LIFE AT THE TOP
As any real estate agent will tell you, the most important element of selling a property is location, location, location. A terrific view, a good school, and a safe neighborhood are all crucial to making a home seem like a good fit. There are locations in the Scriptures that keep appearing again and again until they have become familiar parts of our vocabulary; Jerusalem, Galilee and Babylon just to name a few. Among those recurring landmarks are mountains, and one in particular that saw its fair share of historical biblical moments.
The mountain in question is Sinai, although it also goes by Mount Horeb and the mountain of God. It was the place where Moses spoke with God in a cloud and received the Ten Commandments for the people of Israel newly freed from slavery. It was also the retreat of the prophet Elijah when he was on the run from Queen Jezebel in fear for his life. It is featured in our gospel today as the location of a miraculous event that has come to be known as the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Get the feeling there’s something special about this mountain? Well, you should. However, in our gospel reading there is also the importance of timing, for this passage in Luke 9 begins with the statement, “About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.”
If it sounds as though we started somewhere in the middle, we did. We need to know what things Jesus said before these verses that we read. What He said was Luke’s account of the commandment for anyone who would be a follower of Jesus to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Him. Varying from Matthew’s account, however, is the addition of taking up the cross daily, which would seem to indicate that discipleship requires daily reminders if it is to be a lifelong pursuit.
Because Peter had just identified Him as the Messiah, Jesus had urged them not to tell anyone who He was, but He did inform them of His upcoming arrest and trial and death and resurrection. He was asking for a commitment, maybe weeding out the hesitant from among the dedicated. Then He took three of the dedicated to show them something glorious; a glimpse of heaven on earth.
Being on the mountain with God is indeed a life-changing experience; it was true for Abraham when he was asked to sacrifice his beloved son. He had faith in God on his way up the mountain, but how much greater his faith had grown on the journey down when his son’s life was spared? Moses had more than one mountaintop experience of God, but when Moses came down from the mountain, more than his life was changed. His time spent in God’s presence showed on his face; it was radiating the glory of God.
So dramatic was the change in his appearance that the people of Israel were afraid of him; they could not tolerate it. Moses wore a veil over his face to put the people at ease and he removed it when he returned to the mountaintop to speak with God. While on the mountain he had a private audience with God. He could have stayed there, leaving the people to fend for themselves, but he knew what happened the first time they were left alone. If he refused to come back down to the people, they would have never received the commandments. Their knowledge of God would have been incomplete.
Yes, if Moses had stayed on the mountain, the whole story of humankind might have been different. There might never have come a day when three men followed their spiritual leader to the top of a mountain to witness the glory of God for themselves. In that moment in time, those three men would witness the true nature of the one they had been following, the one they had pledged their lives and devotion to; the one Peter had just correctly identified as the Messiah sent by God.
If Peter was confident in Christ’s identity, then what he witnessed on the mountaintop along with James and John should have solidified his conviction. Perhaps he was a little too convinced. Maybe it was the change in Jesus’ appearance; the dazzling brilliance of His clothes or the glow of His face. Maybe it was the fact that Jesus was engaged in conversation with Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the mighty prophet; both of whom had their own unique moment on the same mountain.
They were discussing Jesus’ upcoming departure or exodus which would once again lead people to a promised land. Unlike the exodus Moses led, this one would require the sacrifice of a son, more accurately the Son of God, whose death would lead people into a resurrection. The glory revealed in this transfiguration was a kind of foretaste of glory divine, as the old hymn says. It was a glimpse of what the resurrected Jesus would be.
Peter and the other disciples were tired, just as they would be in the garden of Gethsemane on the night Jesus was taken prisoner. They had problems staying awake. Really, with all that going on? Imagine being in the presence of three great figures and not being able to stay awake. When they were fully awake, they saw His glory and that of Moses and Elijah.
Their realization of the glory of our Lord came to them, not when they were in a state of dullness or of stupor, but in a moment of heightened consciousness. And ironically, when Peter became logical, or as logical as he could manage to be, when he didn’t know what he was saying, he offered an inadequate statement.
So it was that Peter, by witnessing this conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah radiating the glory of God, discussing the coming crucifixion, became caught up in the moment and wanted to stay on the mountain forever. In his quick thinking way, Peter offered a statement of faith that was sincere, but misplaced. “Master, it is good for us to be here.” I have no doubt that it was good for them to be there. What they would have seen would help to solidify their belief in who Jesus was. Sometime later it would serve them well.
Peter’s error shows up in the second part of his statement, “Let us make three dwellings; one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Not only did he want to savor the moment, he wanted to live in the moment. It was good for them to be there, seeing Christ in all His glory, conversing with the saints of old. Who wouldn’t want to stay forever?
But you can hardly deny yourself and take up your cross if you’re too infatuated with Jesus in glory. We may desire to stay in a blissful place; on a vacation, a three-day weekend. It’s good for us to be there, but there’s work to be done. We have to move forward by going back to our lives.
