2/26/17: Coming Down the Mountain, Matthew 17:1-13
Coming Down the Mountain
First Lesson: Exodus 24:12-18
Second Lesson: Matthew 17:1-13
Rev. Scott Dickison
I read recently about a group of hostages that had just been released after five years of captivity. In an interview, one of them reported that after spending the first four years in confinement, receiving only enough food and water to keep them alive, their captors finally brought the hostages together and set before them a bowl of luscious, red cherries—the first fruit and the first color they had seen in four years. Despite their eagerness to taste the fruit, he reported, they waited a day, simply to gaze upon the cherries in wonder and gratitude.
I suspect this is something like how Peter, James and John felt when Jesus took them high up on that mountain and was transfigured, or transformed before them. When his face “shone like the sun,” and his clothes “became dazzling white,” and next to him stood Moses and Elijah, talking with him. (1)
There’s much to say about this curious mountaintop scene, which appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke and we know simply as “The Transfiguration.” How it looks back into the story of Israel and echoes the Exodus when Moses came down from the mountain and his face shined before the people with holy residue from being in the presence of the Lord God. How it looks back into Jesus’ own story, recalling his baptism, where a voice, too, comes down from the heavens and declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased,”—how here God reaffirms, perhaps, God’s approval for all that Jesus has been doing: healing the sick, blessing the poor and suffering, preaching of a Kingdom much different than the current state of things.
And how it looks ahead to the resurrection, when Jesus will again appear radiating with all the glory of God.
Many of have noted how it also contrasts with the crucifixion. (2)
Here on the mountain Jesus’ clothes “shine with the glory of God—on the way to the cross, he will be stripped and soldiers will gamble for his clothes.
Here at the transfiguration, Jesus stands with Moses and Elijah, at the cross he will hang with two criminals.
At the transfiguration, a voice from heaven declares that Jesus is God’s Son, at the cross this declaration will come as mockery from onlookers.
—all of this suggesting that we should see one in light of the other, so to speak: see the shame of the cross in light of the glory of the transfiguration—remembering that despite all that will come, Jesus indeed carries God’s blessing. And likewise, we should see the glory of the transfiguration against the shadow of the cross’s shame. The way of Christ is the way of the cross; you can’t live the way he lived, love the way he loved and escape the world’s crosses.
But like the disciples, we don’t need to understand all of that yet: before we move on to any of this, it’s good for us to pause and reflect on the presence of God in wonder and gratitude.
Mountaintop experiences are important: these moments when we catch a glimpse of the presence of God, and are reminded that we are part of something much greater than ourselves of which we know such a small part.
When we feel what John Wesley described as his heart “strangely warmed.” Or when we discover something like what the great mystic, Catherine of Siena, knew when she said, “The soul is in God and God in the soul, just as the fish is in the sea and the sea in the fish.”
When we have a sudden realization as the great spiritual writer Thomas Merton did at the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville, that he loved all the people he saw bustling through this shopping district. That the differences between them were really an illusion and that they were all bound together by something greater. And he wanted to badly for all of them to realize this—but how can you tell people, he said, “that they are all walking around shining like the sun!” Transfigured, in a way,
Something close to what many members of the choir described feeling as they walked off the stage at Carnegie Hall last Sunday. Many have reported that when the stage lights came upon him, Stanley’s face “shone like the sun.”
But it was, for many, I’m told, one of these moments. To see Stanley’s picture on the feature board out there on the street. To hear and be a part of the music being made in the historic place. To see everyone in the black gowns and tuxedoes. To have one of our own, Olivia seize the moment as we have witnessed her do so many times before.
We need these. A moment, an experience, that touches us and changes us in ways we cannot fully explain and dare not try so as to rob it of its mystery. Peter was the first to find voice enough to speak that day on the mountain, though—and understandably so—one gets the sense he didn’t know exactly what to say: Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you’d like, I could set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
Now it could be the Peter, in his amazement, only wanted to be helpful—and that’s possible, God bless him. But his response may reveal something deeper. He realizes this is one of those moments, a literal “mountain top” moment that will change him, and he doesn’t want it to end.
He doesn’t want it to end! We never do. We never want this dance to end, or this night to end, this vacation, this retreat from our lives back home. We don’t want the kids to grow up, just stay this size forever. We don’t want to leave the bedside. We don’t want to leave the graveside. We don’t want to come down from the mountain. But of course we must.
