Petering Out On The Mountaintop
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Someone once told me they hated the Lord of the Rings movies. That was a hard thing for me to hear. As a die-hard Tolkien fan who has spent countless hours immersed in the mythology and adventures of middle-earth through the novels and films, it’s hard for me to comprehend how someone could say they hated the original trilogy of films; as imperfect as they were.
This person elaborated, saying he stumbled upon the movie on TV and gave up after about a half-hour because he couldn’t understand what was going on. In the course of the conversation it became clear that he had seen just one of the movies in the original trilogy – the last one, The Return of the King.
It’s no wonder he didn’t understand what was going on; there are six hours of film material that sets up The Return of the King. If he didn’t understand what the ring is, why a tiny hobbit and allies had set off to destroy it, or the dynamics of the forces and obstacles in their way, then there was no way he could be invested in the outcome of the story.
In a way, jumping into the story of the Transfiguration of Christ in Mark’s gospel account is like skipping the first two Lord of the Rings movies and only watching a ten minute scene from the third movie. You might appreciate the special effects or a particular line delivered by an actor, but you’re left with no clear understanding of how the scene fits into the larger story, much less what implications the story has for you.
So, briefly, here are the stories you need to know in order to appreciate the story of the Transfiguration.
Episode 1: Moses and Mt. Sinai.
The Lord summons Moses up the mountain where, over the course of 40 days and nights, Moses encounters God through wind, earthquake, and fire. Moses receives a lengthy list of commandments, starting with what we know as the ten commandments, but also including laws about the altar, slaves, violence, property, restitution, festivals, etc. The last thing Moses does before leaving the mountaintop is he requests that the Lord’s favor would be with him and his people. The Lord agrees.
Moses returned to camp with the commandments and finds the people had made a golden calf idol to worship, effectively rejecting the Lord who brought them out of slavery. Moses is furious and smashes the stone tablets engraved with the commandments. The Lord is furious and threatens to destroy the people. Moses intervenes, however, and the Lord’s mind is changed…although the Lord still sends a plague upon the people. One could make the case that the people got sick less due to divine wrath and more likely because Moses had ground up the golden idol and made the people drink it.
We’ll fast-forward decades after Moses’s mountaintop experience to Episode 2: Elijah and the SIlence.
Elijah was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Elijah led a military victory over followers of Baal, which outraged Jezebel, the Queen of the Northern Kingdom. Fearing for his life, Elijah fled from the promised land and went into the wilderness, eventually coming to Mt. Sinai.
Elijah hopes for a Moses-like moment. He wants The Lord to appear in the fire, wind, and earthquake. He wants the Lord to bestow to him the new rules so that he could return to the promised land and usher in a new age of fidelity. He wants to be the new Moses.
But this time on Mt. Sinai, Lord was not in the wind, earthquake, or fire; rather, God was in the sheer silence. Not a "still, small voice" (as has been erroneously translated), but it is in the silence that God speaks. In the silence, Elijah understands what he must do; he must return to the same people who had threatened to kill him and continue to proclaim the prophetic word of justice and truth.
Jesus’s disciples and the first Christians were very familiar with these stories. They understood mountains had played a significant role as important places of divine revelation. They also understood that things go awry once you head down from the mountain and try to communicate your divine experience back in the “real world.”
Fast-forward once more to Episode 3: Daniel and the Mysterious Figure.
Daniel was a noble and faithful Hebrew man whom the Lord rescued from the den of lions. The final part of Daniel’s story involves an encounter with “a man clothed in linen….His face was like a flash of lightning, and his eyes were like burning torches” (Daniel 10:5-6). This luminous figure foretells of a great military victory for the Hebrew kingdom, ushering in a time of prosperity and peace; and concludes with a mysterious statement about the resurrection of the dead. This figure was often understood as a symbol of the Christ or Messiah.
Here we have two stories of dine revelation happening on a mountain; and one story of a figure clothed in blinding white promising the Lord would lead the Hebrew people to victory on the earth.
