February 19, 2023
A Mountaintop Vision
There are certain passages that the Lectionary calls for us to look at every year. Jesus’ birth, baptism, crucifixion and Resurrection are naturals, -but also this mysterious experience of Transfiguration that Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us about. John, you’ll note omits it. John has other ways of affirming who Jesus is. In John Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” … “I am the bread of life” … “I am the Way” … “I am the good Shepherd.” In John he says to Martha, weeping over the death of her brother, Lazarus, “I am the Resurrection and the life!”, to the Woman at the Well he says, “I am the Messiah” And John understands all Jesus’ miracles and healings are signs of who he is.
But today both our scriptures have us on a mountain top. The most famous mountain is Mt. Sinai mentioned in the Exodus reading. But none of the gospels actually name which mountain Jesus and these three disciples go up. Matthew’s gospel puts Jesus in the far north beyond Galilee, in Caesarea Philippi just before this incident, so many have presumed Matthew is pointing to Mt. Hermon. It is 60 or 70 miles north of Lake Galilee, in what is now Syria. It is a little over 9,000 feet tall. –No small mountain; it even has snow on it most of winter. It is actually the highest point of that ridge of mountains known as the Golan Heights. You may remember the name from the Israeli war. The name Hermon is actually derived from the Hebrew root for “sacred”. Since ancient times it has had various temples on it to one god or another.
The other mountain theorized as the Transfiguration Mountain is Mt. Tabor which is located just east of Nazareth and is only about 1800 feet tall, certainly more easily climbable. It has nearness to Nazareth and accessibility going for it.
Mt. Sinai where Moses, gets the Commandments as we heard this morning, is far to the south, in the Arabian Peninsula. There is still debate though as to exactly which mountain it was. Elijah also escapes to a high mountain called Mt. Sinai, where he encounters the presence of God -not in earthquake and storm, but in a gentle whisper and finally in a fleeting vision. And note that both Moses and Elijah are the only two biblical leaders whose deaths are clouded in mystery. -Moses is buried by God Deuteronomy tells us and no one knows where. Elijah is mysteriously carried away by a chariot in the sky the book of Kings tells us.
Matthew seems to see other connections between Jesus and Moses. Is it just co-incidence that Matthew mentions the Transfiguration takes place six days after Peter’s famous confession that Jesus was the Christ and in Exodus Moses waits six days on top of Mt. Sinai for God to appear to him and give him the commandments –And there are clouds, and a strong sense of awe –in both stories –and in Deuteronomy’s retelling of the event, Moses’ face even shines.
Clearly, Matthew and the early church couldn’t help but draw parallels between the two events, and between these two great icons of history, Moses and Elijah, and Jesus. The church saw Jesus as the fulfillment of all that the Law and the Prophets began— And just as the People of Israel have the intimate connection between God and Moses reinforced on the Mountain, so the disciples have the intimate connection between God and Jesus confirmed on the mountain! -And these two ancient men, Moses and Elijah, are the two we are told, who appear with Jesus at the Transfiguration.
–As Moses, under the direction of God, had freed the people from bondage in Egypt, so Jesus frees us for a new relationship to God and leads us to the fullness of God’s promise. Moses gave the Law -Jesus gives the Law new meaning.
—As Moses establishes the covenant between God and the People of Israel so Jesus establishes a New Covenant between God and those who are his followers. Jesus now becomes the one through which we interpret the Law of Moses. The parallels the early church saw between them are striking. –As Elijah is taken up into heaven by God so Jesus is resurrected and ascends into heaven.
In the end, Jesus’ ethics and theology, his life, death, and Resurrection become the lens through which we discern the intent and meaning of God’s words. For Matthew, the Transfiguration is a dramatic revelation as to who Jesus is and the meaning of his life.
Matthew clearly tells us this whole experience is a “Vision.” -Mark and Luke are not quite so clear about that. The gospel writers, of course, are writing at a time when the word “vision” was not so loaded with psychological implications and scientific suspicion. Likewise, Peter, James and John were not questioning their sanity after seeing these images and hearing this voice from the heavens –they simply accept that this is a God sent vision.
–The whole experience is overwhelming we are told the disciples throw themselves face down on the ground. –Well, I guess, who wouldn’t be terrified! – A radiant light, two ghosts, and a voice out of a cloud, not something you see or experience every day!
–The voice simply confirms that Jesus is God’s son and says: “Listen to Him.”
What does Jesus do in response to all this in Matthew? –He comes over and touches these disciples as they cower, awe-struck on the ground and says, “Get up, don’t be afraid!” –It is words and a gesture of assurance.
It is something Jesus says more than once in the gospels. –When he comes to them walking on water –He says, “Don’t be Afraid.” — when he appears to the two Mary’s after the Resurrection, he says, “Don’t be afraid.” So three times in Matthew Jesus tells disciples, “Don’t be afraid” –I think it is a message Matthew includes very purposefully –not just to tell the story – but to reinforce for the early church and for us this calm assurance of Jesus’ presence and strength even when the events around us are scary and the world or circumstances seem to be pushing us to some perilous place.
The Transfiguration is one of those moments when the disciples mysteriously see who Jesus really is. It is a transcendent moment when the world is seen differently, God and life, and what it might mean to be a disciple of Christ, come into focus. It is a flash of revelation. In a moment it is gone.
Peter wants to set up shrines. This feels like holy ground. Interesting, isn’t it, that where Jesus scrubs the idea of putting up Peter’s shrines subsequent generations of Christians and others have built many such shrines to commemorate this sacred story and space. There are some 30 plus shrines and temples fixed along the slopes of Mt. Hermon and a number of churches in the U.S. are named after the mountain. There are two churches on Mt Tabor, one Roman Catholic and one Orthodox. Both are dedicated to the Transfiguration of Jesus.
It is, we see in history, a common thread of human activity, or perhaps a spiritual need. We are always trying to commemorate and solidify this experience of the holy mystery. We want something that helps us reconnect to that fleeting awareness of that which is holy and undergirds life. We want to be able to put our hands on it and draw it near to us, or draw ourselves near to it. We want and need spaces and places that nurture that deeper consciousness of God’s connection to us and to our lives. –Isn’t that why church sanctuaries are never just buildings?
In the end, of course, the Resurrected Christ became for the disciples an ever-present affirmation of God’s love and nearness. –None of them returned to the mountain that we know of. They went to all the Roman world and beyond proclaiming Christ Crucified and Resurrected. This Transfiguration visionary moment simply stirred them towards that great affirmation!