Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then 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.” 5While 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!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As 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.”
(Matthew 17:1-9, NRSV)
I remember the first time I saw the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. My family had taken the ultimate road trip in our wood-grained station wagon, driving from our home in Tennessee to the Grand Canyon and on out to California, then back through Colorado and up to Yellowstone before finally heading home. This was the late 1970’s, so naturally we listened to a tape of John Denver’s hit, “Rocky Mountain High,” to get us primed for the experience.
Everything had been flat until gradually off in the distance we saw dark triangles emerging. They looked like storm clouds, but in fact were the “purple mountain majesties” of America’s Rocky Mountains. We camped in Rocky Mountain National Park for several days. I remember seeing buffalo, elk, mountain goats, and rams. I remember the wonderful wild flowers and the fresh, cool mountain air. I remember wading barefoot in ice-cold mountain streams and watching the trout swim by. But most of all, I remember the view from atop the peaks. Sometimes it was sunny, and we could see for miles. At other times the clouds were low and the visibility was limited. But no matter what the view, my feelings were the same: wonder and awe in the face of such beauty, and out of that stillness, a closeness to God.
What is it about mountains that make them seem so spiritual? Perhaps it’s their sheer immensity reminding us of God’s magnitude. Perhaps it’s the fact that from the mountaintop we can see for miles, and gain a fresh perspective on our lives. Or perhaps it’s because the mountains stretch up into the heavens, inviting us to turn our eyes away from earth.
Mountains have long held this allure, this ability to help bridge the gap between humans and God. In the Old Testament, we read about Mount Sinai—the mountain that Moses climbed in order to receive the Ten Commandments and seal the covenant between the Israelites and God. It was Mount Sinai where God spoke directly to Moses and revealed God’s divine presence.
Mount Zion played its part as well. Located close to the holy city of Jerusalem, this mountain eventually became associated with the Jewish Temple built nearby. Only three Jewish temples were ever built throughout the entire Bible and all of them were built on the same location. The first one was built during King Solomon’s reign, and later destroyed. The second was built under the leadership of Zerubbabel. It too was destroyed. The final temple was built under the reign of King Herod and was the temple that existed during Jesus’ time. The Romans destroyed it in 70 A.D. Throughout these various temples the one constant was their proximity to Mount Zion (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible R-Z, George A. Buttrick, editor, 1962, p. 534 & 959).
In the New Testament, we read that Jesus preached his most famous sermon on a mountain, which we call the Sermon on the Mount. Following his baptism, Jesus was tempted in the desert including atop a high mountain. In each of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we are told that Jesus withdrew to the mountains for private prayer and communion with God. Jesus’ triumphal ride on Palm Sunday passed through the Mount of Olives, which is where the crowd met him. His agonizing night of prayer and betrayal took place on the lower slopes of this mountain in the Garden of Gethsemane. And the final sighting of Jesus on earth occurred on the Mount of Olives, from which he ascended into Heaven (Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Paul Achtemeier, editor, 1996, p. 710).
It should come as no surprise that the story in today’s scripture lesson took place on a mountain as well. It is the story of the Transfiguration, a story that was seen as so important to the biblical writers that it shows up in three of the four Gospels and in the book of II Peter as well. It’s the story of an ordinary invitation to an extraordinary event. It’s the story of what can happen on a mountain, surrounded by the presence of God.
The beginning of the story is easy enough to understand. Jesus had invited his three closest disciples—Peter, James, and John—to climb a mountain with him. But what happened next has remained shrouded in mystery for 2,000 years.
The account in Matthew tells us that Jesus was transfigured or transformed before his disciples so that “…his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (17:2). As the experience continued Moses and Elijah, both long dead, appeared and talked to Jesus. The event climaxed when a cloud overshadowed the men, and from out of the cloud a voice spoke: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (17:5b), an echo from Christ’s baptism.
Upon hearing the voice of God, Peter, James, and John fell to the ground, filled with wonder and awe at the mystical activities taking place before their very eyes. Jesus, full of compassion, walked over and touched each one of them saying, “Get up and don’t be afraid.” With pounding hearts and puzzled minds the disciples raised their heads and opened their eyes to see Jesus alone once again. As they climbed back down the mountain, Jesus commanded his friends not to tell anyone about the vision until after his resurrection.
