I was thinking recently about Jesus’ experience on the Mount of the Transfiguration. It’s a fascinating story, whether or not we read it on Transfiguration Sunday. In fact, the reason I was thinking about it was that I plan to preach on it in the very near future (way before Transfiguration Sunday arrives).
The story says that Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him to the peak of a mountain. There they witnessed confirmation of Christ’s messiahship through the presence of Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets). Even more, there they heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
The disciples were amazed by what they saw, in fact (according to the Bible) they were “terrified.” Who wouldn’t have been? But Jesus calmed them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” Then he began to talk with them about that which was to come – including the fact that no matter how much his messiahship might be confirmed, there were those who would oppose him. They would be threatened and jealous. They would resist his teaching and his calls to put the faith they proclaimed into visible practice. And in the end, Jesus said, they would nail him to a cross. Peter apparently knew a way to avoid that. “Lord, it is good for us to stay here,” he said. Why would we ever leave this mountain top, this beauty, this peace, this majesty, this place of divine presence? What can match all that? “Lord, it is good for us to stay here.”
But Jesus knew he had business to take care of in the valley. As it turned out, there was a father waiting for him, frightened for his son who had seizures which often threw him into fire or water. The dad feared that his son would one day be killed by those episodes, and he needed Jesus to drive out the evil that threatened his child … which, of course, Jesus did.
It’ always pleasant on the mountain top. And I, like Peter, would probably prefer to stay there. To be sure, like Jesus, we need to spend some time there. I was chatting with my friend Nunzio Gubitosa one day prior to a program here at church, and he asked me what I do for relaxation. I answered that I love going to see plays on Broadway, off Broadway, off-off Broadway. While I’m watching a play, my mind leaves everything else behind for two glorious hours. He replied, “You’ll be a better pastor to these people if you spend a little less time in the office and a little more time in the theater.” He was talking about retreat – about pulling away from the pressures and expectations for a while. He was talking about finding a mountain top where we can restore our souls. That’s why the Ten Commandments include Shabbat, the prescription for a healthy life encouraging us to occasionally take time away from the pressures of the world and find a mountain top of restoration and relaxation. I don’t know what the mountain top is for you, but don’t ignore your need to spend some time there.
But, Jesus demonstrated that the mountain top renews our strength for life, not from it. There are human needs that await us in the valley. You can imagine Jesus responding to Simon Peter, “Thank you for being so concerned about my well-being. What a dear friend you are. But, I can’t stay up here. I wasn’t meant to stay up here. Moses’ laws were about our relationships with people. Elijah’s prophecies were about confronting evil in defense of people. There are needs in the valley I cannot ignore if I am to honor those two spirits you just witnessed. In fact, I can see a scared daddy and a sick child at the foot of the hill. C’mon. Let’s get going.”
You and I were constructed for the valleys, for the places where there are human hurts and human needs. The mountain top is quiet and peaceful, and certainly necessary from time to time, but we were created to serve in the valleys.
One of my favorite singer/song-writers is Tom Kimmel. And one of my favorite Kimmel numbers is entitled Ships. In it he sings:
A calm is on the water,
And part of us would linger by the shore.
For ships are safe in harbor,
But that’s not what ships are for.
The story of the Mount of the Transfiguration is about that. It’s about pulling back long enough to regain the strength we need to move forward. It’s about rest that precedes work but does not replace it. It’s about prayer that empowers us to put feet on our prayers. It’ not just about the mountain, you see. It’s about what awaits us in the valley.
Your talents are not random. They are endowments which God placed within you to be used by you. The moment of creation-and-endowment is a mountain top thing, a moment when God looks down upon you and says, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” But then we are nudged, sometimes maybe even shoved, down a path toward the valley where we put those talents to use to make the world a better place. We are equipped to serve, to do what we can when we can to create a more reasonable world. Coming to church is the mountain top. But then we exit to live out what we profess to believe. As you often hear me say in the Benediction, “Worship is over. Let the service begin!” Yeah, that’s it. There’s a valley out there filled with people who hurt. Whatever we found on the mountain, we are meant to pass along. Right now, this very day, someone is waiting for you in the valley.