I had the opportunity to preach at my church this morning, and since my blogging has been a little thin lately, I thought I’d post it here as well.
Strange things happen on mountains. Mountains are hard to climb, and even harder to live on. They can kill you if you’re not careful, and sometimes they can kill you even if you are. Twice, I’ve fallen into crevasses on a mountain; but I’ve also seen sights of unbearable beauty from their summits. Mountains take your breath away, literally and figuratively. They leave your lungs aching from the exertion and your heart aching from their beauty. They are astonishing and terrifying, as inhospitable as they are alluring. We’re not meant to live on mountains, but our lives would be far less rich if we could never see their distant peaks, imagine their thin, cold air, and sometimes, stand on their summits.
It’s no surprise, then, that mountains have often been places where God chooses to meet human beings. Mountains stand apart from our daily lives; they are beautiful and mysterious and terrifying: and in this way, they are much like our God. When Moses removed his sandals before the burning bush, he was standing on the sides of Mt. Sinai; and less than a year later, he was standing on its summit, communing with God, receiving the Law of God’s covenant with His holy people, hiding in a crack in the rock when God Himself passed by in a storm. Many hundreds of years later, when Elijah fled from Jezebel, he took refuge in perhaps the same cleft in the rocks of Mount Sinai, and once again God descended: but this time, God was not in the earthquake, God was not in the fire, God was not in the storm: but after the storm, there was a still small voice, and God spoke to Elijah, restored his faith and his courage, and sent him on his way.
And of course, in our passage today, Moses and Elijah are once again privileged to meet God on a mountaintop, though in a rather different setting. Today is Transfiguration Sunday, that point in the church year when we remember first the sleepy, then the astonished and finally the terrified looks on the disciples’ faces. Mountains are places where God can break through into our normal existence, and today we will try to imagine, and maybe even remember, some small part of what that can look like.
When Jesus took Peter, James and John for a hike on that late winter day two thousand years ago, it was at a crucial time in Jesus’ ministry. Matthew tells us that that just six days prior, Jesus had for the first time revealed to His disciples that His destiny was a death by torture at the hands of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The disciples were still reeling from this revelation, none more than Peter, who, like many of us, was the proud owner of a tongue that frequently outran his brain. Peter began to upbraid Jesus for thinking this way, and for his troubles received perhaps the harshest rebuke Jesus ever uttered: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Peter’s response made it clear to Jesus that His disciples needed to understand more about exactly who He was; and this undoubtedly weighed on His thoughts as they ascended together that morning.
Peter, James and John, similarly, must have had much on their minds. They had been together with Jesus now for nearly three years. They had left their careers and their families to follow Him, even though they didn’t really know what they were doing, or why they were leaving all they held dear, or even who they were following. There was no doubt Jesus was a popular rabbi and a charismatic teacher: the crowds hung on His words, and He spoke with an uncommon authority, even daring on occasion to constrain or correct the Law of Moses. But the more time they spent with Him, the more impressed they grew. He spoke with authority not only to the crowds, but also to the wind and the waves. His touch could not just comfort the sick, but could also heal them. A leper who approached Jesus did not make Jesus unclean, but rather, it was Jesus who made the leper clean. So the disciples knew Jesus was at least a prophet, and a powerful one: anointed by God in a way that Israel had not seen for many generations. But was Jesus something more? Perhaps, they thought. Perhaps He might even be the one to redeem Israel, to return Israel to the glory she had formerly enjoyed, and to the faithfulness that she had not. But even as these hopes were rising in their hearts, Jesus had begun to talk of disturbing things: of conspiracies and betrayals, of a trial, torture, and death. None of this made any sense to them. How could God raise up a servant, and then allow that servant to suffer? How could God place His Spirit upon a prophet, and then withdraw His protection? How could God anoint a king, and then lead that king to his death?
And so it was that Jesus and His disciples reached the summit. With all this on their minds, and after a wearisome climb, followed by a lengthy prayer, it’s perhaps understandable that the disciples decided a nap was in order. And so, one after another, their eyelids closed, and they began to drift in and out of sleep.
