As in today’s texts, mountains seem to appear rather often in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Mount Sinai, is the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments and Mount Zion is the location of the Jerusalem Temple. In the New Testament, Jesus appoints the Twelve on a mountain and, as we heard a few weeks ago, delivers the Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount. In fact, it is estimated that mountains feature more than 500 times in the Bible: they must mean something. Their frequent appearance is likely because mountains have a religious symbolism: they are “closer to God” who was believed to dwell in the heavens. Mountain moments on the Bible are about being close to God – and Godliness. It is no surprise, in light of this, that Moses climbs a mountain to be with God, and that the Transfiguration, where Jesus is revealed to some of his disciples as fully divine, happens – atop a mountain.
Like a lot of biblical symbolism, the idea of a mountain top moment, is familiar in today’s language. In hearing about a mountain top experience for Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, some of us might be able to draw parallels with our own mountain top moments of faith – times when our faith was affirmed, when we learnt something important about our relationship with Jesus, or when we felt particularly close to God. At the beginning of this month, I noted the anniversary of my baptism – a time that for me anchors my faith. It is a time that I cling to, when things feel more uncertain.
Because I was 21 at the time, I can remember vividly how I felt that day. I can also remember not wanting that service to end; to be able to feel that happy and secure in perpetuum. Peter, too, wanted to stay on the mountain with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah: he suggests building shelters for all three of them. This desire doesn’t last long. As the voice of God comes through the clouds, the disciples fall to the ground in fear. As it was, seven months after my baptism, that I found myself sinking into first recognised battle with depression. The first of many.
Mountain top moments, it seems to me, at least, might often be followed by descent into a valley of some kind. The swift change from high to low, if the high was about feeling close to God, can make God feel even further away – beyond reach. And although the disciples were terrified, Jesus was with them. We’re told that He reached out and touched them, urging them not to be afraid. On getting up, the disciples found that they were alone with Jesus.
When I’m in a valley, particularly if my presence there follows a high point of faith, I find it difficult to make time to be alone in prayer. I’m more likely to be seen heading in the other direction, resistant to whatever God wants to teach me in this new low – and certain that this time, I will get out of the valley independently. It’s easier from the valley, where I definitely did not choose to be, to forget that as far as those mountain top moments were concerned, it was God that led me to them, not the other way around. I did not – I could not – baptise myself. Someone, in loco Christus, did that for me. Whether they be mountain tops or valleys, God is with all of us wherever we find ourselves: reaching out, wanting to help us to grow in Him. The story of the Transfiguration reminds me that for that to happen, I have to be ready to make time, and to listen.
It is maybe when I’m in the valley, rather than atop the mountain, that it is more imperative to listen to God. Listening, when I’m afraid, holding the anchor points in mind then, is hard. It’s easier to discount them as moments of foolishness, than to remember them, with the disciples, as times when I felt certain that Jesus is the Son of God; that listening to Him is worthwhile. It is when we are in the valleys, as Peter finds himself later on in his journey of faith, recounted in his letter, that we can look back to mountain top moments. Indeed, Peter urges his readers to hold fast to God’s words to us, as a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in [our] hearts.
While the disciples descend into the valley with Jesus after the Transfiguration, to continue their journey of faith, Moses’ experience according to our Old Testament text was different. Having encountered God in the cloud, he remains on the mountain for forty days. Like the symbolism of mountains, we can be alert to biblical meaning when we hear about ’40 days’. This number denotes a lengthy time of suffering. As we enter Lent this week, the parallel might be drawn with Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Like Moses, Elijah, and disciples before us, we are journeying. Mountain tops or valleys, we need to be ready to listen to Jesus, so that God’s transfiguring work may take place in us, too.