Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"For Our Eyes Only"

Text: Mark, 9:1-10

2 Kings 2:1-12a


            We call this Sunday just prior to the start of Lent “Transfiguration Sunday.” Historically and liturgically, we remember today one of the most acclaimed mountaintop experiences recorded in Holy Scripture.

It joins other Biblical episodes such as Moses receiving the stone tablets of God’s Law at Mt. Sinai, and Elisha’s witnessing Elijah’s whirlwind departure at the Jordan which we read about earlier from 2nd Kings. Turn with me now to Mark’s Gospel.

            (Read Mark 9:1-10)

            Have you ever had one of those so-called “mountaintop experiences?” That moment or season when you’ve come face-to-face with a reality beyond the normal range of experience? An episode in which you’ve rubbed shoulders with the Holy; an episode which was at once frightening and exhilarating? Have you had some encounter with the Divine which seemed outside life as you know it, but at the same time, an encounter in which you’ve never felt more alive? Some share experiences with what they believe was an angelic presence. Others recount near-death experiences. Still others speak of witnessing wonders or miracles which cannot be rationally explained. I’d be surprised if there weren’t quite a few of us in this sanctuary who have had some sort of mountaintop experience. But more often than not, we’re hesitant to talk about it. To those who’ve not shared such an experience, it may sound too strange, too weird, too mystical. Maybe we’re afraid we’ll be laughed at, or told that we’re “losing it,” or given the advice that we “see someone” about it. Mountaintop experiences share this one thing in common: they are intensely personal; usually, for our eyes only. I believe that’s precisely what they’re meant to be.

            I like Transfiguration Sunday for a personal reason. It gives me opportunity to share a story of my mother’s mountaintop experience. I’ve told this story to you on other occasions, but please indulge me as I share it once again. My mom was a wonderful lady: good-hearted, generous, outgoing, passionate in her convictions and beliefs whether one agreed with them or not. But by her own admission, she was not what one might call “super-religious.” She was a faithful churchgoer, but not a person who readily shared intimate details of her faith journey. So I was surprised when, one day out-of-the-blue, she told me about an experience she had never talked about before. My mother was about making a good impression, and I believe feared that she would be seen as a religious kook or something. Yet almost twenty-five years after the fact, she revealed to her minister son her encounter with the Holy.

            My grandfather died in 1965 of pancreatic cancer. For almost a year, he suffered unspeakably I’m told. His weight over the course of his illness plummeted from 160 to 90 pounds. He was unable to eat, just the smell of food making him violently ill. He couldn’t sleep. Medical science at that time had no treatment, and minimal palliative care. No hospice. All that was available was morphine to give him an occasional hour of relative relief. He spent his final few months in bed in a small room in the back of the house. I remember the last time my mother took me to see him. My clearest memory is that when I went to kiss him on his cheek, it was stubbly. I do recall him lying there with very pale skin, his mouth open, and his eyes focused on some spot on the ceiling. He didn’t know anyone; not even his eldest daughter Lois.

            Needless to say, those months were the low point in my mother’s life. At 39 years of age, she was convinced that in spite of her prayers day and night, God had abandoned her and her father. No relief. Only suffering. No answers. Only pain. One day melted into the next, the year of his Illness an endless nightmare. In the final weeks, my mother’s despair turned to anger: “God, if you’re there, why won’t you release him from this hell?! Why are you doing this?!”

             In April, 1965 – near Easter my grandfather died. In my mother’s words, all that was left was a shell of her daddy, and a mere shell of her former self. Her faith was spent and the account bankrupt. She recounted listening to Rev. Minear’s words at the funeral service, talking about God’s love and care, and thinking to herself, “I’ll never believe that again.” On the day of George Ogilvie’s burial, Lois Ogilvie Lalama was physically, emotionally, and spiritually at the end of her rope. For her, there was no loving God; only a hostile power which had allowed life to slowly ebb from her once vital father. As the last words were spoken at the graveside, the sky was grey and threatening on the North Side of Pittsburgh, a bone-chilling and unrelenting wind flapping the tarp which covered the interment site. Then, as best as I can remember it, the moment my mother described with tears in her eyes: “I turned from the grave to go back to the car. Then, like the sound of wind rustling in the leaves, I heard my daddy’s voice: ‘Lois.’ I looked up, and just for a split second, the sun shone through a break in the clouds as brightly as I’d ever seen. I suddenly felt warm inside andout, and for the first time in a year, I felt peace come over me. I heard a message which had nowords: My daddy was home, and he was okay.” She recalled then turning to my father who was right next to her and said, “Lou, did you see that?! Wasn’t it beautiful.” “See what?” “The sun! Itjust shined so brightly! You couldn’t have missed it!” “Honey, the sun hasn’t been out in days. Let’sget to the car. It looks like it’s ready to storm.” But my mother knew better. She has since gone on to be reunited with her daddy in a place where cancer is no more. But along her earthly journey, she had been to the mountaintop. Granted, she had to come down and face the grief and loss of her beloved father, but she was able to journey on…..

