Building Monuments on the Mountain (Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36)
Today is the Last Sunday in Epiphany. Epiphany, as we have said throughout, is the season of the church year when we follow the story of how Jesus was shown to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Saviour of the World. The Last Sunday of Epiphany is traditionally called Transfiguration Sunday. Next week we begin the Lenten Season, when we trace the steps of Jesus to the cross.
In my own mind, the Lessons for today present some obvious difficulties. Both the Old Testament and the Gospel passages contain written accounts of clearly supernatural events: the so-called TRANSFIGURATIONS of Moses and Jesus. A transfiguration is simply “a change in form or aspect, especially so as to elevate or idealize” (The Dictionary on my desk.). In short, Moses’ and Jesus’ appearances were changed as a result of their being in God’s presence. Now, to make a point, Moses was in attendance at Jesus’ transfiguration, along with Elijah, the archetypical prophet of the Old Testament, and who, it was believed in Jesus’ day would be the forerunner of the Messiah. Elijah did not exactly have a transfiguration, but was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, and that’s pretty close. In Jesus’ day the scriptures were often called “The Law and the Prophets.” Here is Jesus, now standing toe to toe with the best that the Old Covenant had to offer, as at least an equal. And Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 tells us that Jesus actually surpassed his great colleague Moses here. He said that Moses’ transfiguration was temporary, and, really, only pointed to the greater glory of Jesus. The lesson that many learn from this is that the Old Testament is inferior to the New and that Jesus and the New Covenant replaces Moses and the Old Covenant. I do not think so. Both represent God’s people. A while after Jesus’ time the two became separate expressions of religious faith, and so they are now. Judaism is not superseded by Christianity, but exists side by side it as two separate and different ways.
The central point of Jesus’ transfiguration is that, much as Peter, James, and John did in that ancient day, we see him here in his glory, which is, in the words of the Gospel of John, “as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” For most of Jesus’ life on earth, people (including the disciples) saw his glory in a far different way; the glory of humble service that went all the way to death and beyond. It’s as if, in this transfiguration story we are on a mountaintop looking at the glory of the sun up above the clouds that cover the valleys beneath, whereas, just after this story, we find Jesus going into those same valleys to serve and give his life. And we find him walking there until, he arrives at Jerusalem and dies. We begin to go up another mountain at the resurrection, but we do not really arrive at the glory of the risen Christ until the ascension at the very end of Luke’s Gospel. Occasionally we see the bright and shining glory, more often we see the sombre glory of faithful service and sacrifice. Epiphany has reminded us of Jesus’ glory of both kinds, and here is one further reminder.
Frankly, my question about the transfiguration has always been “So what”? What possible difference does it make in our lives outside of this place that Jesus was transfigured? Couldn’t we get along just as well, or better, without it? Who experiences things like this? You and I live in a world that is all too real. We read all the time about smart bombs and terrorism, and land mines, and biological weapons. Even if WE don’t suffer very much violence here in our community, we know that some do. Our world doesn’t seem to be very glorious, or very transfiguring. Even at the best of times, our lives are often made up of just plain plodding along, a kind of grinding drudgery, with no light at the end of the tunnel. No transfigurations here! So, again, what does the Transfiguration of Jesus have to do with us today?
Just as a little side-point, you should be aware that we read one of the three versions of the transfiguration story each and every year just as Epiphany ends and before Lent begins. For me as a preacher, this can get quite old, and I figure that if I’m a little tired of it, you are tired of hearing about it, too. As I taught Biblical Studies and Interpretation for many years, I was always painfully aware that the “new preachers” we were training really didn’t know all that much about preaching or teaching. It’s very important to realize that a sermon isn’t the same as a Bible study. A sermon is not expected to march through every word of the passage at hand as a study or scholarly essay might. Rather, a sermon takes a point from the preacher’s reading of the text (not the commentaries on the text). That’s why the public reading of the text or texts to be used in the sermon must be read aloud carefully and convincingly. If the preacher sounds like he or she has never heard this text before, the congregation will shut down pretty quickly whether they know just why or not.
