A trip to the mountains

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 99
Matthew 17:1-9

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

17:1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9, NRSV)

 

Let us Pray- May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable unto you O Lord, our creator, our sustainer and our redeemer. Amen.

 

Today, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday is always Transfiguration Sunday.  Aren’t you excited?  I guess it is overshadowed by Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday.  So, you are forgiven for not realizing what a big day this is.  It took a few years as a pastor to get into the rhythm of preaching through the liturgical year before I appreciated the changing church seasons.  In many ways, the liturgical year, matches the ebb and flow of our lives.  We go from moments or days of high holy celebrations to ordinary days of mundane living.  So, today is an important day in the life of the church, even if you didn’t realize it when you woke up this morning.

 

I have heard it said that Transfiguration Sunday is like a roller coaster ride. We have been going up, up, up since the wondrous anticipation of Advent and the excitement of Christmas, a little higher with glory of Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus.  We have been standing on our tippy toes all the way through ordinary time, swaying back and forth at the high point of the roller coaster.  Today, we have reached the pinnacle.  We take a deep spiritual breath as we get ready to plunge down on Ash Wednesday and our Lenten walk with Jesus to the cross.

 

I must admit that I don’t just love roller coasters.  I don’t like the clank, clank, clank of the steep hill as the cars go up, and I don’t appreciate reaching the top and looking out, because I am afraid of heights.  But the going down part, I enjoy because it is a sense of relief because it I am no longer up so high.  Maybe that is why Transfiguration Sunday isn’t one of my favorite Sundays, because I know as wonderful as it is that Peter, James and John have this incredible moment with Jesus, they must descend the mountain, and they are literally going down the mountain to walk with Jesus to the cross.  And there aren’t any sweet metaphors for that harsh reality.

 

In the Bible when we read that a person goes up a mountain it is a marker that something important is going to happen.  In Biblical times mountains were considered a place where humans could almost touch the divine.  Think about all the biblical stories where something important happens on a mountain:

 

Remember Abraham’s fateful trip up a mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac? Remember the many stories of Moses and his various journeys up and down mountains such as his commission on Mt. Horeb and the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai.[1]  Remember the Old Testament story, where Moses left Aaron behind along with the elders, and he took Joshua with him into the mountain, where God spoke to Moses giving to him the words of the covenant with God’s people.[2]&[3]

And Jesus himself often went up into the mountains to pray and think, teach and heal.   Remember Jesus’ sermon on the mount[4] and when he went up on the mountain where he healed the blind and lame and sick.[5]

 

And sure, enough something special happens on this trip up a mountain.  Jesus takes James, John and Peter with him high up on a mountain.  We don’t know why Jesus chose those three, why not the rest of the disciples?  We don’t know what they expected—an intimate conversation with Jesus, some time to pray, a space to rest.  We don’t know what he told them to expect, but it was Jesus asking so they just went with him.

 

Whatever they expected they got a whole lot more than they bargained for. Right before their eyes Jesus is transfigured, changed, illuminated.  Jesus became dazzling white, he became holy right there.  I know, it doesn’t make any sense.  It is almost easier to understand Jesus healing a blind man or raising Lazarus from the dead.  This, this dazzling display of holiness just seems other worldly.

 

In a sense, it was other worldly.   It was holy.  It was transformative.  What happened to those disciples up there on that mountain changed their lives, it changed the way they looked at Jesus and the way they looked at others.

 

It is no accident that Transfiguration Sunday falls directly before Lent, before we begin our journey to the cross.  Excitement and awe and wonder before we head down for 40 days.  It reminds us that Jesus is more than a tiny little baby and even more than a crucified messiah.  Jesus is also about glory and power and majesty.  Jesus is about transformation and hope for a new future.  Jesus is more than being captured in a “dwelling” on the top of a mountain.  Jesus is with the people in relationship with them, he is not sequestered in a holy place high above the fray.  And part of our calling is that once we have seen the glory of Christ, we must join him in relationship with others.

 

A pastor of a downtown church, with all the typical problems and joys of a downtown church who is trying to deal with the enormous problems of the inner city such as, homelessness, hunger, poverty, just to name a few, tells of getting a call one day from a young mother.  The young mom said she wanted to move her children from a large suburban church and start attending this struggling downtown church.  She, in all honesty, asked the young mother, “Why would you want to do that? You are in a good, healthy church with tons of programs for your kids, with a strong budget and a good pastor.  Why would you move to our church?”  The mother answered, “Yeah, I know all of that but I have had all the nice I can stand.  My kids think the world is this bubble, all nice and neat, all peaches and cream.  My husband and I feel as if we are failing them as parents.”  These young parents knew that real life happened down from the mountain top and they wanted their kids to know it, to understand it and to respond to it.

 

It is tough.  It is really hard.  You can’t blame anyone for wanting to live in the nice, safe community high above.  We can’t blame anyone for wanting to remain in the bubble, to stay on the mountain top.  You can’t blame Peter for wanting to remain on the mountain.  You can’t blame any of us for wanting to capture those magnificent moments.  And while I don’t think we will see Jesus change before our very eyes, like Peter, James and John did.  I hope and I pray that each of us will have transformative moments.  Moments where the Gospel makes sense, where our faith is real, where the presence of God feels almost like we can touch him.  I hope we have some of those glimpses, enough to keep us walking with Jesus down the mountain, down to real life, real people, real needs.

 

The presence of God is a matter of faith, of perception, of awareness that God is indeed with us, not only in the moments high on top of the mountains of life and in the intense spiritual experiences but also through the mundane and difficult valleys as well.   It is a matter of trusting God’s promise to be present with us in the ordinary things we do, so that we constantly pay attention for signs of God’s hand in the simplest of our circumstances.

 

For in the end, our faith is not so much about the fact of Jesus being transfigured as it is about our lives being transformed by the love of God in Christ. That change, that transformation, is not about how we look to others but rather how we learn to see others, learn to see God.  To see God in others and in the God—given opportunities for us to love and to be loved—to share the Transforming light of God’s grace with everyone we meet on our journey through the mountains and the valleys we call life.

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] Reverend Dr. Audrey West, Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9

[2] Exodus 24:13-18

[3] 1 Kings 19:8ff

[4] Matthew 5:1-7:29

[5] Matthew 15:29

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