Sunday, March 06, 2011

Mountaintop Experiences

Last Sunday After Epiphany (Year A)
Exodus 24.12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9
Sunday, March 6, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

The season of Epiphany is the time when Jesus as Messiah, as savior of humanity, is truly revealed. Throughout this season, we have been specifically shown what Messiah means and what this Messiah can and will do for humanity. We have seen Jesus baptized and proclaimed by God, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3.17). We have seen John the Baptist proclaim, “Look, here is the Lamb of God” (Jn 1.36). Jesus has called his disciples, giving these select few an inside look at who this man Jesus is. We have seen Jesus begin his ministry of public preaching, fulfilling, interpreting, and expanding on the law, and beginning to reveal what the Kingdom of God will be like. And today, as we celebrate the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we have the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration – perhaps the greatest and most spectacular of the epiphany stories.

As we hear the story, we cannot help but notice that there are similarities with the Old Testament lesson from Exodus, in which Moses is summoned to the top of Mount Sinai for an audience with God. Both events take place atop cloud-shrouded mountaintops, obscuring from view what is transpiring. I don’t know about you, but I seem to be intrigued with mountains that have their peaks shrouded by cloud cover. You see most of the mountain, but the top is hidden, inviting speculation and imaginings about what mysteries are being cloaked. I am reminded of images of Mount Olympus, shrouded in clouds, hiding the courtly proceedings and sordid shenanigans of the Greek pantheon – events that affect humanity, but to which we are not privy.

At the time of their occurring, the events on Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Transfiguration were hidden from view of all but those present – clouds hiding the glory that was revealed on those mountains. Yet, while temporarily obscured from our sight, these events are made known to us in scripture, through the readings we have heard today – the events on both mountains being pivotal to our life as people of faith. We have the accounts of what happened on Mount Sinai and on the Mount of the Transfiguration, but what is the significance of these events? Let’s start with Moses on Mount Sinai.

In today’s reading from Exodus, we have the account of Moses being called by God to go to the top of Mount Sinai. Today we didn’t hear all of what went on between God and Moses, but they had a lot to talk about. As noted in today’s reading, Moses spent 40 days and nights up on Mount Sinai. And the account of what was covered spans seven chapters of Exodus. We commonly think that the whole reason for Moses going up the mountain was to receive the Ten Commandments. Well, that was only a part of it. In the broadest sense, on Mount Sinai Moses receives covenantal demands and covenantal signs from God. God and Moses were hammering out the details of the Covenant, as it were. Their discussions covered such things as instructions regarding construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the tabernacle, the establishment of the priesthood, instructions regarding vestments, instructions regarding construction for the altar for burnt offerings and for making the various ritual objects to be used in worship. And then, only when all those other details were finalized, did God give the law in the form of stone tablets – the Ten Commandments. In all of this, over the course of the 40 days and nights spent on the mountain, Moses receives tangible signs of relationship with God. He receives clarification as to what this Covenant with God entails and what it means to the People to be in relationship with their God.

While God had revealed himself to humanity in a number of ways up to this point, this was the most extensive and prolonged revelation to date. Previous revelations had been momentary encounters between the divine and humanity, often through intermediaries such as angelic messengers, or through such phenomena as burning bushes. But here, even for a short time, man dwelt with God on the mountaintop.

In this way, the law and all the other accompanying signs of covenantal relationship between God and humanity were presented to us, forming the foundation of Judaic law, shaping Jewish worship practices, molding Jewish societal and cultural tradition – all of which are fundamental and foundational to Christianity. In so many ways, what happened on Mount Sinai is the basis, the starting point, for our own faith tradition, for who we are as a people. All of this coming out of a cloud-covered mountaintop.

