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As a general rule, clouds are not something that you want to see when you’re climbing a mountain. A couple of summers ago our local cohort of pastors decided to make good on the name that we’ve given ourselves- Mountaineers- and actually climb a mountain. And to my way of thinking, if one is going to attempt to climb a mountain, one should either go big, or go home. So we picked the biggest mountain within a day’s drive of here, Mount Elbert. Elbert is one of Colorado’s famed 14er’s, the highest peak in the Rocky Mountain range, coming in at an elevation of 14,433 feet. We planned our climb for mid-July and knew that to have any success, we would want to leave early in the morning. That’s because, as a general rule, clouds are not something that one wants to see when climbing a mountain; particularly in Colorado in the summertime, in monsoon season. Once you get above treeline, you’re pretty exposed, and the afternoon storms that move into the mountains in the summer can come on fast and carry plenty of lightning. Once that happens the chances of reaching the summit are slim to none. So we set out in the dark, just as the eastern horizon was beginning to lighten with the promise of the coming sunrise. Only we didn’t see much of the sun. By the time we reached treeline, the sky had become mostly overcast; one of those uncommonly gray days. On top of that we were slowing down. The trail had been steeper than we imagined, and our altitude acclimation didn’t extend much beyond six or seven thousand feet. We were pretty gassed. But we felt an urgency to press on before the clouds had the chance to gather into a storm that would keep us from the summit.
While the clouds that gather on a mountain in the bible may not threaten a mid-summer monsoon lightning storm, they do portend something far more daunting. In the Exodus story we hear how the cloud descended upon Mount Sinai and the glory of the Lord rested within it. Likewise, when Elijah, on the run for his life, came to the mountain of God, there was a mighty wind, an earthquake and fire before the prophet emerged from his cave to encounter the presence of God in the sound of sheer silence. We look for God on the mountaintops. Not just the physical geological mountains that rise majestically from the topography of the earth, but the highpoints that mark significant moments in our lives. They are the moments that we recall years later: the first time you met the person who would change your life, or the time you finally found and knew what would become your calling. It might be as significant as the birth of a child, or the death of someone who could never be replaced, but it could just as easily be the beauty of something mundane that suddenly catches the light of glory and reveals a hidden beauty- standing at the sink doing the dishes, or running alongside as you let go and a child finds their balance on a bicycle. There’s this wonderful lyric from the musical Into the Woods. The baker’s wife is reflecting on an encounter she’s had, not on a mountain, but in the woods- a moment, if you will. “Oh, if life were made of moments,” she sings wistfully, “even now and then a bad one,” But then she reflects, “but if life were only moments/ then you’d never know you had one.” What she’s getting at is the fact that what happens on the mountain works two ways. It is everything that happens below, in the everyday stuff of life that often passes without much notice, that makes what happens on the mountain stand out. But it is also the case that what happens on the mountain can transform the way we see and think about all that happens below.
Jesus takes Peter and James and John- the big three- up on the mountain with him to pray. And suddenly while they are praying up there they have one of these transformational moments. Only they almost miss the glory that is right in front of them. In a foreshadow of what’s to come in not so distant future in the garden of a different mountain, the Mount of Olives, they are weighed down with sleep. Climbing mountains is tiring work.
We were at a place where the Elbert trail leveled off for a stretch, or at least where it wasn’t quite as steep. The sky was grey with clouds, and Seth had come to the conclusion that he wasn’t going to make it. Our pace was killing him, and we could see up ahead the most difficult part of the trail where it narrowed into a steep staircase of uneven rock. We were conflicted. We had started this climb together and intended to reach the summit together. Should we head back down, or continue on without our friend. Seth insisted he’d be okay and told us that we should forge up the trail before we missed our window. Reluctantly, we went on without him. Sometimes I wonder what the rest of the twelve thought about Jesus’ excursion with the big three. Were they upset at being left behind, or relieved not to have to make the climb; anxious about missing out on something, or grateful for a chance to process the events that had brought them this far.
It was just eight days earlier that Peter had made his declaration about Jesus to the group. “You are messiah,” he proclaimed when Jesus asked who they said that he was. But then Jesus went on to tell them how that would end, with suffering rejection and death. And more than that, he told them that those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake will find them. That’s a lot to take in.
But then so is the sight before Peter, James and John eight days later. One minute they’re praying, the next minute their teacher is lit up like a Christmas tree and talking to Moses and Elijah about his departure. The translation does us no favors with that word. The Greek here is exodos, clearly evoking the story of God’s people being liberated from their slavery in Egypt and led to freedom. It’s that word, and the exchange that came before their trip up the mountain that gives this entire tableau its meaning. Jesus is revealed in glory, taking his place as one who is a fulfillment of both the Law, as represented by Moses, and the prophets, as represented by Elijah. In fact, in his own tradition the Law of Moses is the foundation for God’s people, and the prophet Elijah is the anticipation of God’s justice, the day of the Lord that sets all things right. And Jesus takes his place as the one who is from the beginning until the end, the one whose exodos will liberate not just a particular people, but all of humanity from its slavery to sin and death, its captivity to violence and retribution. Just as Moses extended his arms to part the waters of the sea, leading his people to freedom. Jesus will open his arms on the cross to part death itself and lead all of humanity to new life, a new way of ordering the world around us.
Maybe Peter understands more than we think he does. It sounds ridiculous that he wants to build three dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. But the dwellings he has in mind are no doubt reminiscent of the Feast of Booths, the celebration of Israel’s sojourn across the wilderness and the temporary dwellings they lived in along the way. Peter hears exodos and is ready to go. Only it turns out that what he needs to do is listen. “This is my Son, my chose,” says the voice from the cloud, “listen to him.” But, or course, that is the last thing Peter, or any of them, wants to do. They want to enshrine this glorious vision, not listen to words about rejection, suffering and death.
The famous mountaineer, George Mallory, was once asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. His answer, “because it’s there.” With all due respect to Mallory, I would suggest the only reason to climb a mountain is because there is no substitute for the view from the top. It gives you the chance to see farther than you ever could from down below. That was certainly the case from the top of Mount Elbert as we looked out over the twin lakes below, and across to adjacent mountains, and the mountains behind those mountains. But the thing we did not expect to see came as we started our descent. We were about 500 feet down when who did we see coming up the trail toward us but our friend Seth. He had made it after all and was too close to the top for us not to turn around and go up and second time with him. Because it’s never just about the view, but who you share it with.
Nobody said anything once the voice spoke and the cloud cleared and Jesus stood alone before them, same as he had always been. But was he? Were they? Who could say? The glory we experience, what we see and who we see it with, doesn’t stay up on the mountain. That isn’t what it’s about. It comes down with us and changes how we see what we see below. So that when we encounter a need, like a man with a son in the grip of something malign, we are prepared to let that same glory shine forth in its own way. Healing what needs healing, and giving back what’s been lost, so that all might be astounded at the greatness of God.