Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection:
Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Day: Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A (Transfiguration Sunday)
“The Holy Hill”
Today we have the mountain top. Again. Every three years. The mountain top. On the last Sunday in Lent, we have to climb that mountain to get ready to go below and deal with whatever mess awaits our spiritual housecleaning attention during Lent.
And maybe going to the top of a holy hill just before difficult times isn’t such a bad idea. Ancient people traditionally gathered on a mountain top to pray. People used to gather on a mountain top because they felt the higher up they were off the ground, the closer they would be to God.
Maybe also, on a mountain top there were fewer human distractions.
- You know, we can hear Good better on a mountain top, if there are no horns honking—OK, if MY horn isn’t honking—because someone beat me into a parking spot.
- You know, I can see the light of Christ better on a mountain top because my smart phone doesn’t work there, and I have to put my electronic toys away.
- You know, I can be in harmony better with other people on a mountain top, precisely because I can be in harmony better with people when they aren’t nearby to irritate me.
Maybe you know what I mean. To ancient people, a mountain top was a holy place, a place where God hangs out or even lives.
To Moses, this mountain was not where God lived, but this mountain WAS where God had told Moses to meet him. Moses took some people with him, not up the mountain because an encounter that close with God was dangerous if not deadly. Who but Moses could look on God’s face and live? God protected those below by providing a cloud to obscure the radiance of God’s presence.
The presence of God was like a “devouring fire” in sight of the people who were waiting for Moses to finish his private visit with God and come down with the Law, come down with the Ten Commandments that God had etched in stone for us to live by.
In Exodus chapter 24 verse 4, before Moses had gone up the mountain, “he rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and he built twelve pillars according to the twelve tribes of Israel.” And then Moses and the people worshiped the Lord at the foot of Mount Sinai before Moses went up to keep his appointment with God.
So maybe, just maybe, Peter’s instinct on top of Transfiguration Mountain in our gospel lesson today isn’t quite as dumb an idea as we have been led to believe over the years. You know, in all those sermons we may have heard on other Last Sundays after the Epiphany. You know, in all those sermons we might have PREACHED about the Transfiguration.
When Peter, James, and John went up the high mountain with Jesus and were illuminated with heavenly insight about Jesus’ identity, Peter grasped that this was a history-changing encounter:
- There before him on the holy hill was Moses, an embodiment of God’s Law, just like we sang in our entrance hymn.
- There before him on the holy hill was Elijah, an embodiment of God’s Prophets.
I think this event actually happened, but did you notice that Matthew hedged his bet; he called this a vision. So—actually or spiritually—we understand that now, in a flash of intuition, in a moment of deep insight, Peter saw that Jesus embodied and fulfilled all the law and all the prophecies.
We think of Peter as rather dense, but not here, not today. Peter really grasped who Jesus is: the one who is The. Authoritative. Revelation. Of God. Jesus is not only the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, but the authority to whom we look for direction in our lives. Jesus is not only the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the rabbi who directs our lives, but God’s Son, the beloved, the ONE to whom we should listen. Just in case Peter missed this point—and he didn’t—there was the VOICE, the divine voice from heaven, alerting him about this pivot in divine revelation and authority.
There should no longer be any question for anyone, anywhere, anytime about the exact identity of Jesus. Maybe this is why, for once, Jesus didn’t go away alone to pray, but he took Peter, James, and John with him.
The disciples would have the vision of Jesus’ transfiguration to cherish in the dark and difficult days ahead. Don’t close encounters with God—and visions from and of God—always prepare and equip us for handling the difficult times?
But Peter was, above all, a gifted leader. He grasped that this was a pivotal moment, for the whole of Israel if not for all of creation. And Peter knew his scripture. Basking in the light of God shining on Christ Jesus, and no doubt remembering Moses’ original encounter with a divine light on a holy hill, Peter suggested that he be allowed to build some booths—some pillars, some spiritual dwellings—in which to worship God. Three booths, you notice, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus.
Peter grasped that the Law and the Prophets were still valid. After all, Jesus had said he had come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. So three booths, but not twelve. Somehow, Peter understood in a flash that the twelve Tribes of Israel would be supplanted by a new math, a new number—three—in our understanding of the divine. Peter might not yet have come to a Trinitarian understanding of Christ Jesus, but he was on his way. So Peter’s understanding of Scripture and his instincts were good. Jesus had chosen wisely when he had called the fisherman Peter and would make him the rock on which he would build his church.
We here at Church of the Resurrection live on the mountain top. We KNOW what is, by now, the “not-so-new math” that is Trinitarian, and we even understand that God is not confined to our understanding of God or even to our understanding of divine mathematics. We know and live by the Law of Christ, which is to love absolutely everyone in the name of God. But have we built booths, built pillars, here on OUR holy hill?
I make no secret of how much I enjoy our worship here. The words I dread are in our post-Communion prayer: “Send us now into the world in peace…” I often don’t much want to go back out there, into a world that is so deprived of God’s light, into a world where it’s harder to hear God’s voice than in here, harder to feel God near, harder to grasp with great clarity what to do next.
For me, it’s a chore to leave this mountain top. But Christ Jesus tells us to go. Which is why we ask in our post-Communion prayer for the strength and courage to love and serve God not here in THIS booth, but out there where fake news abounds, out there where chaos reigns, out there where Jesus loves even the people I despise, out there where we put our faith to the test.
I had the privilege this week of spending time with Dan Swearingen, who got to climb God’s holy hill and cross over to the Promised Land. For Dan, his holy mountain climbing days are over. I can hear him singing here with us today, he and Martha, and I expect I’ll see him cycle off soon into a dazzling band of God-light. If this depresses us, we who are left to climb back down to this side of the holy hill, I’m sorry, genuinely sorry. We’re human and we grieve.
But picture Jesus’ three friends: Peter, James, and John. That’s the image to hold onto today. Picture THEM—and I’m going to take liberties here—picture them walking back down the mountain into the dark, back to who flips the pancakes that day, to whom will dry the dishes, and who will feed those who hunger—their everyday mission field.