By Paul Koch –
The season of Epiphany is drawing to a close. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and with it comes that somber and reflective time of year called Lent. Compared to Lent, Epiphany is an exciting time of the church year. After all, an epiphany is a manifestation of something divine, a moment of sudden insight or revelation. And so Epiphany begins with appearance of a star that leads Magi from the east to worship our Lord. Then we focused on the Baptism of our Lord where the heavens tear open and the Spirit anoints Jesus, and God declares, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” And the next week he turned water into wine, and then we follow our Lord as he begins to cast out unclean spirits. But all of these epiphanies pale in comparison to the moment that is before us today – our Lord’s transfiguration. This is the pinnacle epiphany. This is the highpoint that this church season has been moving towards.
Jesus takes with him Peter, James, and John and they head off away from the rest of the group, up a high mountain to pray. Now any casual reader of Scripture ought to be prepared for something pretty cool to happen when Jesus goes up the mountain. For it is on mountains where God makes a habit of showing up to give important revelations to his people. It was on Mt. Sinai that God gave his Commandments to Moses. It was on Mt. Carmel that God consumed the altar built by Elijah and turned the tide of Israel’s hope. And sure enough, as Jesus was praying the appearance of his face was altered and his clothing became dazzling white. And all of a sudden, who should appear but those fellow mountaintop guys Moses and Elijah? They show up in glory to talk with him. It is as if on that mountain the veil of our Lord’s humility is pulled back. Peter, James, and John are allowed to see some of his unfiltered glory. There he stands in clothes white as lightening, conversing with the great prophets of God.
Now when Peter sees that Moses and Elijah begin to leave he speaks up. He says, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” We are told that he doesn’t understand what this means, and I think that means he didn’t know the ramifications of staying on the mountain with these three. However, I think Peter knew exactly what he was saying. He didn’t want to go down the mountain. He didn’t want this moment, this epiphany of the glory of Christ, to end. He wanted to stay. He wanted to set up camp. After all he is right, it is good to be there. It is good to be in the presence of God’s glory. You didn’t have to search for it, you didn’t have to hope for it, you didn’t need to long for it. It was right there shining away before your eyes. And if that wasn’t enough, a cloud then overshadows them, and God himself speaks on the mountaintop.
It makes sense that Peter didn’t want to come down from that mountain. After all, we know what is waiting at the foot of the mountain. When you turn your back to the glory and splendor of the Transfiguration you begin a journey back down into the dark and shameful reality below. You head back down into lives that are marked by confusion and suffering, back down into futility and sin. Why not just stay on the mountain? Why not set up camp? Have you ever been on vacation, and I mean a great vacation? One where you actually relax, where all the troubles and worries of day to day life slip away, and you get lost in a little bit a paradise. But then you go home. And going home is hard. Oh, we may like to sleep in our own beds again; but along with home comes bills and family tensions and a laundry list of things that need to be done, including laundry. Going back is difficult.
Much of the efforts of mankind both within the church and without are fueled by a desire to get back to the top of the mountain. See, we get sick and tired of our lives at the bottom of the mountain. We know only too well about our struggles and failures. We press on, of course, telling ourselves that tomorrow or next week it will get easier, that things will finally fall into place, but it never seems to happen. And so we long for that vacation, that spiritual high, that will get us out of our situation. When people lament how modern churches look more like theaters for entertainment than holy sanctuaries, what they are seeing is an attempt to get back up the mountain. The use of lighting and music and video screens help to dislodge us from the bottom of the mountain. It is the same as the ancient customs of intricate art and architecture along with the burning of incense and the chanting of psalms. It was a way to transport the members of the congregation out of the muck and the mire of day to day life. It was an attempt to get to the mountaintop at least for an hour or two on a Sunday morning. When you came into a church you left behind the world, you went upwards to a place where we could sing together, “It is good Lord to be here.”
Yet the story of our Lord, including the story of his transfiguration on the mountaintop, is not a story of a destination; but it is the story of a great and powerful movement. The goal was never to stay on the top of the mountain, the goal was to go back down. The purpose of our Lord’s coming wasn’t found in the glory and light and talking with Moses and Elijah but down in the muck and the grime of our daily lives, that is where it was at, that is the goal. Jesus didn’t come to take us away on a vacation but to join us in the ebb and flow of life. You don’t have to seek the top of the mountain to find God; he finds you right where you are.
The glory of the transfiguration then serves as a reminder of the one who came to dwell with us. This man that would be crucified outside the wall of Jerusalem is the Son of God. This is the one, the only one, who lived the perfect life. He then is the one who repented for sins not his own and died to pay their toll. Jesus’ movement into the sin of this world is a movement toward our freedom. Not a spiritual high for a day or a week, but an eternal blessing in a paradise without end. And so notice even as Peter wants to make some tents, notice what it was that Jesus was talking about with Moses and Elijah. We are told that they were speaking about his departure, about his exodus that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Just as the great exodus from Egypt defined God’s people for generations, now a greater exodus would define and shape the life of God’s chosen.
They couldn’t stay on the mountaintop because there was an exodus to undergo, a journey down the mountain. Now this journey would go all the way down, all the way into the sin and ugliness of our world. He doesn’t leave any cruelty untouched. He will endure the scorns and mocking of evil men. He will be whipped and beaten and spit upon. He will feel pain and exposure and torture. He will die a cursed death and be buried in a borrowed tomb. But as we said, his story is one of movement. And so he will move on. Death will not get the final say. He will raise again from the dead and bestow the freedom he won freely on all his children. This exodus is not freedom from slavery in Egypt but freedom from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil.
And yet his journey didn’t end with his resurrection, did it? No, he rose and then ascended to the right hand of the Father. He departed, and we are left and the bottom of the mountain waiting for his return. We are waiting to join him in that great exodus: to leave behind once and for all the sin that so easily entangles us, to leave behind the frustration and disappointment of this life. At times we may rightly wonder if we can actually make it, if we will endure until that day. For sometimes it all seems too overwhelming.
But you will make it. You will endure. And you will endure because he is at work even now. Though our Lord’s journey has taken him high above, he has not left us without his gifts. The cloud that covers Peter and his friends announces the arrival of the Father, and from that cloud comes the voice of God declaring, “This is my son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” The gift given to those who must go back down the mountain is the Word of God’s only Son, the Word of the Chosen One. We are not left alone because we can still listen to him. We can hear him in our darkness, we hear him in our struggles, we hear him in our broken lives. We hear that voice saying again and again and again, “I love you, I forgive you.” And soon we will all join together on the mountaintop and dwell in the presence of Lord.