Based on Mark 9:2-9
There are two ways to the Berry College reservoir, a beautiful, manmade, lake in the middle of the 26,000 acres of mountainous property the college owns. Those two ways are the perhaps infamous two ways: the easy way, and the hard way.
The easy way is the wide, long, path that goes from an old grist works called the Old Mill to the Reservoir. It winds its way around a mountain summit, taking you a longer, but easier, way to the reservoir. Just start walking past the gate and you’ll get there, no problem.
The hard way, as Jack and I learned one weekend, is straight up and over the mountain. As you walk to the Reservoir, there’s a mountain on your right, the whole way. Not long after the road begins, a trail starts off to the right and leads you straight up over the mountain and then back down. It’s the shorter way, but the hard way.
We chose the hard way.
The hard way required us to hike up inclines that sometimes made it feel as though my toes were touching my shins, it was that steep. Jack and I had to take frequent breaks.
But upon reaching the top of the mountain, it was all worth it. The views were breathtaking. The glory and majesty of God’s creation overwhelming in its full display. And the sense of accomplishment, of having done what had felt impossible at moments, was worth every difficult step.
Then back down the mountain we came, full of joy, seeing the Reservoir come alive through the trees until we finally reached our goal, meeting up with Dana and Carter, in the stroller, who had taken the wider, easier, road.
Jack and I had a mountain top experience walking up that mountain. We saw the glory of God on full display in creation and in the strength and resolve to conquer the mountain, such that, by the time we’d come down off the mountain, it had all been worth it, no matter how grueling and painful. I’m sure you can think of such mountaintop experiences in your own faith; times where you’ve experienced the glory and joy of the Lord on full display.
In our scripture this morning, that’s exactly what the disciples Peter, James, and John, are experiencing. They are having a certifiable mountaintop experience.
Up on the mountain, these three disciples have met two of the greatest figures of Judaism ever: Moses and Elijah. Sight of these two overwhelms them with religious devotion. Imagine being up on a mountain where, suddenly, you know you’re in the presence of Peter, James and John. Imagine how you would react, how you would feel. That’s how the disciples are feeling. They are completely consumed by the glory, majesty, and honor of being in their presence.
Then, Jesus is transformed, or transfigured as we say, into his divine self! They see Jesus as he was and is, God. Then the voice of the Father speaks. On this one mountaintop, in this one moment, they experience the presence of the greats of Judaism, the sight of Jesus as God, and the voice of the Father.
Peter, James, and John, are having what we can rightly call a mountain top experience.
Have you ever had such a mountain top experience in your faith? A time where God’s presence was so real and full, where you felt like you could reach out and touch God, where all of the problems in your life, all of the stresses, all of the suffering, seemed to melt away? Moments in life where you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is good, that God loves you, that God is with you. Something that felt like a powerful euphoria, where all was well?
These are powerful moments, so powerful that we’re tempted to be like Peter, building our own shelters, there, on top of the mountain of faith, wanting to never leave that moment. And rightfully so for there, on the mountaintop, we have experienced a bit of heaven on earth; we have experienced a bit of that unity with God for which we were designed. Who would ever want to leave?
Problem is, these moments end.
Life comes with valley experiences too. Times where rather than experiencing God’s presence as real and full, God feels absent. Times where rather than reaching out and touching God, we wonder if God has bothered to show up at all. Moments where Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a God who set the world in motion and then walked away feels right. Moments where we doubt, fully, that God is good, that God loves us, that God is with us.
These we tend to call valley experiences, and we avoid them like the plague. And yet, they occur frequently.
In my own life, I can testify to such for I have known the valley all too well.
I was in a valley a year ago. I was on top of the mountain a year before that, and without choosing to, I found myself in the valley of despair. It was a valley I know surrounded by the mountains, for there can be no valleys without mountains. But, at the time, I couldn’t see the mountains. They were foggy, or too far away, or somehow I was blinded to where they were. I knew that God was on top of the mountain, I knew that God’s presence was waiting for me there. The question was, “how do I get back on top of the mountain?”
When we experience our own moments of life like this, how do any of us get back on top of the mountain? Back where we are fully convinced of God’s faithfulness, of God’s goodness, of God’s presence? Back where everything seems to make sense. Back where life is easy and full of hope.
In the midst of our valley experiences, we wonder: how do we get back there?
I can hear the disciples asking that same question. Our scripture this morning reveals the valleys, as well as the mountaintops, of the life of faith.
Before this mountain top experience, the disciples have been in the valley. Early in Jesus’s ministry, he was very popular. Everyone wanted to be near this man who was full of wisdom and who could do miracles and wondrous signs. Jesus was the most popular man in Galilee.
Until he upset the Pharisees with his wisdom. Until he upset the scribes with his reinterpretation of the law. Until he upset the priests with his miracles.
Until he told the disciples about his death.
Just before this mountain top experience with Elijah, Jesus, and Moses, the disciples knew the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus tells them that he must die, that he must be executed and endure great pain. He goes on and on about how terrible this will be until Peter finally has had enough of it and says, “God forbid!”
None of us could blame Peter. He loves Jesus! He doesn’t want this terrible suffering to come upon his best friend! But Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan!” He rebukes Peter, who loves him, who doesn’t want Jesus to have to go through this terrible suffering. But Jesus won’t let news of his impending death go.
The news of Jesus’s suffering and death casts a shadow, the valley of the shadow of death, hanging over Peter, and the disciples, like a darkness that will not fade.
Then, they go up the mountain. They see Moses and Elijah. They hear the voice of God who confirms Jesus’s identity as God’s very Son, Immanuel, God with them.
