Back when I was younger, I used to run off to the mountains every time I got the chance. I grew up in the Peachtree Hills neighborhood of Atlanta, just down the road from Buckhead (the center of the Universe), in a smallish two-bedroom apartment, with my mother, younger brother and a variety of dogs and cats and other furry friends. It wasn’t a bad place to grow up… it was safe, and I had plenty of friends who lived within walking distance. But I sometimes felt just a tad cramped for space… a little overwhelmed by all the people and stuff around me. Maybe some of y’all know how that feels. In any case, from the time I got my driver’s license at age sixteen, when Saturday morning rolled around… boom, I was gone. Alone or in the company of friends, the mountains would beckon, and off I’d go. I’d head north on Roswell Road (which was U.S. Highway 19) in Atlanta through Sandy Springs, and after I crossed over I-285, all of the traffic would kind of melt away, and it was smooth sailing through what were then the fledgling communities of Roswell and Alpharetta, and on to Dawsonville and Dahlonega. Ah, Dahlonega and the Smith House… lots of good memories there.
One of my frequent mountain destinations was Neel’s Gap, in the Chattahoochee National Forest, and the segment of the Appalachian Trail that led to the summit of Blood Mountain, which is the crest of the AT in Georgia. Trail literature describes the hike as “moderate,” but that description is meant for seasoned hikers, I think. Most folks I know describe the trail as “challenging.” Sure enough, the walk starts off with a series of gentle ups and downs, through rhododendron thickets, across a few wet areas caused by runoff from adjacent springs, all the way up to Balancing Rock which, in and of itself, is an amazing feat of nature: picture a two-ton boulder… sitting on top of another two-ton boulder… the two being about nine feet in height altogether… and yet only touching at three separate points, each about the size of my fist. It looks impossible… it looks dangerous… it looks as if a good gust of wind would blow it over. But this rock formation has been there for as long as anyone can remember… at least hundreds, maybe even a thousand years. There’s no telling how many kids and grown-ups have had their pictures taken sitting atop this precariously balanced pair of boulders. It’s just something you have to do, I guess. But I digress.
After Balancing Rock, the trail gets pretty steep. There are stone steps to climb… rock falls to traverse… switchbacks to navigate… and the trail just seems to keep going up, up, up. “Daddy, are we there yet?” My own kids knew better that to ask this question on a road trip, but I let them ask it when we hiked up Blood Mountain. I sometimes felt the same way: how long can the trail keep going up? But my answer to them was always the same: “Just a little farther… you’ll know you’re close when you see the sky at the top of the trail in front of you.”
On those occasions when I was hiking alone—whenever I’d stop to rest, and after I’d caught my breath—it would occur me how quiet things had gotten. Gone were the noises of civilization: the sound of downshifting cars and trucks on mountain roads… slamming doors… ringing telephones… blaring music. All of that was gone. The only thing one could hear was the sound of the wind blowing across the mountain… birds and squirrels gleaning for food in the brush beside the trail… and maybe the call of a hawk as it rode a nearby updraft. Sometimes all you could hear was silence. There is such a thing as the sound of silence, you know.
Once I made it to the top of the mountain, my perspective (and my attitude) would invariably change. Out from under the overarching trees and crowding thickets, I could see a never-ending tapestry of mountains and valleys stretched out for miles in every direction, all the way to the horizon. God’s creation as God saw it, I thought to myself. Gone were the roads (most of them, anyway)… bustling towns were dwarfed by the encroaching scenery, instead of the other way around. The boundary lines of three states became blurred and meaningless. All of the fragile and frenetic activity of humankind just sort of faded into the background. I would stay on that mountaintop for hours, looking, listening, thinking… sometimes napping in the sun, sometimes wondering about my purpose in life, and sometimes just reveling in being “above it all,” unencumbered by the concerns of daily living… if only for a little while. These brief mountaintop retreats were enormously “life giving” for me during a time in my life when I needed peace, clarity and time to think, away from all of the hustle and bustle… the deadlines and drama of daily living.
I wonder if that’s why God chose to deliver the Ten Commandments to Moses on top of Mt. Sinai (Exo 24:12-18). Perhaps Moses needed the peace and clarity of the mountaintop… a break from the incessant conflict and kvetching of the Israelite encampment… to really hear and understand what God required of him. I’m pretty sure God doesn’t sweat “the small stuff.” Whenever God asks us to do something, it’s likely to be important: a task demanding our full attention and our complete devotion. Delivering the Law to the Hebrews was a pretty big deal, and God wanted to make sure that Moses was as prepared as he could be to do what he needed to do.
