"What Happens on the Mountain Does NOT Stay on the Mountain" – Matthew 17:1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
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." 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!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
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."
As has been mentioned, today is the day we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord. This is also the final Sunday in the season of Epiphany – a season that began all the way back on January 6th.
Epiphany is the season in which we celebrate the ongoing revelation of God; and the Gospel texts over the past two months has revealed much to us.
We witnessed God’s revelation in Jesus’ baptism.
John the Baptist invited others to encounter the revealed God.
Jesus revealed God’s preference for the poor by calling lowly fishermen as disciples.
And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus revealed a God who provides all that is needed as well as a God who challenges us to live lives of service to the vulnerable, oppressed, and outcast.
Much has been revealed to us during this past season of Epiphany. But before we turn our attention to the somber season of Lent, before we accompany Jesus on his path to Jerusalem and the cross, we are invited to pause, experience, and learn from one more Epiphany revelation – a literal mountaintop experience.
The story of the Transfiguration is an odd one that has long-perplexed pastors, professors and parishioners because the story seems especially out of place in Matthew’s Gospel. As you will notice throughout the year as we explore this Gospel, Matthew’s primary objective is exploring the real-life implications, actions and behaviors associated with faith. At first glance, the story of the Transfiguration seems like it has little to do with real life. A shining face, dazzling white clothes, and the appearance of two ghosts…what in the world does this have to do with you and me? If Matthew’s concern is instructing us on how we live out our faith, what point is he trying to make by including this story?
It could be that Matthew’s objective in telling this story is to address how we should respond to our own mountaintop experiences – the times in our lift when we feel on top of the world and surrounded by God’s grace.
Mountaintop experiences are scattered throughout the Bible. The first one that comes to mind is Moses and the Israelites’ experience at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus.
On the top of Mount Sinai, Moses encountered God. There, Moses received instruction from God, as well as the two tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. Moses was then commanded to go down the mountain and share his God-encounter with others. Unfortunately, while Moses was away, the Israelites had begun to worship a false idol – a calf which they had crafted out of gold. Moses was so angry when he returned to camp that he melted the golden idol, crushed it to powder and made the people eat it…which sounds excessive until you remember how you felt the last time you spent time around people who just can’t seem to get their act together.
Safe to say, Moses would have preferred to stay on top of the mountain, where the pressures and worries of real-life, as well as the eventual disappointments of the people whom he was called to lead, lay thousands of feet below. I think we all would prefer our mountaintop experiences to last as long as possible.
Certainly this was true of Jesus’ disciples. Here on the top of a high mountain, Peter, James and John witness something amazing. They experience God in a direct, powerful and very clear way. Peter responds by asking permission to build dwellings for Moses, Elijah and Jesus; effectively saying, “Oh, this is wonderful, let’s make sure you all stay here permanently, so that I know where to come find you.” It’s not a stretch to think that the next request out of Peter’s mouth would have been for permission to build a dwelling for himself, so that he would not have to return to the fears, frustrations and fractured-existence of his daily life and simply stay with the Lord on the mountaintop.
On the top of the mountain, finding himself in the awesome presence of God, Peter’s inclination was to build a building – a closed-off structure that would literally and figuratively allow him to preserve his experience of God in a familiar and easily-accessible form whenever he desired.
However, God was not pleased with Peter’s efforts to take Jesus captive. God cuts off Peter’s request with a clear command to shut up and listen to Jesus. Peter had missed the point. Jesus had no intention of staying on the mountain. He had work to do, and so did Peter. Jesus’ presence would not be exclusively tied to the mountaintop experience; he would also be found in the valleys.
When we encounter God in powerful ways we, like Peter, try to pin it down and seal it shut, for easy access later on. Much like what kids do over the summer, as they run around trapping fireflies in glass containers, hoping to capture the wonder of the moment and preserve it forever. There is a word for our attempt to contain God. There is a word that describes our desire to seal up God into a pretty and convenient little box for easy access. This word is “religion.”
Religion at its basic level is a structure built off the blueprints of particular people’s experiences of the divine. The theory goes, if you reconstruct the original circumstances of the divine experience as accurately as possible, one has the chance to recreate and re-access the experience of the divine.
A problem with religion, however, is that it can so easily become a hollow shell. Religion is a well-intended structure meant to preserve and revisit a mountaintop God experience; however, we must realize that God is living, active, on the move. God is there for our mountaintop experiences but subsequently moves from there into the valleys of suffering and pain where God’s presence is most needed. Our call is to follow God down from the mountain and into service.
Religious experience does not work like a mathematical equation. Recreating one person’s authentic religious experience does not necessarily produce the same results. Following a set of rules, creeds, and traditions without having the desire to experience God for oneself, or without the desire to let that experience move you to serve others, will produce nothing. No matter how beautiful the construction, a dead religion can never constrain a living God.
Our challenge, as people of God, is to fight the temptation to trap and suffocate God’s awesome presence within our literal and figurative walls. Our challenge, as people of God, is to experience God’s awesome presence out in the world: in our workplaces, homes, parks, nursing homes, schools, food pantries, and community events as we serve those whose lives are anything but beautiful mountaintop vistas.
We worship a living God and God will not be contained in one place. God will not be contained in one theology. God will not be contained in one’s religious practices.
I pray that you would have mountaintop experiences. I pray that God would be revealed in your lives in the most profound and shocking ways. I pray that you would experience God as you worship within these walls. But I also pray that you have the courage to expect God’s presence in the midst of the dark valleys of your life.
Jesus has no plans to stay on the mountain. From the top of the mountain Jesus has his eyes firmly affixed on Jerusalem and the cross awaiting him. This mountaintop experience will be followed by a very real and very painful valley. And yet, Jesus has one more thing to say, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Jesus’ words on the mountaintop, words of hope and promise, loudly reverberate in every direction, penetrating every valley and dark place. “Get up and do not be afraid.”
When all else fades -- and indeed, soon enough all will become dark indeed – Jesus remains, reaching out in help and healing. At the very close of Matthew's account, he will gather with these and all of his disciples on another mountain, and promise that he will be with them, and with you and me, even to the close of the age.