Sermon for Last Epiphany (Transfiguration Sunday) 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you’ve done much hiking, particularly hiking up mountains, you’ll know that the old saying “it’s all down hill from here” may well not be as comforting a thought as it’s supposed to be. Certainly the uphill climb can be more tiring, but the trip back down has its own difficulties and takes its own toll on your body. When you’re walking uphill your muscles are working hard, but when you’re hiking downhill, gravity does much of the work, and so your joints, particularly those in your knees, are absorbing the impact. Plus, it’s a great deal more dangerous hiking steeply downhill, as one can easily let gravity take them too fast, leading to a fall.

But what’s always been the most difficult thing about the descent for me is its psychological difficulty. In college, my friends and I did a lot of backpacking in the northern New York and New England. We’d usually pick a summit and spend a day hiking to some base camp, a day to go up and down the mountain, and a day to hike back to the car. Excitement would build as we pushed ourselves up the mountain, and when we got to the top there was this feeling of both accomplishment and relief.

We’d usually stay on the summit for an hour or more, procrastinating. It’s not that we were too tired to begin the descent, and it wasn’t necessarily because the vista was too beautiful not to spend so much time at the top on the mountain. Sometimes the summit would be socked in, and we couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead of us, but we still stayed up there. We were putting off the descent, delaying the inevitable, because of a lack of motivation. We’d accomplished what we came for, and the slow, dangerous hike back down wouldn’t end with a great sense of accomplishment in itself. It was a necessary evil.

Peter’s response in this morning’s gospel is comparable. Of course, Jesus and the disciples climbed an actual mountain before the transfiguration and had to go back down, but it’s not a lack of motivation about the literal journey back down that leads Peter to recommend building tents and staying at the top.

Six days earlier, Peter had made his great confession, he had recognized Christ’s identity, and Jesus pulls the rug out from under his disciple:

From that time [Matthew writes] Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

We know what happened next. Peter expresses his misgivings about his Lord’s understanding that he must be killed, and Jesus rebukes Peter (actually calls him “Satan”) for his lack of faith, not two verses after he commends Peter for recognizing him as Messiah.

All of this would have been fresh in the minds of the disciples on the day of the Transfiguration, and after so long a journey they had taken with their Lord over the previous three years, the mountaintop experience would have been a sort of summit. They would have, to their minds, accomplished what they came for. Here was their teacher, and finally they see him in all his glory. They see Jesus in dazzling white, dressed like God, surrounded by Elijah and Moses, God’s most highly favored prophets. Here, on the summit of Mount Tabor, the disciples would have seen what they came for: final, incontrovertible proof that this Jesus of Nazareth whom they had been following was none other than God’s Christ.

Who wouldn’t want to stay on the mountaintop, knowing that the long, dangerous journey downhill would end with their master’s gruesome death? Our tendency to put off the inevitable is nothing new, and Peter’s reluctance to go back down the mountain would probably have been our own response.

We are in the same situation today as Peter was then. For one thing, our observance of the Christian year forces us into something like Peter’s reluctance. We’ve been slogging up the hill over the last several weeks, learning more and more about the moral demands incumbent on us as Christians over the season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. We’re now at the top of the mountain and we’re celebrating it. You’ll notice that our hymns this morning are not short on “Alleluias”. We’ll extend this celebration a couple of days, as we enjoy a great feast together on Shrove Tuesday.

And then, we’ll come back down the mountain the next morning. We’ll start our annual, communal journey to the cross and the grave. Through the difficult, dangerous path of prayer and fasting we’ll approach Calvary again.
This communal journey up and down mountains we take through the church year, reflects our own individual journeys. We each have mountaintop experiences at various points in our lives, and then we have to come down the mountain and walk through the desert for a while. And while we’re in those spiritual wastelands, we pray that the experience back on the mountain gives us courage to keep going, and we know that remaining steadfast in prayer will give us the nourishment we need, whether we recognize it at the time or not.

So, today, let’s procrastinate on the mountaintop for a little bit, but not too long. We can’t build a tent and live this day forever. Let’s sing our Alleluia’s forth in duteous praise, but then be ready for the hard journey of Lent that begins on Tuesday, knowing that the road downhill will be hard, but that Easter joy, when it comes, will take us by surprise and make our Holy Lent all the holier, all the more worthwhile.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.