Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I* will make three dwellings* here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.[i]
Mount Tabor is about 100 miles north of Jerusalem,just west of the Sea of Galilee. It is forested with pine trees and offers stunning, panoramic views. On a clear day, to the north and west, you can see Lebanon; to the east, beyond of the Sea of Galilee, you can see Syria, Jordan, and Mount Hermon. Jesus and his disciples would have known the words of Psalm 89 about these majestic mountaintops. The psalmist says, “The north and the south* – you created them;Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.”[ii] These mountain tops are sovery beautiful and breezy. Mount Tabor is only about 2,000 feet above sea level, but that is a lofty height above the sea level of Galilee, which is nearly 700 feet below sea level. Mount Tabor is a place where you are glad to linger. It’s heavenly.
Jesus and his disciples Peter, James, and John were atop beautiful Mount Tabor. Whatever all was happening to Jesus and to them at that moment, they did not want it to end. They wanted to save it, cling to it. We call it Jesus’ Transfiguration. In actuality, it was also the transfiguration of the three apostles. Suddenly they, too, were filled with this light: lighting their lives, lighting the darkness of their pasts, lighting their hopes, and dreams, and confusions, and fears about the future. It was such an incredible experience, and Peter – I’m just guessing it was Peter who spoke for the three – seized onto this experience and said to Jesus: Don’t move! This is it! Let’s hold this moment in “stop action.” Don’t change anything. “Master,” Peter says, “Let’s just stay here. Let’s stay put. Let’s keep everything as it is.” They had arrived. On the one hand, their souls were soaring into the heavens, and simultaneously they felt very secure, very grounded in their mountaintop experience.[iii]
Now there’s two different ways to be grounded in life. One, a good way and one, a bad. It is no good to be “grounded” like in a boat. These fishermen – Peter and James and John – would have known the dangers of being grounded like a boat on the rocks of the Sea of Galilee, which is to be stuck and in peril of destruction. It is quite another experience to be “grounded” like a tree: grounded in the soil in which the roots, very much alive, keep the tree upright and steady, actively drawing water and nourishment from the soil, meanwhile being anchored in the ground so as to be able to withstand even a raging storm without toppling over. For these three disciples to have stayed put on Mount Tabor would have been like the grounding of a boat. They would have been stuck in time. Jesus was insistent on claiming their experience, and then moving on. Jesus was talking about being grounded, not in a place, but grounded in a relationship, to be “rooted and grounded in love,” again quoting from the Letter to the Ephesians.[iv]
You have probably had a similar experience, and more than once. I certainly have. Given all the changes and chances in life, there will come these experiences of joy, or delight, or clarity, or security, or great beauty and harmony, when you have a mountaintop experience in some place, or at some special occasion, or in a relationship, or with some particular person or group. It is so good, and you hope it will never end. But it does. The weather changes, literally and metaphorically. The weather of the heart, the weather of the sky changes. Clouds come in; the daylight inevitably turns to darkness. And that’s life. So it was for Peter, James, and John with Jesus there on Mount Tabor.
Peter, James, and John had gotten grounded, gotten momentarily stuck, on this mountaintop experience with Jesus. All seemed right with their world, and, looking ahead, all would be right in the whole world when Jesus got to Jerusalem and finally ascended the royal throne and assumed his kingly power. They would be seated at his right hand and at his left.[v] It would be the best of times, and it would have stayed the best of times… except for this one tragic dimension about Jesus. Jesus kept talking about a terrible twist to his life (and to theirs!) when they arrived in Jerusalem.
Jesus had talked about the doorway to the future having to pass over a threshold of loss, and suffering, and death: death on a cross. The apostles and many of Jesus’ other followers were not able to hear this, which is so true to life.[vi] Sometimes you simply cannot bear to hear what you hear, and so you don’t. We say in slang, something “goes in one ear and out the other…” The disciples could not take in what Jesus had been saying all along about the cross. It’s as if they were pretending not to know what Jerusalem would portend for Jesus… and probably for them also for them.
We don’t know much about when or how the apostles came down off the mountain top. I suspect a new set of clouds rolled in, as clouds are want to do in life. The next time they would experience that kind of light would be on Easter, following Jesus’ resurrection. We do know that the transfiguring light did again transfigure Peter, James, and John and the other apostles. How it happened was miraculous, but it also became normal. Here’s the good news they discovered… and here’s the good news for you about a miracle wanting to become normal in your own life.
