Tonight, I pray a prayer from scripture that has meant so much to me over the years: May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your ways may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God. Let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth. Let the peoples praise you, O God, let all the peoples praise you! The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us. Let all the ends of the earth fear him!
Tonight I’m beginning Mark 9 by reading verses 2-13:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9:2-13 ESV)
This is one of my favorite stories from the gospels. In fact, I wrote this song based on this text several years ago. This whole picture is one I find myself walking through slowly, word by word and image by image.
It’s six days after Jesus has told his followers about his fate—his death and resurrection. And here we see Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain with him. These three seem to be his inner circle—his closest friends. I’m touched by the fact that Jesus seems to have certain friends who are closer than others. Doesn’t that make him seem so human? And yet, we see right here in this picture he is not merely human, as the metaphorical veil between heaven and earth is lifted for a moment and his divinity shines brightly in front of his friends. Elijah and Moses are there, and they have a conversation with Jesus.
Don’t you wonder what they talked about? I sure do.
Peter, James, and John were “terrified” at what they saw. Wouldn’t you be? Elijah? MOSES?! Right there in front of them? Jesus was “transfigured before them,” such that “his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them…” The writer is making sure we understand that this was a divine encounter. Heaven and earth were one for a moment; it was impossible to know where one ended and the other began. The three also heard “a voice”—The Voice of GOD! They must have been absolutely beside themselves, trembling with both ecstatic joy and holy, righteous fear.
And then, suddenly, heaven disappeared and it was just them again. “Jesus only.”
And they came down the mountain.
Oh, it is so hard to come down the mountain! I have had experiences that were so divine. Moments where I was just sure that at any moment, I might look up and see Jesus with my very own eyes. And I don’t mean seeing Jesus in another person; I mean, seeing Jesus himself—incarnate, nail-scarred hands and all. But no matter how amazing it is, the moment lifts, and reality sets in. As much as I want to stay on the mountain, I cannot. And even if I did, I would find myself there alone—after all, even Jesus left the mountain. He was needed back down below.
But the disciples, these three, had caught a vision of something that would stay with them forever. That vision would come to mind later, when all hell was breaking loose and they didn’t know where to turn: they would remember. Jesus would be betrayed, he would rise from the dead, he would ascend into heaven, and their ministry would begin—and they would remember. As they preached and healed and prayed and suffered, they would remember. The truth of who Jesus was—God’s Son, with whom God was well pleased—would be part of what sustained their faith. They had seen. They had heard.
I think that is what these so-called “mountaintop experiences” are for: they are meant to be moments when we experience the reality of how close the kingdom of God actually is. It is right there. The kingdom is among us. It is real. God is real. Jesus is real. And once we have descended the mountain—and we must always descend the mountain, carrying the hope of heaven back to earth—we are sustained by the vivid picture, etched in our minds, of heaven touching earth. Jesus, Immanuel—God With Us.
Spend some time thinking about your own “mountain top experiences” along the way. Who was with you? What were the circumstances? What did God impart to you? How might a past experience like this serve to sustain and encourage your faith today?