Peter was unable to capture the moment the way he envisioned because as he was speaking a cloud covered them and God spoke the words heard at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son,” but with a command, “listen to Him!” Why did they need this confirmation and reminder? It may be that God spoke in response to Peter’s suggestion to make three equal dwellings for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. The men of the Old Testament had fulfilled their roles. Jesus alone came to fulfill the law and the prophecy; He alone would be the one whose word had the last word.
Going down the mountain meant giving up. It meant arrest and suffering and death. At the foot of the mountain is where reality lies. When the four men returned from the mountain, they were met with a bracing reality. A boy possessed by demons had been unable to be released from his torment by the remaining disciples. Up on the mountain there was nothing but glory. Down below there was life, real life, with all its obstacles and unpleasantness. But where there is life, there is always potential. We can’t stay on the mountaintop where there are battles to fight in the valley.
If Peter had his wish, if Jesus had remained on that mountain, talking instead of acting, His story would never be completed. The Jewish leaders would have had to persecute someone else. Pilate could have washed his hands just because they were dirty. The cross in the middle would have accommodated just another criminal who would never have the right to promise anyone a place in Paradise.
No matter how glorious, no matter how spectacular the view, sooner or later we all have to come down off the mountain. Our mountaintop experience of God may be thrilling, but it is only the beginning. When we experience conversion, when we choose salvation and life through the death of Christ, when we open ourselves up to receive grace, we have only begun to experience God. It is good for us to be there, but we cannot stay. We have to come out of the cloud and make our way down the mountain.
There is no state of grace that does not allow further growth. Growth in grace is what we in the Wesleyan tradition call sanctification. It’s a process that continues throughout our whole lives. John Wesley called it going on to perfection, but we must understand that Wesley was not referring to the Western world’s understanding of perfection. That belief says that nothing more can be improved; it is a state of completeness. The Eastern way of thinking about perfection is that it is progressive, that there is within the Christian a continual opportunity to advance in the knowledge and love of God.
Sanctification, then, is the manner by which we are changed, transformed, transfigured. But like the transfiguration of Jesus upon the mountain, it is not a moment to be captured. In Wesley’s words, it is purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God. It is the giving to God all our heart; it is the devoting, not a part, but all our soul, body, and substance to God. It is all the mind which was in Christ, enabling us to walk as Christ walked.
Walking as Christ walked requires us to listen, observe and obey. His disciples did not realize at the time of the transfiguration the way they would spend the rest of their lives, but after Christ’s death, they would remember His words. They would remember their experience on the mountain, and they would especially remember what God said to them on that day, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to Him!”
Out of all the collective wisdom assembled that day on the mountaintop, God specified Jesus as the one to listen to. He could have named any of them; Moses the lawgiver; Elijah the prophet; Peter, who would bring the Spirit of Pentecost alive; James, the apostle; and John, the gospel writer and witness of the revelation of God. The authors of the first and the last books of the Bible present in the same place.
Moses and Elijah had already spoken. The law and the prophecy had been told and retold and there were still those who rejected them. Now it was time for a new word, the word made flesh. Peter, James and John had not yet come into their own. Their potential would only be realized after Christ was crucified. He alone was the voice of authority. It was to Him that Peter, James and John were told to listen. We have the same commandment. We would do well to listen to him, for as Peter once said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Jesus was changed before their eyes, but Peter, James and John were changed, as well. They were given a glimpse of the glory of God, and that would be the catalyst they would need to make them into effective witnesses for Christ. Every exposure to God should result in a change in our lives.
Each day our time with God should result in a change in our hearts and behavior. Every sermon we hear should move us to transform more into the image of our Lord. Every hymn sung, every praise lifted up, every Scripture studied, every devotional read, every prayer offered up; each exposure to God should be reason to reflect on our life and result in change.
Early in our Christian walk, the “changes” are more apparent and usually involve stopping one thing or starting another. We quit bad habits, choose to speak differently or decide to act differently. As we mature spiritually and walk closer to God, those changes come more often in the form of adjectives; deeper sacrifice, greater holiness, stronger faith, more discipline, etc. But change can never take place if we aren’t willing to move out of the comforting presence of God and into the world.
We will never be exactly like Christ during our pilgrimage in this sin-stained world. Every day is an opportunity to get a step closer. Every time we are touched by God’s word, enter into His presence in prayer, or are exposed to His holiness in any way, it should change us to be more like His Son who is glorified by our transformation.
Have you been a part of life at the top? Maybe you are still struggling to find your way to the top to meet God face to face. Maybe you are basking in His glory, afraid that if you come down you will lose that wonderful feeling of grace. It’s difficult to come down from the mountain, but we cannot stay forever. There is work to be done at the bottom. There are wounded souls, there are outstretched hands, and there are empty hearts that need to see the glory of God as only we can reveal it.