A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
28 About eight days after Jesus said
these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to
pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed
and his clothes flashed white like lightning. 30 Two men, Moses
and Elijah, were talking with him. 31 They were clothed with
heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in
Jerusalem. 32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by
sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men
33 As the two men were about to leave
Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should
construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he
didn’t know what he was saying. 34 Peter was still speaking
when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome
35 Then a voice from the cloud said,
“This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” 36 Even as the
voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told
no one what they had seen.
37 The next day, when Jesus, Peter, John,
and James had come down from the mountain, a large crowd met Jesus. 38 A
man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to take a look at my son, my
only child. 39 Look, a spirit seizes him and, without any
warning, he screams. It shakes him and causes him to foam at the mouth. It tortures
him and rarely leaves him alone. 40 I begged your disciples to
throw it out, but they couldn’t.”
41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and
crooked generation, how long will I be with you and put up with you? Bring your
son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon threw him down and
shook him violently. Jesus spoke harshly to the unclean spirit, healed the
child, and gave him back to his father.
Beach or mountains?
How many of you would say beach?
How many of you would say mountains?
How many of you would say both? The good news for you is that you live in
central North Carolina – either one is just a few hours away, and you don’t
have to choose!
Ashley and I are beach people. That’s our soul place. Something about the smell of salt air, the
rhythm of the crashing waves, sand between our toes – we just breathe deeply
and that’s a little piece of heaven for us.
That’s not to say that the mountains don’t have something special,
either. Ashley grew up in Cashiers, in
North Carolina’s southern mountains, and my first church was in Boone. The folks up there will tell you that God
bent down and kissed the earth, and today, we call that spot, Boone, North
The cross at Lake Junaluska at sunset.
Our Western North Carolina conference of the United
Methodist Church continues to meet in Lake Junaluska
year-after-year, despite the lack of parking, handicap access, a shortage on
decent accommodations, or that the auditorium in which we meet is 1000 seats
short of the number of people required to be there. Why?
Well, one reason is a refrain commonly heard in churches – “Because
we’ve always done it that way” – but another is because more-than-a-few folks
are convinced that Jesus lives in the mountains.
There’s some Biblical basis to that belief. Throughout Scripture, mountains play a
specific role in being places of particular meetings with God. How many stories of someone entering into
God’s presence involve them climbing a mountain? Mount Sinai, Horeb, Nebo, Carmel, to name a
few, all feature prominently in the Hebrew Scriptures. Even Jerusalem, the holy city itself, was
built on a mountain, so that no matter from which direction you approached, you
always went “up” to Jerusalem. Going to
the holy city was an uplifting experience, both spiritually and geographically.
people, “Where is God?” or “where is heaven?” and we instinctively point “up.” And so it makes sense, if God is “up there”
somewhere, that we would climb mountains in an attempt to get closer to God,
both physically, and spiritually.
Our youth are on a retreat in the mountains this weekend. They’re up in Boone and Blowing Rock, getting
closer to God, through a retreat called, “Summit.” The mountains remain a place where people
feel closer to God. Going to the
mountaintop is necessary for anyone who seeks spiritual renewal.
Even Jesus climbed mountains when he needed to think and
pray and be refreshed. In today’s
Scripture reading, he has climbed a
mountain, Mount Tabor, and he’s taken his inner circle – Peter, James, and John
– up with him. Jesus is praying, his
three followers are fighting back sleep, and Jesus begins to glow. First his face, then his clothes, glowing
with a brilliant white radiance that is truly something from out of this world.
We call this glowing, “the Transfiguration,” meaning that
Jesus’ form was changed. He was
transformed, changed from glory into glory.
In this moment of glory, Jesus is not alone – Moses and Elijah, who
represent the totality of Hebrew scripture and tradition, Moses, representing
“the Law;” Elijah, representing “the Prophets;” and right between the two, in
all his radiant glory, is Jesus.
It’s a moment in time.
Peter knows all too well that moments come and moments go, and this is a
special, unique moment. Peter does what
we all want to do in these moments – to extend the moment at far as possible,
to capture the moment. Peter offers to
build three shelters – three shrines, three temples – to the moment, one for
Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah.
he trying to busy himself with lesser things so that he didn't have to deal
with the extraordinary that was happening right in front of him? Was he trying
to contain these visions, put them in a box? Protect them from the elements?
