One of my favorite things growing up was to go to Grandview. It is a former state park which is now part of the New River Gorge National River. This magnificent place was just 15 minutes from my home, so I went there a lot.
Grandview offers some of the most breathtaking views I have seen. There are caves where you can get lost in. There is rocky cliff that provides a great place to look at the widening New River through the Appalachian Mountains. Every place in this park offers an amazing view of God’s creation.
This is especially true for a place known as Turkey Spur. It is the park’s highest point. When you get there, either by car or walking, you notice it is a huge rock. You have to climb a steep incline to get to its top. It is an exhausting climb, but well worth it. At the rock’s highest point, you are surrounded by beauty. There are rhododendron bushes all around. There is the New River. There are trees. There is God’s beauty, which is simply magnificent to behold.
Turkey Spur has two overlooks, but it was the highest that I would spend the most time. It had this bench that I called the “Andre the Giant Bench,” because the late pro wrestler may have been the only person who did not need to jump to sit on it. When you find yourself on this bench you get lost in the area’s beauty. You take it all in. You feel God’s presence right next to you. I spent a lot of time there knowing that it was a safe place. It was a holy place, because I know God was there.
Perhaps you have a place like that. Maybe you have a place that is special to you that is filled with beauty and a representation of God’s creation and glory. There is something about these places, especially high mountaintop locations. They connect us with God and bring us closer to the reality of the Creator Father in our midst. There are many reasons for this. I think one of them is that being near these high mountaintops brings us in connection with the forbearers of our faith. The high mountaintops, for them, were places where they met God and experienced great moments of teaching and growth in their relationship with God.
There are several high mountain moments throughout Scripture. On the high mountain of Sinai, God gave Moses the Law and the Ten Commandments. In 1 Kings 18, it was at Mount Carmel where God gave Elijah a victory over the prophets of Baal. Mountaintop scenes were important to Jesus’ earthly ministry, as well. For instance it was on a mountaintop, or its side, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. In each of these moments, there is a connection to the truth of God and God’s desires. At Sinai, it was the law. At Carmel, it was right obedience. At the Sermon on the Mount, it was the law’s true application.
This connection to the greater things of God plays out in our passage today. Jesus takes his inner circle – Peter, James, and John – up a mountain for a time of deep teaching. Traditions says it was Mount Tabor, but some believe it was Mount Hermon. Mark doesn’t really say. His focus is on this significant moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry. A moment that serves as a transformative and transitional moment, which helped to bring Jesus’ purpose in to greater focus.
Context is always important, and it is extremely important with this passage. In the previous scene, beginning with Mark 8:27, Jesus asks his disciples a question. He asks, “Who do people say I am?” It is a way to lead in to the next question asking who they thought he is. Peter replies that Jesus is the Messiah. With this response, Jesus tells the disciples what must take place in order for his purposes to be fulfilled. Of course, this leads to Peter’s rebuke and Christ calling his followers to be willing to deny themselves.
This is the background when Jesus takes these three disciples to the top of this mountain. As they are there, something happens. Jesus begins to show his disciples what it truly meant that he was the Messiah. In this moment, his appearance is transformed. It changes. Peter James, and John no longer see Jesus as a human. They see Jesus as the Christ, as he truly is and has always been. In this moment, Christ temporarily reassumes the fullness of his glory as the Son of God. Since his birth, Jesus had voluntarily set aside his glorious nature so that he could fulfill the Father’s mission. That mission is to redeem humanity through his death on the cross. When Jesus is transformed, Peter, James, and John see the beauty and the splendor of the Lord.
A question comes from this moment. Why? Why was Jesus transformed in this moment? Why did Jesus show Peter, James, and John who he truly is? I have wrestled with these questions this week. Depending on who you ask, these are questions that could elicit many thoughtful and appropriate responses. My answer is that the disciples needed to see what it truly meant when Jesus called them to take up their cross in an act of obedience. They needed to see what it meant to be self-sacrificial in following God’s desires. They needed to see the lengths Jesus was willing to go to bring forth redemption for humanity. Jesus was willing to voluntarily suffer on the cross to serve as the great atonement offering for our sin. A sacrifice that brings grace to all who believe. Jesus was willing to put aside his glory, if only temporarily, in order to bring all back to the Father. The transformation is a deep moment of Jesus showing his disciples, and us today, what it means to give of ourselves in order to follow the Father’s will.