What strikes the preacher in a text may be different each time she or he reads it. Just so, this time, as I read this text, being in the personal space, etc., in which I find myself, what struck me was not the main point of the texts, which I hope I have already faithfully, if briefly, set out, but a short secondary scene from verse 33. It goes this way, if you remember:
Just as they (Moses and Elijah) were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you (first and foremost, of course), one for Moses (I mean he’s the law-giver and we’ve revered him since we were small boys), and one for Elijah (the great prophet)…
Peter sees that Moses and Elijah are slipping away, and he tries to halt the process of what seems like a wonderful spiritual moment that makes clear that the glory of Jesus is equal to or better than Moses and Elijah, with a proposal. “It’s good to be in this spiritual place.” It would be wonderful if we could stay here as a normal course of events. He proposes that they freeze everything just as it was by building three little booths, or huts, or tents, one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah, so we can always have the Jesus place, the Moses place, the Elijah place, just as it is now because now is good.
It is probable that Peter’s reason for wanting to build such structures there on the mountain was to prolong this experience of Jesus’ glory. It is possible that Luke told his particular version of this story in about the year 90 CE. By then, there were already temptations and attempts to “institutionalize” what was, in Jesus’ day, an experience. I suppose that this happens to many communities of faith, that, after a while, want to organize and give shape to what had simply “happened” before that. This is certainly common. I used to have a colleague who would say that the Church institutionalizes the place where it last saw the Holy Spirit last active. This means we’re always a step behind what God is doing. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, originally powerful marks of God’s working with people, but have become rites that, in addition to bearing deep meaning, were done in a particular order and shape. And this order and shape became as important as the substance. Different shapes occurred in different communities. The problem came when the particular shape and order was used to decide who was “in” and who was “out,” by whether others do these things “our way” (the “right way”)? This applies to many of the doctrines that were surfaced at the Reformation, and since then. Such things have been built into of monuments of the mountain. They become ways of dividing ourselves from others who are Christians, but do things differently. It is easy to want to institutionalize and never change the practices we have come to revere in church and with which we’re comfortable, whether they’re especially old or not. How we do what we do and whether it can be changed is always a difficult discussion. We faced some of this when we restructured the way the church worked. Some thought, at first, that, for example, if we didn’t have a group called “deacons,” we were being disloyal to the Bible. That, of course, isn’t so. This applies to techniques we use in worship and who is acceptable in church and who can become a minister. This is something our friends in the United Methodist Church are experiencing at the present. Up to a point it is understandable that we want to keep things the same. It’s comfortable. But our “comfort” isn’t necessarily a good enough reason not to consider new ways of doing things. Religious things probably strike a conservative chord in most people, if by that we mean a reticence to change.
To get back to the mountain, a closely related point is that Peter may have wanted to freeze this moment in time so as to be able to celebrate the glorious transfigured Jesus there on the mountain rather than have to go down the mountain and accompany him to Jerusalem where a cross awaited.
It is interesting that the last line of this little scene is that, although he spoke with great conviction, Peter really didn’t know what he was saying. Mark wrote that Peter said this silly thing about building monuments on mountains because he was too terrified to know what to say. Luke transformed Peter’s not knowing what to say into not knowing what he was saying (probably because he’d already said that Peter and his two mates were sleepy). In any case, the building of these little huts on the hill or monuments on the mountain never happened because God intervened with the divine presence which left the disciples standing, again, not knowing what to say. A voice came from a cloud (an Old Testament picture of the presence of God, as we saw in our Call to Worship from Numbers 9).
The voice said: “This is my Son, My Chosen, Listen to Him.” The word “chosen” is one that refers not only to the messiah, as a kind of formal title, but also to one chosen to do God’s work of service and love in the world. The verb “listen” is present tense, which does not imply just listen once, right now, and revere it forever or carve it in stone, another monument on a mountain. The verb means listen continually, listen persistently, listen stubbornly to what Jesus is saying today, in our day, in our situation. Make it a never ending quest to listen to Jesus. In this moment of time for First Baptist, I encourage you not to limit what Jesus is saying to just what we’ve done in the way we’ve done it. Do not be afraid to listen to Jesus say that in our time it may not be enough to change nothing. It may be time to be open to different things. Listen to Jesus as he speaks. He will lead, he will guide, he will bring you through.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.