Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Nearly 40 years ago, I was a teacher at a boarding school in India. The old colonial mission school called Woodstock was built into the hillside of the Himalayas. During the time, the British ruled India, they went to the mountains during the hot season to rest and be refreshed. Their children often spent the entire year in these remote places. As a teacher I had to climb up the mountain 500 feet in elevation to teach class, every day, and at the end of the day, after tea, I would descend again 500 feet below to the apartment where I lived. It was a daily mountain top experience, or at least that’s what I thought when I was living there. And I know that it was so important to me that when Janna and I were married, I insisted that she visit this place in India- so we went there our honeymoon. Years later, however, as I grew to understand Jesus, transfiguration, I recognized that there was a difference between a mountaintop experience and a true epiphany.
20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto wrote that an epiphany is more than revelation or mountain top experience. He wrote that, first of all, “numinous” is an experience of the divine. And second, it is always a merciful gift of God. That is what Jesus and his disciples Peter, James, and John experienced on the mountaintop at the transfiguration. On that mountain top, they saw Jesus in a brilliant light, more stunning than they had ever known before. This was truly a once in a life time experience. And ever since then, good and devout religious folk have been chasing after mountain tops hoping to experience some of that wonder and power.
Most of our true numinous, epiphanies don’t occur on mountain tops. They are far more ordinary- Yet they are just as powerful and transforming. And that is what I would like to share with you today. As Rudolph Otto wrote, true numinous, transforming moments are merciful gifts from God. They are intended to strengthen our faith, nurture us on our journey and comfort us at the losses we experience.
Today the church marks the end of the season of Epiphany. Seven weeks ago when we first placed this star above our heads, when we read the story of the wise men coming from the East, we also read the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan. Perhaps you remember the story of how Jesus rose from the waters of the river, how the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove, and the voice of God cried out, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” This morning, we hear that divine proclamation again. It is a word simply spoken to the disciples who followed Jesus to that mountain top, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” And we read that when the disciples heard this they were overcome by fear and they fell to the ground.
It was a powerful revelation for the disciples of who Jesus truly was. But why did Jesus need to be transfigured? He had always been the Son of God. From the foundation of the earth, he had been divine. So was this mountain top experience for Jesus, or for his disciples?
Of course, Jesus might have been filled with his questioning thoughts himself. For nearly three years he had been preaching, teaching, healing and walking with his disciples. They had grown to know and trust him. And now he was facing certain death in Jerusalem. Could he be uncertain of his future or the lives of his disciples? Perhaps, just as this word had been spoken at his baptism, the word was sent by his heavenly Father to send him on his way to the cross. Jesus may have needed a mountain top experience to encourage him on his way.
Or perhaps this epiphany was intended for the disciples. St. Matthew says that Jesus “was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as the light.” Mountaintop experiences are important wherever they are found. You can’t pick them up at the store. Epiphanies are a gift of grace with a purpose.
Perhaps that is why Jesus was transfigured before his disciples. In the dark days ahead, God knew that they would always have that numinous, shining presence of Christ etched in their minds. God uses extraordinary means – even now. And often they come without warning, when you least expect them. You see, God knows that we need these sacred moments along life’s way because God knows what happens next: like the Jesus and his disciples, we must come down the mountain.
Numinous, mountaintop experiences are a gift of God’s grace to each one of us. Most of us understand the biology of how a baby is born; but it’s quite another thing to explain the feeling that comes over you holding your newborn child for the first time. It is that numinous experience of touching the face of God. It sustains mothers and fathers in long sleepless, colicky nights of early childhood. It is that important mountain top experience of holding that child and experiencing the mystery of life which allows to move on, and trust that there will be a better day and night ahead.
Likewise, I can tell you after performing 30 weddings again last year, that while most marriage ceremonies are basically the same wherever you go, there is something unique and powerful and ultimately indescribable at each wedding. And it is a transformative mountain experience for them that lasts. That day seems to be a day when the bride and groom see only the goodness in the other person: their beauty, their loyalty, their compassion, and their love. There is a certain clarity that comes on a wedding day: The couple is offered a moment of deep assurance that this is a good and holy decision. Of course, they know that there will be trials and heartaches ahead, but they also remember the mountaintop experience of the wedding day. That numinous moment of God’s presence in their lives allows them to trust that all will be well.
Epiphanies occur at death as well. Many times, God graciously provides families struggling with imminent death, a numinous moment of life and witness- often unexplained and unexpected which sustains them in their sorrows and allows them to accept death. Yes, and through it all they are pulled up out of the difficulty and find themselves blessed by the privilege of having witnessed the transfigured Christ “shining like the sun itself.”
Life is hard. That is what God knows from his ordinary walk with us in Jesus. He knows that as many mountaintop experiences as we have had, whether at the birth of child, a wedding or even in a holy moment of death, we know that those experiences are all fleeting. Some days, you may wonder where those mountaintop experiences were ever real. When you’ve wandered in the valleys and trenches too long, you may wonder whether you simply imagined the mountaintop. How could you have seen things so clearly and radiantly when in everyday life you feel nothing distance from God?
Fortunately, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration gives us yet another hope in life’s painful moments. The story gives us hope and direction in the God’s words, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” We are all going to have hard days. But God said to Jesus’ disciples on that mountain top experience, that these hard days will be light if you listen to Jesus. No matter where you are, no matter how low you are in the valley, Jesus is there to speaking to you and offering you comfort. You simply need to listen, to reflect on his words, and where he has walked with you in the ordinary moments of life. All the answers to your questions, all your cries for support, all your loneliness and aching is answered when you listen.
Forty years ago, I walked daily in the mountains of India, but it has been in the years of walking in the valleys, that I have grown to understand that a mountaintop experience is a gift of God, and it may come but once in a lifetime; yet, the satisfaction of that one moment can linger forever and make all the drudgery and hard work worth the effort. Mountaintop experiences are the catalysts for transformation. When you’ve been to the mountaintop, when you have experienced the gift of God’s grace, you never see things in quite the same way again.
My prayer for each and all of you is that you might experience enough of life’s transforming mountaintop moments that you may be sustained in those hard, lonely, confusing days which come to all who dare to seek and follow Jesus down from the mountain peak. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.