And maybe that’s why Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of the mountain with him in our Gospel lesson today. Jesus’ ministry was in full swing… there was a lot going on. He and his disciples had been travelling throughout the Galilee preaching, teaching and healing all manner of ailments of body, mind and spirit. On one occasion Jesus had even raised a little girl from the dead (Matt 9:18-26). He had commissioned the Twelve and sent them out into the countryside to test their own vocations as healers and Kingdom Bringers (Matt 10:5-15). And, of course, all of this had begun to get under the skin of the Hebrew religious establishment, who considered Jesus a threat to their own authority and the political status quo. Emotions were running high… Jesus had been run out his own hometown of Nazareth (not quite “on a rail,” but almost), and his cousin John the Baptizer was executed by King Herod shortly thereafter Matt 13:54-58 and 14:1-12. In fact, a few of the “establishment elites” had begun to wonder aloud if Jesus, himself, might be better off dead. I expect that some of the wiser heads among Jesus’ followers might have suggested to their rabbi that, “discretion was the better part of valor,” and advised him to ease off a little. Let things settle down a bit… live to fight another day. But that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind. He knew where things were heading… where the story would end… but that only seemed to energize him. The teaching and the miracles continued, unabated, more and more each day. Multitudes were fed in mind, body and spirit and signed on to be new followers of Jesus’ Way of Love, as he continued to challenge the status quo… bringing help to helpless, hope to the hopeless and justice to the marginalized. The excitement continued to build… along with the angst of the Sadducees, scribes and Pharisees.
By the time of “The Transfiguration” that we read about in today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus had begun telling his disciples, in pretty concrete terms, about what the future held for him: great suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes, death… but then resurrection! (Matt 16:21-23) The bit about great suffering and death… the Apostles understood. Back in the day, when folks ran afoul of the political elites, the results were predictable. And famine and disease took friends and family on a regular basis. Death was what happened at the end of life… it was a fact of life. The Apostles got that. But resurrection…that was different. Resurrection was a possibility that some of the Pharisees occasionally spoke of in theoretical terms, but it wasn’t a fact of life. It wasn’t reality. Even though some of the Apostles had likely been present when Jesus raised the little girl from the dead, it wasn’t something they could explain. Jesus just… did it. So, they didn’t like it one bit when Jesus spoke of his own death. To a man, the Apostles (yes, even Judas) had given their whole lives over to this teacher… this holy man who had all but proclaimed himself Messiah, and who was forever preaching about what he called the good news of the coming Kingdom. Things were moving too quickly. What would become of them if something happened to Jesus? How could they go on?
And so Jesus took Peter, James and John up to the top of a high mountain, away from all of the noise and conflict and threat of temporal catastrophe, and showed them just a little sliver of the reality of God… as much as they could handle… as much as they needed to see, to fortify and build them up for what lay ahead. Perhaps the three would have liked to stay on the mountaintop with Jesus. I can only imagine the excitement and the bliss that would have swept over them after they had recovered from the shock of their encounter with YHWH. But that was not to be. There was work to be done in God’s vineyard below. Much remained to be accomplished before Jesus would make his final entry into Jerusalem… on the back of a donkey… to begin the final act in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. So down they went.
And we, too, are standing at a bit of a threshold, here on the last Sunday after the Epiphany. In a sense, the Christian liturgical year provides us with a cycle of recurring trips from the valley to the mountaintop and back again, giving us strength and courage and hope for salvation on one hand… while keeping us grounded in our true purpose as followers of Jesus’ Way of Love, on the other. Over the last three months, we have endured the preparation and waiting of the season of Advent. We experienced the joy of Christmas and saw the power and glory of God’s Christ made manifest at the Epiphany. We watched Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, his calling of the Twelve and the first, heady days of his earthly ministry in Galilee: we listened to the Beatitudes and the first half of the Sermon on the Mount. And now we, like the disciples, have been given a foreshadowing of the part of the story we that must relive during Lent and Holy Week: deprivation, temptation, rejection, suffering and death. It’s gonna be hard.
Mountains are wonderful things. I wish I could stay on the mountaintop with Jesus forever but… Jesus isn’t there. Jesus is already ahead of me, ahead of all of us, walking the long difficult path back down the mountain to continue his ministry of love to the least of these. That’s his purpose and that’s our purpose. And it’s also the path to salvation… so, if you’re not jogging to catch up, you might just get left behind. Best giddyap, my friends!