One of the best ways to think about the Transfiguration is to picture it as a sequel or “reboot” of a movie franchise. Those are all popular at the moment. Sequels are coming out and new versions of old classics are being remade each year. In a way, this is what the Transfiguration is like. Jesus, climbing a mountain to meet with the Holy Spirit, Moses, and Elijah isn’t a new thing. If you feel like you’ve seen this before, you have.
Remember, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush at the beginning of the Exodus story. As the Israelites journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land, Moses met God on Mount Sinai when he received the 10 commandments. It’s from this meeting we get our first clue about mountain top audiences with God: such get-togethers are transformational events. Moses’ appearance is completely transfigured.
Go on a little further in the Old Testament and you’ll read the story of Elijah. Again at Sinai (which 1 Kings 19 calls Horeb), he climbs a mountain while fleeing Jezebel. Remember he’s just defeated the prophets of Baal in an epic battle, God has his back, but he’s still afraid this woman wants to kill him. He runs into the mountains and encounters the still, silent, presence of God. Elijah, like Moses, comes down from the mountain a changed man.
Today’s reading is like any good sequel. It keeps the best elements of the original story while adding a new and unexpected twist. This is Part III: Jesus Goes to the Mountain: This Time its Not Personal.
In Moses and Elijah’s story, they went to the mountain alone. No one accompanied them on their journeys to hear, meet, or listen to God. These were very personal encounters. It’s not that way with Jesus. Jesus does very little alone. We’ve seen him go off to pray. Yet, even here, for an important audience with the Holy Spirit, Moses, and Elijah; he takes his closest friends. Jesus values community. What’s the sense in encountering the sacred if you can’t share it with others? How do you get the message off the mountain as just one person? It can’t be left to a single person to tell the Good News. His work is too important to be contained in the life experience of one person. Let others see the glory of God at work. For these reasons, which become apparent in his subsequent teaching and preaching, Jesus brings his disciples with him.
Put yourself in Peter’s sandals. Imagine you’ve read the Bible (what we call the Old Testament). You know all about Moses and Elijah’s stories. At best you consider them ghost stories, myths, or legends. When Jesus asks you to go camping, it never occurs to you that you’re going out for one of those reality footage style scary movies where the ghost stuff might happen to you. In your mind, you and your buddies are getting bonding time with Jesus.
In the middle of the night, the lights came on. Remember, they had no electricity or flashlights. Everything went super bright, as white as you can possibly imagine. Mark’s gospel says Jesus was “transfigured (some say transformed) in front of them and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white.”
Tide Pods and Gain weren’t readily available in 1st century Palestine. Clean clothes were like most things a luxury. Super glowing bright white heavenly clean clothes were unheard of. As the spectacular nature of Jesus’ laundry and lighting caught the disciple’s eyes, they noticed Jesus wasn’t alone. Two people were with him. Mark tells us, “and there appeared to him Elijah and Moses, who were talking to Jesus.” This might be my favorite part of the story. How did they know it was Elijah and Moses? I always want to ask that question. No one had photographs, selfies, phones, or World Book Encyclopedias in which to look up a picture? When I used to ask that question as a kid in church the preacher would say, “You’re not supposed to ask questions like that.” Now I am the preacher and I’m still asking. I think they guessed. By process of elimination and because they knew their Bible, who else could it be? It was the two other mountain top guys.
We’re having a rational discussion about all of this. However, go back to what I said a moment ago, “Try on Peter, James, and John’s sandals”. It’s the middle of the night, you’re expecting none of this, and suddenly the heavenly light, laundry, and Old Time Prophets String Band show goes down and you’ve got front row tickets. Peter’s a little freaked out. Though, he’s not frightened enough to run away. He knows Jesus is there. Up here, right now: there are no mouths to feed, sick in-laws, fish to be caught, rent on boats you’re no longer using, dusty roads, or expectations. Yes, something compels him to stay in the moment.
Peter is having a mountain top religious experience. He feels a need to respond to what he’s witnessing. How can he tell Jesus, “Let’s do this, instead of what we were doing yesterday, down there”? What if he could capture this good, clean, heavenly feeling with Jesus forever?
“I know”, he says. We’ll invite Moses and Elijah to stay with us. We’ll hang out up here for a few days with Jesus. They run off to start gathering sticks when everything goes dark.
The voice comes back. You remember the voice. The voice reminded Peter, James, and John of the same message when it spoke at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son, whom I dearly Love. Listen to him.”
Then it was over and they came down the mountain. No one wanted to come down from the mountain, except Jesus. Moses came down from the mountain to lead the Israelites out of bondage. Elijah heard the gentle promptings of the spirit in the storm, left the mountain, and returned to speak as God’s prophet. God’s people do not remain on the mountain. The whole point of the mountain as a place of God’s transformative and transfiguring action is to move from the peak to the valley, from the summit to the gutter, and the sky to the ground. Mountains are temporary stops on the journey. God doesn’t do mountain top property, in any shape fashion or form.
Transfiguration is a fancy sounding word. We could also call today “Transformation Sunday”. The New Testament we read translates both words from the same Greek word, “metamorphosis”. If we wanted to be really accurate, I would have welcomed us all to “Metamorphosis Sunday”. Mark uses the word to talk about Jesus’ change of form, the bright light and clean laundry show. Mark’s use of “metamorphao” is best translated as transfiguration, in the physical sense. Paul, on the other hand, uses the same word in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (metamorpho) by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” What kind of metamorphosis do our minds need so we can better discern God’s will?
Perhaps we need to change how we think about where we are. Have we been living up on top of the mountain for many years? Is it time to come down from our mountains? Mountain top experiences are great but Christians were never meant to stay on top of the mountain, even when you live at sea level. We are called to be at the bottom, in the mess, the gutter, walking and working the valleys of life. Time and time again, Jesus said this is what it means to be one of his followers. Cross bearers, those who walk with him, those prepared to die with him, are not passive observers who gaze at the wondrous opportunities salvation might present, to quote Bette Midler, “from a distance.” God is not a “from a distance” God and we are not from a distance, arms-length, mountain top disciples. It’s never worked that way.
As long as we stay on our mountain (or individual mountains); we can keep ourselves above the chaos. It’s possible for us to wrongly believe that the world and the issues at the bottom of the mountain don’t matter. We stay up here and pursue the higher, spiritual things. At the top, we can’t see the poverty, racism, opioid addiction, alcoholism, and hunger down in the valley. That’s not how this works. The mountain top wasn’t supposed to be our home. With spiritually transformed hearts and minds we go back down to take the Good News into the worst possible places.
So pack up the bags and take down the tents. No one is staying on the mountain. We’re all in this together. There are no United Methodist hermits. If there were, I’d have joined the program years ago. (I’m joking.)
With Jesus, we have the ability to create community at the bottom of the hill. The tension between the elation we experience at the peak and the disappointment we feel at returning to the “world” creates life giving opportunities we have yet to imagine.
Don’t worry, when I say no one is staying on the mountain, I mean that. We’re not leaving God behind. God is coming with us.
Richard Lowell Bryant