An Open Table where Love knows no borders

From Mountain Top to Mountain Top (full version)

A sermon on Matthew 17:1-9; Exodus 24:12-18 & 2 Peter 1:16-21 by Nathan Nettleton

The gospel story we heard tonight, the story commonly known as the transfiguration, is a most intriguing story with layers and layers of meanings, and interesting connections back to earlier stories and forward to later stories. The scholars are often divided about what to make of it. Some argue that it probably began as a resurrection story, and that it somehow ended up in the wrong place, and if that were true, it is not too hard to see why it was shifted, because the gospel writers do use it as a kind of key turning point in the story of Jesus. But whatever they make of it, most scholars, even the usually sceptical, are agreed that the story almost certainly originates with some sort of genuine historical event. The more sceptical assume that the story has been greatly shaped and embellished to suit the theological points that the gospel writers wanted to make, but that something must have happened. One of the reasons is that the apostle Peter, in the second reading we heard tonight, is clear in describing it as an event of which he was an eye witness, and there are very very few of the gospel stories prior to the crucifixion which are ever mentioned in the other New Testament letters. And another reason is that the details about the disciples being afraid, not understanding, and saying stupid inappropriate things are not details that are likely to have been made up by those same disciples if they hadn’t actually happened.

Often, this story is taken rather simplistically as a proof of the divinity of Jesus, but it doesn’t really make that point in any conclusive way. Yes, God’s voice is heard saying that Jesus is God’s beloved son, but the whole of Israel was described as being the sons and daughters of God. And yes, Jesus is described as being transfigured before the witnesses, so that his face shone like the sun, but in Luke’s version, Moses and Elijah are similarly reported as appearing in glory, and in Exodus, Moses is described as also doing the shining-face thing, and no one is claiming that Moses or Elijah are God. And furthermore, describing someone’s face as lighting up is something we do all the time, and no doubt it was in those days too. So while the story clearly has important points to make, just saying that Jesus is divine is probably not going to get us to the bottom of it.

The presence of Moses and Elijah, on the other hand, is clearly very important, and since Matthew tells us nothing of what they were talking about, it is what they represent that is important, not the things they say. However, identifying what we are supposed to understand them to represent is more complicated that you might imagine. All manner of theories have been put forward, and many of them are very persuasive, so in truth, there is probably no single answer. There are many layers of meaning in what they stand for, and many of those layers can be fruitfully explored in ways that deepen our understanding of Jesus and of the path that he is calling us to follow. I want to take just one of those layers of meaning tonight, and explore a perspective on the connections between Jesus, Moses and Elijah that has been new to me this year. My clue to this connection is the mountain top. This story takes place on a mountain top, and the stories of both Moses and Elijah feature prominent and crucial mountain top events too. Moses went up onto the mountain and into a cloud of glory to receive the ten commandments, as we heard in tonight’s first reading, and Elijah is best known for his contest with the prophets of Baal on another mountain top where he successfully called down fire from the sky to burn up a sacrifice on a water soaked altar to “prove” the superiority of his God. So I want to suggest that if we draw a line through these three mountain top experiences, that line will point us in the direction of what God is wanting to reveal to us here about our journey of following Jesus.

The connections between the transfiguration story and the story of Moses going up the mountain to receive the commandments are the more obvious of the two. The presence of Moses is the most obvious connection, but as we heard in our first reading, there is also the description of the glory of the Lord covering the mountain like a cloud for six days, and on the seventh day, God calling to Moses out of the cloud. The transfiguration story also makes a point of six days elapsing before the event, and for no apparent reason other that the allusion to the Moses story. And of course, the transfiguration also features a cloud of glory covering the mountain and the voice of God speaking from the cloud.

So the connections are clear, but what purpose are they serving. Well, one of the very real possibilities is that when the voice from the cloud at the transfiguration says, “This Jesus is my beloved son. Listen to him,” the point is actually in contrast to Moses and Elijah. So what I want to do is look at the understanding of God that emerges from the Moses story, and then how that understanding is challenged in the Elijah story, and then how it might be being challenged again in the transfiguration story.

