Grace Presbyterian Church
February 7, 2016, Transfiguration C
Exodus 34:29-45; Luke 9:28-43a;
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain
Mountains often figure into the stories of religious traditions – not just the Judeo-Christian tradition, but others as well. Not surprisingly, mountains often figure as the location for an encounter between the human and the divine, or possibly as a retreat for a person seeking contact with the divine. Such is the commonality of this connection that it shows up fairly often in popular culture – say, any number of comic strips in which people are climbing a high mountain to seek the council of the guru perched atop it. Even in the current blockbuster movie rampaging though theater box offices, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, the final scene of the movie takes place on a mountaintop, as a young woman seeks the long-absent last of the Jedi Knights. To bring the mountain references full circle, that scene itself was filmed on a mountaintop on an island off the coast of Ireland that had, until the 12th century or so, been home to a Christian monastery, a place where monks had sought to live closer to God, and more closely with God.
Moses went up a mountain.
The Hebrew people came to a mountain, Sinai, out in a wilderness. Moses went up that mountain to receive law from God. Receiving the law, first from the finger of God; then the awful rebellion of the Hebrew people; Moses pleading to God not to destroy the people God had just delivered from Egypt. Moses up the mountain again, this time to carve God’s commandments onto new stone tablets.
Exodus tells a strange story at this point. Moses comes down from the mountain, back to the people, after having been forty days with God receiving the commandments. Evidently Moses didn’t notice (though the people did) that after so much time in the presence of God, his face was glowing. Not in the way we speak of a pregnant woman or a new mother “glowing”; Moses’s face was literally shining.
Maybe surprisingly, or maybe not, the people were afraid of Moses. It’s not as if the Hebrew people hadn’t already seen plenty of strange things – the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the sea, the fire and pillar going before them – but this one was too much; too strange, or too close to home, somehow too much for the Hebrew people to bear, and they were afraid of Moses. Eventually Moses had to put on a veil, to keep the people from being fearful or freaked out by his shining face – though he would remove the veil when he went back up the mountain, to the presence of the Lord.
Elijah went up a mountain, too.
Even though the story isn’t included in today’s lectionary reading, Elijah had his own mountain encounter with God. 1 Kings 19 tells the story of Elijah’s flight from Queen Jezebel, who had threatened his life after his victory over the prophets of Baal. Despite seeing four hundred and fifty prophets of a false idol destroyed, and God miraculously devouring with fire an utterly drenched altar, Elijah reacted out of fear of the human monarch rather than trust in the God of power he served. And he ran.
He ran all the way to Horeb, the mount of God, which in Moses’s time had been called Sinai. There God hid Elijah in the cleft of the rock, where Elijah witnessed God not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence.”
But even in the very presence of God, Elijah reacted with resignation, with fear, and with hopelessness, repeating the same mantra he had repeated all through this journey: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.“ As a result God sent him down from the mountain with a commission to set apart a new king for Aram, a new king for Israel, and a new prophet … to replace himself. Not every mountaintop turns into triumph.
Now Jesus goes up a mountain.
This wasn’t uncommon. More than a few times Jesus would, throughout the four gospels, go off to a mountain to pray. The passage actually says “the mountain,” a definite article as grammarians would say, though it clearly wasn’t Sinai or Horeb. But it was the mountain, one they knew.
This was a little different, though, because Jesus took a few of his disciples with him. And it got even more different when a couple more people showed up, and something started happening to Jesus. His face changed. His appearance became dazzling bright. Shades of Moses’s shining face.
To their credit, the disciples didn’t react in fear, at least not immediately. Peter started babbling nonsense, about building three booths, but Peter babbling nonsense is just Peter being Peter, really. But then a cloud started descending on all of them, the three disciples as well as the three transfigured figures, and then some fear begins to set in. And frankly, for a good Hebrew, that kind of theophany (a fancy seminary word for “manifestation of God”) should be met with a little fear. The real trouble didn’t start in this case until Jesus and the disciples came down the mountain, when the rest of the disciples had been unable to heal a sick child. Coming down from the mountaintop isn’t easy, and things don’t always work the way you think they should after you’ve been on the mountaintop.
Three journeys to holy mountains – always they were as holy as any place God created, but here made holy by the manifestation of God, to Moses, to Elijah, to the disciples in Jesus. Here the Transfiguration becomes a bookend to Epiphany, when God was made manifest in the child Jesus to those magi who came from far away. God is made manifest in Jesus, God is made manifest in the body of Christ as Paul has been teaching us these last few weeks.
But there’s one more mountain left, actually.
Besides looking back, the mount of transfiguration also looks forward. Luke refers to this in verses 31-32, when Moses and Elijah were speaking to Jesus about his departure, “which he was soon to accomplish in Jerusalem.” There Jesus would be led up one more mountain, upon which would be performed perhaps the most unholy act in human history.
And yet Golgotha, too, is a mount of transfiguration. Only there, on that mountain,, we are the ones being transfigured.
Paul helps us here, in 2 Corinthians. Look at 3:18: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
At Epiphany, the magi see God in the child Jesus. At Transfiguration, the disciples see God in their teacher. But on Golgotha, at the other end of this approaching season of Lent, Jesus ascends a mountain so that we might be transformed, we might be changed “from glory to glory,” so that we might be transfigured into the Body of Christ, showing God’s love and justice to a skeptical and suspicious world.
One journey completed, we now take up another. A cross awaits at the end of that journey. Don’t let the old gospel songs fool you: it is a hideous, cruel, demonic cross. What happens there is the brutality of fallen and depraved humanity at its basest and lowest.
Because of that one more mountain we are transfigured, are transformed. We are drawn in to God. Because God would not settle for our lostness, our separation, our fallenness, Golgotha, Good Friday, becomes a place of transformation for us.
Today we see Jesus transfigured, but then it’s our turn.
For transformation, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright” (474); “Jesus On the Mountain Peak” (74); “O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair” (75); “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (with tune BEECHER)
Ahem. (agnusday.org, again)