“God calls us to live off the mountaintop, taking the revelation of the mountain down to our everyday life.”
Matthew 17:1-17:8 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, 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 white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when behold a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them saying, “Rise and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw only Jesus.
Today’s lectionary reading is Matthew’s account of an event that is traditionally known in the Christian Church as “the transfiguration of Jesus.” Now that word, transfiguration, is one of those big churchy words and for those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, it simply means transformation, or to be transformed.
It is Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus’ Transformation. Traditionally most biblical scholars and theologians discuss this story in terms of another big churchy word, and that is theophany. Don’t let these words throw you, they all have common ordinary 21st century synonyms. Theophany is the study of the majesty and mystery of God.
There is much to be learned from the study and discussion of the majesty and mystery of God’s presence. However, having heard me preach before, many of you know I am often moved to preach from outside of the box of ‘tradition.‘ The way I see scripture is most often from a less than traditional view. Today is no different.
As I said, there is much to be learned from the study of the majesty and mystery of the presence of God, but today we are going to lower our focus to look into the significance of the human aspects of the story, or the results of God’s presence, or the reason, the purpose and the outcome of God’s presence with us.
Matthew placed this story of Jesus’ transformation late in Jesus’ ministry. He had been with his disciples for almost three years, and was about to go into Jerusalem. He was to experience being honored and praised as a King upon his entrance into the Holy city. However, that praise was short lived. He had to venture into a very low and dark valley where as we all know, he was arrested, tried, beaten, and crucified, and his corpse was sealed in a tomb. He was buried.
I believe that is why the transformation happened at this point in Jesus’ ministry. It was to strengthen Jesus’ resolve to go through with his mission.
You might be thinking that the Son of God did not need strengthening, but remember, not only was Jesus God, but he was human. He lived in the flesh. He got tired. He got hungry. He suffered as you and I might suffer. He also had to deal with the same doubts and uncertainties that you and I deal with. At one point, he asked that his mission be taken from him when he said, “let this cup be taken from me.”
When Jesus went up that mountain to pray, thoughts of his immanent death were on his mind. And although Jesus was God, the flesh that he wore made it difficult to go face his task. At the very least there was unease. You can be assured that one of the reasons for the transfiguration of Jesus was to strengthen his resolve to finish his mission.
This was God the parent fortifying, and giving Jesus the affirmation he needed, to be able to later say, with a new found strength, “Not my will but your will be done!”
Let us now turn our focus to Peter, James and John’s mountaintop experience. At this time they had heard Jesus teach, and they had seen him perform a variety of miracles.
They considered Jesus a great prophet and a miracle worker, a man of God. They may have even considered the thought that he might be the Messiah for whom they had waited for so long.
Now up on this mountain, they experienced Jesus in a new way. Jesus was transfigured, or transformed before them. His very being and clothes became dazzling white. It could not have been more obvious to them that Jesus was more than a mere humble human. They beheld his holiness.
They realized Jesus was more than they had thought, perhaps he was even more than they had hoped or bargained for. Have you had moments when you felt like Jesus was more than you bargained for? I know I have!
I mean, seeing Jesus transformed and glowing with the light of God – that must have been scary for them. I can imagine all kinds of things going on in their minds, one of which could have been, “If Jesus is God and I am his disciple, what does that mean for me!?”
“What have I gotten myself into?”
It was frightening see this and not know what was in store for them!
This changed everything for them. See, Jesus was not the only one that was transformed that mountaintop. Peter, James and John were also transformed that day. They were being changed forever, and had no idea what it meant, no idea what they were now to do.
Peter, who always spoke before he should have, tried to make sense of it all and suggested they should all stay up there on the Mountain. “Lets build some tents and stay up here basking in this glorious moment. But then, as suddenly as the whole event started it was over.
They had hid their faces in fear of the unknown. Then suddenly Jesus came and touched them saying, “Rise and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw only Jesus’, no lights, no clouds, no more voices, no extraordinary anything. There was only Jesus, looking completely ordinary and human – only Jesus and the path that led the way down off the mountaintop into the valley.
Have you had a mountaintop experience, or experiences in your life? Most of us, if not each of us have had those experiences. It may not have been a vision as described in today’s scripture, but we have all had extraordinary experiences of some kind, experiences that transformed our lives.
I’ve heard women describe the birth of their children as such an experience. Some of us have encountered such an experience with God in lovemaking with our soul mates. Some of us may have actually had some extraordinary vision. A vision that parallels today’s scripture. Whatever it was, something has happened in your lives that has moved you to be here today worshipping an invisible God whom you know to be real. You have had a mountaintop experience. You have seen God in at least God’s partial glory.
Shut your eyes for a moment and reflect on your transformative mountaintop experience.
It was exhilarating, it was life changing, today, we like to say, “It was amazing!” Yet it was frightening, because it changed everything and pushed us into the unknown. But it lasted for a very, very short time. Didn’t it?
Think of your transformative experience or experiences; it is extraordinary to be in the presence of God, there is an unexplainable lightness of being, but when it is over, and they are always over quickly, and you still have to walk that path down off the mountaintop to a changed life.
Jesus said, “Rise and have no fear.” And when Peter, James and John lifted up their eyes, they saw only Jesus and the path down the mountain.
God calls us to live off the mountaintop taking the revelation of the mountain down to our everyday life. We are called to this to be eyewitnesses of the Glory of God that we have each experienced.
Ask yourself this, would your faith be as strong as it is today if all you had to believe in was this limp and lifeless book? (holding up the Bible) Probably not. Without the experience of God in your life, this book probably would not be all that significant to you. It takes the spirit of God in you to make this understandable as the history of God with us.
God has revealed God’s glory to you, to each of you in one way or another, and it not only strengthens your faith, but it gives your belief in God credibility. Other can see your living faith – if you let them see it.
We are called to let our transformed lives lead others to seek God and experience their own transformation.
I am reminded of a story of a cowboy riding his horse in the prairie when he came upon another cowboy lying spread eagle face down with one ear on a railroad track. The cowboy on the horse said what any cowboy would say, “What are doing?”
The cowboy on the track murmured, “One wagon….two horses….two men…….one with a shotgun……one woman wearing a blue bonnet”. The cowboy on the horse was amazed, “You mean you can tell all that by just listening to the vibrations of the railroad tracks?”
“No”, the other answered, “They just ran over me.”
Having an eyewitness account gives credibility to your story.
Jesus went down that mountain with Peter, James, and John. They did not venture into the valley alone. You know that after we have had our experience with God there are still difficult times. But like the apostles, we too are not alone. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Jesus went down the mountain with his disciples and he went on to Jerusalem, where he was betrayed, arrested, tried and crucified. Then sealed in a tomb. Times don’t get any rougher than that.
Yet because he rose again from the dead, we know there is always hope, there is always another tomorrow filled with the promise of abundant life.
We can shout praises because Jesus was transformed — and because of his transformation, you and I have also been transformed — and because you and I have been transformed, our brothers and sisters who do not yet know Jesus, can be transformed.
None of us should have to walk the highs and lows of our lives alone. We have been transformed. We have Christ with us and in us. We have been strengthened to go through life’s hard and difficult things and come out the other side brimming with hope.
We can continue to forgive each other. Hard as it is sometimes, we have been strengthened to forgive each other. We can love our neighbors as ourselves. We can gently guide each other toward the mountaintop, and we can offer our strength on the journey back down the mountain and through the valleys of our shared lives.