            Six days prior to the episode we read about from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus was with His disciples in the district of Caesarea Philippi. While there, He confronted His disciples with a question: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples had their ears to the ground and were well-acquainted with the word going around about Jesus from Nazareth. They replied in turn: “Why, some people are saying that you are John the Baptist come back to life. There are others claiming that you are Elijah, or one of the great prophets of Israel.” Then Jesus asks the tough question: “But who do you say that I am?” Without hesitation, Simon Peter voices his confession: “You are the Christ.” Matthew adds in his account of Peter’s words “the Son of the living God.” Jesus acknowledges that Peter is right on. Jesus then begins to teach the disciples what that confession really meant: suffering, rejection, shame, death. Simon Peter steps forward again: “No way Master! This shall not be….. must not be! I won’t hear of it!” In response, Jesus rebukes Peter in the strongest terms saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” In effect: Peter, you are now speaking a lie on the devil’s behalf. You’re on the wrong side of this.”

            Mark doesn’t record Peter’s reaction to this dressing down, but we can pretty safely assume that he found himself at a low ebb. His Master and Friend was predicting His own death, and there was nothing Peter could do about it. He must have felt embarrassed, confused, angry, in a downward spiritual spiral, questioning who this was that he had given everything up for; who it was that he had committed his life to following. Be rejected! Killed! His ears weren’t even open to the rest of the story: “…and after three days rise again.”

             About a week later, Peter still reeling in a state of dismay, Jesus called His three closest disciples, Peter along with James and John, to go with Him to a high mountain for some retreat from their ministry. And there, the glory of Jesus Christ is revealed. He is mysteriously transfigured or changed in His outward appearance into pure light, and is seen for who He really is: the beloved Son; the high and exalted One; the One who keeps company with Moses and Elijah; the One who would suffer and die, but would be raised in glory. Naturally, Peter found himself overwhelmed by this mountaintop experience. So much so that he was talking out of confused anxiety: “Well, Moses is here. Elijah is here. We’d better set up camp and stay awhile.” It seemed the only thing to say. For Peter, it was an experience he couldn’t quite grasp; an encounter with the Divine; an encounter he wished would go on forever. It was a moment which Peter needed more than anything else – to comfort him; to assure him that all he’d given up was worth it; to reveal to him in no uncertain terms the accuracy of his confession of Jesus as the Christ. He was so high that he never wanted to come down again.

            As the episode draws to a close, the mountaintop experience ends as quickly as it began, like a momentary burst of sunshine from an overcast sky. Moses and Elijah vanish. The cloud of God’s imminent presence disappears. There they stand…..Jesus, and three speechless men. Now it’s time to descend the mountain. It is time to re-enter life as Peter and his friends knew it, with all its strain and struggle. But that mountaintop experience, I believe, radically changed Peter’s outlook on life. He would not fully understand what had happened until after Jesus’ resurrection. But he had experienced what he needed most, when he needed it most.

            One could call the transfiguration a special revelation meant only for Peter, James, and John. On one level, yes. But it’s also meant to assure us that we, too, as believers struggling along the hill and valley journeys of life, at our greatest moments of doubt and need, may well be lifted to a mountaintop experience of our own – to reignite the flames of faith when we’re burning low; to infuse us with knowledge of the glory of Christ; to confront, and comfort, and assure us at moments of apprehension, and uncertainty, and even hopelessness; to shore us up for the journey through the dark valleys and rough places. To be sure, Peter, James, John, and the other disciples would walk plenty of valley in the months ahead, just as my mother had her share of dark valleys and rough places after her father’s passing. But the significance of the transfiguration experience for us is to serve as a reminder that, no matter what, God loves us; that God’s ultimate and final word through Jesus is eternal glory; that whatever anyone else may think, our own mountaintop experiences are gifts from God given at just the right time……. for our eyes only.

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102