God in the High Places

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“Jesus took Peter and James and John and lead them up a high mountain, where they could be alone. And there, Jesus was transfigured before their eyes…and there came a voice out of the cloud: “This is my Beloved, my Own. Listen to this One.” (Mark 9:4, 7b, TIB).

“When you’ve reached the summit of a mountain, the only way forward is down.”

After snapping a shot of the lava plume atop Mount Pacaya in Guatemala, I realized that I had a problem: it was getting dark, and I still had to get off that volcano. Looking down, I panicked a little.

It had been a difficult climb for me. Indifferent to exercise and drawn to good food, I was unprepared for the physical exertion that climbing the local tourist attraction would take.

My companions and I had left the tour bus with energy and enthusiasm, scampering through the tropical vegetation as we rushed up the verdant slope towards the volcano.

But when we reached the tree line, I realized that we hadn’t even begun to climb, and the volcano’s cone was steep. After a recent eruption, tephra covered the slope, turning the mountain into a gravel pile of dust that clogged my nose and loose rocks that filled my shoes. We climbed on all fours, scrambling, sliding, and searching for firm footing.

And then, the fire of the cone appeared out of its own toxic vapors. We had arrived.

Time stands still on mountain tops. I don’t have any sense of how long we stood there, but slowly, my companions and I realized that it was time to leave; in fact, we had lingered too long. Through the haze of the volcano’s fumes, we could see the sun setting, and we felt the urgency of hurrying safely down the treacherous slope before dark.

In his gospel, Mark chronicles the ‘rise’ of Jesus both figuratively and geographically. Starting with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, deep in the Rift Valley, one of the lowest points on earth, Mark leads us up the topography of Israel to the shores of Galilee, where Jesus calls his disciples and begins his ministry. Then, he takes us higher, on a pilgrimage with Peter, James, and John up the highest mountain in the region.

Mark shares no details of the journey up the mountain. We do not know if Peter, James, and John knew where they were going, or why these three were the only ones chosen. We don’t have any sense of their experience on this journey. Maybe they felt a little proud, being singled out by Jesus, or maybe smugly entitled. We can only imagine their thoughts and conversation as they ascended the slope and stepped triumphantly onto the summit. And then, they must have looked around. Certainly, they could not have expected what they experienced. Everything looks different from the mountain top.

If the disciples felt smug, their confidence disappeared. If they felt special, their privilege evaporated. Suddenly, they stepped into the presence of greatness—Moses and Elijah, the heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures, were there as well, speaking with Jesus. The prophets do not even acknowledge the disciples. Into this awkward silence, God speaks:

“This is my Beloved, my Own. Listen to this One.”

Apparently, the disciples hadn’t been listening. No welcome, no cordial introductions, no affirmation of a discipleship off to a good start, the voice of God gets right to the point. The disciples have not been listening, and as we turn back the pages to the first chapters of Mark’s gospel, we can see it. Far more concerned with their own prestige and status in the group, the disciples have consistently personified the spiritual blindness that Jesus has come to heal. Unwittingly, their self-absorption epitomizes society’s tone-deaf response to the Kingdom of God.

“When you’ve reached the summit of a mountain, the only way forward is down.”

From the mountain’s apex, the geography of the gospels literally goes downhill, matching the downward arc of the narrative. Jesus has led the disciples as close to heaven as they can go without understanding. From the summit of a mountain, the only way forward is down. From this incident, the narrative of Mark’s gospel picks up speed as it rolls downhill from the mountaintop all the way to Golgotha, the murderous pit below Mount Moriah and Jerusalem, and then even beyond, to the message of the empty tomb. Through it all, the voice of God resonates:

“This is my Beloved, my Own. Listen to this One.

A Space Apart:

Pause and Prepare: As you reflect on the message of scripture, close your eyes and take two or three deep breaths, inhaling deeply through your nose, and exhaling slowly through your mouth. Visualize the breath entering and exiting your lungs and circulating through your body. Picture it in your thoughts as it revitalizes your body with oxygen. Feel the calm and relaxation that comes with two or three deep breaths.

Reflect and Remember: Take a moment to think back over your own walk with God. What are some of the high places you recall? The Spirit of God was with you there. What are some of the valleys you have experienced? The Spirit of God was with you there. Pause and remember those moments when you discerned or sensed the calm certainty of the love of God. The Spirit of God was with you there. And even here, even now, The Spirit of God is with you here.

A Suggested Prayer: Loving God, I give you thanks for the Kingdom that has come through Jesus, and for the joy of being a child in your Kingdom of love and kindness. Lead me, I pray, to a greater awareness of your presence through spiritual insight, so that I can share the love of your Spirit with others. In the name of the Risen Christ I pray, Amen.

The Revised Common Lectionary Year B: Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday.

The Online Revised Common Lectionary is a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, a division of the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries.


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