Monday, March 3, 2014

Mountain and Valley

Matthew 17:1-9, Psalm 23
March 2, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

A mountain top experience. Christians love that phrase. We like to use it to describe a moment or an hour, a time in which we felt amazed, transfixed, transformed. If we were mystics, we would describe it as ecstasy – spiritual ecstasy. I expect that is what Peter and James and John knew in that moment: ecstasy, unspeakable joy, ineffable feelings that welled up in their hearts and filled them and surrounded them and made everything brighter and clearer and larger than life.

The theological term is theophany – an appearance of God! If that word reminds you of the word epiphany, you are onto something. Epiphany, the season that is just ending as we move toward Lent, is a sudden, striking manifestation – a realization. In fact, Epiphany as it is celebrated in the Western church is actually called Theophany in the Eastern church. It is “the revelation of God the son as a human being in Jesus Christ.” That’s a pretty succinct description of this text. So let’s listen to this experience – this mountaintop experience, as it is described in Matthew’s gospel, the seventeenth chapter, verses 1-9.

Matt 17:1-9                                   
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  4 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. " 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid. " 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.  9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

This scripture is rich with imagery, the imagery of wonder, and awe…the imagery of God’s transcendence and might, God’s glory and power. The disciples were not afraid when they saw the glorious vision, they were not afraid when they saw Moses and Elijah. They were afraid when they heard the voice of God. When they heard the voice of God, they fell to their faces and they were terrified. They’d have stayed there, too, if they hadn’t felt the hand of Jesus, if they hadn’t heard his voice, saying “Get up and do not be afraid.”

It was at once terrifying and exhilarating, joyful and fearful. A mountaintop experience. It’s odd, isn’t it, that we somehow privilege this “mountaintop experience,” as something much to be desired? There are a lot of people who don’t think folks are really Christians unless they’ve had and can describe some kind of awesome and ecstatic encounter with the living Christ.

So there’s this kind of belief that a mountaintop experience is almost a spiritual necessity, but also something that must necessarily be left behind. You can’t go around in ecstasy all the time, right? It’s like falling in love – that crazydreamyshiny delight –can’t do that all the time – it is exhausting. But somehow, we seem to start thinking that this experience of transcendence is only for special occasions, or reserved for the select few, like a designer gown worn for the red carpet on Oscars night. Not for every day, and not for everyone. And we somehow start to believe that this particular kind of experience of God’s presence is the best, most enviable, sought-after moment. God’s glory and transcendence, made manifest in Jesus, only happens on mountaintops, we think, only in mountaintop moments. As if we can’t have that kind of transformative experience any other way, or in any place other than a mountaintop, or in the midst of other kinds of circumstances.

And when we hear God’s voice, like the disciples, we are so overwhelmed that we fall to our faces in awe. Maybe that is all true. But maybe something else is true, too. Our other reading for today is the 23rd Psalm. We haven’t heard it yet this morning, except in the choir anthem, but most of us know it fairly well. Nowadays, we hear it most often at funerals, or at the graveside. It is a beautiful poem, full of images rich with comfort, with love, with God’s presence. Many of us, when we hear the 23rd Psalm, think of Jesus, the good shepherd, walking with us, speaking to us, leading us beside still waters, showing us the green pastures, leading us through the valley of the shadow of death. I’m going to read it now.  You can say it along with me if you want – it is a Psalm that feels good to say. 

The LORD is my shepherd ; I shall not want.  
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: 
he leadeth me beside the still waters.  
He restoreth my soul: 
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.  
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou  preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies : thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: 
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever .

Let’s just let those words soak in for a bit…. It is beautiful, isn’t it? God leading us beside still waters, to green pastures. God taking us by the hand, guiding us in the paths of righteousness. This is a God who is immanent, physically present, human, with us! This is not a voice thundering on the mountaintop. This is a gentle hand on the shoulder, helping us up as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. This is Jesus, touching the disciples, saying “Get up.  Do not be afraid.” And this is a theophany too! This is an experience of the revelation of God’s glory. Anyone who has walked the valley of the shadow of death can tell you that.

Simone Weil, the French philosopher, activist and theologian, was raised in an agnostic household.   Her family was not religious in the least. But as a young adult, she had several experiences of religious ecstasy, much like we would imagine the disciples had on that mountain. Weil knew what it was to have an ecstatic revelation of the presence of God. But she also wrote about theophany in the midst of suffering –not on the mountaintop, but in the valley. Here is what she said about suffering and adversity:

“The man to whom such a thing happens has no part in the operation.  He struggles like a butterfly pinned alive into an album.  But through all the horror he can continue to want to love.  … For the greatest suffering, so long as it does not cause the soul to faint, does not touch the acquiescent part of the soul, consenting to a right direction. …He whose soul remains ever turned toward God, though the nail pierces, he finds himself nailed to the very center of the universe.  It is the true center; it is not in the middle; it is beyond space and time; it is God.  In a dimension that does not belong to space, that is not time, that is indeed quite a different dimension, this nail has pierced cleanly through all creation, through the thickness of the screen separating the soul from God. In this marvelous dimension, the soul…can cross the totality of space and time and come into the very presence of God. It is at the intersection of creation and its Creator.  This point of intersection is the point of intersection of the arms of the Cross.”[1]

The presence of God is at the intersection of creation and creator, and the point of intersection is at the center of the cross. As we end this season of epiphany, of revelation, we begin the season of Lent, a time of reflection, preparation, and contemplation. 

Like Advent, the season of Lent prepares us to encounter God in Christ –
the dazzling and resplendent God of all the ages,
whose word brought mountains into being
and whose very breath can shatter every atom into oblivion;
the gentle and nurturing God of all mercy,
whose word calms stormy seas
and whose silent suffering breaks through the shackles of our sin;
the squalling infant and the defiant peacemaker,
the gentle shepherd and the cornerstone.

Whether we meet him on the mountaintop, shining like the sun, with garments white as snow, or we encounter him in the darkest night of our soul, gentle as a shepherd, anointing us with oil, he is the same God, the one God of all creation, the foundation of our faith, the beloved son of God. It is he who takes us up to the mountaintop.

It is he who leads us through death’s dark valley. It is he who prepares a table for us, even in the presence of those who were once our enemies. It is his hand we feel on our shoulder, and it is his voice we hear, speaking to us, a voice that we know because we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. It is he who says to us, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”


[1] This quote was accessed at and is from Simone Weil’s essay, “The Love of God and Affliction” in Simone Weil, Awaiting God (Abbotsford, BC: Fresh Wind Press, 2012).

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