What really happened on the mountain on that mystifying day? In Matthew, Jesus refers to it as a vision. If you and I had been there would we have seen and heard the same things? And why was the vision only shared with Peter, James, and John? Was it because they were the only ones spiritually mature enough to be open to the experience? Was it because Jesus knew they would keep the secret or because these three disciples needed the vision more than the rest of them? We simply don’t know.
And that’s okay. I think what’s most important is not what did or didn’t happen, or why exactly Peter, James, and John were the chosen few. What’s most important is what it means to us today. How does this story relate to our lives?
Frederick Buechner puts it this way, “The three disciples who witnessed the scene ‘fell on their faces, and were filled with awe’ (Matthew 17:1-6). It is as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels. Even without the voice from the cloud to explain it, they had no doubt what they were witnessing. It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they’d tramped many a dusty mile with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they’d seen as hungry, tired, footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded” (Whistling in the Dark, pp. 107-108).
One of my favorite aspects of this story is its ordinary beginning. Peter, James, and John had no idea what lay ahead when they followed Jesus up the mountain. For all they knew, their time together would be nothing more than run of the mill—maybe a picnic, a little conversation, a chance to get away from it all. Instead, they got the Transfiguration complete with a light show, the appearance of two long dead Hebrew heroes, and the heavenly voice of God.
These days most of God’s invitations come to us in the guise of the ordinary, just as the three disciples began their ordinary day. And yet in our ordinary lives when we take seriously God’s invitation to be kind, to be merciful, to love one another, it can transform our lives and our corner of the world.
Of course, we do have to say yes. Yes, I’ll climb the mountain. Yes, I’ll love my neighbor. Yes to whatever God’s invitation may be. We may not always feel like saying yes. We may feel inadequate. We may feel anxious. We may feel too busy. We may even find the idea boring. But whatever the invitation, we know that God accompanies us. And from God’s presence, we can draw strength, encouragement, and inspiration. Jesus didn’t tell Peter, James, and John to climb alone. He asked them to climb alongside him. God is with us every step of our journeys too, through the mundane and the miraculous, the everyday and the extraordinary, the mountaintop highs and the inevitable lows.
We know from reading further on in the Bible that the changes that took place on that mountain included changes in the disciples as well. Despite extreme highs and lows in the months and years ahead, these three disciples continued to grow in their faith, and to follow Christ more faithfully. These three disciples became three of the most important leaders in the early church. The mountaintop vision was a gift, and they built upon it to become the kinds of leaders God needed to begin the church.
Whether or not we receive such gifts, my hope is that we can learn to live every day with our spiritual eyes wide open, for we never know what sacred moment awaits us. That we continue to climb that mountain day after day, even when nothing happens at all and the only sounds we hear are random thoughts running through our heads. We may not see visions. We may not hear the voice of God. We may not experience the miraculous and the mysterious, or maybe we will.
Buechner writes, “Even with us something like [transfiguration]…happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert,…or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in…Every once…[in a while], something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face” (Ibid. p. 108).
May the love and presence of the transfiguring God transform each one of us, from the inside out and the outside in. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
February 26, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, you have spoken to us in the voice of conscience, in the words of the Bible, and in the promptings of your Holy Spirit. You have shown us what is best in high ideals and deep convictions, in the example of those committed people of faith who have gone before us, and mostly in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. You have tried to teach us in the ordinary experiences of life as well. You have called us to the life of love, to the forgiving of each other, to the helping of those in need, to the caring which is like your care.
Challenge us to see the problems of our time as opportunities to work together with you in the healing of the world. Encourage us when we feel overwhelmed and cynically throw up our hands in despair. Remind us of the difference the smallest kindness can make in another person’s life.
And help us be faithful through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray. AMEN.
The first part of this prayer was inspired by William Barclay’s A Barclay Prayer Book, pp. 54-55.