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Mountaintop Mystery 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
03/06/11

Exodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-9



My friend Earl Palmer has lived in the American west most of his adult life, serving congregations in Berkeley, California and Seattle, Washington for four decades. In that time Earl has done some serious mountain climbing. Mount Shasta in northern California is a snow-capped peak over fourteen thousand feet above sea level, and Earl has climbed it over fifty times. On the other hand, Mount Rainier is the closest peak to his home in Seattle, and while Earl has tried to climb it numerous times, he has never once succeeded. Why? Because Mount Rainier, like so many tall peaks, is a mountain that has its own weather, massive enough to effect its own climate conditions, and every time Earl has tried to summit Rainier, weather has set in that has made it impossible to do so safely. Whatever else happened at the Mount of the Transfiguration, likely Mount Hermon, a peak that rises eleven thousand feet above the Dead Sea, I feel certain that high on that mountain, Jesus and His three closest followers, Peter, James and John, discovered that they were on a mountain that created its own weather.

In the Transfiguration of Jesus, we have one gem of a story! It is such a powerful moment that Mark and Luke include this mysterious event in their Gospels as well, and 2 Peter also includes an important account of this mountaintop theophany, the term theologians use for an appearance of God.

"Six days later," both Matthew and Mark begin in telling us of this mountaintop mystery. "Six days later than what?" we ask. It was six days later than Peter's answer to Jesus' question, "But who do you say that I am?" Remember what Peter said? "You are the Christ (or the Messiah), the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven."

So six days after Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus takes with him three of his inner circle, Peter, James and John, and leads them "up a high mountain by themselves," just as Moses ascended the holy mountain with three men, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu. For Matthew, the similarities between Moses' encounter with Yahweh on Mount Sinai and Jesus' on the Mount of the Transfiguration are so striking that Matthew goes to extra lengths to point them out for us. While all three Gospels report that Jesus' clothing became dazzling white, only Matthew adds that "His face shone like the sun." Remember when Moses came down from Mount Sinai in Exodus 34? His face was shining so brightly that they had to place a veil over it so as not to blind the people!

Then "suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus." Whatever they may have been thinking about what was happening up to this point, searching in their minds for some plausible explanation for Jesus' transformed appearance, now they ran out of any explanation. This was more than mountaintop weather. Moses and Elijah?! Moses had been dead for over a thousand years, and Elijah for nearly that long. Moses, the great liberator and law giver to the whole human family, and Elijah, the great prophet who like Moses, had encountered Yahweh on a mountaintop. This is clearly an event that transcends the boundaries of normal human experience.

All three Gospel writers include Peter's stupid idea, which would have doubtless been what I would have said as well. "Let's build three tents. This is amazing! Let's freeze this moment and stay for awhile." But while Peter was still speaking, the weather changed again! Suddenly, "a bright cloud over-shadowed them." Just as God came to Moses on Sinai out of a cloud, so now a "bright cloud" suddenly "overshadows" them on this holy mountain.

What on earth was the Transfiguration? We twenty-first century people cannot help but to ask this question, can we? What really happened? And of course, this is an experience that breaks the boundaries of human understanding. All three Gospel writers know what Peter, James and John saw and heard, but all of them report it with a certain amount of modesty. What they were certain of was that this was an encounter with God. This was a meeting with the Holy One, and such meetings are never ones that we create, control or completely comprehend. God is too great for that. "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me," said the Psalmist, "it is high, I cannot attain it." But it was surely a bright, shining, scary moment when a few of Jesus' disciples caught a glimpse of who He really was. Peter would write later in his second epistle, "We had been eyewitnesses of His majesty."

But please note that up until the bright cloud suddenly comes, in Matthew at least, there is no fear among them. Peter is having such a great experience up until this moment that he wants to camp out and make a night of it! But with the bright cloud also comes a voice from that cloud, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!" When the disciples heard the voice from the cloud, "they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear." Remember in Exodus when God speaks in the hearing of the people? They beg Moses, "You talk to Yahweh and tell us what He says to you. Do not let God speak to us, or we will die." To hear the voice of the Lord can be a fearful thing.

I want to pause for a moment and say a good word here for fear. Hans Selye, the great Swiss psychiatrist, makes a distinction between what he calls "neurotic guilt" and "essential guilt." Some of us wallow in our guilt but we never change. It is almost as if we like feeling guilty. This is "neurotic guilt." But there is also "essential guilt." Sometimes we feel guilty because we, in fact, are! And this is a healthy, life-giving thing, because it can lead to repentance and forgiveness and transformation.

It strikes me that the same could be said of fear. There is such a thing as neurotic, unhealthy fear. You can easily become captive, a slave to your fears. I know people who allow their fears to run their lives. But there is also such a thing as "essential fear." Fear is a gift from God, or it can be. There are some things we should rightly fear. And when we encounter the Living God, fear is an entirely appropriate response.

"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God," said the Psalmist. Or as Proverbs puts it, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." The disciples suddenly hear the voice of God the Father speaking from a bright cloud, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!" And they are suddenly overcome by fear; they fall to the ground.

"But Jesus came and touched them, saying 'Get up and do not be afraid.'" Is there any better cure for our fears than the touch of Jesus? John Calvin said this was the genius of God. That God, the Holy One, the creator of the universe, was willing to come among us to reach out in Jesus to touch us, to speak to us, to be in the words of Matthew alone among the Gospel writers, "Emmanuel," "God-with-us." This is the heart and soul of the Gospel! Where in your life do you need to feel Jesus' touch, and hear Him say to you, "Do not be afraid"? I confess to you that I need Jesus' touch and Jesus' word each and every day of my life!

And then, they got up, and when they looked, Moses and Elijah were gone, as suddenly and as mysteriously as they had appeared. That is always the way it is with God, who is utterly free, but reveals Himself to us in His own way and in His own time. Then Peter, James and John "saw no one except Jesus Himself alone." Only Matthew adds the reflexive pronoun to this, "himself."

"No one except Jesus Himself alone." I love that! "My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." Those were, of course, the baptismal words that God spoke to Jesus when He came up out of the Jordan. 2 Peter 1:17 says, "We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with Him on the holy mountain." And God added one more word: "Listen to Him!" It has the force of "Obey Him!", as when my Dad would say to me, "Todd, listen to your mother!" That line always put the fear of God into me! Like I hope it puts the fear of God into you! "No one except Jesus himself alone…. Listen to Him!"

"Listen to Him!" – "Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you."

"Listen to Him!" – "Be wise as serpents, be harmless as doves."

"Listen to Him!" – "Judge not, and you will not be judged. Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Give, and it will be given unto you, good measure, pressed down, running over your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."

"Listen to Him!" – "Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven."

"Listen to Him!" – "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."

"Listen to Him!" – "Take up your cross and follow me…. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?"

"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God," I tell you. And but for the touch of Jesus, we would be scared to death.

AMEN.
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