But then they come back down the mountain, not to wonderful experiences, but to Jesus rebuking the people. They see him heal a boy possessed by a demon, but rather than rejoice at this, Jesus rebukes the crowd, calling them a “perverse generation.” Jesus then forecasts his own death, again, bringing back the valley of the shadow of death.
The brief mountain top experience of the transfiguration comes in between two long valley experiences. I imagine the disciples Peter, James, and John, found themselves wondering “when can we go back up the mountain? Where life makes sense? When?”
The rises and falls of our mountaintop and valley experiences are characteristic of the life of faith. We all experience it, just as the disciples experienced it. The ups and downs of the life of faith come with the territory of life. Sometimes, when we’re closer to the mountaintop, it’s easy to accept that life is just that way. We hope we won’t go back to the valley, but we’re willing to accept that valleys happen, because at the present moment, life is good.
But other times, when we’re closer to the valley, when the shadows of the valley overtake us, it’s impossible to accept that this is just life.
So impossible that our faith begins to show signs of doubt, that we begin to question God, that we even become angry at God. We ask questions like: Why would a good God allow for suffering? Why would a faithful God allow us to suffer? Why would God remove God’s presence from us?
We’re like David in Psalm 23, walking through the “valley of the shadow of death,” wondering where God is and why we must suffer. The valleys are cold, dark, desolate, and lonely. They are full of fears, anxieties, despair, and disorientation. How are we to make sense of these moments? God, why? Come rescue us! Come to our aid!
But in the valleys, all too often, our cries seem to fall on deaf ears.
In The Silver Chair, a book in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, Aslan speaks to the main character up on top of a mountain. You may recall that Aslan is Lewis’s allegory for Jesus. So there, up on the mountain, Aslan shares these words; words we can imagine Jesus saying to us:
“Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”
Today, whether on the mountaintop or in the valley, we have a sign to remember and believe, to give us hope no matter where we are in the journey of faith. That sign is the transfiguration.
Up on the mountaintop, the disciples saw Jesus for who he really was and is: the Son of God. He was transformed from his human self into his divine self. The disciples realized, as God spoke only to Jesus and not to Moses and Elijah, that Jesus is not some great prophet, not some reincarnation of Elijah; no, Jesus is far greater: Jesus is God; God made human; a human who knows the mountaintops and valleys of life.
And that means the transfiguration isn’t limited to the mountaintop experiences of life. The transfiguration tells us that God is with us in the valleys, too, because God has suffered alongside of us. God has walked, literally, through the valleys of life we have experienced. God has known the valleys of shadows so dark, the mountains are obscured. God has known the depths of human longing, of human anxiety. God has known what it is to be persecuted, beaten, unappreciated, maligned, and rejected. God has even doubted himself, experiencing what feels like the loss of God’s presence, as Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!”
God has been where we are, no matter how dark the shadow cast over us in the valley, because Jesus walked, willingly, through those valleys. Jesus experienced the suffering we know all too well; the pain, anxiety, fear, loss, longing, rejection, and doubt of the valley moments of life.
The transfiguration is a sign to remind us that Jesus, God himself, came to be with us not only on the mountains, but especially in the valleys. God knows our suffering, God understands our suffering, because God has suffered as we have. God has been to the valley, too.
The transfiguration is a sign to remember both that God suffered as we do when in the form of Jesus and to remember that God suffers with us, still, for the God who came to us in human form comes to us still in Spirit form.
When we receive the Holy Spirit, God literally dwells within us. The same God who spoke to Jesus on the mountain, the same God who was revealed to be Jesus on the mountain, the same God who willingly suffered and died on the cross, the same God who promised to be with us always; that same God is with us, inside of us, walking the valleys and mountaintops of life with us.
That means, when you walk into the valley, God is with you, inside your very being. We know, not only what David says about “walking through the valley of the shadow of death,” but we know also the very next thing he says, “but I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” In the valley moments, all we need do is turn inward to find God there, in the midst of the darkness and disorientation, saying, “I’m here, fear no evil, fear no darkness, fear no disorientation, fear no anxiety or pain or loss or longing or rejection or doubt.
For God is with us, inside of us, walking the valley road with us.
If, today, you’re walking through a valley of shadows, take heart, for Christ is with you. He is with you in your heart, he is with you in your loved ones, and he is with you through this church. If you feel alone, if you feel God is far away, the transfiguration declares this promise: you are not alone.
If, today, you’re on a mountaintop, choose to walk into the valley. Go hold the hand of one who suffers, call up friends and relatives whom you know are walking through valleys, give of your time to mission agencies like homeless shelters and food banks. The world needs you to be Christ to them.
God living inside of us means that, when a friend is going through a valley experience and you come alongside her, God is in her valley, too.
When a family member has experienced the valley of a terrible diagnosis and you are there, offering comfort and hope, God is there, too.
When you choose to give of your time and resources to help the hungry, you bring God into the valley of poverty.
When we choose to focus our efforts on supporting our community, rather than being inwardly focused, we bring God into the valleys of Eastman and Dodge County.
And when we know the valley all too well, the transfiguration is a promise that God is with us, even in the darkest of valleys, giving us the strength not to fear, but rather to know, even in the valleys, what David knew: that “goodness and mercy…follow[s] [us] all the days of our lives and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The hope we have in this life is God’s presence with us in the valleys. And God is in the valleys of life because we are in the valleys.
The transfiguration is a sign to us: a sign of hope because we know that God has suffered for us and continues to suffer with us. God does not destine us for evil, nor does God cause evil in our lives, but the valleys will come. Trials will come. But we can take courage, take hope, for we know that God suffers with us and God is with us because the God of our mountaintop experiences is the God of our valleys, too.
So though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for God is with us.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.