The bright light comes and goes up there at the top of the mountain. The voice bellows down from above, the disciples fall down on the ground and are overcome by fear. Jesus taps them on the shoulder and says, Get up—literally “raise up.” Don’t be afraid. And they made their way down.
And this is how it must be. Life cannot be spent on mountaintops, at least not a life following Christ. These experiences are important, and profound, and have the power to change our lives, but the extent to which this is true has everything to do with what we do when we come down the mountain into the valley—and here is the part of this story we often overlook, to the point that it’s not even included in the lectionary passage.
It’s on their way down the mountain, seconds after they’ve witnessed the glory of God come upon them, and the voice declares Jesus as the Beloved, that Jesus tells them again that he must suffer. That this, too, is part off the story. And if we were to continue reading, we would learn that no sooner have they made their way down the mountain, when they find they are needed in the valley—a crowd of people has gathered around a young boy who is possessed by a demon and suffering terribly. The boy’s father runs up to them and begs Jesus to heal his son—this is how it must be.
The mountain is important, but only so far as it prepares us to face the valley, for it’s there, in the valley, that life is lived. Christian faith, lived rightly, is not a kind of escapism designed to shield us from the harder parts of life and the world, no, it’s a kind of realism to help us see the world as God sees it: for all its beauty, but also its brokenness. For all its mystery but also its madness. For all is enchantment but also it’s wounds. For all its light, but also its darkness. It’s in the story of Christ that we find strength to hold all of this in love. As Brené Brown puts it, faith isn’t an epidural shielding the pain, it’s the midwife sitting next to you saying, Push, this is going to hurt.
Yes, it was on the mountain that Jesus was declared God’s Beloved Son, but it was down in the valley that another beloved child was waiting—there were two in this story.
And this was the purpose, I think of Jesus taking those three disciples up there with him on the mountain. If it was just about the blessing he received, or the light that surrounded him or the color his clothes turned, he could have gone up there alone. If it was just about Jesus being transformed, he wouldn’t have needed them to go with him. Which makes me think that it was actually the disciples who needed to be changed. Who needed to be transfigured. Who needed to see that light so they could go back down into the valley with new eyes. (3)
It happened some years ago when I served at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. It was the 8:30 service, and George, the pastor, decided last minute to do an impromptu baby dedication. This infant was under foster care with a family from the church, and the child was about to be placed with his biological grandparents, in this case a matter of grave concern. So this dedication was a sort of goodbye charge to the foster family and to the church, which had welcomed this tiny baby into its fold for those weeks.
Baby dedications are always powerful, but on this particular morning with this particular child, as George walked him around the room and introduced him to his church family, and the church family claimed as their own this child who they knew would soon be leaving, as they would any other child of the church, and as George looked this couple in the eyes and said to them the same charge that I have brought with me here: This child, precious as he is, does not belong to you. He was given to you to love and to nurture for this short time—there was a sense that something was happening. Something was transfigured. It wasn’t Jesus, exactly. It was that family, with their faces shining like the sun, even in their grief. It was that baby boy, dressed in his laced gown of dazzling white. It was the church who was changed. It was the church who left that place with new eyes.
Much awaited that family down the mountain—hard, hard things. But God would be with them. And much awaited that tiny infant, but God would be with him too, that Beloved Son. (4)
It’s not a coincidence that we encounter this story of the transfiguration on the Sunday before the start of Lent. We consider this one final blessing of Jesus before he sets his face toward Jerusalem and readies himself for the journey toward the cross—a journey that we will be invited to walk, too, over these 40 days.
Our emphasis this year will be “Learning How to Love.” In some ways, to love is the most natural thing in the world. And yet in other important ways, love is something we must learn. It takes practice to love well—or to love the way God love, the way Jesus loves. It takes discipline to love the right things rightly, but this what we call discipleship.
So over these weeks to come we’ll look at some of the practices needed to love in this way: things like confession and gratitude, imagination and courage. And I want to prepare you, I expect this to be hard. But as I’m told Chuck Poole used to say, hard things are hard. It may make us comfortable, but like a mollusk whose pearl is created by a tiny irritant that is worked, and turned over, it’s at those places of discomfort that transformation begins.
After all, the miracle of the resurrection happens not when Jesus Christ is transformed; the miracle of the resurrection happens when we are. Amen.
1) As told by Walter Brueggemann in The Book of Exodus, from the New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Series, 883
2) Thomas G. Long, Matthew, 194
3) Tom Long teases this out even further, examining how the disciples change throughout the story of the Transfiguration.
4) Thanks to my buddy John Jay Alvaro for reminding me of this story from our time together at Wilshire.