Rarified Air – February 19, 2023

Psalm 99, Matthew 17:1-13
February 19, 2023

I had a great time at my brother’s place in Tucson last week.  I wish we had a little more to celebrate together with the Eagles, but we had a great time, anyway.  And one thing I kept saying, while we were driving around was, “I can’t stop looking at the mountains!”

If you know me, you know that I love the mountains.  I love the Poconos, and I know many of you do, too.  But if you’ve seen the mountains in the west, you know they have a beauty all their own.

Well, Arizona’s mountains are all located in the desert.  So they are a stark contrast to the flat lands around them.  They’re very rugged, and around Tucson, their slopes are covered with the giant saguaro cactus.  It’s so beautiful.  I wish we had multi-media in here.  I’d put some pictures up.  I was often reminded of the quote in John Eldridge’s book, that in creation, “God was almost wasteful with beauty!”  (Pictures really don’t do justice to the real thing, anyway!)

And then, if you’ve ever been up in the mountains, and seen the world spread out below, you know that you can see for miles.  It can be like the view you get when flying in an airplane.  On Thursday, I had the most magnificent flight over the Rockies from Phoenix to Denver.  I couldn’t stop looking at those mountains!  I took a lot of pictures!  (And I don’t ordinarily take picture from airplanes!)

Mountains are amazing!  And the other thing I love about the mountains is that, if you’re high enough up, where the air is thin, you can feel it in your lungs.  I love that!  I love that slightly thin air, slightly headachy feeling.  That’s what has been referred to as being in the “rarified air.”  And that’s what I’m using for my sermon title today

I thought about all of that as I considered this story of the “Transfiguration.”  Because here, Jesus took his three closest disciples and went to the mountaintop.  And I don’t know if the mountains in that part of the world are high enough to notice the “rarified air.”  Siri says Mt. Sinai is 7,497 ft. high.  And that’s only about half as tall as some of the Rockies.

But that doesn’t matter.  Because that term “rarified air” has also been used as a metaphor.  It’s been used to describe something that is “Elevated, or Exalted, or Sublime,” as my thesaurus suggested.  It refers to a thing that is far above all others.  Someone once used it to refer to the time they spent in a highly regarded university.  They saw that as being “in rarified air.”  The Eagles were in “rarified air” this season, weren’t they!

So here, the disciples were in rarified air, in more ways than just altitude!  They witnessed this transfiguring experience with Jesus, in which he was more than just changed in appearance.  They were able to see him as “elevated” and “exalted.”  And they experienced the presence of God.  And that is being in “rarified air!”

One thing that I’ve always believed about this story is that they needed this experience.  They needed this experience with God – that which I’ve referred to as a “theophany.”  You’ve heard me use that word before.  I used it when we talked about the experience with God at Jesus’ baptism.  It is an appearance of God.

These disciples needed this!  Think about it.  They had been through a lot in the last three years.  They had given up their whole lives to follow this Jesus, to be his disciples.  They had seen him draw huge crowds, crowds that followed him from town to town.  They heard him preach.  They saw him heal the sick.  They knew there was something very special about him.  They knew they were part of something very big!

But things were starting to go wrong.  Jesus was starting to meet with more and more opposition.  More and more he seemed to be angering the wrong people!  And he was angering people who had the power to do more than just question his teachings and practices.  These were people who could threaten his very life!

And now he had “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  And the disciples knew that was a bad place for Jesus to go.  That was ground zero for his worst opposition!  And they reminded him of that on several occasions.  But he seemed bound and determined to go, anyway.  And they didn’t like his prospects!  They could only imagine what was going to happen to him there!  And again, they didn’t know what we know!

So, in all that uncertainty, in all that fear and doubt, they needed this experience!  They needed this time with Jesus in the “rarified air.”  They needed to see him elevated and exalted. They needed this experience with God himself.  They need the assurance of who Jesus was, and confidence in what he was about to do – whatever that was.

And I ask you, don’t we need that, too?  I know I do!  Yes, there are times in our lives when our faith is strong, when everything about Jesus just makes sense.  We know we’re following the right guy.  We know we’re “backing the right horse,” as the expression goes.

And then there are other times!  There are times when our faith seems weak, times we aren’t sure what we believe, times when we feel like we aren’t as close to God as we wish we were.  There are times we wish we had that “first love” for God that John talked about in the book of Revelation.  There are times we need the assurance the disciples received that day on the mountaintop!

So, What do we do about that?  Well, the first thing we need to do is to recognize it, and acknowledge it.  Sometimes I think the thing that hurts our faith most often, the thing that contributes the most to our times of spiritual emptiness, is the feeling that we don’t need God.

So the first thing we need to do is to acknowledge that need!  We need to see ourselves in the grand scheme of the universe, like looking out from that mountain vista and seeing the whole world spread out before us.  We need to think of our lives in the whole picture of eternity.  And we need to recognize in all that, that we need God.

That’s the first step.  Then we need to take action.  We need to do something!  Because paralysis is often our worst enemy!  One of the hardest parts of moving an object is overcoming inertia.  Inertia is the tendency of an object to remain at rest.  It’s always hardest to get an object moving.  It’s the same with us.  We need to do something!  We need to go to the mountaintop!  We need to seek the “rarified air!”  We need to remember who Jesus is, and see him “elevated and exalted.”

Maybe that means setting aside a dedicated time for prayer, or Bible reading.  Maybe it means reading an inspirational book, or setting some spiritual goals.  Maybe it means recognize our spiritual weaknesses and making plans to improve them.  Maybe it means taking an actual trip to the mountains, or some place where we can see and acknowledge the hand of God in creation.

Lent is a good time to consider such things.  In fact, it is that time of year that has been set aside for that very purpose.  It’s the time when we take a look at our lives and our faith, and we try to see where we’ve fallen short.  And it’s a time when we take action.  It’s a time when we do things in order to grow closer with God.

Lent starts this Wednesday.  It’s Ash Wednesday.  It starts with a service of worship in which we recognize our own mortality, and we remember that we rely on the steadfast love of God.  I hope you’ll consider coming that evening~

But whether or not you are able to be here, think about Jesus and his disciples on the mountaintop.  Think about them standing in the rarified air.  Think about how they needed that experience!  And wherever you find yourself in your faith, make a decision to recognize your need God, and then do something about it!


Eternal God, help us to know that we need you.  Help us to see ourselves in relationship to the universe, eternity, and your kingdom.  Help us as we seek to grow closer to you this Lenten season, and as the time nears to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection.  For this we pray in his name, Amen.