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Moment on the Mountain"
All of us are probably familiar with what we call the mountaintop experience. Or we have probably heard of what is called the "peak" experience. And I can recall as far back as high school hearing of the peaks and valleys of religious experience.
Although we welcomed and reveled in the peak experiences, we were less prepared for the valleys. And we have learned that while the peak experiences are easy for us, the valleys are a whole lot tougher.
Yet, although we may throw these phrases around quite freely, as Christians we too easily forget how those symbols fit into the life of Christ. He, too, had peaks and valleys in his ministry.
And in some respects, the peaks and valleys occurred at the same time in his life. But this morning I want to focus on the peaks: his moments on the mountain.
The most well-known of the direct teachings of Jesus took place on a mountain: the sermon on the mount. The most extensive prayer of Jesus, which we find in John's gospel, took place on a mountain: the mount of olives. And where did the basis of the law in the Hebrew scriptures come from? Moses brought the ten commandments down from Mount Sinai.
But let us go to another mountain, as found in the ninth chapter of the gospel according to Luke: "Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray."
But what were "these sayings"? Well, among other things, he said, "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." And that's a mouthful. The disciples probably weren't quite sure what to make of it all.
And that may have been why Jesus took Peter and John and James with him. It's easy to hear prophecy. But it's another thing to understand it. And yet even more difficult to believe it. Of course, the disciples heard it; and at least they THOUGHT they understood it.
But would WE have believed it? And what would it have REQUIRED for us to believe it?
I don't think it was an accident that Jesus hauled the disciples along with him up the mountain. And especially THESE three disciples, apparently his closest companions. Jesus has something that he wants to show them. He has an experience that he wants to put them through, an experience unlike anything they have ever known, an experience that SHOULD make believers of them.
"And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white."
And we are reminded of a similar event in the thirty-fourth chapter of the book of Exodus: "Moses came down from Mount Sinai.
As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him."
Now, we don't know whether the disciples knew of this precedent; but if seeing is believing, they are certain to believe that something extraordinary is happening. They have seen Jesus perform miracles, but now it would appear that something miraculous, something supernatural, is happening to HIM. Instead of being on the giving end, suddenly he's on the receiving end.
And I'd like to think, regardless of what else we might make of it, that the changes in Jesus face and clothing are symbolic of a close encounter with God, just as in Moses' situation. And to the cynic who thinks that sounds silly, I would simply point out that the closer a Christian gets to God the more dramatic are the changes in the Christian's life.
Those changes may not show up in our faces and our clothing, but they will show up in our souls, and in our spirits, and in our behaviors.
But the transfiguration of Jesus is not all that happens. "Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem."
And in the midst of this dazzling brilliance, we find history pointing in two directions. The prophets who anchored the history of the Jewish people were engaged with the Christ in pointing to his ultimate sacrifice for his people.
Now we know that Moses met God on the mountain. But less well known is Elijah's meeting of God on the mountain. This is reported in the nineteenth chapter of First Kings. There's a great deal to this story, but I want to share with you only two verses, the eleventh and twelfth: "He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by."
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence."
And it was in the sound of sheer silence that Elijah found God on the mountain.
So now Moses and Elijah have returned to talk to Jesus about what is going to happen in Jerusalem: his crucifixion. Or so Luke tells us. But we have absolutely no idea what they had to say about it.
Yet, I'm assuming that the disciples with Jesus did know; that at least they had some sense of what the conversation was about; and that at least part of the reason for this event to take place was to confirm for the disciples what Jesus had told them eight days earlier: that he would be rejected, killed, and raised.
So I believe that there was a practical reason for this event to have occurred, that God is providing the disciples with a sign of what is to come.
Now you might ask, what was so "practical" about the appearance of Jesus face changing and the clothes becoming dazzling white?
And I would answer that something happened that moved Jesus and Moses and Elijah through dimensions of time and space that we cannot comprehend. And what the disciples saw happening to Jesus was likewise beyond their comprehension, but described by Luke as best he knew how. Indeed, the transfiguration was the proverbial "tip of the iceberg" for what was happening on a much deeper level. And if we are carried away by the superficialities of appearance, we will miss the substance of the message in this story.
And where are Peter and James and John as all this is taking place? Well, initially, they may have been off napping, just as they would later be on another mountain, the mount of olives, also while Jesus is praying.
"Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake [which might also be translated "but when they were fully awake"], they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him."
So they didn't really miss the main event. But they remind me a lot of other Christians. While Christ is engaged in prayer for us, how often are we not aware of what is going on? When Christ takes us up the mountain, are we really aware of what Christ has in store for us? As we start up the mountain, are we excited by the prospects of what might await us, or do we just think of it as something that is going to make us tired? Of course, climbing, by its very nature, is going to be difficult for us. But do we think only of the climb, or are we focused on what we will find at the summit? Well anyway, Peter and James and John did see what was happening.
So how did they react to it? "Just as they [meaning Moses and Elijah] were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings [or tents], one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said."
Now, it is appropriately reverent for Peter to say this, but it is also a rather mechanical response and it truly misses what it happening. For Jesus is the center of attention, not just one of three.
And Moses and Elijah are visionary messengers, not two other flesh-and-blood people with Jesus. So we know that the disciples saw what was happening, and they believed what they saw, but did they really UNDERSTAND it? I doubt it.
But then, Jesus always had trouble with the disciples, getting them to understand and believe.
They had trouble understanding his parables; they gave up after the crucifixion; and even after the resurrection, Thomas would not believe that the other disciples had seen the resurrected Jesus.
But I think that there is a good reason for scripture to include all of these apparent "failures" on the part of Jesus to convince the disciples of what was really happening. I think that God wants us to KNOW that BELIEF, that UNDERSTANDING, does not come easy.
Of course we will have doubts; of course we will be confused. But I think that God would have us KNOW that it has always BEEN that way, but that our faith can overcome those obstacles.
And "While he [Peter] was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud."
Peter has spoken too soon. The event is not yet over, but continuing. But I should not be too critical of Peter; for how often do WE see God's acts as isolated, as separated, and rejoice in them or bemoan them instead of realizing that God's activity is always continuing? It was appropriate for Peter to want to celebrate what he had experienced, and it is likewise appropriate for us to want to celebrate; but we need to be aware that there is always MORE. Yet how often do we find our lives mired in the past, in a rut, rather than focused on a vision of God's glorious FUTURE for us?
"Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
And still, we cannot truly call an end to the event which is taking place. The curtain has not dropped. Instead, God is identifying Jesus as the divinely chosen one, and is pointing to the future: "listen to him!"
"When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen."
The event on the mountaintop has passed. Moses, Elijah, and dazzling brilliance, the cloud, and the voice are all gone. And Jesus is alone. And it is time to return to the valley.
As we enter the season of Lent we will be living on the plain. It should, for Christians, be a time of introspection, of penitence, and for many some form of fasting, of sacrifice, will also be observed.
And then, on Palm Sunday, Jesus will enter triumphantly into Jerusalem, and there will be another mountaintop experience, only to be followed within a week by the valley of the crucifixion.
But God does not LEAVE us with valleys; and on the third day, God will bring us to the eternal mountain of the resurrection.
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