Summary: Mountain top experiences are great things, but the test of them is when we come back to the real world, to a broken and hurting world where the glory of God is sometimes hidden. Then the test for us is whether we remember and trust what we’ve discovered o
What is it about mountain tops that we find so attractive? I don’t mean just the mountain climber who climbs a mountain just because it’s there, but the rest of us. Most people I think have a special feeling for mountains. We talk about the "Mountain Top Experience" don’t we? But what is it that makes those experiences so special? Is it because we still have a cosmology that puts God up in heaven, so going up a mountain feels like we’re getting closer to God? Well, it might be, but it isn’t mere altitude that does it. I’ve been up in an aeroplane at 35,000 ft looking down on the Himalayas and haven’t felt that sense of being nearer to God. Is it perhaps the feeling of being separated from our normal world: of the ruggedness of the mountain and the wildness of the surrounds that reminds us of our place in a world made by God not by humans? Or is it perhaps that as we stand on the mountain top we can look down and see the world laid out before us and realise just how small our part of the world is by comparison with the larger reality? Well, whatever it is, the mountain top has always played an important part in human spirituality, whether it’s the Celtic mystics who built their standing stones on hill tops, or the Hindu holy man who sits alone on the hill and meditates day and night. And it’s certainly true in the Judaeo-Christian religious experience. The mountain top was the place where God showed Abraham the land of Canaan and promised him all he could see in every direction. It was the place where he was taken to test his faith with the sacrifice of Isaac. It was the place where Moses first encountered God and where, later, he was given the 10 Commandments. It was the place where Moses was given a glimpse of God, where Elijah was taken for reassurance that God was still with him, and here in this passage today we find Jesus going up a mountain to meet with God. (Mk 9:2)
Jesus takes his inner circle, Peter, James, and John, and leads them up a high mountain where they were all alone. While they’re there, - Luke tells us that it’s while Jesus is praying, - he’s transfigured before them. That is his face begins to shine and his clothes become dazzling white. The implication is that this is a manifestation of the glory of God in Jesus. The shining face is like the change that came over Moses when he’d been speaking to God in the Tabernacle during the Exodus. The bright clothes are a sign of purity and God’s glory, like the description given of the angels of God in various places. The three disciples are given a brief glimpse of a reality beyond their human experience, a hint of the true nature of this Jesus that they’ve only recently proclaimed to be the Messiah.
It’s significant, I think, that all three of the synoptic gospel writers place this event immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and his subsequent explanation of his purpose for coming; that is, to die on the cross and rise again after three days. The disciples were distressed at the fact that Jesus would immediately begin to talk about his death. But they needed to realise that there was more to Jesus than they’d so far perceived. That their human perceptions were so far short of the mark that they needed to rethink them.
But perhaps Jesus also needed the reassurance that his understanding was correct. Here he was proclaiming the way of the cross, and those nearest to him were telling him he must be mistaken. Remember that Jesus was both human and divine. He had the divine insight into his future path, but he also had the human limitations of not knowing for certain what was ahead. So when his disciples started to question what he was thinking, perhaps he needed to be reassured. That’s certainly true of us isn’t it? That’s why it’s so important that we maintain constant fellowship with other Christians. Because otherwise the doubts and pressures of the world wear away at us. Otherwise those who doubt the truth of the gospel, some of whom you’ll even find within the Christian Church, begin to wear away at our faith. We need to be reminded constantly of the God who came and died for us, whose Lordship is shown by his victory over death. We need to be reminded that serving him is worth any price.
So too, perhaps, Jesus needed to be reassured and his resolve strengthened for the task that lay ahead. And so God sends Moses and Elijah to speak with him. Luke tells us that they were speaking about his departure, literally his exodus, which he would fulfill at Jerusalem. These two men are significant because of what they represent. Moses represents the Law, which Jesus has come to fulfill. But he’s also the forerunner of Jesus, the one who first brought his people out of slavery into freedom in the promised Land. It was under Moses that the people of Israel became a nation. So too, it was under Jesus that the people would be freed from slavery to sin and a new nation would be formed, though this time one based on faith in Jesus, rather than on obedience to the Law. Elijah, on the other hand, represented the prophets, those whom God had sent to call his people back to himself. Jesus had come to provide the true way that people could be brought back to God. Elijah’s coming again was to be the sign of the coming of God’s kingdom, which Jesus was now bringing in. As well as all this, both Moses and Elijah had made an unusual departure from this life. Moses just disappeared and Elijah was taken up alive to heaven. And so they were well qualified to minister to Jesus as he contemplated the suffering that lay before him. These two, more than any other, represented all the painstaking care and preparation of God for the fulfilment of his plan for his people.