March 2, 2014, Last Sunday of Epiphany – Mountain Top Experiences
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Christianity is a very down-to-earth faith. We live our Christian lives in the stress and rush of the day-to-day world. We practice being disciples of Christ in our relationships with family and friends, in our work, in our illnesses and all the other troubles and complications of being human beings. But there are moments in our Christian lives where we are given the precious gift of a time apart – a close sense, sometimes just for a moment, of God’s love, a sense of his leading or teaching. Or maybe just an assurance of his nearness. Not many people hear God speaking aloud – I never have – but in those kinds of moments we know that God has told us something, even if it is just that he is there. Those moments are rare and precious, and we call them “mountain top experiences” because in those times the problems of our world seem small and unimportant and the air seems clear and pure, and for that moment, however brief it might be, however quickly it might pass away, we catch a glimpse of who we are or of who God is, or of what he is doing in our lives.
We can’t manufacture those kinds of experiences, and we can’t keep the world at bay forever, but God gives them to us, at the right time, for a purpose, so that even when the world closes back in around us and the rush of daily life sweeps us back into the current of things, what we saw or felt so clearly for that moment keeps on burning in our hearts like a lamp in a dark place..
Those are sweet memories for us as individuals, very personal, and very intimate, as a rule. They help to nourish our faith, along with the plain old daily obedience of love. But in the history of God’s people there have been a couple of mountain-top experiences that actually, literally happened on mountain tops – and these were not just personal experiences of encouragement or guidance; these experiences were immensely important for all of us, all people of God, all followers of Jesus Christ, for all times.
Today we read about these mountain top experiences, because today, which is the last Sunday before we enter into the season of Lent, is Transfiguration Sunday. The Feast of the Transfiguration commemorates the day when Jesus brought Peter and James and John up onto the mountain and was revealed to them in glory. I get the feeling that a lot of people just remember the story of the Transfiguration as the time Peter got all befuddled and started babbling about making tents, but in reality, that day was etched so clearly in Peter’s mind that he remembered it for the rest of his life. And we know that because many years later, 35 years or so later, as Peter sat in prison near the end of his life, he wrote about it as if it had just happened: “We were eyewitness of his majesty, Peter wrote. “We aren’t just talking about some kind of mythology or clever made-up story. We were with him; we heard the voice of God. I know that I am going to die soon, our Lord Jesus Christ has revealed that to me. So now, while I am still here, I want to make you understand what I saw, so that when I am gone you will have it clear in your minds, just as it is still so clear in my memory.”
Peter’s second and final letter is all about holding on to the truth of the gospel to the very end, and he is assuring his listeners that what he has been teaching them is true; that the hope to which he has been pointing them is absolutely true. And the reason he can say that with absolute certainty, even in a dark prison cell under sentence of death, is because he still remembers the glory of that day when his friend and teacher was transfigured on the mountain until the glory of his face was too bright to look at and they all fell to the ground in terror.
It was one of the most important moments of Jesus’ life on earth, so important that Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the resurrection, because until they had all lived through the crucifixion and the silent days afterward, and the glorious surprise of seeing Jesus again, alive and more than alive, it wouldn’t even make sense to them.
So what did happen up on the mountain – what did they actually see and hear and learn? Matthew and Mark and Luke all wrote about it – how Jesus took Peter and James and John up onto the mountain and how he was changed right before their eyes. Matthew, who is more poetic, says Jesus shone like the sun, and Mark says his clothes were whiter than any human person could bleach them. Mark is very down-to-earth. But all three of the gospel writers tell us that suddenly they saw, not just Jesus, but also two men talking with Jesus. And somehow, they don’t say how, they knew that those two men were Moses and Elijah. And Luke, who did careful research and interviewed a lot of people when he wrote his gospel account, Luke is even able to tell us what they were talking about.
