Exodus 24:12-18 – Moses goes up the mountain (Sinai) for 40 days and 40 nights. The glory of the Lord appears as a devouring fire on the mountain.
Psalm 2 – I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. I will tell of the decree of the Lord: God said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.
Psalm 99 – Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the Lord, and he answered them. He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them… Extol the Lord our God, and worship at the holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.
2 Peter 1:16-21 – For he received honor and glory from God when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Matthew 17:1-9 – Peter, James, and John go up the mountain where they see Jesus transfigured, with Moses and Elijah.
In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, the inner circle of disciples, up the mountain for a mountaintop experience. This is a challenging text to understand, much less preach.
If, however, we approach it as a transcendent experience, it begs an important conversation about experiences of God. The preacher might want to begin by considering the question personally. When have you felt most profoundly the presence of God? Experiences of God are intimate. They sometimes feel personal and private. Are you willing to open up and talk about your own experiences? This may be the only way to realistically get people thinking about their own experiences.
What if you then gave people an opportunity to write down the mountaintop times in their lives when they have felt the presence of God? If you have young people, skeptics, and seekers in your pews, you may have to ask the question several different ways to connect. When have you been most powerfully aware of the incredible gift of life? When have you been overcome with beauty? Compassion? Joy? When have you encountered truth that has sent shivers down your spine? When have you been overwhelmed by hidden, underlying realities that take you deeper than the superficialities of everyday life? When have you sensed that there is more to life than meets the eye? When have you had mountaintop experiences that gave you an utterly new perspective on life and perhaps new direction? When have you been drawn out of yourself and out of your own self-preoccupation. When have you had an experience that caused you to see with new eyes? When have you been confronted with causes for which you would give your own life?
If you have a midweek Bible study, you might engage them in a conversation about this to prime the pump for your sermon preparation. Ask them when they have felt God’s presence most acutely. If it is a safe environment, expect a lot of very different answers, including some that might make you feel uncomfortable.
Some may point to literal mountaintop experiences in nature. The mountains have a deep soulfulness, as do the forests and the oceans. The stars! We are overcome by the immensity of the universe and our own short life span. Some may point to victories, while others will find God revealed in some of our greatest defeats. A theology of the cross recognizes that God is sometimes revealed in our most broken moments. Sitting beside my aging father’s hospital bed, as he struggles with mind and body, grounds me in my own mortality.
Music takes us to a deeper place, and not just religious music. Someone may point to relationships, and maybe even sexual experiences, which can be transcendent moments of ecstatic joy. For some it may be the birth of a child or grandchild. I watched the birth of my son by C-section, standing right there, while holding my wife’s hand. It was an incredible experience that brought me face-to-face with the miracle of life. Some may even point to the usual suspects: prayer, worship, scripture, and sacraments. Some will find they encounter Jesus in the face of the most needy: the poor or the stranger.
Getting people to think about these sacred experiences draws them back into the divine. It also invites us to consider, how we might put ourselves in a place where we are more open, more receptive to these experiences. You can’t make divine moments happen any more that you can make lightning strike, but you can put yourself in places where you’re more likely to be there when it happens. How do we cultivate awareness of God? How might we set aside time and prepare ourselves for holy experiences?
Well, with that mental preparation, on to the story…
How did they arrive at the Mount of Transfiguration?
This Sunday’s text of the Transfiguration comes in the fourth of five sections of narrative. In Matthew 14-17, Jesus is on the move. The Matthew 13 discourse on the Parables of the Kingdom ends with Jesus in his hometown, an unremarkable village called נָצְרַת, Nazareth, about 16 miles WSW of the Sea of Galilee.
In Matthew 14 as we begin a new narrative section, Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been beheaded. Grieving, he takes a boat and goes on retreat by himself. Since there are no bodies of water in or near Nazareth, we must assume Matthew has Jesus back at the Sea of Galilee, a walk that would take the better part of a day.
Crowds somehow find Jesus alone in his boat, so he comes ashore to the deserted place and feeds the five thousand. Afterwards he made his disciples get into “the boat,” while he went up on “the mountain” to pray, trying to be alone again. (Mt. 14:22-23) Jesus walks to them on the water, and then so does Peter, sort of.
The next day they land at Gennesaret (or Genazareth, “Garden of Riches”). No trace of this city remains today, but it is believed to have been on the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Gennesaret, north of Magdala and South of Caesarea (where Peter’s house is located).
Imagine the Sea of Galilee as a clock:
- Put Tiberias at 8:00.
- Magdala at 9:00.
- Gennesaret at 10:00.
- Capernaum at 11:00.
In Gennesaret, Matthew 15, Jesus, the new Moses, the new law-giver, is criticized for not washing his hands according to the traditions. He rails on them. You don’t honor your father and mother, one of the Ten Commandments, and you’re over-focused on a tradition from the Levitical codes? Really? He then rants: What defiles you comes from what is already inside you: evil intentions, murder, adultery. You won’t be defiled by what goes into your mouth from the outside.