Capture the moment in a medium that he could understand—symbolic bricks and
mortar—maybe a building campaign?
“But friends, haven't we also undertaken these same
avoidance techniques to escape things—even wonderful things—that we cannot
understand?” (Rev. Robert Chase)
sure, Peter represents an impulse within the faith, an impulse against which we
must constantly be on guard. In offering
to build a shrine, Peter is opting to reduce the movement of God to the
building of monuments.
Generations later, people could visit that monument and say, “Once upon
a time, God was here.” And so, faith
becomes a fairy tale, the nostalgic remembering of what God hasdone, oncedid, and used to do.
here’s there good news: God is still alive!
Still at work! Still up to
something! In the moment Peter is
tempted to settle down and build a monument, while he is still speaking, a
cloud overshadows them. If you’ve spent
any time in the mountains, you know this experience. The cloud comes, and you are in it. The cloud comes, and literally envelopes you. It’s worth noting that, in Scripture, “the
cloud” represents God’s presence. And
so, just when Peter wants to preserve this Kodak moment in faith, God’s presence
comes along to move us out of what is comfortable toward what is faithful.It would have been simpler to have built three memorials
and stayed there. Life was good. But no, along comes a dense, thick cloud. And
out of the cloud, a voice:
Along the way many of us
thought that if we loved God, if we followed Jesus, life would become calmer,
simpler, easier. But through the experience of the journey we discovered
instead that God confuses things, God complicates
It would have been simpler to
have built three memorials and stayed there. Life was good. But no, along comes
a dense, thick cloud. And out of the cloud, a voiceBishop Ken Carter says, "It
would have been simpler to have built three memorials and stayed there. Life was good. But no.
Along comes a dense, thick cloud, and out of the cloud, a voice: ‘This
is my Son. My beloved. My chosen.
Listen to him!”
does Jesus say? “Let’s get going. Time to leave the mountain.” They descend from this mountaintop high into
the valley below, and there they encounter a boy possessed by an evil spirit. They had caught a glimpse of glory, a ray of
light up on that mountain, but down in the valley, there were people who
desperately needed some of that light to shine into their darkness.
the way Scottish theologian Henry Drummond puts it: “It is not God’s desire
that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a
broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We
don’t tarry there. The streams begin
in the uplands, but descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.”
light – or whatever else you want to call it – God’s grace, God’s love, God’s
glory – is given tous in order to
meet God upon the mountain, the point is not to find some way to stay on the
mountain. The point is that the mountain
is a place of clarity – where we know God and know ourselves to be cherished by
God, where we receive a clear vision of what God wants us to, and where we can
get a good view of the terrain in front of us.
Along the way many of us thought that if we
loved God, if we followed Jesus, life would become calmer, simpler, easier. But
through the experience of the journey we discovered instead that God confuses
things, God complicates things.
easy to find Jesus on top of the mountain, but while we’re up there, we need to
pay attention to what God tells us. God
says, “Listen to Jesus.” And what does
Jesus say? “Come on, let’s get off this
mountain and take God’s glory down into the valley.” And so, we pull away from our building of
monuments and join the movement of God’s life-giving activity in the world.
so with the assurance that the Jesus who was revealed in dazzling splendor on
the mountaintop is the same Jesus who walks with us through darkness, pain, and
fear of the valley.
honest – I don’t know where you are today.
Maybe you’re on top of the world, maybe everything is bright and clear,
maybe God’s glory couldn’t be shining any brighter around you. Or, maybe you’re down in a deep, dark place
somewhere, where it seems no light could possibly reach you.
find yourself on top of the mountain today with the radiance of God’s glory
clearly in view, listen to what Jesus says to do – to go down
into the valley and share that light with someone else. And if you’re down in the valley and it seems
all is dark, hang on! Someone with light
is on their way.
whatever has been given to you – whatever insight, whatever experience,
whatever skill, whatever resources, whatever love, whatever grace – whatever
God has given to you, God is trying to give to others through you. We have been blessed, and we are asked by God
to bless others.
follow Jesus from the top of the mountain down into the valley – into a world
that desperately needs a bit of God’s love and light.
Come, thou fount of ev’ry blessing:
Tune my heart to sing thy grace.
Streams of mercy never ceasing; Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above.