It also leads us to another question. Why were Moses and Elijah there? A soon as Jesus’ appearance is transformed, Mark tells us that Moses and Elijah appear. Here are these two central figures of faith and they are conversing with Jesus. This would have been a frightening moment for the disciples, and we can hear this in Peter’s response. He suggests building three shelters. It was a comment in connection with the Festival of Booths. It was a celebration that remembered recognized Israel’s wilderness experience and also was the festival many expected the Messiah to come during the end of ages. Peter thought that time was now, because Elijah was expected to be there.
But, there is another reason that Moses and Elijah are there. They give witness to Christ. Moses and Elijah connect Jesus to the Law and the Prophets. The law came from Moses and the prophets prepared the way for Christ. These great leaders of the faith were there witnesses to who Christ is.
As this is going on, a cloud overshadows this mountain. A voice is heard coming from it. In Exodus, a cloud was symbolic of God’s presence with the Israelites. In Exodus 40:38, a cloud hovers over the newly-built tabernacle. We also have times when a voice comes from the cloud. In Exodus 24:16, God’s voice spoke for six days on top of Mount Sinai.
Here, God’s voice came in the cloud perhaps so the people would understand what was happening. We hear God’s say, “This is my dearly loved Son.” Note the similarity with the statement made in Mark 1:11. There a voice from heaven, the Father’s voice, speaks to Jesus and confirms his identity as the Son of God. In this passage, God gives witness to all to who Jesus is. This is His Son, who He truly loves.
He says something else. God says we are to “listen to him.” We are to be obedient to Jesus, because he is the Son of God. What he says and does we can trust, because it comes out of his identity as the Son of God and in obedience with the Father. Jesus’ witness comes before the authority of Moses and Elijah, because their authority comes as an act of obedience to the Lord. When Jesus says the Messiah must die for humanity, we can believe it. God affirms Jesus’ act of self-sacrifice and obedience and calls all of us to follow this path.
As quickly as it began, the moment was over. Moses and Elijah were gone and Jesus stood before the three disciples. While brief, everyone on the mountain would leave change. Peter, James, and John leave knowing who Christ is and what it means for Christ to fulfill his mission. They would struggle with this, but from this point on they understood the lengths Christ is willing to go to bring redemption to humanity.
For Jesus, this moment is a transitional point. Moving forward, Jesus is focused on Jerusalem. He is focused on fulfilling the mission on the cross. Nothing will distract Christ from fulfilling his call as the Son of God. The transformation sets the stage for the journey to Jerusalem and the atonement of humanity’s sin through the self-sacrificial actions of Jesus on the cross and the resurrection on Easter morning.
This is a lot to take in. There is a lot of depth in this passage, and so much more we could say today.
Given that, what does all of this say to us today? What does it say to you? We’ve seen the glory of the Lord. We’ve worshiped the Lord in his presence today. We’ve seen that Christ has a mission and a purpose and was focused on bringing it about. What about us? Do we leave this moment and say “Well, that’s nice,” or does the transformation say something deeper to us as a people and a church?
If it says anything, I believe it says this: We’ve gone to the mountaintop and we’ve seen Jesus in his glory, and now we are called to be like Christ and share the glory with others. The transformation invites us be focused on our mission just as Christ focused on his. For Jesus, his mention was to bring all back to a relationship with the Father through his act of self-sacrifice on the cross. For us, our mission is to follow the words from Matthew 28:19 to “go and make disciples of all the nations.” We are called to go out into our communities and proclaim the name of Christ through our acts of mercy, justice, and our presence in people’s lives. That is the calling of the church, and that is our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Ask yourself this question today: As you climb down from this mountaintop experience, as you’ve seen the fullness of God’s glory and worshiped in his presence today, what are you willing to do to share Christ with others? What are you will to give up so that Christ might be made known?
How will you stay focus on the mission and the purpose of the church?