The Gospel this morning is the account of a mountaintop experience. It is Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, read on the last Sunday before Lent. It marks a significant shift in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has gone up on a mountain and he’s taken his senior administration with him. Peter, James, and John, the same three he will ask to stay awake with him in the Garden of Gethsemane before his execution. He has been teaching, feeding, and healing. He has made quite a name for himself and for the disciples that are at his side. If it was today they’d have been on talk shows and T-shirts and YouTube by now. But on this day, Jesus, Peter, James, and John, steal away by themselves, up on a mountain top, to retreat perhaps, take a break from the crazy pace of life down below, the crowds, the suffering, the hungry, the poor, the arguments with the local clergy and keepers of the law.
They’ve climbed up on a mountain to get away from it all. What happens next is completely unexpected, more shimmering mystery than hard edged theology. Like a scene one might remember from the depths of a sleepy dream, Jesus is transfigured before them, his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Elijah, the great prophet of the Hebrew people, and Moses, the one to whom God gave the law at the top of Mt. Sinai, both appear.
For some reason, this doesn’t seem odd to Peter, two guys who have been dead for hundreds of years, showing up out of the blue, Jesus looking like something out of the magical mystery tour. Elijah, Moses, and Jesus – Peter decides right then that life is better lived on the mountain top. He says Lord, “let’s stay here,” and multitalented Peter switches from fisherman to tent maker. He plans to set up camp for a while. Peter is talking out of his mind. He doesn’t get it now anymore than he will in the garden six weeks from now.
Before Jesus can respond to Peter’s temporary insanity, a cloud appears, similar to the one that appeared a few weeks back at Jesus’ baptism, and from that cloud a voice that booms out, “This is my beloved son. With him I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Immediately, Peter and the other two disciples fall to the ground, heads in the dust overcome by fear. What comes next I imagine to be one of the most tender moments that the Bible tells of between Jesus and his disciples. The cloud disappears. Moses and Elijah are gone and Jesus comes off the crest of the mountain, he kneels down in the dirt, he lays a hand on their shoulders, and says, in what must have been a gentle voice, “get up, do not be afraid,” and they dust themselves off and go with him down in the valley, where there were sick people to be healed, and disputes among disciples to be settled, and lots more work to be done, and as Jesus promised, suffering, and even death.
And this is the really important part because this is the way that God comes into the world, not solely in the cloud of mystery, not only a voice from heaven, but in the midst of human flesh God comes close, gets down in the dirt with a touch of the hand, and the words, “Do not be afraid.” The disciples had to go back down in the valley with nothing more to sustain them than a glimpse, one shining, God proof mountaintop moment, one voice, one touch, to give them courage and relieve the fear. Just the same as we’ll leave this place in an hour or so and re-enter our lives.
And right about now doesn’t it feel like we’ve been trapped in a deep bitterly cold valley called winter! By all accounts February, which thank god we just left behind, can be hard on
our fragile psyches. The joy and fellowship of Christmas seem far away, another long year waits. Many well intentioned New Year’s resolutions have already been broken; the weather has been just terrible. And the world it seems didn’t get any better on January 1, 2014, wars are still raging, the hungry are still hungry, the sick are still dying. Is it any wonder that Counseling offices get clogged up during these last few weeks of winter!
So maybe this mount top experience, is well timed! We need this glimpse of the something more that lies just beyond our ability to grasp. And hard as it might be this time of year to believe these sorts of things still happen – even in our cold, grey, show me Sam, black and white world of late winter.
Remember when the Tsunami, roared through Indonesia? A University chapel in the United States held an outdoor prayer service on their imposing front steps. Conscious of the multi faith environment of the University the chaplain in charge invited representatives of other faiths to offer prayers. One of those invited was a Muslim student from Indonesia who led Islamic prayers for the dead, for the living, for peace. After the service he pulled the chaplain aside to say thank you; He said it was a great honor to lead prayers on what he called sacred ground. He said God was present to him, there in the chilly evening twilight, surrounded by people of different faiths. He had lost 20 members of his family to the waves, and his days since had been grief filled and terrifying – but on cold damp night – on the steps of another faith’s building – God came to him.
I will leave you to ponder the theological complexities of a Muslim being visited by God on the steps of a Christian Chapel, and just leave it as what it was, a mystery, a holy moment, one that surely we can pray sustained that young man in the deep thick valley of grief and fear he was walking through in those days after the tsunami.
Mt. Sinai, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Mount of Transfiguration, these mountains are not the only mountains of course, they do not represent the only times when the curtain of eternity is pulled back and God becomes transfigured in human flesh. Matthew is giving us a glimpse, a foresight of another mountain some six or so weeks into our futures here.
You see, Jesus’ transfiguration is the story not of one mountain, but two, both of mystery and awe and transformation. On the first mountain Jesus is covered with white clothes and dazzling light. Three disciples surround him. Moses and Elijah are on his right and left.
Six weeks from now there will be another mountain. And there Jesus will be covered, not with dazzling clothes, but with blood and sweat, surrounded not by disciples, but Roman soldiers, not by prophets, but two thieves, one on his right, one on his left. He will be quite different. God’s beloved son will have a broken body, ripped open by the tragedy and
the valleys of human life.
Next week is the beginning of Lent, the season of the cross. In three days in this place we’ll smear ashes on our faces, as a reminder of our walk with Jesus through the cruciform valley of life. But before we begin that sacred journey, God will pull back the shadowy veil between this life and the next, and give us one more touch, one more sign that the fulfillment of God’s love for the world is embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, one more reminder that perfect love casts out fear. It won’t be a long moment, few of these sorts ever are, but it will be enough.
We don’t often see it for what it is but behind me is another mountain, well not really a mountain, but a rise, an altar, where Jesus will once again appear, transfigured in the form of bread and wine. He won’t stay up there long, as with the other mountain stories, he’ll come down, right down this step, into the midst of human life. Like Peter and James and John we should likely fall down in fear at the thought of it – but that’s not how God works – what God dreams would happen here week to week is that tender mountain top moment between Peter, John, James and Jesus would be relived and real amongst us here and now. Jesus would once again kneel down and lay a hand on our shoulders, and say, in a gentle voice, “get up, do not be afraid,” Amen.