The View From The Mountain

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 9:28-36. 

“Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” 

In a little more than a week I begin sabbatical. And part of the sabbatical time Lee and I will spend in Northern Michigan, on the Keweenaw Peninsula, one of my favorite places on earth. And on the Keweenaw there is a hill, called Mt Baldy by the locals, because the ubiquitous forest thins on the rocky summit, and from up there you can see for miles.

There was a time, many years ago, when I was going through a kind of a rough patch in personal and pastoral and professional life, and I hiked up to the top of Baldy. And I found a nice spot among the blueberries, and I just sat there, for the longest time, looking around the landscape.

I looked out over Lake Superior, watching all the different shades of blue blending into each other as the water moved. I  looked back over the hills of the interior, and all the different shades of green in the forested tree cover. I picked out places I knew: the town of Eagle Harbor; the highway to Copper Harbor; Mt Brockway, next in the chain of hills leading to the east; the dunes lifting up behind the Great Sand Bay.

I knew all those places individually, up close and personal. But from Mt Baldy I could see them together, all in relationship to each other. And seeing them in their places in relationship gave me a sense of my place in relationship, too, a sense of my place in the lay-of-the-land, my place in the midst of things.

And I realized that outer landscape was serving as a kind of spiritual metaphor for my inner landscape. Here was a place of hope; here a place of fear; over there was pain; up here was joy. And I felt if I could see those things together, in relationship, then I could know my place and my way through them all. Climbing up that hill gave me a sense of perspective on life – outer life and inner life – and with that sense of perspective I felt like I had the strength to go on.

I think something like that is going on in the Transfiguration story which we read in our Gospel today. Luke says that Jesus took Peter and James and John and went up a high mountain to pray. And at this point in the story, Jesus has a lot to pray about. This is a major turning point in the Gospel story, a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry and in his very life.

Up to this point in the Gospel story, Jesus’ mission has been concentrated in the North, in Galilee. He has been traveling from town to town, preaching, teaching, healing people, casting out unclean spirits, gathering disciples, building a community of people who love each other and love God as a way of life like they’ve never lived before. Jesus has been teaching the people that God loves them, and what God wants for them is to live lives of justice and peace, right relationships of shared well-being, compassion and love – God wants them to live, and to live abundantly.

Jesus has been teaching this – and, more than that, he has been demonstrating it in his own love: Jesus is not afraid to be seen with sinners; Jesus extends his table-fellowship to the outcast and the marginalized and the forgotten; Jesus has gathered a community of disciples where rich and poor, sinners and saints, the powerful and the powerless, are all joined together in a radical equality, where everyone has gifts to offer and everyone has needs to be fulfilled. Jesus has been showing the people that God is with them, right here and now, and their lives can be richer and fuller and more abundant and more full of love and more holy because they can live in God.

And this ministry of Jesus, this life-giving mission of Jesus, has been attracting a lot of attention. Huge crowds have come to hear Jesus and to learn from him this way of life. The poor and the outcast have discovered great hope in Jesus.

But others have noticed Jesus, too. Herod, the client king who ran Galilee on behalf of the Roman imperial government – Herod, who had John the Baptist put to death because John criticized his morals – Herod has heard about Jesus, and Herod has begun to wonder if maybe he’ll have to silence Jesus the way he silenced John. The ruling party of the Sadducees who run the Temple in Jerusalem have heard about Jesus, and they’re not sure his teaching is the right kind of teaching; they’ve sent representatives to check Jesus out and see if there is some way they can bring charges against him and shut him up. The powers-that-be find Jesus’ message of inclusive love threatening; they fear that Jesus’ way of radical equality in God will undermine their kind of power; and so they begin to want Jesus stopped.

That’s the situation at the start of the Transfiguration story; that’s the lay-of-the-land Jesus goes up on the high mountain to pray about. I think Jesus knows the time has come for him to leave Galilee and go to Jerusalem and confront the powers-that-be with his witness to God’s inclusive love. But I also think Jesus knows that the powers-that-be are very powerful, and they will not take the message of justice and peace lightly – and I think Jesus knows his witness to God’s love will get him rejected, humiliated, tortured, and executed. I think Jesus knows the powers-that-be are going to win.

I think Jesus also genuinely believes in God’s promise to raise him up on the third day – but personally, as I imagine Jesus, I think even believing in that promise would not make it any less daunting to face the threat of pain and loss and death. The promise, the pain, the hope, maybe even some fear, are all in Jesus’ heart when he goes up the mountain to pray, when he goes up to locate himself in the landscape, when he goes up to get some perspective on his life and his mission and how he can go on.

So Jesus goes up the mountain to pray – and the way God responds to that prayer is the most remarkable thing in the entire story. Because God doesn’t just tell Jesus what to do, to go to Jerusalem and be strong, as if God were merely passive in this, looking down on Jesus from heaven and expecting Jesus to do what he was told to do. Instead, God comes to be with Jesus, to be there present in Jesus, to act in Jesus as Jesus acts.

God allows Moses and Elijah to appear to Jesus – both of them leaders in their own times who had to confront the power of the powers-that-be – and they talk of Jesus’ “departure” – exodos is the word in Greek, and that is a word with powerful religious meaning – which he will accomplish in Jerusalem.

But more than that, God himself shines in Jesus as resplendent light, God fills Jesus with divine light and love and courage and strength, so that human work and divine work work together in Jesus, and therefore he can do what needs to be done. Jesus went up on the mountain to see his life in perspective – and on the mountain he saw his life in God’s perspective, and in God’s perspective he saw himself empowered to go on.

And that is the part of the story that I think speaks most directly to us. Because this Transfiguration story is not simply an account of something supernatural that happened once to Jesus a long time ago; the Transfiguration story is a kind of parable of prayer, an invitation to us to be like Jesus, to go up on a mountaintop in our hearts, to try to see our lives in God’s perspective, and to know that God is with us and God empowers us to do what we need to do in our lives, too. The Gospel is an invitation to us to pray as Jesus prays so that we can live as Jesus lives. 

The Gospel is a call to us to believe and trust that when we pray, whenever we pray, God enlightens us, so that our work and God’s work work together to create moments of peace, moments of justice, moments of joy, moments of beauty, moments of compassion, moments of love, moments of abundant life.

That is the Good News for us today. That the mystery of this Feast of the Transfiguration. That is the meaning of this Holy Communion we share. And that is God’s good will for us, here, now, today and everyday. Amen.


  1. Thank you in absentia