Down from the Mountaintop

Mark 9:2-9
David A. Davis
February 11, 2024
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There is something about life on the other side of the Transfiguration that ought to strike a chord with those who would follow Jesus. The Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain. Up on the mountaintop the appearance of Jesus changes right before their eyes. Mark only mentions his garments glistening in white. Matthew adds that “his face shone like the sun.” As if the glow wasn’t enough, Moses and Elijah mysteriously appear. Up on the mountaintop, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are talking to one another like old friends but with heaven’s spotlight shining on them. Though Mark gives no runway commentary on the countenance of the Old Testament folk, their appearance must have no comparison to that of Jesus. Up on the mountaintop Jesus is transfigured.

It is interesting how many English translations of the bible stick with the word “transfigured.” Yes, some use the verb “transformed”. Others simply say “changed”. But most English versions of the bible just leave it as “transfigured.” A cognate of the Greek noun “transfiguration” is” metamorphosis”. The Apostle Paul uses the same word in a familiar verse from Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Transformed. I couldn’t find any version of the bible that uses the word “transfigured.” Only up on the mountaintop. “He was transfigured before them.”

Perhaps generations of New Testament scholars and translation committees have stuck with “transfiguration” to highlight and preserve this strange old world of the bible moment in the story of Jesus and his disciples. Maybe sticking with “transfiguration” is signal to preachers that not all biblical texts can be clipped, lifted and explained for the 21st century ear. Sometimes the gospel just invites that 21st century reader to sit in the strange old ancient world of the bible for a while. Like the disciples, contemporary readers of the gospel are never going to fully wrap their minds around Jesus, Moses and Elijah up on the mountaintop. Somehow amid the other-worldliness of the moment and despite being terrified, Peter acknowledges that it is “good for us to be here”. Maybe with some mix of wanting to provide hospitality and hoping to preserve the moment Peter offers to build three dwellings. But the mountaintop doesn’t last long. Not long at all. Mountaintops never do. The cloud comes. The voice booms. And then there was only Jesus heading down from the mountaintop.

There is something about life on the other side of the Transfiguration that ought to strike a chord with those who would follow Jesus. As mystical and mythical and “bible-ly” as the mountaintop experience of transfiguration reads, there is something about life with the disciples and Jesus on the downside of the mountain that seems more relatable. On the way down from the mountaintop, as the disciples seek to understand what just happened, together with Jesus they start talking about things the scribe said about Elijah coming again, and all this talk of the suffering of the son of man, and what on earth “rising from the dead could mean.” On the way down from the mountaintop, Jesus and the disciples are greeted again by the crowds of humanity and people arguing and lots of sickness and suffering. Down from the mountaintop Jesus tells them again about his own death and resurrection. Down from the mountaintop the disciples start to bicker among themselves about which one was the greatest. Down from the mountaintop Jesus  tells the disciples “whoever is not against us is for us” and he warns them about being a stumbling block to those who believe in him. Down from the mountaintop for Jesus and the disciples life happens, gospel teaching happens, ministry happens, people happen.

It is the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For though we may be invited again and again into the strange old world of the bible, we are always sent out into the 21st century world as servants and disciples of the Savior. Sent out to live out our faith where life happens, teaching happens, ministry happens, and people happen. Often caught up in our own arguments and attempts to understand both the gospel and the world in which we live yet sent out by Christ himself not with a divine glow but with what the preacher in the Book of Hebrews describes as “drooping hands and weak knees”. Sent out to life on the downside with the promise of the prophet Isaiah that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they mount up wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

The life of faith on the other side of the mountaintop is not defined by struggle, doubt, pessimism or fear. Quite the contrary, it is about the life of discipleship to which we have been called. The life of discipleship where sleeves are rolled up and shoes are worn down because we’re called to be his hands and feet in and for the world. Where our clothes are not dazzling white but are worn in the knees as we heed Paul’s call to “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and constant in prayer.” An everyday journey with Christ Jesus that is less about getting questions answered and more about a life-giving servanthood, a radical concern for others, a theology of stewardship that shatters the love of money and smashes the idolatrous search for “what is in it for me.”  A life in Christ in your neck of the world where instances of forgiveness are multiplied to the nth degree and long-established walls are busted by daring reconciliation and the people most different from you are viewed and understood and loved through the lens of Christ himself. Some are blessed to have more than their share of mountaintops along the way, but for the rest of us, for most of us, our walk with God is usually somewhere on the way down from the mountaintop, on the other side of the Transfiguration.