Try to imagine what it must have been like to be one of those disciples on that morning. Lying on a hard bed of uncomfortable rocks, you’re napping fitfully, slipping in and out of dreams, occasionally lifting an eye to see if anything interesting is happening. Then something you had initially mistaken for another uncomfortable dream abruptly becomes all too real. It’s the shadows from the rocks that you notice first: they’re all at the wrong angles. A sudden light has flooded the mountaintop, and with a start, you look up and realize that the light is coming from your rabbi’s face. Just a few seconds earlier his tunic had been grey with old dirt and muddy from the morning’s ascent. But now His clothes are suddenly and painfully white – whiter than any earthly detergent could make them, as Mark tells us helpfully. Still blinking and shielding your eyes, a mounting excitement compels you look closer, a mounting terror all but convinces you to flee. And then you see not just Jesus, but two other figures that weren’t there a moment ago. In that sharp and frightening light, you can’t make out their faces, but you hear Jesus greet them by name: Moshe, He says. Eliyahu. It takes a minute to sink in, but as they begin to converse, you realize who your rabbi is talking to. Moses. Elijah. And He’s talking with them like they’re old friends.
Luke adds an interesting detail at this point. He’s the only one of the Gospel writers to give us any hints as to the content of that memorable conversation. He tells us that Moses and Elijah were discussing with Jesus his impending departure from Jerusalem. We should note that Luke was a very careful writer, and the Greek word he uses for “departure” is literally “εξοδος”, “Exodus”. Moses and Elijah were discussing the Exodus that Jesus was about to bring to completion in Jerusalem. And remember what the Exodus was: it was when God made the children of Jacob into the children of God, when God established an eternal covenant between Himself and the squirrelly sons of Israel. And Jesus was about to do the same thing in Jerusalem: he was about pour out his life-blood to establish a new covenant between God and humanity.
It’s at this point that poor Peter’s mouth runs away with him again, and he utters what must be one of the greatest non sequiturs of all time. He’s just been confronted with two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, heroes of Israel who have been dead for a combined two thousand years. In addition, it’s become apparent that Jesus is on speaking terms with these two men; and beyond that, has developed an uncanny resemblance to a light bulb. So what does Peter say in response to this astonishing situation? “Umm, Lord, Lord, umm, hey, I’ve got an idea. This would be a great place to pitch some tents.”
But perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so hard on poor Peter. His idea actually had some merit to it. The Greek word for “tent” – σκηνη – also means “tabernacle”, that is, a place of worship. A σκηνη was where the Ark of the Covenant dwelt; a σκηνη where all of Israel worshiped until Solomon built his famous temple. A tent, a tabernacle, was where Israel celebrated the great acts of God, and remembered the amazing things that God had done in bringing them out of Egypt, repeatedly delivering them from the hands of their enemies. So although it’s not entirely clear what Peter was thinking in suggesting three tents, he certainly realized something big was happening there on the mountain, something worthy of celebration and remembrance.
But hardly were the words out of Peter’s mouth when the disciples’ very strange and impressive day became even stranger and more terrifying. While Peter was still speaking, a cloud covered the mountaintop, much as clouds had covered Mt. Sinai during Moses and Elijah’s earlier visits. And a voice came from the shining mist: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.”
If you’ve ever been in an earthquake, you must have some sense for what the disciples were feeling at that moment. A powerful earthquake is an almost numinous experience. When you feel concrete and asphalt begin to move under your feet, when you watch solid rock dance like a wave in the ocean, when the hills themselves skip like lambs, it becomes plain that the mundane and simple texture of what we call reality is not all that there is. In an earthquake, we realize that an external force has the potential to break through into our daily lives, that perhaps this reality has always been breaking through, that our lives are mere foam on the surface of something larger and infinitely more powerful than ourselves, that the depths of existence hold a power and a mystery and a terror we had never suspected.
