence for the challenges ahead. We know that if we can relive those moments of glory, we can find the resources we need to navigate life’s obstacles and find a life of fulness and meaning. It was no different for Jesus.
In keeping with his purpose of showing Jesus as the new Moses bringing the new (or, rather, complete) law, Matthew describes the journey of Jesus and his three closest disciples up the mountain. There is some debate over the exact location of the events described here, but the connection, in Matthew’s Gospel, with the mountain on which Moses received the law, is clear. There is also, understandably, some questioning of what actually happened in the moment of transfiguration, and how we are to understand this sequence of events from our contemporary view of the world. But, as fascinating and important as these debates can be, they do run the risk of missing the point.
What we cannot avoid is that the transfiguration moment was a turning point for Jesus. From the moment he set his sights on Jerusalem (according to Matthew this happens just before this event and after Peter’s confession in 1621), Jesus proceeded, knowingly, to his execution. It is the transfiguration, though, with the conversation about his ‘exodus’ with Moses and Elijah, and the affirmation of the Father, that is the point of no return. If he is to face such suffering and abuse, if he is to stay resolute in his purpose, he needs a glowing moment, an experience of such glory and affirmation that it can sustain him through all that lies ahead, and confirm his belief in the resurrection which is to come (and to which he refers in verse 9). There is no question that this is a transforming experience for Jesus – not just in the sense of the actual transfiguration, but also in terms of how it shifted his work and firmed his resolve.
These glowing moments can be times of decision. Faced with the mountain and its gifts, we have to choose what we will do in response. Some, like the Pharisees, and even the disciples to some extent (based on the conversation which arises over bread in Chapter 16), simply miss or dismiss the mountain experience. If it’s even acknowledged at all, it is taken to be a nice experience with no real significance, requiring no real change on our parts. In a world where religions war on each other with devastating effects, and where spiritual experiences have led to such atrocities as the Manson family, Jonestown and suicide bombers, people have grown suspicious of glowing moments. Such ecstatic experiences can be unpredictable and cause disturbing changes in those who have them. Sometimes it feels safer to trust what we can see and feel, and keep the emotions and the visions out of the way. Yet, as mystics through the centuries have discovered, such moments, such ‘thin places’ as the Celts called these moments when the line between the material world and spiritual realities seems to dissolve, are necessary and important. They need not all be as dramatic as what is described in this Gospel, but the new insight, the new inspiration, the hope and the courage that we draw from such mountain-top experiences is invaluable both for personal spiritual growth and for our commitment to the saving, justice-bringing purposes of God.
I am reminded of the scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle when Aslan has finally arrived to set everything right. Various people find themselves inside a stable (which is “bigger inside than outside”) in which there are beautiful fruit trees, bright skies and lovely grasslands. The dwarves, however, who have been taken in one too many times by the tricks of the ape and the donkey, refuse to see the beauty. For them, the stable is just a dark, cramped stable, and the glory around them is invisible. As Aslan observes, they have chosen cunning over belief and as a result have created a prison in their own minds. They are “so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out”.
We can choose to dismiss the mountain and its gifts. But, if we do, we lose the courage, the hope, the possibilities and the resolve to face life’s suffering and sacrifices in order to strive for the better world, the better life that God calls us to.
The opposite temptation is to idolise the mountain. This was Peter’s response. All he wanted was to set up camp, capture the moment and stay there, ignoring the relationships, the realities and the needs of the valley below. Such glowing experiences can easily become addictive, as we know all too well. It is not uncommon to find people who go from church to church or from conference to conference in search of the next ‘high’ the next ‘amazing encounter with God’, yet who never really learn to function effectively in the world, or make any kind of contribution. And as with all idolatry, making the mountain-top experience our whole focus diminishes it, robs it of its power, and leaves us, like junkies, searching for our next fix in order to feel good about ourselves.
I wonder whether Jesus was tempted by the idea of building ‘tabernacles’ on the mountain. Ironically, it was the second time in just a few days that Peter had been the voice of Christ’s worst longings. When, after his confession, Jesus began to speak about his coming death, Peter rebuked him, and Jesus had to resist very strongly the temptation to avoid the suffering. Now, Peter suggest that they can all just hide in the glow of God’s glory. But, here it God’s statement of faith in Christ that stops Peter in his tracks, and releases Jesus from whatever temptation there might have been to idolise this moment.
Finally, there is a third possible response to the mountain-top, and it’s the one Jesus chose. It’s the choice to engage, both with the experience, and with the reality that we must face when the experience is over. While on the mountain, Jesus is fully present, embracing his transfiguration, engaging in conversation with Moses and Elijah. But, once the vision is over, he is ready to return to the valley as soon as possible, and get on with the journey to Jerusalem and the cross. I wonder whether, while praying in Gethsemane, Jesus returned in his mind to this experience and drew courage from it. I wonder whether his ability to be fully engaged in his suffering, to reject the pain numbing drink offered to him (in 27:24) and to remain compassionate in the midst of his rejection and agony was because he had been equally engaged in this mountain-top experience.
I am reminded of reading that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, while convening the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, took time out everyday for prayer. It seems that he knew that in order to be fully engaged in the difficult, painful and important process for which he was responsible, he also needed to be fully engaged with God and God’s resources. He needed a regular ‘mountain-top’ to keep him connected and grounded while he traversed the deep valleys of people’s suffering, grief and anger.
Life is never lived on the mountain, much as we might like it to be. Rather, life is lived in the sweat, tears and blood of the valley. Our calling to follow Christ is not a calling that allows us to share the cynicism of our age. Nor is it an invitation to constant dwelling on the mountain, or allowing our worship experiences to become our drug of choice, removing us from the realities of the world. Rather, with Christ we can embrace and enjoy the glowing moments, but then return to the daily work of peace-making, compassionate service, healing and justice-bringing – and find that the courage and strength we need has been given to us on the mountain. While we may never experience a transfiguration as dramatic as Jesus’, we can learn from him how to embrace the mountains we do get to enjoy. And then, as always, we can hear and answer his call to follow, even as he turns back down toward the valley. And, amazingly, when we learn to follow Jesus like this, we discover that glory is not only to be found on the mountains. The valleys, as deep as they may be, also glow with the presence and possibility of God’s glorious Kingdom.