First, the apostles were able to hear that Jesus would be with them always, after all. Jesus is God Emmanuel, God with us. We do not worship a God whose presence is limited to a particular mountaintop experience, nor to a particular place,nor to a particular time. We worship God Emmanuel, in all times and in all places. God is with us, with you. The disciples realized Jesus was going to abide with them. They didn’t have to stay on the mountaintop, or to go back to a mountaintop experience to be with Jesus. They would be grounded in the light and life and love of Jesus, who was going to stay really present to them always.
And then they realized if Jesus was going to stay with them, it would be in a new way… because he was still going to leave them. That was for sure. He would depart the dusty roads of Galilee, yet leave his Spirit with them. And this had been their other fear: not that Jesus would just leave, but that Jesus would leave his power with them. They weren’t afraid of his impending absence, but rather of his continuing, powerful presence. Really. Were they up for it? Who were they? These simple little fishermen. And who are you? Simple little you? You have been given the light and life and love of Jesus to transform your own darkness and the darkness of the world in which you live. By your touch, your words, your presence, you have been given power by Jesus. God Emmanuel is with you. Jesus abides with you. That’s his promise, always, even to the end of the world.[vii]
I’ll name three practices that will help you tap Jesus’ presence and power within you:
- Reflect back on your own life and recall some experiences that have been transfiguring for you, when you have been filled with life, and light, and love. What has transfigured you? It may be a certain moment in a relationship, or some place to where you traveled, or some particular experience in something you sensed – an “ah-hah” moment – or maybe a collage of things that converged in time giving you the assurance you could do it, that you would make it, that it would be okay after all. I call these memories your own experience of being transfigured. Draw those memories into the present. Claim your memories. The memories are alive!
- Truth be told, can you probably identify with Peter, James, and John’s wanting to “stay put” on the mountaintop. Is there anything right now in your life that is good, perhaps amazingly good, that you are clinging to? It may literally be some tangible thing, or some experience, or some relationship that means the world to you. Whatever it is, cherish it, but don’t cling to it. Recently I was listening to someone speak about their life, which is in major transition. They are having to radically simplify and downsize their life. This person has taken on a practice of giving away things they love. The issue for them was not about giving away or disposing of things they no longer need or desire. That went without saying. Their delight, their newfound freedom, was coming through giving away things they love. You might consider a similar practice. Give away what you love and you will be left with love[viii]
- Thirdly, you may have some ambivalence or fear about power. I’m not talking about powerful forces coming at you; I’m talking here about the power within you. Jesus promises us power.[ix] Left alone, we are quite powerless and can easily become overwhelmed. Tapping God’s Spirit opens a channel of power within us, far beyond what we could ask or imagine. If you are power-avoidant – avoidant of your own power – “out yourself” in God’s presence. Bring that fear into the light. What the apostles eventually discovered, what St. Paul discovered, what multitudes of people have discovered since, is “God’s power being made perfect in our own weakness.”[x] If you find yourself weak, afraid, overwhelmed, inadequate, you’re a perfect set-up. You’re in a perfect place to take Jesus at his word. Surrender your fear, which will make space to receive his promised power.
Claim the power you embody: the light and life and love of Jesus within you. Take it in, and then let it flow with great generosity and authority through your own hands, through your own eyes, through your own mind, through your own words, through your own presence. Claim Jesus’ power, and then let the power flow. Let it go, let it flow. There’s more where that came from. The world is dying to know Jesus’ transfiguring presence and Jesus’ power. And you’ve got it! You do!
[i] See also Mark 9:2-9 and Luke 9:28-35.
[ii] Psalm 89:12.
[iii]We could call this a liminal moment, from the Latin limen, “threshold.”
[v] This was the apostles’ James’ and John’s request: to sit at Jesus’ right hand and left hand when he assumed his kingly reign in Jerusalem. (Matthew 20:20-26; Mark 10:35-49)
[vi] It seems only the apostle Thomas was able to take in what Jesus was predicting. “Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ …Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” (John 11:7-16)
[vii] Matthew 28:20.
[viii]The motto of St. Catherine’s Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia, is both inspired and inspiring: “What we keep we lose; only what we give remains our own.”
[ix]Nelson Mandela, in his 1994 Presidential Inaugural Speech, said: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are we not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
[x]St. Paul writes, “I appealed to the Lord about that [my affliction] would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)