Our translation says that they were talking about Jesus’ “departure” at Jerusalem that was going to happen soon, but I think it is helpful to know that that word “departure” is actually just the word Exodus – and the word Exodus gives an image of a very special kind of departure, especially if you have grown up as a faithful Jew, as Peter and James and John did. They knew the story of the Exodus from Egypt as well as you know the story of the Boston Tea Party or the ride of Paul Revere. The Exodus in Moses’ time was one of the defining moments for Israel, because it was the moment that God delivered his people out of slavery and brought them into a new country, to be his own special nation and his own special chosen people, led by Moses.
And when Moses had brought them out into the wilderness, the first thing God did was to call Moses up onto a mountain top, where Moses came face to face with the glory of God, in a blaze of light and dazzling clouds, and God gave Moses the tablets of the law. It seems to be one of God’s ways, that he chooses to meet with his people on mountain tops. But knowing the story of that long-ago mountain top meeting with God, Peter and James and John would have begun to suspect that something big was about to happen, that Jesus was about to do something that was as earth-shattering and as life-changing as the crossing of the Red Sea on dry land, and the giving of the law on Mount Sinai.
As he had been with Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness so many centuries before, God was once again present among his people, but this time the glory, and the law, and the majesty, and the power were all contained in the one person that stood before them, in fact, in Jesus, who was a man like them, a man they knew. He was their friend and companion and teacher, but that day they were given a glimpse of the truth – that the man, Jesus, is the eternal God. That fact, simple and astoundingly impossible, is what was revealed on the mountain top that day. It was beyond their comprehension then – but it burned brightly in the mind of Peter until the day he died.
And in that moment, when those three men lay there flat on their faces on the ground, overcome with awe and terror and sheer confusion, Matthew tells us that Jesus came to them and did something that would have been perfectly normal right up until that moment, but which was the most momentous thing of that whole amazing day. He touched them.
They were Jews. They had been raised to know that no one can survive in the presence of the Almighty God. That was why God’s presence dwelt in the innermost chamber of the Temple behind a solid veil. Back in Moses’ day, if anyone, man or beast, had even touched the mountain when God’s glory descended on the mountain top in fire and smoke they would have died instantly. But on the day of the Transfiguration, God himself stood before his friends and he reached out and touched them. God touched them.
That touch meant that the deliverance Jesus was carrying out as he approached Jerusalem and his death and resurrection was more than just deliverance from slavery to sin – paying the penalty for all our sins, once for all – though that in itself was an immense gift. It was more than that – because in this second and final and greatest Exodus, the Son of the living God was also delivering the people he loved from their long separation from him. It was as if a child who had been kept away from his mother for years and years had been brought back home again, brought home, and safe, and well, into his mother’s warm embrace at long last.
And the glory of that truth – that Jesus, the man, was truly God, and that God had come to dwell among his people, and that the long night of separation and fear was over – that was what burned brightly in the memory of the apostle Peter, even in the darkness of his prison cell, even with the knowledge of his coming death. He had seen and heard God on the mountain top with James and John; God himself had spoken to them and they had heard his voice with their human ears, God himself had even touched them, and because of that mountain top experience, Peter was able to witness to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ with a sure and certain faith that was stronger than death itself.
Having said all of that, I think it is often hard for us to fully appreciate the glory and wonder of the Transfiguration. We see Jesus in our stained glass windows and in religious paintings, and we use his name in our prayers. For most of us, I think, Jesus is primarily God. And perhaps for us it would be the more amazing thing to come to the realization that he is also a man, a real man that we could see and touch and talk to and eat dinner with. Perhaps when we are able to really comprehend and believe that that is the real mountain top experience for us.
Peter and James and John could also testify to us that that is true. Because before they went up the mountain with Jesus and saw him revealed in his divinity, glorious and dazzling and awe-ful in the real sense of the word – before that, they walked from village to village with Jesus. They ate dinner with him. They knew what his voice sounded like; they knew the stories he told when he sat down to teach. They saw him tired and sad and happy and angry just like any other man. And on the mountain top when they saw him transfigured in glorious light, they also felt the warm, human touch of his hand.
And so Peter wrote:
:“When Jesus received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him – we were with him! Peter wrote – on the holy mountain…So now, pay close attention to this word as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”