Pastor Dale E. Austin Matthew 17:1 – 9
There are experiences in life too profound to try to explain or to put into words. When someone asks us about them, we may try. But usually it comes down to, “You just had to be there.” Even if we try to capture the experience, somehow our memento just doesn’t do justice to the original experience. We see, for instance, a double rainbow and it’s gorgeous and a rare and moving experience. So we snap a picture of it. Later, though, when we pull that picture up, it’s just not the same. Yes, it’s still very beautiful, but maybe the colors aren’t as vivid or the details of the image isn’t as sharp as we remember. It’s beautiful, but the moving quality of the original vision doesn’t translate in a picture. For whatever the reason. . . . you just had to be there.
That’s our challenge today. We are considering an event from the life of Jesus which was difficult even for the eyewitnesses to appreciate. None of us was there so no matter how vividly the Gospel writers try to describe the event, I’m absolutely convinced that we can’t even begin to picture what those three disciples witnessed and experienced on that Transfiguration Mountain with Jesus. Peter, James and John saw Jesus in a whole new light – literally! The Gospel goes on to say that Moses and Elijah were speaking with him. I’ve always wondered – how did they know it was Moses and Elijah? There certainly were no photographs of either man, so no one really knew what they looked like. Maybe it was just a lucky guess? Or did Jesus call them by name? Even so, it’s clear that the disciples were not privy to the actual conversation.
To try to explain this experience, much less to put it down in print, is an impossible task. Three disciples get a brief glimpse of who Jesus really is. It’s a revelation which has not been offered previously. . . and will not be offered again until his ascension. Three disciples see Jesus revealed in front of them in all of his heavenly splendor and glory. They see that his companions are representative of the Law and the Prophets, those aspects of the scriptures which Jesus has claimed to have come to fulfill. Though they do not realize it yet, everything is beginning to point toward Jesus’ death, resurrection and return to his disciples. Bottom line: the three disciples have no idea what they are actually witnessing. Maybe that’s why Jesus told them not to mention this experience to anyone until after his resurrection and ascension. Only then would they even begin to understand.
There is one thing which the disciples understand clearly, even in the midst of their confusion: There is more taking place here than meets the eye. They would like to have some time to prolong the experience and to try to come to grips with it all. We often describe such an experience today as a “mountain-top experience” as this one literally was. If we’ve ever had such an experience, we know how much we would like to hold on to it for as long as possible. We can relate to Peter’s suggestion that everyone camp out up there on the mountain for a while, that they build shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – so that they can have to time to soak it all in and try to understand.
Beyond that, the disciples don’t really understand what is happening. They know that it’s something good. They know that it’s something wonderful that needs to be preserved, drawn out for a long, extended period of time. They are not about to leave – if they have anything to say about it. But, of course, they don’t.
Jesus still has work to do, and it can’t be done on the mountain.
He must return to the valley, because that’s where his mission lies. That is also true for the disciples. Their mission lies in the valley as well. They cannot hide out on the mountain for the rest of their lives. They have work to do, and it can only be accomplished among the people of the world, down there in the valley.
From time to time, we might experience such “mountain-top experiences” and like the disciples, we would like to prolong them for as long as we can. Something wonderful happens, though we may not even begin to explain it. It happens often when we’re on a weekend retreat with some friends or a group from the church. It might happen in the course of a week at camp. It could happen in the fellowship and friendship of a shared meal. But wherever it comes. . . something wonderful is happening, and we want to keep it going.
But if we do, then we keep it just to ourselves. Even though it might be difficult to share that experience with others, that is our mission. We’ve been to the top of the mountain. We’ve witnessed something wonderful; have been given a glimpse into something incredible.
There’s more taking place here than meets the eye.
But now it’s time to share that vision with others. That means we must come down from the mountain. We cannot stay up there any more than Peter, James and John could.
Our mission is not on the mountain. It’s in the valley, where all of the people are.