Mountaintops and Valleys
Based on 2Kings 2:1-12, 2Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
A little less than three months ago, Lucinda and I embarked on a challenging but wonderful journey from mountaintop to valley and back again. All this occurred over a three-day period and our lives will never be the same. Let me set the stage for you. About this time last year, Lucinda’s dear friend Pam invited us to be part of a ten-person team that would walk down into the Grand Canyon and overnight at its heart at the Phantom Ranch. This trip was timed so that we would walk down the day before Thanksgiving, celebrate Thanksgiving at the bottom of the Canyon, and then hike back out on Friday. We would be traversing more than 4000 vertical feet each way and the total distance of the hike would be 17 miles. Lucinda had never been to the Grand Canyon and I had been there last about 45 years ago. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, even though we are not by any stretch long-distance hikers, and so we said yes.
It turns out that roughly 6 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year. About 90% of these folks view the Canyon, as I did 45 years ago, from either the South or North Rims. Only about 10% of folks ever venture even a short distance down from either Rim and only 1% – about 60,000 people each year, ever travel down to the Phantom Ranch either by boat, mule or hiking. Reservations must be made to stay in one of the cabins at the Phantom Ranch, and they are controlled by a lottery. Pam and her husband Paul had been putting in for the special lottery to celebrate Thanksgiving at the Ranch for many years and were finally chosen in 2020. They were allowed up to 10 people in their party and so the adventure began.
Our scriptures today speak to us about our epiphanies of the glory of God and the reality of having to take what we see back out into the world. Whether it is Elisha watching as Elijah is taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot or Paul speaking to us about our ability to see the glory of Christ and then go out to proclaim it. Finally, Jesus himself is transfigured on a mountaintop while Peter, James and John have their epiphanies. Peter wanted to stay on that mountain with Jesus, Elijah and Moses, but Jesus knew that they needed to walk back down into the valley in order to proclaim the good news. Before we proceed, let us go to God in prayer and thanksgiving that we are able to see the glory of God and then are called to share that vision with a world in need…
Elisha has been a prophet-in-training for a while now and in today’s reading he is engaged in passing his final exam. Everyone knows that Elijah is going to be taken away by the God of Abraham on that very day – including Elijah. Elijah sets out on a wandering path from Gilgal and offers Elisha multiple opportunities to be spared from seeing him be taken. Elisha is true to his mentor and refuses to leave his side. Finally, after crossing the river Jordan, Elijah asks what he can do for Elisha before he is taken away. “Give me a double portion of your spirit”, is the response. Elijah knows how hard this will be on his protégé and says that if God allows it, it will happen. Shortly thereafter, Elijah is taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot and Elisha is left alone to rend his clothes, before picking up Elijah’s mantle and making his way as the new prophet in Israel.
Paul, in his second letter to the believers in Corinth, teaches the faithful that they have been accorded a great grace in being able to be ministers of a new covenant. The old covenant of Moses had led to death, but the new covenant in Christ allows for life through the Holy Spirit. Those who are blinded by worldly idols are blinded to the glory of the gospel which illumines that which has been kept in the dark. Our epiphany of the glory of the Christ calls us to proclaim the good news of Jesus to all those in the valley of the shadow of death.
It is time for Jesus to be seen as He truly is. In the chapters before our reading today, Jesus has been going about the work of His ministry, feeding, healing and telling the Disciples about how His life on earth will end. The latter discussion has not gone well, and Jesus has had to be a little harsh with Peter in order to refocus him on reality. In order to cement who He really is, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to a high point and there is revealed in His glory. He is joined by Moses and Elijah, and the epiphany overwhelms the three disciples. Peter decides that this is the place to be forever and wants to build houses for all three holy men. God intervenes and instructs the disciples to listen to God’s beloved Son. The cloud of God lifts, Jesus is as He always was and so they return to the others in the lowlands.
Lucinda and I spent months getting ready to experience the Grand Canyon up close and personal. We hit the gym, got ourselves outfitted with boots, socks, backpacks, etc. We even did a trial hike of about 4 miles one Saturday to shake out the gear and make sure we could do what we were being asked to do. Yet you can’t really prepare for something that is so overwhelming – we did our best to be sure, but the enormity of the experience stunned us. It is one thing to look at the vast beauty of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim (like most visitors do). It is wholly another thing to strap on boots and backpacks and travel down into its heart one step at a time.
We had been told that the trip down was much harder physically that the trip back up. This turned out to be true. The trail was rarely flat on the way down and the vertical drop was covered in 7.5 miles. The steps in the trail were of varying depths and there seemed to be a million of them. The burning in calves and thighs was intense, along with the punishment on hips and knees. We came to detest switchbacks on the steepest portions of the trail as it seemed that you were never really making any forward progress. With all those challenges, still the beauty and majesty of the Canyon – a new vista appearing around the next bend, was breathtaking and awesome.
It has been said of the experience of being down inside the Grand Canyon that it makes one feel “insignificantly significant”. The sheer amount of rock and the limited sight plane from the bottom are dominating and somewhat oppressive. I did feel quite small and insignificant in the presence of rock that was the better part of 2 billion years old! Yet I also felt the act of reaching the bottom, where only a fraction of visitors ever go, was significant and special, and that I had been granted a precious perspective on life and my place in it. I suspect that is how Peter, James and John felt on that Transfiguration Day on top of the unnamed mountain. More than a small part of me wanted to just stay down at the heart of the Canyon and drink in the experience. It was not to be, however, as Lucinda and I needed to walk back out and continue our lives in ministry in the world – just like Jesus and His three disciples.
This last Sunday of the season of Epiphany ties together everything that has happened since the Magi arrived at the home of Mary and Joseph. The wise men traveled far to get a glimpse of the birth of the King of the Jews – and they took their experience back with them to their homeland. Peter, James and John, have had an inkling of who Jesus might be (Peter has actually said, “You are the Messiah” in the last chapter). Now they, God-fearing Jews, see Jesus as He really is, in dialogue with the greatest leader and greatest prophet of Israel. The circle is complete, both Jews and Gentiles have seen with their own eyes the coming to earth of the long-promised Savior.
This precious perspective could not just live on the mountaintop, they had to share their epiphany with the rest of the world. They had to come back down and live what they had seen back out into the world that had not seen. That’s what we have to do as well. We who have had our epiphanies and have come to know about Jesus and how He changed our lives, are called to witness to this to all those who haven’t had our experience. Epiphanies of God’s unconditional love happen in unexpected and graced mountaintop experiences, but they must be proclaimed in the valleys to all the children of God or they are useless. Each of us is given a unique perspective to share with the world. I wonder, how are you sharing your revelation of who Jesus is in the world where you live? May the Lord Jesus bless you and the Holy Spirit empower you as you share your mountaintop epiphany into the valleys of the world. Amen!