By Paul Koch –
Mountains. Big things tend to happen on mountains. After Israel had been delivered from the house of slavery in Egypt and crossed through the Red Sea on dry ground, they made their way to the foot of a great mountain, Mount Sinai. There God would give His holy decrees and blessed commands that would set apart these people as His own people, bearers of His covenant. As was promised through their father Abraham, all the families of the earth will be blessed through them. Up in the heights, on the mountaintops, God came near to His chosen ones. There His glory was on display in the cloud with fire and lightning. Into the cloud of God’s presence Moses entered and received from the Lord instructions on the building of a sanctuary on earth, a Tabernacle where God would dwell with His people. He promised that He would no longer be separated from His people up on the mountaintop, but down right in their midst.
After six days Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up a high mountain. Now Jesus had just told his disciples what it means to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God. He told them that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day rise from the dead. Not only that, but when Peter tried to stop him, he declared, “Get behind me Satan!” In fact, he goes on to tell them if they are truly his disciples, each of them will take up their cross and follow him. So now they find themselves heading up a mountain. Big things tend to happen on mountains. This mountain is no different. We are told that our Lord transfigures before them. His face begins to shine like the sun, his clothes become as white as light itself. The glory of God isn’t shining all around them, rather it seems to be seeping out from Jesus himself.
But that is not all that happened on the mount of Transfiguration. No, Jesus was greeted there by special guests, and we would do well to pay attention to them. Moses himself, the one who scaled Sinai’s heights to talk with God, was there. Moses was the one who bore the voice of God from the mountaintop to the people. He was the one who even interceded for the people when God’s wrath burned against them. And yet, not only is Moses there but Elijah, as well. Elijah is another one who is no stranger to mountaintop experiences with the Lord. After his victory at Mount Carmel over the prophets of Baal, he flees for his life from the wrath of the wicked Jezebel. By the grace and intersession of God he makes it to another mountain: Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. There on the mountain God speaks to His prophet, not through the wind or the fire or the earthquake, but in a low whisper. The reason for the presence of Moses and Elijah is simple; these were men who talked with God on mountains and now they are talking with Jesus. For here is where we find God in the midst of his people.
Today we have a deep longing for such a mountaintop experience. We long for that powerful revelation of the glory of God, for a moment to see with our eyes what we confess with our mouths. From the greatest skeptics to the most ardent believers there is a desire to experience the divine in some way, to touch the glory of God. Like Peter, James and John if we could have been on that mountain, if we could have witnessed such a sight, why then, we could go forward with greater assurance and confidence! We would never be shaken by our long and arduous journey through the valley of the shadow of death. Where is our pillar of cloud by day and fire by night? Where is our mountaintop moment of the glory and awe of God?
Now this longing is not lost on our culture. There are whole industries that are dedicated to delivering mountaintop experiences to the people of God. Of course, they can’t conjure up the visible presence of God’s only begotten Son shining like lightning, but they make an attempt to create the emotions and sense of awe and wonder and joy that might have gone along with such a moment. Not unlike movie magic, they will use the perfect movement of song and music and images to lift up the hearts of the people of God and create an experience that can carry them forward. In many ways, the encouragement in today’s church is not to hand over the goods, or to give the gifts of Christ in Word and Sacrament, but to create an experience. The quest is to try to get up the mountaintop again and again, but like an addict chasing a high. It is forever changing and harder to recreate.
If you know anyone that is an addict, if perhaps you struggle with addiction, you know that at the same time there is a longing for that experience, that high, yet that same experience can become more and more difficult to obtain. If you are addicted to food or alcohol or gossip or smoking, you find a piece of your security and identity in having that thing, or having that experience. But where one drink used to do, now it might take two or three to achieve the same feeling that you had before. Who is to say that the religious experience doesn’t function like that? If we could only recreate the mountaintop moments, then we could deal them out like a drug dealer stringing along the faithful who will always come back for more. Perhaps this is what Marx was getting at when he famously declared that “religion is the opium of the people.”
We like the mountaintops. Big things tend to happen on the mountaintops and we don’t want to miss out on the big things. In fact, we crave the experience over and over again. We like our churches to be big and profound, to make an impression upon those who come seeking the gifts of God. It is a way to prove the value of what our faith is all about. We point to our visible successes and say, “See? Clearly God is at work here. He can be experienced here. He is present here. This is the type of place and the type of people among whom you too can have a mountaintop experience!”
Good old Peter. See? His longing is not all that different from yours. He was there, there in the presence of Moses and Elijah and our transfigured Lord, and he was content to just stay. He could remain forever on the mountaintop. “Lord, it is good that we are here,” he says, “If you wish, I will make three tents here. One for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” This moment is all that is important to him, all that matters. Not unlike you, he’s a glory addict who sits in the presence of pure glory itself. Why would he ever leave? But this is not the way of our God. Mountaintops are not the places where the real work is accomplished. He must go back down the mountain.
As Peter spoke proudly of his idea to stay there forever, a bright cloud overshadowed them and the voice of God boomed driving Peter, James and John to their knees in fear. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Listen to him. As they lay there shaking in terror, what do they hear Jesus say? He says, “Rise, and have no fear.” When they do, there is no one left: no bright transfiguration, no Moses and Elijah, no cloud of the presence of God, only Jesus. For Jesus, it seems, is enough. And so they head back down the mountain.
It is down the mountain where the gifts will be given, where blood will be shed and his body broken. It is there where he will stand in the place of sinners and endure the shame of the cross for your salvation. Down the mountain in the muck and the grime of your lives is where his gifts really shine. It is down the mountain he first stood in the waters of the Jordan River and repented for your sins, declared them to be his own, and there too God declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It is down the mountain that he has found you, and called you his sisters and brothers.
The transfiguration of our Lord on that mountaintop is not to turn our eyes heavenward, to have us begin a journey to recreate such a moment, to climb forever upward and fill ourselves with glory and awe. No, the transfiguration was recorded so that we might willingly go down the mountain, again and again. For down the mountain we find each other. We find the hurting and the wayward. We find the doubting and the ashamed. We find the those who are lost and confused. And this is the thing, Jesus went down the mountain as well. God now dwells with His people. He dwells in His lowly and easily misused gifts.
These gifts you are free to use over and again. For you can turn to each other at the base of the mountain and declare with all boldness, “I forgive you. I love you and I won’t let you go. I will walk beside you, even as we walk in the presence of Christ himself.”