About 8 days after Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, He takes Peter, James and John up on a mountain to pray. On the mountaintop, and as the three disciples peer through their tired droopy eyes, they are suddenly mesmerized by what they see. The appearance of the face of Jesus changes, and his clothes become dazzling white. Then they see two men who stand talking to him. They “appear in glory!” This Greek word “doxa” corresponds closely to the glory, splendor, brilliance, from the base meaning of the awesome light that radiates from God’s presence and is often associated with a cloud. (Luke 9:28-36)
Moses has a similar experience on Mt. Sinai into the cloud of God’s presence, God’s glory. Our reading from Exodus says that when he comes out of the cloud off the mountain, the skin of his face shines. His face is so bright that he has to wear a covering over it, and then takes it off when he goes back up into the cloud on the mountain to speak with God.
Elijah represents a prophet that carries the anointing of the Lord. Everyone recognizes this anointing, especially the other prophets. Elisha, his assistant, is especially conscious of this fact and desires that anointing for his life. When he sees his mentor taken up in a whirlwind cloud, he takes the cloak that belongs to Elijah, and he too becomes the anointed one. The encounter with the glory of God transforms and redirects his life. His life will never be the same again.
Peter, James and John, see this cloud, and out of this “glory cloud” they suddenly see two men, Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. It says they appear in glory and are speaking about Jesus departure, which is about to take place in Jerusalem. The two saints, Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. We don’t know everything they are talking about, but we do know they are discussing the future of Jesus, his death, resurrection and possibly the future of the ‘Jesus Movement’, as foretold in the Law and the Prophets.
So, on this mountain-top scene we have two of the most famous Old Testament Patriarchs, and facing them are three New Testament Patriarchs, and in the center of the scene is Jesus, with his face shining and his clothes dazzling white. And, time seems to disappear, and everyone is caught up in the moment, “kairos” time. There are two types of time we find ourselves in. “Chronos” time, which is the chronological, ordered time – it is based on seconds, minutes, hours. “Kairos” time is the alternative. This is the time outside of the sequential time we know and live in each day, a time when things of great magnitude or special significance happen. It’s almost a realm outside of ‘clock-based time’ all together. That’s what is happening in this magnificent setting on this mountain-top experience.
Peter, never knowing when to be quiet or to speak, speaks anyway. He says to Jesus: “It is good that we are here (indicating James, John and himself), let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah”. The scripture indicates that he does not know what to say, but obviously thinks he has to say something. One translation says Peter “blurts this out without thinking”. However, it appears to me that he is thinking. Moses and Elijah are taking off and Peter wants to prolong the meeting. He is being pragmatic and hospitable. The word dwelling here could also be translated, tent, shelter, hut or booth. Peter is being hospitable, thinking that a tent will provide some privacy and escape from rain, wind or the sun. Maybe Peter doesn’t get it, but he also does not want this mountain top encounter to end, whatever it is. He wants it to continue. Wouldn’t you?
Peter, James and John’s lives change through the mountain-top experience with the cloud of glory, especially by the voice that comes from the cloud, saying: “This is my son, my chosen one; listen to him”! This cloud of glory experience is a game-changer for these guys. They will never see things the way they used to. They are transformed. They experience a world-view transplant, a view of reality that is different than before.
Have you ever had a mountain top encounter, a theophany, an unexpected experience of the divine kind, a place where your space intersects with God in a special way, and it was a wonderful thing to experience? These “Kairos” moments we want the encounter to continue. For some people they experience these mountain-top encounters though ministry to others. I have met so many people through the years that have experienced a close divine encounter. The encounter is surreal. The ordinary things like feeding the hungry, praying with someone in need, sharing the love of God, take on an extraordinary presence. Not only are you ministering to others, but you sense that God is also ministering to you in return. The ordinary takes on an extra-ordinary encounter.
In my last parish, close to the Philadelphia International Airport, we were about 20 minutes from downtown Philly and 20 minutes from downtown Wilmington, Delaware. A group of us from St. John’s would travel to a mission in Wilmington. During the week the mission had hot meals, but on Saturday a non-profit ministry provided a pancake breakfast. Our crew from St. John’s Church consisted of a small group of men that would take over the washing and drying of dishes. We did this one Saturday a month. It was a heartening thing to watch men, women and children enjoying pancakes, sausage, coffee, milk, juice and fruit. It was a time for the breakfast team to serve others. When people came to drop off their trays and dirty dishes, they would thank us for breakfast and for being there to serve them. These encounters hooked us, and they hook others who not only see ministry as a place to share the love of God with others, but also to experience the blessing of God ministering to them as they minister to others. I call these mountain-top encounters.
When you experience those mountain-top encounters, those times when your space and God’s space intersect, and the two become entwined, and you know you are encountering the divine, it changes you. That can be with an overwhelming experience like the Apostle Paul experienced, like a third heaven theophany, but that’s not always the case. We’re not sure what kind of experience Peter, James and John had here. We read about it, but reading and experiencing are two different things. We acknowledge that they are overwhelmed. It is beyond their grasp of knowing what is going on. Peter, whether rationally or irrationally says: “Jesus, it’s good that we are here with you, Elijah and Moses. Let us build three tents, tabernacles, so you all can be sheltered from the sun, rain and wind, so Moses and Elijah can stay with us. Peter did not want this mountain-top encounter to end.
That’s the way it is with mountain-top encounters. We do not want them to go away. We want those experiences too last. When you come into a special place, a place that you sense the presence of God, a place that is conducive for you to pray. Perhaps the place where you encounter God is in this sanctuary. God is in this place. Wherever your place is, and we all have them. For me it’s some special places in the desert. For others it’s a special place to walk, a trail, a beach place or a ministry that you have that opens up your space with Gods space.
In Luke 17:21 we read that “the kingdom of God is among us, right here, right now”. The vale has been torn in two, and we have access to the Most Holy Place, to enjoy divine encounters with God, anytime and anywhere. The access is always open. We will be with God, and God will be with us. We tabernacle with God, and God tabernacles with us and in us. We are God’s tabernacle, the place where God dwells, and in His church, collectively, we are the place where God dwells.
These mountain-top encounters are available to us all the time, and I for one intend to take advantage of them.
The Reverend Dr David Madsen
Readings for the day