As Moses was thrust into the murkiness of the cloud on Mount Sinai, so too, are three of Jesus’ disciples overshadowed by the bright cloud veiling God’s glory on another mountain. In the Gospel reading from Matthew, we have the story of the Transfiguration, in which Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. While there, Jesus is transfigured, so that “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” In this moment, Jesus is transformed to reveal his future glory, as he would appear following his death, resurrection and ascension. The disciples are able to witness the fullness of what Jesus was talking about six days earlier when he revealed to them that he would be killed and then raised from the dead. At the time, his words would have not made a lot of sense to them. But now, seeing the final outcome that Jesus was foretelling, they could more nearly appreciate and understand the meaning of his cryptic message.

In the midst of this Transfiguration event, as if seeing their Lord and master in his future and eternal glory were not enough, two additional characters appear on the scene – Moses and Elijah. This adds significance to the vision that they had seen in Jesus, as Moses and Elijah are central figures in Judaism, representing the Law and the Prophets. Their appearance is intended to help provide greater understanding of who Jesus is. Their appearance indicates a connection between Jesus and these figures – that Jesus, standing with these two, is in a line of succession extending from Moses and Elijah. But Jesus is not their equal. Rather, his Transfiguration, the revelation of his glory in their midst, places him above Moses and Elijah in the heavenly hierarchy. He is not merely an extension of the Law and the Prophets, but is instead the fulfillment, as he notes elsewhere in the Gospels. He is the fulfillment of prophecy of the Messiah who is to come.

And then, as if all that weren’t enough, the voice of God himself comes from the cloud, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt 17.5). Just as at Jesus’ baptism, God declared him his Son, the Beloved with whom he is well pleased, God uses this event to reiterate this divine proclamation. But this time he adds a little extra punch: “listen to him!” In this Transfiguration event, in which Jesus is placed over the authority of the Law and the Prophets, God grants ultimate approval and ultimate authority to Jesus.

On Mount Sinai, Moses received tangible signs of relationship with God. On the Mount of the Transfiguration, humanity through Peter, James, and John, receives the most tangible sign of relationship with God – “this is my Son . . .” On Mount Sinai, relationship between God and humanity was revealed. On the Mount of the Transfiguration, God incarnate, God made man was revealed. On Mount Sinai, for a short time man dwelt with God on the mountaintop. As revealed on the Mount of the Transfiguration for a short time, God has dwelt with us, as one of us, on this earth.

That’s a whale of a lot to take in. What happened on the Mount of the Transfiguration took the foundation established on Mount Sinai and kicked it up – intensified it beyond imagination. The relationship with God, central to Judaism, became far more personal, far more intimate through Jesus Christ – thus forming the foundation of our own faith. No wonder the disciples fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. How could these simple men fathom the immensity of what was revealed to them on the Mount of the Transfiguration? How can humanity take in the magnitude of what was revealed about our Messiah and about our relationship with God in that one event? It’s just too much.

But for the benefit of the disciples, and also for ours, Jesus boiled it down to one simple action: “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid’” (Mt 17.7). The glory of God, mystifying, incomprehensible, even terrifying to humans, is boiled down into something that we can comprehend and that is not terrifying but rather comforting – a touch and a word. Jesus recognized that there would be a temptation to dwell on the mystical – just as Peter wanted to do in building dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But Jesus brought it back to the practical. In ordering the disciples to “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Mt 17.9), he was steering the new and future church away from getting wrapped up in this mystical event, to the reality that lay ahead – the cross and the empty tomb. And to the reality of what Christ has actually done for us – gently touched us and offered words of encouragement, that through him all will be well.

We are about to enter into a time that carries its own sense of cloud-cover, of murkiness, of overshadowing the rest of our existence – Lent. The experience on the Mount of the Transfiguration and all it means for us as people of faith steers us into this season, toward the reality of the cross and the empty tomb. It is a time of really looking at what it means for us to be followers of Christ. And what that means is not contained in deep theological statements, but rather is contained in a gentle touch and a word of encouragement from our Lord. As we go out into the world, as we encounter others, it will be a gentle touch, a kind word, that will speak volumes about who we are and about the one we choose to follow on the cloudy journey ahead – taking us to the foot of a cross, culminating in the revealing of the ultimate glory of Christ at an empty tomb.

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