Any thoughts the disciples might have entertained about being equal to Jesus, or for that matter, of being equal to the situation, were immediately abandoned. They did what every sane person would do: they fell trembling on their faces before the God of the universe.
But what did the voice in the cloud mean by those mysterious words? “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” Any first-century Jew could have told you in an instant that those words were an allusion to a famous and well-known Messianic psalm. Earlier today, we read this passage from Psalm 2:
I will proclaim the LORD’s decree:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
8 Ask of me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You will shepherd them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
Psalm 2 describes a revolt of the nations against the King of Israel, the “anointed one,” for that is what the Hebrew word משיח, Messiah means, or the Greek word χριστος, Christ. In this Psalm, the Messiah had been anointed, installed as king and proclaimed as the Son of God on the holy mountain of God. But the Messiah now faced a rebellion from those who should have known better.
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the LORD and against his anointed, saying,
3 “Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”
Originally, this psalm referred to a specific king of Israel: perhaps David, possibly one of his descendants, Solomon, Hezekiah, or one of the others. This king had been crowned on Mount Zion, in Jerusalem, and ruled, under God, with God’s blessing. But there were many nations around Israel: Moab, Syria, Edom, Egypt, and others. These nations were restive, and were often opposed to Israel, to Israel’s king, and to Israel’s God. When the kings of Israel were strong, the neighboring rulers resisted their authority. When the kings of Israel were weak, the neighboring rulers took advantage of this weakness, and plundered their people and stole their territory. But in the end, this psalm says, God would stand up for His king and would redeem His people: and those who opposed God in this matter would find themselves learning better wisdom in a somewhat painful fashion.
It should be obvious now how this psalm relates to the story of the Transfiguration, and what the disciples would have understood the voice from heaven to mean. “This is my Son, the Messiah,” God was saying. “Here on the holy mountain I have installed Him, and I proclaim that He speaks with my blessing and acts with my authority. The ends of the earth are His possession; the whole world belongs to Him. Even so, what He has been telling you is true. He is facing a challenge from those who claim to rule the world I gave Him. They will reject His authority, and conspire against Him. But I will be with Him, and in the end, their rebellion will not succeed. They will be broken like pottery, and my Son, the son of David the shepherd king, will shepherd not merely the people of Israel, but all the nations of the world.”
The Transfiguration stands out sharply against all the other stories in the New Testament. We are told, of course, that Jesus performed many strange and wonderful miracles during the course of His ministry. Indeed, miracles followed Him around like so many sheep: from the angel who announced his birth, to the angels who greeted the wondering disciples on the Mount of Olives after his ascension, Jesus’ life was marked by repeated incursions of the supernatural into our merely natural world. But amidst all these miraculous stories, the Transfiguration remains unique. The Gospels clearly present Jesus as the suffering servant: but in the Transfiguration, we see him, for the first and only time prior to the Resurrection, as a triumphant Lord. The Gospels tell us Jesus was a man, fully human, like ourselves; in the Transfiguration, we are shown that Jesus was God, fully divine, like His Father. We know that Jesus did not defend Himself before the Sanhedrin and Pilate; the Transfiguration tells us that Jesus could have defended Himself very ably indeed, had he but chosen to.
The brilliance that shone from Jesus’ face that morning brought light to much that had hitherto been shrouded in mystery. But nothing on which that light shown threw so long and dark a shadow as the cross; and that shadow stretches out over the centuries, and reaches across the oceans. Indeed, we still live today in that shadow. For in the light of the Transfiguration, it becomes clear what actually happened on that dark afternoon on a hill outside Jerusalem. It was not a good man going bravely to his death. It was not a teacher of peace and love whose message had been sadly misinterpreted. It was not even a dangerous revolutionary, ruthlessly executed by those whose positions he threatened. No: the cross was the death of the undying God, the passion of the impassive deity, Omnipotence made helpless. On the cross, Life itself gave His life so that we might live.