From there Jesus goes up to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is along the Mediterranean in Lebanon, perhaps 60 miles or 3-4 days’ walk to get there. After calling a Canaanite woman a dog and healing her daughter, he returns to the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know where exactly, but we can probably assume the NW corridor.
In Genessaret, once again Jesus goes up on “the mountain.” Great crowds gather around him, consisting of people that are blind, lame, and sick. This is the kind of crowd Jesus attracts. Then he feeds the four thousand.
At the end of chapter 15, we are told Jesus goes to the region of Magdala (9:00 on our clock). There is no indication that he is in the town of Magdala. Since he is in the region, he might be back in Gennesaret again or Tiberias. But if he was, I imagine that Matthew would just say so. So let’s imagine him in Magdala, a little bit south of where he was before in Gennesaret.
The geography is not important as a factual account, but it is of interest in considering the author of this gospel. The other Gospel writers have different timelines and place in events in different locations. As any careful reader will note. The anonymous author of this gospel is a well-educated Jew writing in Koine (common, simple) Greek. The fact that he does not write in classical Greek suggests that he is not in Greece. The fact that he quotes the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, rather than from the Hebrew Bible itself, suggests that he is not in Palestine. So we have Hellenistic Jew writing from outside the geography he describes. Papias said that one of Jesus’ disciples named Matthew was collecting all of Jesus’ sayings into a volume. Irenaus, and later Eusebius, assume that this is the gospel Papias describes, so it gets named “The Gospel according to Matthew.” The author, however, never claims to be an eyewitness and describes events in the third person. “They went…” Never “We went…”
So far we have Jesus popping around all over the place: Nazareth, Gennesaret, Lebanon, Sea of Galilee, and Magdala. We must recall Matthew is compressing several years into a shorter narrative. We might also assume that like many story-tellers, Matthew has to fill in the blanks as he weaves together a list of many stories. I suspect some of his locations have symbolic meaning: “The mountain,” for example, and also, the boat, the house, the sea, and so on.
The Transfiguration is in Matthew 17, so we yet have chapter 16 to traverse before we get there. In chapter 16, the Pharisees and Saduccees seek a sign. Jesus warns the disciples to beware of their “yeast,” or teaching. Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, then denies the crucifixion, incurring Jesus’ wrath. If you would follow me, you must take up your cross too.
The stage is now set. The Transfiguration is the climax of this fourth section of Matthew’s gospel. Peter has figured out that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. “Six days later,” they go up on the mountain. Stanley Hauerwas suggest that this is symbolic; it hearkens unto creation. It is the seventh day, the day God rests in joy, after six days of perfect activity. The Sabbath is a day of brightness and revelation. Note below, that it is on the seventh day that the Lord calls to Moses out of the cloud.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him. There he is “transfigured.” The word is “metamorphothay” in Greek. Jesus undergoes a metamorphosis. He is transformed. And his face shines (“eLAMPsen“).
This, of course, has all the marks of Exodus 24, our first lesson. Note that it is the seventh day, just like Matthew’s account:
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
And also Exodus 34 (29-30):
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.
Of course Matthew sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, so it is fitting for him to be in a theophany with Moses and Elijah. This is consistent with Matthew’s entire message: Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
is reminiscent of Exodus 34:30:
When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.
Keep in mind, their clothes becoming “dazzling white” is like the white-robes martyrs of Revelation (3:4-5, 4:4, 6:11, 7:9, 7:13-14). White is the garb of those who give their life.
Finally, we hear the voice that we heard at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him!”
The Transfiguration foreshadows both Good Friday and Easter. As such, it is an appropriate gateway into Lent. Many have suggested this was an event to strengthen the disciples’ faith as they prepared to enter Jerusalem. Peter’s desire to build booths is an all-too-human instinct to bask in the glory and attempt to somehow contain it. We think we can put God in a box, but it doesn’t work that way.
At the same time, attempting to keep the glow of our own mountaintop experiences, as we move back into everyday life, is no crime. While God cannot be boxed, we must learn to bring a sense of the holy into our daily routines. This may take some practice. What practices might remind us of the holy when we are confronted with the pettiness of the world?
The preacher may wish to do something with mountaintop experiences of life. One can also talk about the inevitable call to go back down into the valley. This story may remind the church that worship, while joyful, is fuel for the ministry to which we are called. We cannot remain on the mountain top forever. Nor should we. Jesus took his ministry into the dark places of life. How might we take some of the glow of hope and joy to the world in which we go? We who are called by Jesus to the be the light of the world in the gospel reading a few weeks ago (Matthew 5:13-20)… are our faces aglow with the glory of divine light?
Give your congregants a mountaintop experience on Sunday. Then give them some things they can do the following morning to carry that light into the world.