Summary: Mountain top experiences are great things, but the test of them is when we come back to the real world, to a broken and hurting world where the glory of God is sometimes hidden. Then the test for us is whether we remember and trust what we’ve discovered o
What is it about mountain tops that we find so attractive? I don’t mean just the mountain climber who climbs a mountain just because it’s there, but the rest of us. Most people I think have a special feeling for mountains. We talk about the "Mountain Top Experience" don’t we? But what is it that makes those experiences so special? Is it because we still have a cosmology that puts God up in heaven, so going up a mountain feels like we’re getting closer to God? Well, it might be, but it isn’t mere altitude that does it. I’ve been up in an aeroplane at 35,000 ft looking down on the Himalayas and haven’t felt that sense of being nearer to God. Is it perhaps the feeling of being separated from our normal world: of the ruggedness of the mountain and the wildness of the surrounds that reminds us of our place in a world made by God not by humans? Or is it perhaps that as we stand on the mountain top we can look down and see the world laid out before us and realise just how small our part of the world is by comparison with the larger reality? Well, whatever it is, the mountain top has always played an important part in human spirituality, whether it’s the Celtic mystics who built their standing stones on hill tops, or the Hindu holy man who sits alone on the hill and meditates day and night. And it’s certainly true in the Judaeo-Christian religious experience. The mountain top was the place where God showed Abraham the land of Canaan and promised him all he could see in every direction. It was the place where he was taken to test his faith with the sacrifice of Isaac. It was the place where Moses first encountered God and where, later, he was given the 10 Commandments. It was the place where Moses was given a glimpse of God, where Elijah was taken for reassurance that God was still with him, and here in this passage today we find Jesus going up a mountain to meet with God. (Mk 9:2)
Jesus takes his inner circle, Peter, James, and John, and leads them up a high mountain where they were all alone. While they’re there, - Luke tells us that it’s while Jesus is praying, - he’s transfigured before them. That is his face begins to shine and his clothes become dazzling white. The implication is that this is a manifestation of the glory of God in Jesus. The shining face is like the change that came over Moses when he’d been speaking to God in the Tabernacle during the Exodus. The bright clothes are a sign of purity and God’s glory, like the description given of the angels of God in various places. The three disciples are given a brief glimpse of a reality beyond their human experience, a hint of the true nature of this Jesus that they’ve only recently proclaimed to be the Messiah.
It’s significant, I think, that all three of the synoptic gospel writers place this event immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and his subsequent explanation of his purpose for coming; that is, to die on the cross and rise again after three days. The disciples were distressed at the fact that Jesus would immediately begin to talk about his death. But they needed to realise that there was more to Jesus than they’d so far perceived. That their human perceptions were so far short of the mark that they needed to rethink them.