Mountaintop

Transfiguratin Year B   2 Kings 2:1-12   Mark 9:2-9

Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray. So many interesting things happen on the tops of mountains in the bible! Noah and his family and animal menagerie come to rest on the top of a mountain as the waters of the great flood subside. The psalmist looks to the hills when he asks ‘where will my help come from’? Jesus preached a fairly well known sermon called the Sermon on the Mount on a mountaintop.

One of the best known mountains in scripture is the one where Moses goes to see God. Moses goes up on the mountain to talk with God and it is here he receives the ten commandments. When he comes down from that mountain his face is shining from his time in conversation with God, shinning so much in fact that it makes people so uncomfortable, he must put a veil over its shimmer.

Elijah, a great prophet, perhaps THE great prophet, has an experience up on the mountain as well. We heard about Elijah and his successor, Elisha, in our first lesson for today. Elijah is the prophet that is to come again to announce the coming of the Messiah. At a very difficult time in his life, when all the world seemed to have turned against him and his prophetic words from God, when the mighty Queen Jezebel has set her sights on his destruction, he runs to the mountain to hide, to find God, to just get away. And God does not disappoint. First there comes a powerful wind that splits rocks, but God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. And then fire, but again, God is not in the fire. Then, lastly, there is the stillness. Silence. There, on the mountain in the silence with Elijah, is God.

And today Jesus goes on top of a mountain to pray and takes with him Peter, James and John. We can already tell from this first line that something is going to happen. And, once again, God does not disappoint.

While Jesus is praying his face changes and his clothes become a dazzling white. Mark even says that it is so white that no one on earth could begin to bleach a garment that brilliantly. He says that Jesus is transfigured before them. That word, transfigured, is the word we use to name this day: Transfiguration Sunday. Actually, the Greek word is metamorphosis. He went through a process of metamorphosis right before their eyes. That word always reminds me of butterflies because their process from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly is called metamorphosis. But Jesus was more radiant than any butterfly. Glowing with light, whiter and purer than anything they’d ever seen. His face shone like the sun. And he was not alone. Those two great heroes of faith who also had amazing mountaintop experiences, Moses and Elijah, appeared with him. Moses: the one who led the people of God through the waters out of slavery and into freedom, the one who brought down the ten commandments and who had seen God face to face. And Elijah: the pro Athlete of prophets, the one who had in a seemingly impossible story been taken up to heaven in a horse and chariot of fire. An unbelievable sight.  Peter, James and John see the three talking together.

In some ways, it would be like George Washington, the hero of the American Revolution, our first president and founding father, and Abraham Lincoln, the re-unifier of our country during and after the Civil War and one who sought to bring healing to a divided and damaged nation, having a conversation with any great contemporary leader. Moses, his presence symbolizing all the law, Elijah, his presence symbolizing all the prophets, and Jesus, the Son of God and the embodiment of the Gospel. In this we can see quite clearly that there is a deep and significant connection between the law, prophets and Jesus. It is no random coincidence that it is these two who appear alongside Jesus.

Right in the middle of all this, Peter, as only Peter can do, jumps up and says to Jesus, ‘Lord it is good for us to be here! Let’s just stay! We’ll make tents up here for you all!’ He did not realize what he was asking for. But who could blame him? Would you or I not do exactly the same thing? Wouldn’t we all want to skip over the struggle of Lent and get straight to Easter if we could?

In Peter’s mind, here was the glory of all things that really mattered in the world. Who wants to hear or even think about the treacherous journey that lay ahead? They had already experienced many who were suspicious of Jesus’ teachings and Jesus himself, perhaps indicated by his repeated instructions to tell no one of what they saw, was aware of the threat posed to his followers. He had also told them that he was going to have to be killed. Would any of them want to think about this man Jesus, their friend, going through abandonment, violent torture, vicious and cruel death on a cross? To Peter’s eyes, they had already arrived on the other side of that journey!  All he really saw was Jesus in his full glory just as he would be after he was resurrected from the dead. He did not realize that what he had witnessed that day was but the foreshadowing of what was to come in the resurrection.

But God brings Peter to silence as he says to them ‘this is my beloved Son and I am so pleased with him! Listen to him!’ Be quiet for a moment, Peter. Be still. Listen to all he tells you. Wise advice for us all when we, in our enthusiasm, want to skip the journey to get to the destination. Perhaps God knows the journey matters, even when it is hard, and there is no other way to get to the end.

Then suddenly it is only Jesus who stands before them.

When they come down from the mountain, Jesus tells them to not share what they’ve seen with others and they ponder all these strange things.

Almost immediately after this mountain top experience, Jesus is called upon to cast out a demon from a child. Yes, there will come a time when there will be no more suffering, no more evil to defeat, but for now, there is work for Jesus to do. As we read on in Mark’s Gospel we realize he is on a collision course with Jerusalem and those who will kill him. He tells his disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

Seems like just the other day we heard the words of the angels to the shepherds “Do not be afraid, for we bring you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” But now, as the one who was the inspiration of such heavenly songs and celebration turns toward Jerusalem, toward his own suffering and death, and as we, three days from now, will bear ashen crosses on our foreheads, turning them toward Jesus’ cross, we may feel a bit of the chill of what is to come. We might even be a bit afraid. It feels fearful to end the seasons of Advent anticipation, Christmas joy and Epiphany celebration, knowing what lies ahead. Perhaps that is why we celebrate Transfiguration just before Lent begins. We get a full vision of the light at the end of the tunnel, so we can remember why we journey. We see, for just a moment, through Peter and the other disciples’ eyes, a window into the fully arrived kingdom of heaven so we can know why Jesus must go to Jerusalem, must climb up the hill of the skull, must be nailed to the wooden beams, must be lifted up high in the darkest of hours to die in humiliation.

As with any mysterious event in scripture like the transfiguration, there are many, many things to be learned and experienced from it. Perhaps one that we can take away today is this: as we journey through Lent, as with any difficult time we struggle through, we may know deep in our hearts, in our very being, that even in the darkest of times the light of Christ does not go out. We know the end of the story. We know Jesus will, indeed, rise from the grave early in the morning on the first day of the week. In fact, this knowledge is a great gift! But it does not mean that the journey does not need to happen. We do not get to fast-forward past the crucifixion. This knowledge; the knowledge that Jesus suffers on the cross, not us, that Jesus defeats evil, sin and death and frees us from our slavery to them all, that Jesus lives again and with him we do as well; is the light that journeys in us through dark days of any kind.

As we take our first step on the road with Jesus to his cross this week, as we live in the time that lies between the Gloria of Christmas and Epiphany and the Halleluiah of Easter morning, let us hold this image of the Transfiguration in our hearts and minds. Though it is not a place we can go to live, like Peter wished to do, it is a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus who lives in us.

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