This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for Transfiguration Sunday, 6 February 2005.
The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 24: 12 – 18, 2 Peter 1: 16 – 21, and Matthew 17: 1 – 9.
I have probably said it before but it is worth repeating. Opening the church in the morning and seeing the sunlight peak over the hills is a very warming experience, not unlike the experience I had waking up in southeastern Kentucky. But then again, hills and mountains have always been a part of my life.
From the time I was two, living in the Philippines and having Mount Pinatubo in our backyard at Clark Air Force Base to our days in Colorado with the Rockies and Missouri with Ozarks, there have always been hills and mountains. And coming from the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky to the broad expanse of the Hudson Valley, not unlike the eastern slopes of those same Appalachian Mountains continued that trend.
Even living in Memphis, I encountered mountains, though not geological mountains. Rather, as a senior graduating from a Memphis area high school in 1968, my classmates and I, along with the entire city and surrounding area, saw Martin Luther King come to the aid of the sanitation workers and their strike for equality and fairness in working conditions. It was a struggle that went barely noticed outside the city limits of Memphis.
It was in Memphis that spring that Dr. King said those rather prophetic words, "I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the Promised Land." He concluded that thought by noting that he may not be able to finish the journey. The next day, he was shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis. Whether or not I was aware of why Dr. King had come to Memphis then, that event changed my life as it did just about everyone else living in Memphis and Shelby County back then. No longer would the struggles of any worker to gain a living wage and respectability be confined to one place or one time; rather, such struggles would be the struggles of all when one who fought for equality was shot down for his efforts.
Dr. King’s reference to seeing the Promised Land from the mountaintop was a reference to God’s promise to Moses that he, Moses, would see the Promised Land before he died. (Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 8) Because of the transgressions of the Israelites when they first came to the Promised Land, the original families that had left Egypt for the Exodus were prohibited from entering the Promised Land. Even though he did no wrong, Moses was not allowed to enter either.
But this was not Moses’ first mountaintop experience. The first time Moses went to the mountaintop was described in today’s Old Testament reading. And like all mountaintop experiences, it was a life-changing event.
When you go to the mountaintop, things change. It is clear that when Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus to the mountaintop they were not prepared for what happened there. Despite their initial thoughts that Jesus was the true Messiah, they were not entirely sure that He was. The experience of seeing Jesus along with Moses and Elijah, and then hearing God proclaim that Jesus was His son clarified who Jesus was then, now, and forever. For the three disciples, it was a life-changing experience. Their lives after coming down from then mountaintop would never be the same as they were before they went up. It certainly was the case for Moses.
Moses came down from the mountaintop aglow from having been in the presence of God for those forty days. He also came down with the Ten Commandments, the basis for the covenant between God and man. Life for Moses and the Israelites would never be the same as it was before he went up the mountain.
Maybe that is why Peter wanted to build the memorial on that spot. He wanted to hold on to that moment in time for as long as possible. But the problem with seeing life on the mountaintop is that it is not the life one lives at the bottom of the mountain. That is probably why Jesus would not allow them to proceed in that regard.
You can see very far from the mountaintop but you cannot tell what it is that you are looking at. You can see literally for miles beyond the horizon. In the days before Interstate highways, it was not uncommon to see barns painted with advertisements to go to Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, TN, where you could see seven states. Of course, you needed a reasonably decent sense of geography to know which states you were seeing since there were no signs to tell you what states you were seeing.
As the Old Testament reading tells us, the mountain was shrouded in clouds, so Moses would not have been able to see the tribes of Israel encamped at the base of the mountain. Where I lived in Kentucky, you could probably see New York but you could not see much detail. In fact, you could see the streets of Whitesburg from the top of Pine Mountain but you could not see the people walking on the streets and you could barely see the cars as they rolled by.
You may achieve great understanding through a mountaintop experience; that certainly was the case for Moses, Peter, James and John. But you cannot put that experience to work until you come down from the top.
The transfiguration comes at a critical point in Jesus’ life, a point of major transition as He shifts from an active ministry among the people towards the journey to Jerusalem and his death and resurrection, to that point in time where human and divine will intersect. Knowing how hard it would be for His disciples to understand what is to take place in the coming days, Jesus takes His three closest disciples and heads up the mountain.
There they come into the presence of God, and their hearts and souls are opened to see what their eyes can barely believe. Their friend and teacher, the very human Jesus, is transfigured before them. The appearance of His face changes. His clothes become dazzling white. They sense the presence of Moses and Elijah. And they are afraid. But God perceives their fear and responds by speaking to them. God wants them to begin to understand how this Jesus, fully human, is also fully divine.
Matthew’s story of the transfiguration shows us the true reality of Christ, the light of the world. Its aim is to help us see beyond Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean, and see Him radically transformed into the Son of God, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Only then will we begin to take in the foreshadowing of his resurrection and future glory.
Illuminated by this new light, we can at last comprehend Jesus as both fully human and fully divine. We see past the gate of the visible to the mystery of the invisible. This knowledge will change forever how we live, how we face death and how we begin to see beyond the grave. And that will change everything.
Yet, even today, these are very hard times in which to see clearly. A murky human-made smog of dreams deferred, of violence, confusion and fear stings our eyes and blurs even what is closest to us. Where God would bring light, we linger in the darkness of ignorance and fear.
Peter, in his second letter, speaks to that fear, "You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." (Adapted from "Heart of the matter" by Patricia Farris, "Living the Word" – Christian Century, January 25, 2005)
On the mountaintop, the sun shines brightly and if the valleys below are shrouded in clouds, this sunlight can almost blind you. But when the valleys are shrouded in clouds, it is dark and gloomy below. And sooner or later, you must leave the mountaintop and go into the valley. When that mountaintop experience is the opening of your soul to allow Christ to come in, you are given the light to illuminate the darkness and drive away the gloom that comes with the darkness.
The light that comes from God as Jesus Christ allows us to see beyond the limits of our own experience. Through this light, God gives us hope and shows us possibilities for meaningful action and participation; through this light we can see purpose and the future.2
As we look forward in time to the coming days, we see the beginning of Lent and that journey of preparation for Easter Sunday and the celebration of life. But that journey begins with a mountaintop experience. Is today the day that Christ will come into your heart and soul? Is today the day that you have your mountaintop experience?