In Matthew’s telling of the Transfiguration, after the disciples fell to the ground in fear as the voice from the cloud spoke, Jesus comes over to the disciples, touches them and says “Get up and do not be afraid.” Mark’s Jesus doesn’t approach, touch, or speak to the disciples on the mountaintop. “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore but Jesus.” Right then the trek down the mountain begins just as suddenly. It could be that the gospel known for its brevity just doesn’t have the space for the “do not be afraid.” Or maybe Jesus in Mark is just eager to take the disciples to the other side, to the downside. Perhaps the children of God, the followers of Jesus are to be amazed, wowed, overwhelmed by grace and filled with praise and adoration on mountaintops. But somewhere down from the mountaintop is where disciples are sent. Somewhere down from the mountaintop is where disciples are formed, shaped, molded into the life Christ calls us.

I have been reading a new book by Cornelius Plantinga, author and former president of Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids. The title of the book is Gratitude: Why Giving Thanks is the Key to our Well-Being. It is much more of a devotional book than it is a self-help one. At the end of the book, Dr. Plantinga writes about how Jesus calls his disciples to live life with a purpose. To live so as to “glorify God and enjoy God forever” as the Westminster Confession puts it. Or as Jesus puts it in Matthew: “Strive first for the kingdom of God.” Plantinga describes it as living life with a calling an pursuing with an energy that comes from the very Spirit of God.

“People who have been penetrated by the Spirit of God so that they are redeemed all the way downtown in their hearts”, he writes. “They love God. They love their neighbors. Even when they don’t like their neighbors, they love them by treating them well. They hunger for justice. They read scripture with an appetite and ponder it with respect. They hate cruelty and join efforts to opposed it. They love kindness and support groups that show it. They know that God’s kingdom project is to make things right in the world, and they want to be part of that project.”

As I finished my friend’s book, I found myself struck, struck in a good way, by how un-profound that conclusion sounds. How ordinary, how do-able, how attainable the Christian life can be. Because Plantinga is not writing from the prophet’s mountaintop. He doesn’t end with some kind of never thought of revelation that has its own stunning aura of newness clothed in glitz.  To be honest, n, either does the book lead with the timeless, essential, bold, death conquering, world shattering acclamation that “Christ is Risen”. No,  Neal Plantinga writes as a doctor of the church who has spend a lifetime watching students, saints and sinners, the disciples of Jesus striving to lead the Christian life. He isn’t writing about the mountaintops. No, gratitude comes on the other side of the Transfiguration too. He is writing about life on the downside where life happens, teaching happens, ministry happens, and people happen. Somewhere down from the mountaintop is where disciples are formed, shaped, molded into the life Christ calls us.

Years ago a pastoral search committee from another congregation came here to Nassau Church to listen to me preach. Some members of my own search committee that spent years going to other congregations on Sunday mornings were very suspicious at these new folks who all sat together. It was more than 15 years ago so they had nothing to worry about. At one point over lunch, the chair of that committee explained the reason their pastor left after only four years. He wanted to make sure I didn’t think the church was in conflict or crisis. Our pastor shared with our Session that after four years the pastor was feeling bored, needed a new challenge, and wanted something new.

Now I have friends all around who accept a call to another congregation for all kinds of reasons and within all kinds of timeframes. No judgment here. You know in 38 years I have served two congregations. I have had students and colleagues asked about whether I can bored or how do I find new challenges. Trust me, it’s a much longer answer. But at the end of the day, I think I side with Neal Plantinga and his un-profound yet so profound conclusion about the Christian life. And year after year, season after season, watching and walking with the follows of Jesus who find themselves on this side of the Transfiguration, somewhere down from the mountaintop where disciples are formed, shaped, molded into the life Christ calls us.

I just look at you and give thanks to God, for it doesn’t get any newer than that.