Coming Down the Mountain
Trinitarian Congregational Church Transfiguration Sunday
Anthony S. Kill February 11, 2018
Texts: II Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9
What strikes us most about the first reading from the book of Kings is the determined, unwavering commitment of the prophet Elisha to his master, Elijah: The disciple is utterly inseparable from his teacher. “I will never leave you. no matter what anyone says,no matter if everyone knows that the end is near, no matter that I’ll soon be left utterly alone, I will not separate from you, I will not stay behind.”
Elisha’s very commitment to stay united with Elijah makes him walk right into the separation. Elijah, as God’s special servant, had his own private path, his own individual destiny to follow. He is taken up into heaven in the fiery chariot. And Elisha is meant to remain behind, to continue the prophetic ministry.
The Hebrew tellers of this story could have just written about the prophet’s glorious ascent to the heavens in the chariot of fire, an ecstatic vision filled with light and holy mystery and the power of God. But instead they focused on Elisha the disciple, and what it meant for him to have his spiritual mentor so suddenly wrested away from him — even by God.
Jesus’ disciples — especially these three mentioned in today’s Gospel, Peter, James and John — were forever protesting that they would be faithful to Jesus to the end, that they would never leave or abandon him. And yet they kept forever missing the point, getting it wrong — (especially so in Mark’s gospel). They stumble all over themselves trying to follow Jesus — but they never quite get the steps right, and they never fully understand what their commitment involves, what Jesus is really asking of them.
The disciples suffer from an excess of ardor, an overflow of enthusiasm, with a corresponding deficiency of insight or prudence. They don’t even exhibit Elisha’s good grace; When Jesus suggests that he must be tortured and killed, then be raised from the dead and leave them, they try to stop him and argue with him about it. In today’s gospel, so filled with beauty and rapture, the disciples want only the ecstatic experience of transfiguration, without its meaning or implications for their lives.
The verses right after this passage indicate that Jesus’ dialogue with Moses and Elijah was in fact about Jesus’ destiny to suffer and die and be raised again. But all the disciples see is the beautiful vision, the dazzling light, the mystical experience. And Peter’s amazed response is, “Wow! this is fantastic! let’s build a monument! Let’s capture this moment forever!”
Maybe it’s because we’ll be celebrated another Valentine’s Day this week, but I can’t help thinking that the disciples’ response to the transfiguration is something like the glorification of romantic love. As a pastor, I have the privilege of seeing many young couples — sometimes young in years, often “young” in their relationship — coming with news that they have decided to marry.
The emotional intimacy and ecstasy that they have found in each other have led them to decide for a public commitment to their relationship, a declaration about their future together. And that is wonderful and laudable. When a couple comes, they most often appear very much in love; and I enjoy sharing the experience of their relationship with them.
But one thing a pastor has to do in pre-marital counseling is to remind the couple that the intense, wonderful emotion that brought them to this point will not last on that level of newfound excitement and fulfillment.
I have to remind them that while right now they may not even be able to imagine a time when they wouldn’t love each other, I can almost guarantee them that they will have moments when they won’t even like each other very much, and will have a hard time remembering what it was they ever saw in the other person. And I have to remind them of the tremendous power we humans have to most intensely hurt, and be hurt by, the ones we love the most.
This is not to discourage or dismiss romantic love, or the ecstasy of human intimacy. But it is to point out the difference between the emotion of love, and the commitment of love. The one is a feeling, which fluctuates in ebbs and flows; the other is a decision, a life-choice, a daily commitment. which does not change unless one chooses to change course entirely.
It’s not all ecstasy; it’s not all Valentine’s Day; it’s not all the radiance of transfiguration. We can’t just stop time and “build three dwellings here” as Peter suggested.
But perhaps it is the ecstasies, the wonderful visions and feelings, that make it possible and worthwhile to decide to risk a life-commitment. Perhaps the ecstasies make the agonies bearable. Because there is, after all, a real, unavoidable connection between commitment and suffering.
Jesus’ commitment to his role and his destiny sealed his path to Jerusalem’s arrest, conviction and death. The disciples’ commitment to follow Jesus sealed their own path to grief, confusion, terror, and ultimately heroic martyrdom.
And our own commitments of love and fidelity — whether they be to a spouse, or to a child, or to a friendship, or to a career or profession, or to God, or to a Christian community, a church, — our own commitments will lead us not only to happiness and fulfillment, but will also bring moments of heartache, and worry, and sometimes the experiences of betrayal (or at least unfilled hopes and unmet expectations). Life never quite turns out as we had planned. It is often messier, or harder, or more demanding than we thought it would be. New circumstances arise; Our spouse or our children don’t always fulfill our hopes or meet our expectations; pastors come and go, people in the congregation change, and the community around the church changes.
Our basic commitments may continue firm and unabated, but even the persons or things that we’re committed to, change: their needs change, and what is required for us to be faithful in the future is sometimes quite different than what we had first chosen.
We need our mountaintops in life. God speaks from mountaintops.
Mountains remind us of God’s constancy and fortitude, the “rock of ages”. God made the covenant with Moses on a mountaintop. Jesus was tested on one mountaintop, transfigured on another, died on a third, and ascended from a fourth. He leads these disciples up the mountain precisely to confirm for them the role that he had in the world, and the role that they had as his followers. And we need the ecstasy and romance of love represented by Valentine’s Day. We need the ecstasies in life, the brilliantly clear moments in which we can say, “Aha! This is what my life is for!”
But we cannot stay on the mountaintop. Jesus leads the disciples back down to the valley, to encounter the sick and the hostile and the skeptical, to wrestle with the demons of evil and the powers of darkness because that is what the mountaintop vision called him to do. And so our loves and commitments sometimes call us down into the valleys, to setting our faces toward the cross, toward ambivalence and uncertainty, sickness, and fear, and sometimes even hostility in those we love best, or in work we’ve long since chosen, or in the church we hold so dear. And our love grows in the valleys too. It grows stronger, and deeper, and richer and more real in the struggles and challenges of life. The double share of God’s spirit is there when we need it. Because of the mountaintops of our joys, we can dare to live out our commitments in the every day, to face even the “Februarys” of life. And we need to take time, occasionally, to send each other Valentines, to recall the Mountaintop experiences. They help us all remember the wondrous love and ecstatic delight, the glimpse of the glory of God in the faces of one another, that brought us here in the first place.