What do we do with this day called Transfiguration Sunday? To be honest, when I hear stories of mountains and ghosts, I think about the Jack Tales I used to read as I child. Do you know these stories; they’re really old fairy tales about a boy named Jack who lived way up in the mountains of Appalachia? This story reminds me of a Jack Tale. Jack once climbed a bean stalk to fight a giant. But he did lots of other things. He might have built a shelter for Moses and Elijah.
Or, I guess, if we really wanted to be hip, we could call it “Trans Sunday”. That would really confuse people. You know those Methodists, always pushing the boundaries of human sexuality in worship and theology. But no, this isn’t about transsexuals or bathrooms. It’s a magic trick, smoke, mirrors, ghosts, and spectral visitors from the dead. Part clichéd ghost story, part mountain climb, part camping trip, and part “ye of little faith” Sunday school lesson; the story is the yearly kick off to the most depressing (and important) season of the church year: Lent. (Insert cheers here!) Why are we on a high mountain with Jesus, Peter, James, and John this morning?
Mountains are sacred in nearly every religious tradition. Why? The higher we go the closer we are to God. It’s a universal concept found in most all religions. In the ancient world, temples were high even though we buried people underground. While we’re still kicking, people climb mountains in an effort to encounter God presence. This is the essence of the transfiguration story: human beings, climbing a mountain, in order to be close to God. When the events we read about this morning occurred, the practice of mountain climbing to find God was already as old as the hills. As in our own time, it’s not an activity unique to Christianity or Judaism. Everybody did it, to one degree or another. This happens to be our story.
Mountain top stories are a genre. I hate to use a French word this early on but I’m afraid I have no choice. Just like fiction, non-fiction, biography, fairy tales, folk tales, poetry, and history; which are all genres of writing you find in the Bible, so are mountain top stories. To be honest, they’re probably a sub-genre of several of those categories. We also take mountain top stories with an ounce of faith and a grain of salt. Why? Because the only person telling the mountain top story is the only person who came back down. Maybe three went up and only one returned alive. Perhaps the other participants in the mountain top encounter were people who’d been dead for thousands of years and only one other person saw them and that guy has a history of exaggeration and lying. So what am I saying? You have to be careful about what happens on the mountain top. Listen carefully, ask the right questions, remember the context and don’t forget: life is lived in the valleys.
The Lord invites Moses on a hike. If I were to go hiking, the invitation would have to come from the almighty. I’m a reluctant walker. The bad thing about hiking is that once you get where you’re going you have to walk back to where you began. I wouldn’t mind hiking other than I feel so underdressed. The hikers I see all seem to be professionals. They’ve got the pants, the boots, the jackets, the sunglasses, and a walking stick. I see them around town in the hiking gear; in the grocery store or at the gas station, it’s as if they’re ready for a hike to break out at any moment.
I’m not a spur of the moment hiker. Moses had to be but he wasn’t an REI, Lands End, or LL Bean equipped guy. Imagine what his feet looked like. No boots, socks, or shoes. I’m guessing Moses wore minimal sandals. When God says, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there,” Moses didn’t have much of an outdoor wardrobe to pick from. Hiking was a painful activity. Climbing up to God wasn’t a rewarding aerobic activity. It might have been a life or death thing, a see how bad you want it sort of endeavor. Just the thought of it makes me want to ask God for an email versus a face to face meeting.
Moses, like any good hiker, doesn’t go alone. He takes Joshua. You don’t go hiking alone. You know this. Always take a buddy. Climbing mountains, especially sacred mountains, is dangerous business. When encountering God, people take a friend, witness, or companion. Again, someone other than you ought to be able to relate what happened. We might need help processing what’s about to occur. God is a big enough deal; you need others with you to fully comprehend what’s going on. God is always experienced in community. In this case, community may be two or three other people. Other people help us understand what we see and hear. Other people provide context that we don’t have. Like when a friend says, “Don’t wear that bowtie with that shirt.”
Mountain top experiences rewrite the book for all previous religious experiences. What do I mean by this? It’s kind of like how the military fights wars. One old adage says that a military prepares for the next war by training to fight the last war. Have you ever heard that expression? And then what happens, the next war is fundamentally different and they’re woefully unprepared.
Look at Jesus’ mountaintop moment with Peter, James, and John. Peter, James, and John were working of an old model of mountain top encounters. They didn’t realize: the rules of engagement, when it comes to Jesus, had changed. When you’re on the mountain top with Jesus: retool, rethink, and then reengage. The old ways of envisioning the prophets, especially the perceived roles of people like Elijah and Moses are no longer relevant. I can’t stress to you how crucial this is. Why is this so important?
Because: this is not a first century ghost story where Jesus meets with the spirits of two dead people or a funny anecdote about Peter building a tent for ghosts. Oh, isn’t Peter dumb for not getting the full supernatural reality of what he’s witnessing! It’s not about Peter. This is not the Jerusalem Ghost Project. I do not believe in ghosts, not even the Judeo-Christian kind. If I don’t believe in people talking to ghosts in real life, why would I do it when it comes to the Bible? When you’re dead, you’re dead. Jesus did not meet with the ghosts of Elijah and Moses on the top of a very high mountain. However, Jesus did need to convey a sense of legitimacy beyond his closest circle of friends.
If anything, Matthew’s record of Peter’s bumbling isn’t a swipe at his ham handed religious clumsiness. Peter is a stand in for anyone and everyone who can’t see beyond the old God box. And yes, that might include us. Peter’s physical disturbance, “what to build” is also an emotional disturbance “how do I respond”. That’s what this story is about. The early church was trying to get people to respond to Jesus in a way unlike their previous responses to prophets like Elijah or Moses. Here’s where the “putting God in box” analogy come back into play. What was Peter trying to do? He was literally trying to build a box, a physical box to contain metaphysical beings. Do you see how ridiculous that sounds? Jesus makes the same point. We see it. But yet we try to do the same thing. This story is one way to illustrate: you can no longer pigeonhole Jesus in the same way you’ve always thought about religion. Everything you’ve believed about who Jesus is and what he represents, up to this point, needs to be transformed.
Jesus is always unsettling and upsetting our expectations. He’s not the God we thought we wanted or expected. He arrived as a defenseless child in a manger, born to an unwed mother. Immediately, the world was asked to retool, rethink, and reengage. It’s like that from each day forward. Jesus is not your grandparents God. And yes, that does leave us unsteady. Jesus doesn’t leave us unsafe.
Start with your why. Why are we on this mountain in the first place? We’re on the mountain because there is a lesson to be learned about boxes and shelters. The structures we create will not contain what Jesus intends to do. In the past God worked through Moses to create laws carved into stone. Through Elijah (and we’ve talked about it here), God enacted fiery displays of deadly power. What Jesus is doing is bigger than fireworks from the sky or stone tablets carved on a mountain. We come down from mountains, stone will erode, and fire eventually goes out. And when our fire dies, our eyes grow blind, unable to read the law, and our feet are unsteady: he will claim our brokenness.
The shelters we might have built for Elijah, Moses, or Jesus are empty monuments to ourselves. It is from within these, “safe spaces” that Jesus reaches in and dismantles what we were building to protect him from a world he can handle just fine own his own. Despite our desire to fight battles that aren’t ours to fight and disconnect ourselves from God’s presence and love; Jesus comes down the mountain with us, discarding our sin, claiming our brokenness, embracing our blessings, and doing what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could never do for Humpty Dumpty: he puts us back to together again. I guess you could say we are walking, talking shelters for the living God.