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The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall

The Rev. Dr. Laura S. Mendenhall is the former president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA


Down from the Mountain

2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration Sunday

March 02, 2003

Elisha could not stand the fact that Elijah, his leader and a beloved man of God, was leaving. Trailing after Elijah, refusing to stay away when Elijah said, "Stay," Elisha begged Elijah to at least give him something to hang onto after he was gone. Elisha pleaded for a double share of Elijah's spirit, knowing that without some grasp of Elijah's spirit, he did not stand a chance to make it through the days ahead. Elisha wanted some tangible sign of Elijah's continuing presence with him in order that he might believe in the glory of God.

In the Gospel of Mark we have the story of Peter making a similar request of Jesus. Though Jesus had tried to tell the disciples of his passion and suffering to come, they did not want to hear of it. They had such hopes for him, believed that he would be the one to overcome Roman rule, to make them a victorious people. They did not understand the glory of Jesus. So he took Peter and James and John up on a high mountain apart from the others and was transfigured before them. The glory of God so shone upon Jesus that his disciples were almost speechless. Peter stumbled forward and blurted out, "Don't go! I'll build you a house so that you can stay here with us. Stay. I'll build a house for your friends too. Whatever it takes to keep you here, I'll do it. Just stay here with us that we may live in your presence." But in a twinkling, the voice from heaven was gone; the prophets who had been with Jesus were gone. And as they made their way down the mountain, Jesus instructed them not to tell anyone about what they had seen until after he had risen from the dead. All Peter wanted was to build a house for Jesus and the prophets and keep God's glory among them, and Jesus was talking about dying.

Does the glory of God have to be so fleeting? Can't life just be still for a moment so that we can take off our shoes and relax? No, it appears that the only thing we can count on in life is change.

We know Elisha's anguish when a beloved mentor leaves us alone, when a dear one moves away, when we have to face a situation we do not believe we have the resources to manage. We know what it is like to beg, "Let me have a double share of your spirit." We know Peter's frustration to have been in a place where we were confident of Christ's presence with us, and then for things to change so that we have to question whether or not we imagined it all because the awe of Christ's glory is slipping away from us. We pray with Peter, "Please do not leave me. Let me always be close to you."

The story of God's people is a story of climbing up into the presence of God's glory and then having to go down into the reality of life's pain. We seek to be transformed by the mountaintop experiences in order that we might live through the days down from the mountain. Our need to learn from the stories of God's people is so great that each year we tell God's story through the cycle of the church seasons. In each chapter of this story, we are given insights into our own pilgrimage. This week we are at a transition point in the story. We are between Epiphany and Lent, telling the story of the transfiguration of the Lord. This is Mardi Gras time, the final blowout before the solemnity of Ash Wednesday. Many will be participating in special Lenten services in the weeks to come as we approach Holy Week and Easter. But today we are in between. Is there a story in your life for which this story of transitions can bring hope as the stories of God's people lead us to pray, "Strengthen us for what is to come"?

Perhaps you have not had such a dramatic experience of God's transcendence into your life-no chariots of fire, no heavenly voices. Yet most of us do have experiences of God's presence that have come bursting into our ordinary lives in some way, even if only fleetingly. God is present to us in different ways. For some, an experience of God's glory may literally be a mountaintop experience, an experience of God's grandeur that takes your breath away as you gazed through a clear sky at the vast expanse of stars or witnessed the darkness being transformed by yet another magnificent sunrise. Or perhaps you were alone in prayer, reading Scripture, or were you with one or two or hundreds of others when you felt the overwhelming presence of God's Spirit in a real and tangible way? Maybe you saw God's presence in the faces lit by the candles on Christmas Eve or through the singing of an angelic choir. Perhaps you experienced God's presence in the miracle of a child's birth or in the sacred mystery of watching a loved one gracefully give up the gift of life. At times such as these we are aware that we are in the presence of the Holy, and like Peter we say, "Lord, I do not want this to end. I want always to feel this close to you. Let me stay here."

But, like Peter, we must at some point come down from the mountain. Life moves on. We cannot linger in these moments of absolute awareness of God's presence. We can enjoy them for what they are and for as long as they last and try to learn from them, but we cannot stay on top of the mountain. While our tendency is to want to hold onto those experiences, our temptation as time passes is to wonder if such experiences of God's glory were real, to doubt and dismiss the presence of the Holy. Nevertheless, these mountaintop moments are reminders of a loving and magnificent God who is always present, whether we are always consciously aware of that or not. Jesus was as much the Son of God filled with the radiant life of the Spirit down from the mountain as he was on the mountain. It is just that Peter and the others were grasped by Christ's glory when they were on the mountain. Likewise, our occasional epiphanies, our glimpses of divine reality, do not cease to be valid simply because the chaos of our journey causes them to fade into our memories. Though later Christ's glory may seem to have only been a figment of our imagination, our transfiguration experiences point us to the everpresent power of God's Spirit with us. Our ordinary perception limits us to the surface of life and leads us to believe that there is nothing beyond what we see now, so that we are bogged down in our disappointments and confusion. Yet our extraordinary glimpses of the divine reveal to us the height and breath and depth of the God who loves us enough to be with us always.

"And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man should have risen from the dead." The glimpse of Christ's glory could not be fully grasped until they had seen Jesus suffer and die and rise again. The glory of God was incomplete on the mountain. While on the mountaintop, Peter wanted to cling to the glistening image of Christ. The fullness of Christ's glory was not apparent until he went down the mountain to face Christ's death and resurrection.

As we move into Lent, it is good to stop and remember those moments of epiphany when we have seen Jesus as the Christ and have known the reality of God's presence with us. These moments of epiphany can transfigure our vision for the days ahead so that when we go down from the mountain through days where we may not see glimpses of the presence of God's glory, we can remember the mountaintop and know that while everything in life changes, God's presence is still here. It is not our believing that makes it so. Christ is present whether or not we see his glory. And the same Christ who knows intimately the hurts and sorrows of this life can lead us to the glorious majesty of God even in the trek down from the mountain. On the way down from the mount of transfiguration, Jesus stupefied the disciples by pointing to the cross. Yet it was on that very cross that the Roman soldier saw Christ in all his glory and witnessed such passionate love that he exclaimed, "Truly, this is the Son of God."

As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

Even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In this case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as slaves for Christ's sake. For it is God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray.

God of all majesty, Thank you that on a lonely mountain Christ's human body was transfigured by your divine splendor. For in his face, we have glimpsed your glory. In his life, we see your love. We thank you that the burden of human sorrow and suffering could not diminish his reflection of your holiness. While the world was dark at his death, we thank you that the light of Christ's life could not be extinguished. We praise you that he rose from the grave like the sun, with blinding power and radiant peace. Illumine our lives, O God, with the radiance of Christ's love,and inspire us to shine in faith and witness as his holy disciples. Transform us into his likeness that we may live for you, as he lived and love others as he loved them. Give us strength to serve you faithfully until the promised day of his resurrection. Transform us by your Spirit, and let your love shine in all we do and say that all the world may see the radiant light of God guiding all creation, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


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