The Mountaintop is Nice, But the Valley is Calling
by Bishop Chris Giesler
Preaching Text: Mark 9:2-9
Before discussing this week’s assigned text, the transfiguration, and its importance to Jesus’ journey to the cross, let’s back up twenty-eight verses in Mark’s Gospel to where Jesus asks his disciples what people were saying about who he was. There, we see that people thought Jesus was John the Baptist. Others thought he was Elijah returning to usher in the Messiah, according to Hebrew Scriptures. Still others believed that Jesus was one of the prophets. That is quite a list, but Jesus knew all those answers were wrong. He then asks who they thought he was. This time, Peter, always the one speaking up first, bursts out with the answer: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). This was quite a startling statement, but Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” (Mark 8:30)
In the next verse, Jesus predicts his arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. This makes no sense to Peter since he had just proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. Indeed, the Messiah could never be arrested and crucified, therefore not needing a resurrection. So, because this does not fit Peter’s image of the Messiah, he rebukes Jesus for talking nonsense about suffering. Jesus, in turn, sees this as the ultimate temptation, even seeing Peter’s words as coming from Satan. (Mark 8:33)
But now, in our passage for this week, Jesus pulls away from the world and brings Peter, James, and John with him. He leads them Up the mountain, apart for a retreat – a separation from the world – up the mountain. There, Jesus is transfigured, transformed into a bright light. God’s very presence radiated from him in a way that had not been seen before. From the cloud, Peter, James, and John were exhorted to pay attention to what Jesus had to say and what he would do. One would think this would have been the culmination of it all, a great place to end the story with a happy and triumphant ending.
“Transfigured” is certainly not a word that we use every day. The dictionary defines transfiguration as a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. While all of this is certainly a mystery, I think that in this moment, Jesus’ humanity was stripped away, and what the disciples witnessed was his divinity.
Peter did what any number of us would try to do – preserve the moment with a building of some sort. I can see what Peter is getting at here. He already let Jesus know what he thought about this trip to Jerusalem. Who would want to walk into pain and persecution? His preference would be to stay here in this glorious and sacred moment. But Jesus only motions to head down the mountain.
- Down the mountain, where people were sick
- Down the mountain, where people might try to hurt Jesus
- Down the mountain, where things were far more unpredictable
- Down the mountain, where evil might be hiding on every street corner
What Peter suggested was the best that he could think of at the moment. This was unlike the many marvelous signs that they had witnessed Jesus perform. This was something done for him and to him. In this case, Jesus was the one being blessed. Notice that Jesus does not speak during this event until they begin their descent. Peter tried to make the most of the moment by trying to prolong it. I think that each of us can identify with Peter when we want to keep a good thing going.
Too often, we equate the Christian life with what happens within the walls of a church on a Sunday morning. And yes, being present at worship on a Sunday morning is essential to feed our souls, just like the mountaintop experience of the transfiguration was important for Jesus and his disciples. But to truly follow Jesus, we must leave the sanctuary, go out into the world, and make a difference. Out into the world, where can we comfort a grieving soul, come to the aid of a family who has lost a home in a fire, speak tenderly to others, provide shelter for those who are homeless, visit the sick and those in prison, help to feed those who are hungry. Sometimes, we need to sit and enjoy the mountaintop; sometimes, our mission is down in the valley. Sometimes, we receive the blessing; sometimes, we are the blessing to others. The mountaintop is nice, but the valley is calling.