Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach, on Matthew 17:1-9.
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A mountaintop. A summit. An apex.
Peter, James and John accompanied Jesus to the mountaintop. Maybe they thought it was for the view? Or, maybe they were grateful to be out of the valley? Certainly they were able to see Jesus at work in the valley, what, with all the people, all the requests, all the need. Maybe they were simply glad for the break? Little did they know that their mountaintop experience would consist of seeing Jesus in radiant clothing or that they would hear God’s voice. Although, if they’d been listening to the Hebraic stories of Moses and Elijah, they might have picked up on some common motifs: master, disciples, mountain, cloud, audience, and vision. If they were familiar with those stories, they wouldn’t have been surprised when they heard God’s voice on a mountaintop.
How would you define Jesus’ mountaintop experience? Was it simply a story of confirmation? “This is Jesus, listen to him.” Was it a form of reaffirmation, echoing Jesus’ baptism? Or, would it better be categorized as a precursor of his resurrection? Just how would the disciples have understood their mountaintop vision of Jesus wearing shining white clothes, surrounded by Moses and Elijah? That is the question!
For a moment, let’s consider Moses and Elijah who appeared on the mountaintop with Jesus.
For Moses, in Exodus 24, the mountaintop was a place of commune. Another opportunity to relate one-on-one with God. It was also the place of memory. And, it’s the setting for one of my favorite biblical thought experiments. In response to God’s invitation, Moses climbed Mount Horeb and remained on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights. I find that I am fascinated by imagining how Moses spent his time during those days and nights. When I think about Moses’s lengthy stay, I’ve considered that it probably took some time to find an adequate stone tablet, sizable enough to fit ten commandments into two columns and large enough that he could round off the top of the columns. And then he needed to locate a pointed, chisel-like stone as carving tool. And, he needed to brush up on his penmanship perhaps. And, he needed to figure out spacing. And, he needed another stone in case he messed up. And, he needed… (forgive me, I’m being facetious). But, I do wonder whether all of that carving took forty days, some five hundred hours? If not, how did he spend the rest of his time?
See, I imagine that Moses started carving right quick after he located the stone and the carving tool. He carved Thou shall have no other Gods than me. Done. Then, Thou shall not take the Lord’s name in vain. Then, Remember the Sabbath. Then, Honoring parents. And then, (oh boy!) this was where things got real. Moses was a volatile man. Hidden away, deep within him, was the memory of a time he’d like to forget. Years ago, in a fit of rage he had given into his anger and killed an Egyptian, then buried him, and a few days later fled the area when he realized that what he thought was concealed, was actually known by many. While on the run, Moses encountered God for the first time, hearing God’s voice in fire flaming out of a bush. God called out to Moses. A relationship began between Moses and God. And, despite the significant roles Moses played in leading God’s people, in which his relationship with God surely deepened, Moses held onto to his secret. But, on the mountaintop, communing with God for forty days, that’s when everything caught up to him. Can’t you just see it? “Moses, are you ready to carve the next commandment? Go ahead, carve Thou shall not kill.” (Laughter) Maybe at this moment, Moses cowered. Or, bewildered, he walked aimlessly in circles. Maybe he stammered or stared at God, slack jawed. Maybe the reason Moses was on the mountain forty days was because of his own avoidance.
But, when I imagine this story, I envision Moses eventually coming around. He needed to talk to God about what had happened all those years ago. By naming it, Moses was able to experience a deeper relationship with God, including forgiveness upon claiming the error of his ways. From the mountaintop, he was able to view the horizon for the first time. Maybe it now looked different than before. Relief. Release. Maybe he held his head higher, and could now see further.
Interestingly enough, Moses finished carving the ten commandments, headed down the mountain, became angry, and then returned to the mountaintop not only to re-carve the ten commandments but to ask God to forgive the people as God had forgiven him.
If Moses represents relationship, Elijah might possibly represent immortality. For Elijah, the only person in the Bible to return to the mountaintop once shared by Moses and God, the mountaintop setting was refuge. He found shelter in a mountaintop cave after traveling forty days and nights to escape the enraged Jezebel. Later, in 2 Kings 2, Elijah’s life was preserved for eternity as the biblical account records his ascension to heaven in a whirlwind of of flaming chariot and horses.
Now, these are the characters who gather around Jesus at his Transfiguration. What did Peter, James and John think of their presence? Did they understand their presence as emphasis on relationship and immortality? And, how did they make sense of the shining white clothes or the veiled reference to resurrection? Was the mountaintop for them, a place of foreshadowing?