And of course, this changes everything. If God did not go to the gallows, Christianity is at best a maudlin religion with a mildly interesting moral code. But if it was God in person who hung on that tree, if it was God Himself who left infinite glory to rescue a fallen humanity, then everything we thought we knew about this world is wrong. We are far worse off than we thought: because it took the death of God to save us. But we are far more blessed, and far more important, than we could have imagined: because our redemption was purchased with a price beyond any possible value.
As G. K. Chesterton said:
That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already: but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator.
But eventually the cloud lifted, and the awful light faded. The disciples felt Jesus shaking them: “Arise,” he said, “don’t be scared.” And when they dared to raise their eyes, they saw only their rabbi, with the same dirty clothing, the same care-lined face, the same long beard and dusty sandals.
Their descent off the mountain that afternoon must have involved some long and interesting conversations, as well as some equally long and interesting silences. All we know, however, is that Jesus told them not to tell anyone about what had happened, until He had been raised from the dead. And it’s not hard to see why: however true what had happened on the mountain, and however important the lesson, it was a dangerous truth, and the lesson could be easily misunderstood. For just as Jesus needed to make it clear to the disciples that he was not just another prophet, not just another rabble-rousing Messiah with dreams of greatness, Jesus also needed to make it clear to them that his destiny did not consist in evicting the Romans from the land of Israel. Yes, Jesus’ authority was not that of a human being, however wise, moral or charismatic. His choices and His destiny brooked no argument from a mouthy Peter, for Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem, and His destiny was death on the cross. But while the Transfiguration made it clear that Jesus was more than a prophet, it was not until Jesus’ death and resurrection had been accomplished that the disciples could understand just how radical Jesus’ mission was.
The voice on the mountain had declared Jesus to be the unique Son of God; and by quoting from Psalm 2, God had, in effect, made Jesus the recipient of the extravagant and even militaristic claims in that psalm. All the old prophecies, all the old promises, were to come true in Jesus. Jesus could ask of God, and God would give Him the nations as His inheritance, the ends of the earth as His possession. If Jesus had asked the disciples for advice at this point, they would certainly have recommended that Jesus use that position and authority to drive out the Romans, and restore Israel to its former glory.
But however far the disciples could see that day on the mountain, Jesus could see further. He could see far beyond the borders of Israel, over the oceans, and through the millennia. He could see into a small church on the outskirts of Seattle, into a congregation mostly faithful, sometimes struggling, always in need of grace. In short, He could see us. He knew that we needed redemption every bit as much as Israel did. He knew that we needed His love and His leadership, His compassion and His wisdom. And He knew that we needed His death.
And so it was that Jesus went willingly from the Mount of Transfiguration to the Mount of Golgotha. He asked, and His Father truly gave Him the nations as His inheritance. You and I are a small part, but a well-tended and cherished part, of that possession. For we belong to Christ.
These recent weeks have been filled with two events of great moment and some discomfort for our church. Pastor Vonna announced last month that she will be leaving in September, and I anticipate that we will feel the want of her gifts immensely. And we received word just this week that after 13 years of hard work and faithful service, Pastor Charlie won’t be returning at the end of his sabbatical. He is leaving with good will and blessings on both sides, but I, for one, will miss my friend a great deal.
In these times, it may be all too easy, like Peter, to jump to conclusions and pass judgment on matters we don’t understand. Like Peter, it may be tempting for us to let our mouths race ahead of our brains and say things that we may later regret. These are unsettled times, after all. But we also have the opportunity to learn a lesson it took Peter many more tries to learn: that Jesus is in charge. This is not Pastor Charlie’s church. This is not Pastor Vonna’s church. It is not mine, and it is not yours. It is our Lord’s. Our Lord died for this church. Our Lord bought every member of this congregation with His blood. You and I, each one of us, and every one of us: we are not our own, for we were bought with a price. Our Lord could see us from the Mount of Transfiguration when the disciples fell on their faces; He could see us from the Mount of Golgotha, when the disciples fled in fear; He could see us from the Mount of Olives when He ascended to heaven; and He is watching over us right now, from His seat at the right hand of His Father. Our Lord is present with us, and He will not abandon us, for we belong to Him, and He takes good care of His own.