In our Moses story, we hear that “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.” You can ask Garry and Jan what a devouring fire on a hill top is like, because it is only a few weeks ago that their house was under threat from one, and that fire was pretty small in both size and intensity compared to Black Saturday and some others we’ve seen in this country in recent years. God is being portrayed as a terrifying and out-of-control power that will means instant death to anyone who puts a foot wrong. If we had read more of the story, we would have heard details like the guarantee of instant death for any human or animal other than Moses and Joshua that even touched the foot of the mountain while God’s glory was blazing atop of it. In other places in the Moses stories too, God’s anger gets out of control and begins devouring everyone, and Moses and/or Aaron have to desperately make religious appeasements to prevent the total destruction of the people. And of course, this primitive understanding of a terrifying out-of-control devouring God is exactly the sort of understanding that leads to a religion full of detailed codes of law covering absolutely everything and extreme punishments for every breech, because any slip up could cause that raging bushfire of a God to break out from the containment lines and destroy us all. Thus Moses, the only one who could face God and live, comes back down the mountain with the ten commandments and the four hundred and four sub-clauses that can ensure that the people don’t pour fuel on the divine fire and die.

When we get to Elijah, centuries later, we have another fire on the mountain story and another voice on the mountain story, but now the understanding of God has moved on a bit. God is not so out of control and a danger even to his friends, but Elijah sees God as jealous and competitive, and Elijah is very into the my-God-can-beat-your-god kind of aggressive competition. Elijah also believes in death for the losers. Surely we are serving God if we kill God’s enemies, thinks Elijah, so when he wins the whose-god-can-send-fire-from-heaven competition, and all the people are cheering him, he promptly orders the slaughter of the four hundred and fifty prophets of the losing god. And usually when we hear that story, that’s as far as we go, and we only hear the next bit on other occasions as though it was a different story. But it is not. Immediately after his huge public victory, Elijah is plunged into a deep depression and he wants to die. Something has gone seriously wrong for Elijah. He thought he was the one who had it all right, but somehow it has all fallen apart for him. Everyone saw him as a winner, but somehow he suddenly knew that he had it all wrong. And in the midst of his depression, God orders him up another mountain and promises to reveal himself to Elijah. And there is a cyclone, but God is not in the cyclone. Then there is an earthquake. Even insurance companies call earthquakes acts of God, but God is not in the earthquake. And then there was a fire. Now we’re talking. Moses knew God was in the fire, and Elijah sure knew that God would come with fire. Fire was God’s big thing, right? But no, God was not in the fire. Is Elijah being set straight, or what? And then there was something that words can’t make sense of — a “sound” of sheer silence. And when Elijah heard it he covered his face and knew he was in the presence of God. No wonder he covered his face. He’s just killed four hundred and fifty people because he thought it would please the jealous God of fire, and now he realises that he’d got God all wrong.

Just how wrong he had got God is revealed when we come to Jesus and to the mountain of transfiguration, and I wonder if Elijah wasn’t covering his face again! Remember how I said that this story echoes the mention from the Moses story of six days passing before the encounter with God on the mountain? Well, what does the six days refer back to this time? It refers back to this: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And of course, it was Peter who had just named Jesus as the messiah and who, full of Elijah-like zeal for a god who triumphs over his opponents and slaughters his enemies, now rebukes Jesus and tells him that such a dismal fate could never await the messiah of God. And Jesus hasn’t just politely informed him that his views of God are outdated, he has bluntly informed him that such a view comes straight from satan. “Listen to him,” says the voice from this mountain. The one of whom that voice says, “This is my Son, the beloved, and with him I am well pleased,” is one who will not slaughter enemies, or pass sentence of death on those who cannot live up to the law. He is one who reveals that the devouring fire is not a fire of God’s anger, but of human hatred and hostility, and it is that very fire that he resolutely walks into to reveal to us once and for all that God does not will the destruction of anyone, but will willingly suffer the full force of human violence for love of us.

And thus, after six days of telling them that God so loved the world that he must suffer and die for it, Jesus stands now on the mountain, between the representatives of the old violent misunderstandings of God that he is overturning, and he sets his face towards Jerusalem and a grisly fate that he knows only too well. And if that were not only too clear to Peter and the other disciples now, from this mountain he points the way forward to yet another mountain, or is it just a hill this time? Another hill top that will this time be covered with a cloud of darkness. Another hill top where he is again be seen “in all his glory” between two dead men, as he is hung up to die. Another hill top where again a voice will say “Surely this is the son of God,” although this time the truth will be voiced by a confused pagan soldier. Another hill top, to which we ourselves are led by the one who in those six days also said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” A hill top where, finally and definitively, the beloved Son in whom God is well pleased demonstrates that God’s only only involvement in violence and death is to suffer it for love of us.

So that line, drawn from mountain top to mountain top to mountain top, is a line that Jesus calls us to follow, that we might be set free from fear and know ourselves beloved, and that we might cast ourselves into the outstretched, loving, tortured arms of the God who is entirely and unchangingly love and mercy and grace and more love. And it is in the embrace of that infinite love, my friends, that we will this week, with Jesus, seek to take up our cross and set our feet on the Lenten journey.


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