Allow me to pause and check-in. I recognize the possibility that when I started talking about mountaintops, you revisited your own experience of Mt. Washington, Kilimanjaro, Pikes Peak, Matterhorn or Table Mountain. Or, Mass-of-nothing; I mean, Massanutten. These experiences stick with us because of the journey of hiking to the top as well as the vantage point they provide. From mountaintop, the horizon seemingly goes on forever unless other mountains or clouds obstruct your view.
If Peter, James and John were awed by the natural beauty around them, that detailed has been lost. Their experience on mountaintop was one of worship, but also fear. Ecstatic that they could witness Moses, Elijah, and Jesus together, they wanted to celebrate and preserve. But, they also felt unsettled, possibly wondering whether they could live up to the command to “Listen to Jesus” or fearing for Jesus’s life and their own. Descending the mountain, Peter, James and John may have seen, for the first time, what lies on the horizon.
This combination of worship amidst fear has recurred over and over again throughout history. Stories abound of imprisoned Christians whom, refusing to recant, followed a fairly common routine leading up martyrdom, which consisted of letter writing, prayer, singing familiar memorized songs, and even hymn writing. Persecuted Anabaptist would gather in haymows for meetings and worship. Throughout the Antebellum Era of the late 18th and 19th Century, slaves would secretly leave the plantation during the night and congregate in “hush harbors” in a nearby forest. Wet quilts were hung from trees forming a temporary tent-like structure (something like Peter’s imagined dwellings?). The quilts were damp so that they would absorb the sounds of worship. For the time of prayer, a large stockpot was placed on the forest floor and one slave after another took turns praying aloud but directly into the pot to muffle the noise. Dried leaves and shells were spread on the paths leading to the hush harbor to provide warning if a plantation owner was searching the forest. Hush harbors provided the only opportunities to worship; together slaves would sing, pray, and discuss promising stories and passages in the Bible that offered hope. Amidst constant fear, they would congregate to worship; hush harbors serving as their mountaintop throughout their lived everyday experience in which there was little hope on the horizon.
We read the Transfiguration story prior to Lent as a reminder. The harrowing journey of Lent will conclude in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But, the resurrected Christ is notably different than the Transfiguration. The resurrected Christ isn’t wearing shining white clothes, the resurrected Christ is disfigured, his wounds visible to anyone who comes near.
We live in a time where everything has become one subject. When from one day to the next another “disfigured” body can be targeted: the alien, the Muslim, the transgendered, the marginalized, excluded, problematized. In fact, this isn’t how it should be. Instead, society from the Biblical story up through today, will continually be assessed, concerning whether it is just, based on its attentiveness to the widow, the alien, and the orphan.
The good news of Jesus’s resurrection is not only victory over death, it’s a recognition of the falsity that only some are considered disfigured. The disfigured Christ shows that the contrast is not between abled and disabled but between the temporarily abled and disabled. The disabled Christ should remind us of the fluidity of all bodies. If anyone experiences disfigurement, then the body of Christ needs to break itself open and make room. We are called to parody the world when bodies are marginalized, excluded, problematized.
What is on our horizon? What might tomorrow bring? Can we see beyond it?
Theorist José Esteban Muñoz encourages the practice of futurity, which he defines as the process of seeing something that is not yet here. He states, “Indeed to access [this] visuality we may need to squint, to strain our vision and force it to see otherwise, beyond the limited vista of the here and now.” By doing so, one embraces potentiality. The present is not enough. And instead one should look beyond the horizon to glimpse the future that is not-yet-conscious.
The Transfiguration, it seems to me, might best be understood as the process of seeing beyond what is on the horizon. Maybe Peter, James and John glimpsed the shining white clothes representing the not-yet-conscious future. For them, the “here and now” was toxic. They were ridiculed, persecuted. And, Jesus: he was abducted, convicted, disfigured.
If we are to catch a glimpse of the Transfigured Christ it’ll be while we worship. And then, we too will echo Peter’s claim, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” In response, a voice from heaven, stated: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
For Peter, James and John listening to Jesus meant descending the mountain possibly realizing, for the first time, what lies on the horizon.
In listening to Christ today we will find commune and refuge but even more we will accompany the disfigured Christ to address all that is toxic and divisive in the here and now. We cannot glimpse the Transfigured Christ if we don’t listen to Jesus and the call from long ago to provide for the widow, the orphan, and the alien among us.
Together, let us acknowledge the fluidity of all bodies. Let us listen to Jesus. And, let us worship as well as envision what lies beyond the horizon.
Our theme music is “Jesus, I believe you’re near,” composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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