Mountaintops and Valleys: The Life of a Disciple

Matthew 17:1–9 The Message
Six days later, three of them saw that glory. Jesus took Peter and the brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light. Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with him. Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain — one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?” While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.” When the disciples heard it, they fell flat on their faces, scared to death. But Jesus came over and touched them. “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus. Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. “Don’t breathe a word of what you’ve seen. After the Son of Man is raised from the dead, you are free to talk.”

When I was a little kid, probably, four or five, my family went to visit my grandparents who lived in Evergreen, CO, which is right up there in the Rocky Mountains. It was over the 4th of July holiday and my family went to the local firework show. Up on top of the mountain those fireworks were so colorful and loud that I felt like I could reach out and touch them. I was sitting away from my family a bit- encased in a display of beauty and solitude. At the end of the display, however much I didn’t want the show to end and go back to the ordinary, I had to go back to my grandparents home- back to ordinary life that gets lived out in the valleys between tall mountains that hold within them gifts of surprising elegance. For me, as I reflect back on it, it was perhaps a moment of holiness and prayer as I allowed myself to be captured in the moment right before me. But like all of life, I had to go back down that mountain to the valley where I could not reach out and touch the fiery flames of color and be lost in beauty, solitude, and peace. I have told that story to my daughter almost every 4th of July in the hope that somehow, even though we live in Kansas far from mountains, she can experience what I did.

In the same way the event of the Transfiguration is passed down from the mountaintop to us in the valley of our lives today. What happened and what Peter, James, and John experienced is given to us not just to add flare or drama to Jesus’ story, but it brings full circle what first happened at Jesus’ baptism. That was the first firework display if you will- when God first voiced that this Jesus is God’s Beloved Son, with whom he is well pleased. From that moment, a lifetime of teaching, healing, and miracles have happened. The disciples have experienced much, have been witness to things they probably never expected to see. God has more in store though, and so another declaration is needed. There is one last valley Jesus and his disciples must walk, the final mountain if you will.

Matthew 16:21–26 The Message:
Then Jesus made it clear to his disciples that it was now necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, submit to an ordeal of suffering at the hands of the religious leaders, be killed, and then on the third day be raised up alive. Peter took him in hand, protesting, “Impossible, Master! That can never be!” But Jesus didn’t swerve. “Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works.” Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

For this valley- the Transfiguration is needed. It acts both as a reminder and a glimpse of the final glory and victory that is to come. If we take the place of Peter, James, and John in the story I bet many of us would never want to leave the mountaintop knowing that Jesus is going to suffer and die. Who would want to lose Jesus after investing three years of your life with him and his mission? Who would want to walk away from being not only with Jesus but Moses and Elijah? These are the people you are raised on, these are your scripture heroes. The truth is that discipleship and life happens in the valley. The Transfiguration should steel our hearts, give it a fire and strength for the next steps. It also means things are about to change. Dr. Karoline Lewis says that:

Transfiguration means change. We think we welcome change, but when it actually happens we adopt stances of resistance and rejection or convince ourselves that change can wait. That it really isn’t necessary. That the time is not right. That the problems that will ensue are not worth the result of living into who we really are.

I’m telling you that the time is right now, and that change can’t wait. God has given you what you need to walk in the footsteps of Jesus with a fire in your soul and the memory of holiness and glory sustained in not just in your memory, but your very being as you live in the valley. If you don’t live into who God has created and called you to be, a follower of Jesus, a bearer of Christ’s light in a shadowed valley of a suffering world, then the world will continue on just as it is. It will live in ignorance of what Jesus is truly capable of and will continue to miss the kingdom of healing and miracles that is knocking on the doors. We then, as disciples, will be failing. Not just failing the world but our very confession as Jesus as Lord- the one who suffered and died on the cross for our sins, and then raised on the third day in victory over sin, death, and the devil. Pheme Perkins had it right when she commented that, “The gospel was not formulated for the convenience of those who would preach it to others.” Mountaintops feel convenient, comfortable, and safe. Valleys where real life happens are definitely not. There is no way around it, you don’t get the fullness of the Transfiguration glory without witnessing it through the cross and suffering. There is no half in/half out just taking the mountaintop without the valley. We must allow the mountain to change us into the bold, on fire disciple that the world needs. There is work for us, opportunities for witnessing, opportunities for sharing our own experiences with Jesus. We are called to be the holy in the suffering, being and embodying love, grace, hope, peace and mercy in every valley.