With these stories in our rearview, we can now turn our attention to today’s story of the Transfiguration.
The writer of the Gospel of Mark likely thought this was an important story to include in his collection of Jesus-stories because it is so obviously in continuity with well-known Hebrew stories, as we’ve just explored. However, as with all the great gospel stories, it’s power is precisely where the story puts a radical spin on previously-held truths.
Jesus has been very active teaching, healing, and providing for the people suffering great need. At this point Peter has proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. Only a couple verses later Peter rebukes Jesus for claiming that he would be killed by the religious and political forces. After all, Peter knew of the promise of victory given to Daniel by the mysterious figure. By talking about being killed, Jesus was getting the story wrong.
Jesus, Peter, James and John head up a high mountain and there Jesus is transfigured. His clothes become dazzling white and Elijah and Moses show up and start talking to Jesus.
Peter’s mind in blown. He knows something incredible is happening. Some new divine revelation is about to be revealed. And then it hits him. “Uh-oh, he thinks; I know what happens when people go back down the mountain…and it’s never good.” Peter’s excitement turns to terror.
Once more Peter rebukes Jesus, this time it’s proactive and subtle; but it is a rebuke nonetheless. Peter refers to Jesus as “Rabbi.” In Mark’s gospel, the disciples only ever call Jesus “Rabbi” when they’re about to challenge or confront him. It’s a power move, designed to pin Jesus within the confines of the established Hebrew religion – the one that promised great blessings for the people so long as they remained faithful.
So Peter calls out to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here." But what he's really saying is something like this...
“Hey Rabbi, don’t forget your obligation is to our religion, so whatever it is you’re talking about with those two, be careful. You know what, let’s just hang out up here. We got Moses and Elijah here, which is great. Plus, as long as we’re up here, we’re safe. Whatever you three are talking about is probably bad news for everyone else, and I don’t like giving people bad news. So, what d’ya say. Wanna pitch a tent and never go back down?”
And then comes a loud voice, saying, “This is my son, the beloved; listen to him.”
And there’s the twist of the story. On the top of this new mountain, there is no new divine revelation. No new commandments. No wind, fire, earthquake, or even silence. There is only the acknowledgment that everything Peter needs to know has already been said by Jesus before they summited the mountain.
And what has Jesus been saying recently? He has been talking about how he is going to die and be raised back to life.
Jesus has been sharing a new radical divine revelation the whole time. It’s the same message Peter rebuked Jesus for saying.
God’s purpose is not a military victory over Israel’s oppressors. God’s purpose is peace..
God’s purpose is not to give the Hebrews and Christ-followers all the world’s resources. God’s purpose is for all things to be shared abundantly among all people.
God’s purpose is not a cult of adulation. God’s purpose is the way of the cross.
As one biblical commentator puts it, God’s phrase, “Listen to him!” means that the disciples are to believe Jesus’ word that “rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection are integral to his messianic mission, and that the way of the cross is equally integral and inescapable for all who would follow him (cf. Mark 8:34–38).”*
There is always a chance that we would use the relative security of religion to wall us in from doing the real work of discipleship. The real work of discipleship is cruciform. It is going down from the mountain into the world that desperately needs the message of peace, love, hope, and unlimited forgiveness.
May you be aware of the times when your faith is “Peter-ing” out – the times when you desire to choose safety over service and comfort over care. God is on the mountain just as God is on the cross; but God also comes down from the mountain the same way God comes down from the cross.
The real work of discipleship is cruciform. It is risky and dangerous. It calls us to move away from false assurances and instead to take the leap of faith into a path we cannot see.
The real work of discipleship is cruciform. It is driven by a love “that refuses to “play the world’s power game of domination, exploitation, greed, and deception.”**
The real work of discipleship leads to the cross, where everything that needs to die is put to death; and everything beautiful rises again, and again, and again; because the beautiful things in life will come back to us.
* Rodney J. Hunter, Feasting on the Word, p.452.
** Hunter, p.454.