Maybe I’ve mentioned it before, but my wife and I lived and worked in South Korea for 18 months. It was a life-changing experience. Though it happened in 2000-2001, some of the moments I experienced remain fresh in my mind.
One of my favorite things to do on the weekends was to take day-trips to Buddhist temples. These day-trips combined a couple important things – a unique and deep experience of the culture of the Korean people and an experience of the wonders and beauty of nature. Why the latter? Because temples in Korea and in East Asia in general are most always in the mountains. The monks and nuns training and practicing meditation and quietude need a contemplative and quiet environment. Mountain tops provide that.
My favorite Buddhist temple to visit and I visited it a couple times was a temple called Keumsan. It is in the mountain range in the southwest of the peninsula. I remember Keumsan temple most fondly because it hosted one of the most peaceful moments I’ve ever experienced.
Off the beaten path and a steep hike up a hill from the main temple, there is a hermitage. Unlike the larger temple below, the hermitage was empty of people. There was no one around. In South Korea, which would fit inside the state of Kentucky but has the population of the whole West Coast, finding time and space away from people is rare and a valuable commodity, that is if you are not a hermit secluded away in one of Korea’s many mountains. So these moments of being alone felt refreshing right away.
As I neared the hermitage, the sound of the temple’s wind chimes became more prominent. The sound of the chimes and the wind harmonized. It recalled my grandmother’s wind chimes that she always put out in the Spring. The wind chimes would serenade the Spring, producing a song that mirrored the moments.
I walked into a kind of Buddhist chapel. As is custom, I got a stick of incense, lit it with a match. With the incense in between my joined palms, I bowed and offered the incense, placing it in the receptacle of sand and ashes. I then retrieved a meditation mat. I placed the mat down and readied myself to meditate. The smell of incense wafted past me, arriving and fading with the wind’s inducements. The wind chimes composed a meditation lullaby and I entered a silence that sang along, sensing God seated with me. A half hour in, I stopped.
I exited the chapel as if new. Quiet, a friend, followed me. Grace and Gratitude to God accompanied me.
I sat on the steps of the hermitage chapel. The wind more imminent. The stillness more intimate. The wind chimes more sonorous. The trees dancing. The moments exchanging moments. The oneness therein. The hymn, Amazing grace, came to mind. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound! No more words needed.
In our lectionary reading on this Transfiguration Sunday, Jesus calls his disciples to the mountaintop. Did you know God calls us to the mountaintop? God calls us to quietly experience God’s presence?
In the Hebrew tradition, and in other traditions around the world, God is experienced most powerfully on mountaintops. The idea is wee move closer to God the higher we climb a mountain. God meets us closest to the heavens is the idea.
So, in the Jewish scripture, our Old Testament, there are stories of God meeting his faithful on mountaintops. Noah and his Ark after the storm rest on a mountaintop and God meets them there and promises with a rainbow to from there on out choose mercy. Similarly, God meets Abraham with his son Isaac, and tells Abraham the age of human sacrifice is over, that the God of Israel never demands such a horror, for the God of Israel is a gracious God.
And then there is the example of Moses and Elijah. Jesus in our story from Matthew 17 calls his disciples to the mountaintop. The expectation is that they are going to the mountain to sit with God in prayer and meditation, something Jesus often did. In the process of prayer and meditation, Jesus meets Moses and Elijah in a radiant moment on a mountaintop, a moment that Peter and John witness.
Moses and Elijah have experienced these mountaintop moments with God. Moses famously received the 10 Commandments, the Torah, and other divine directions from God on a mountaintop which he then brought down to the people. As these mountaintop moments continued, Moses, the author of the book of Deuteronomy says, came to know God face to face. The author of Exodus adds a lovely description of God and Moses intimate relationship. Exodus 33:11 says, “the Lord would speak to Moses, face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”
This is what can happen at the mountaintop. Now, we don’t need to physically go to a mountain. The mountain is just a metaphor. The mountaintop is a metaphor for those moments when we spiritually ascend, when we in our quiet moments, rise in our spirits to meet God and learn of God’s ways. This is what worship is all about.
And what can happen in those ascendant moments when we are still and seek to know God? We come to know God. We come to know God intimately, like a friend.
Elijah, too, experienced these mountaintop moments. In fact, in the same spot Moses did. In 1 Kings 19, after Prophet Elijah overcame the empty, false god known as Ba’al, God dispatches Elijah to Mount Sinai. I Kings 19:11-12 says this, ““And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still, small voice.”
The Lord is in the still, small voice, the one we hear most clearly and most beautifully in those mountaintop moments when we are still and seek to know God.
This understood, it is no coincidence that the Transfiguration unites Jesus with Moses and Elijah on a mountaintop. Now, the gospels don’t specify which mountain. I personally think as some scholars do that it is Mount Sinai where the transfiguration story happens. Jesus comes to the same mountain to which God called Moses and Elijah, the greatest messengers of God. Jesus is not only the New Moses and the New Elijah, he combines them in his sole person, the story makes clear. God confirms this with the words “This is my beloved, my son, listen!.” Jesus will renew and reestablish God’s way like Moses did. He will rebuild and revitalize God’s community like Elijah did. And all the while, God will be as close to him as the mountaintop is to the heavens. He will be as close as a son is to a loving, proud father.
I’d like to close with this. The metaphorical mountaintop not only brings us into the presence and realm of God. It also affords us an expansive view of the world around us. This dual gift of meeting God and truly seeing the world brings to mind Christ’s greatest commandments to us – Love God and Love the world. We learn how to do these things most powerfully in those mountaintop moments when we are still and know God is with us.
So, as we depart from here, may we be reminded of this important truth – God calls us too to the mountaintop of prayer and praise. Let us meet God there. Let us learn of God’s way there, and return to the plains as a living lesson, showing what following Christ means.
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