Are you a beach person or a mountain person? That’s one of the great divisions in our society today; perhaps not quite as bitter or deep a division as cat people vs. dog people, but real all the same. But I’m going to take a bold stand here today and declare that I think you can be both a beach person and a mountain person; it just depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for.
The beach is a place to go for rest and relaxation; to get away from most of the rhythms and responsibilities of life and basically be as unproductive as you can possibly be. The primary activity at the beach, at least for adults, is… nothing. While kids are digging away in the sand or leaping in and out of the waves, most adults go to the beach to do quite literally nothing; they just sit there or lie there for hours, soaking up the sun listening to the hypnotic sound of the waves crashing onto the beach and crawling up it, only to fall back down again and disappear. At most, they do a little “beach reading,” which is code for “nothing I have to actually think about.” The point of the beach is to take a time-out in life, to rest just a bit before getting back into the game.
But if you’re looking for solitude and spiritual growth and insight, go to the mountains. Since before history began, human beings have gone up into the mountains on personal journeys of growth and faith. For the Diné people of North America, often called Navajos by outsiders, sacred mountains defined their land, and young men went up into them seeking spiritual communion and direction in a rite of passage that outsiders call “vision quests.” In Christianity, Buddhism, and Shintoism, among others, monks built monasteries high among the peaks of mountains to be away from the noise and bustle and petty demands of ordinary life, and physically and spiritually closer to the heavens, the divine realm, where they and perhaps a few select pilgrims can practice their spiritual disciplines in peace.
Jesus, it seems, is a mountain person at heart, because he has gone up onto a mountain at the beginning of this story, and he has gone to pray. He’s getting away from the noise and bustle of the crowds that are always following him now, always shouting for more healings, more teachings, more exorcisms, more confrontations with the powers-that-be in occupied Judea. Just before this passage, Jesus has pulled off one of his biggest miracles so far for one of his largest crowds so far: the feeding of the 5000, where he multiplied a few loaves of bread and some fish into enough food to not only ensure that everyone present was filled to satisfaction, but that there were twelve baskets of pieces left over when they were all done.
After all that, it seems, he needs some time away. So he leaves the crowds and their demands, even leaves most of the disciples and his responsibilities for them, and takes just his brother James and his two closest followers, Peter and John, with him. But Jesus isn’t just taking a time-out; if he was doing that, he could have headed over to the lovely Mediterranean beaches on the coast and just done nothing. Instead, he heads up the mountain, because he is going to pray.
That’s not quite what happens, though. The Scripture says that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but they managed to stay awake. And it’s a good thing, because otherwise they would have missed the entire show, or worse, woken up in the middle of it, which would have been pretty terrifying. There they are, heads nodding as Jesus is deep in prayer, trying to stay awake for him, when suddenly…all heaven breaks loose: the appearance of his face changes (the implication is that it shone the way Moses’ did in our Old Testament lesson today), and his clothes became dazzling white. Not just “really” white, the way T-shirts look in a Tide commercial after they’ve been treated, but dazzling white; one English translation says “as bright as a flash of lightning,” the kind of pulsing bright light that makes you wince in pain and turn away covering your eyes, the kind where the spots linger long after the light is gone.
And as they peer between their fingers to see just what in blazes is going on, the disciples manage to make out two other figures there talking with Jesus about what he is to do, and they realize somehow that it is none other than Moses and Elijah, who respectively embody the witness of God’s Law and God’s Prophets, talking to Jesus as a peer. Then as if all that isn’t enough, a cloud descends upon the mountain and covers them, terrifying them not because they’re afraid of a cloud, but because they know what it means from the Hebrew Scriptures: God led the Israelites through the wilderness by day in the shape of a cloud, and that same cloud has descended upon them as the very presence of God, which then gets confirmed by the voice that speaks from the cloud, echoing the words from the heavens at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him!” And then suddenly, Jesus is just standing there alone.
Luke says that they “kept silent and in those days told no one of any of the things they had seen.” Well, of course they did! Wouldn’t you? Who would believe them? The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is kind of a crazy story, even for those disciples who experienced it. This is Jesus at a whole different level, and I don’t just mean the mountain he’s on. This isn’t just Jesus the teacher, Jesus the activist and troublemaker, Jesus the healer, Jesus the miracle-worker; this is Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, the one to whom we must listen to understand what God is up to, the one through whom we understand even the Law and the Prophets now.
I think that’s the reason for the whole giant light show, for this kind-of-crazy story about Jesus’ shining face and lightning-blazing clothes and chats with Moses and Elijah who suddenly show up out of nowhere just to talk to him and finally the cloud denoting the presence and glory of God the Father Almighty descending upon him; all of that was to get the attention of all Jesus’ disciples, including us, demonstrating that Jesus’ identity and authority stand supreme over everything and everyone else, so we would actually “listen to him” as the voice commanded.
Because Jesus’ disciples, then and now, have a really, really, really hard time listening to him even about the simplest, clearest things when they don’t align with what we want. Because often we don’t want to listen. We want to talk. We want to declare. We want to define. We want to determine the extent and impact and audience and intent of the good news of Jesus Christ for ourselves, and even more for others. And in that process, we usually end up turning the good news into bad news for others, because we listen to our own will instead of Jesus.
We saw that on display just this week at the national convention of the United Methodist Church, where not only did the church reject the opportunity to fully include LGBTQ+ people in the life and leadership of the church, but they actually tightened the restrictions and penalties for any church or pastor who disobeyed this exclusion of LGBTQ+ people. The motion that was passed was called “The Traditional Plan.” But as a pastor friend of mine put it, “when it comes to the Way of Jesus, love your neighbor as yourself, do not judge, and let the oppressed go free is about as traditional as it gets.”
But sadly, there is nothing unique about the Methodist Church; our own denomination spent almost 40 years fighting over these questions before finally welcoming LGBTQ people into the full communion of the church, not in spite of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the supreme authority of Scripture in the life of the church, but precisely because of them, because we as a church finally really listened to Christ’s commands that we are to love one another as he has loved us, and that this is how the world will know we are his disciples: if we love each other.
We Presbyterians still have a long way to go in many, many ways before we can be smug about that, though. Because it is a constant temptation to forget about the lights and cloud and voice and to stop listening to Jesus, to start listening to ourselves and telling each other, “well, that’s a beautiful ideal that Jesus shared, but it doesn’t really apply in this case…” when whatever he says conflicts with whatever we want to do or not do. Which is why we need each other, not just Presbyterians but every single follower of Jesus Christ: to nudge each other awake when our heads begin to nod and we are in danger of missing the extraordinary things that God is doing, that Christ is saying, to which we are being called to listen and respond to through our lives of faith.
But when we do so, when we listen to and fulfill that calling, we do nothing less than encounter the real and holy presence of Christ himself and begin to become more like him: transformed here and there, in fits and starts, by God’s Spirit moving through the Scriptures we hear, through our life together, through the bread and cup that we are about to share. And when we do, the love of Christ begins to shine through and between us, not because it is our light to create or control, but precisely because it is not; because it is Christ’s light that will shine on, but we have the blessing to receive it and reflect it with our own love into the world. And that is certainly enough of a task for us. But in the light of Christ, we are enough to do it, because that is what God has always intended.