By Paul Koch –
When we arrived in the city of Cologne last November you could clearly see the tall spires of the great cathedral towering over the rest of the town. Our local tour guide called it the Black Gothic Mountain. The sulfuric acid in the rain from the burning of coal slowly turned the white sandstone this dark grey, black color. Every time you looked at that building you couldn’t help but slowly lift your eyes heavenward. The architecture was designed to pull your gaze upward. Whether you were standing outside examining the flying buttresses and gargoyles and spires, or you were inside its massive unobstructed nave lined with stained glass windows where the flood of light made you feel small and insignificant compared to the glory of God, you seldom found yourself looking down or even straight ahead. It was imposing, beautiful and massive. It was a confession in stone and mortar of the glory of our Creator.
It seems fitting when we contemplate the glory of our God to look upward. For one of the great recurring themes in Scripture is that when God shows up, when he intercedes, when he reveals himself to his people he often does it from up high, from mountaintops where the peoples gaze was always directed heavenward. Perhaps the greatest example is Mt. Sinai where God descended upon the mountain in a dark cloud filled with fire and lightening. His presence was located on that mountaintop and so the whole mountain became sacred. It was there that Moses received the great commandments of God, separating his people from the rest of the world, making them to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Or think of Elijah who was hiding in a cave on Mt. Horeb when God descended there. As he passed by his servant there was a great wind that the broke the mountain followed by an earthquake that shook its foundations, and then a consuming fire. God’s great actions tend to pull our eyes upward.
Deep down we love this. After all, it makes sense. It is worthy of our God to direct our eyes to the heavens to receive his gifts. It is fitting to look above the trials and tribulations of our lives. Why wouldn’t we look above the hurt and pain and doubt and fear of our daily grind to receive blessing of our God? In fact, we don’t even need a grand cathedral or a trembling mountaintop. No, we often gravitate toward other things that can give that same overwhelming feeling of receiving something beyond our lowly station in life. Music can transport us to the heights, emotions can lift us beyond what we see all around us. Images can be mixed in with both of these to create our own heavenly gaze as we lift up our hands to receive the glory that comes down from on high.
And so, we are prepared and ready for the story of our Lord’s great transfiguration. In fact, we even call the scene that unfolds the Mt. of Transfiguration. It is a place, a lifted-up spot on the earth, where once again God’s glory is revealed. When Jesus took his inner circle of brothers; Peter, James and John and begin to go up a high mountain, you know they must have been super excited. After all, they knew about God and mountains. They must have anticipated that they were in for something really cool. And boy did they get it. Jesus’s clothes become a radiant white, beyond anything that man could create on his own. And then Elijah and Moses show up. That’s right; two people who had previous experience talking with God on mountains were there. This time they were talking with Jesus – get it? Do you get what is happening? Here is a mountaintop moment of God’s holy revelation that directs all attention to our Lord Jesus Christ alone.
Now what Peter offers to do here mays seem silly to us. I mean even the text says that he didn’t really know what to say, for they are all freaked out at what is happening before their eyes. Seeing Jesus gleaming white all of a sudden and talking with the great servants of God, people who crossed through great trials only to be taken into the bosom of God himself, would scare any of us. So, it makes sense that he says, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” But I think the point here is that he doesn’t want to come back down the mountain. He doesn’t want to leave the glory of the Lord. He wants to build a heavenly shrine right then and there so that this glorious moment will never cease. See, Peter gets it. He may not get what is happening in that moment, but he gets who we are. He echoes the desires of our hearts. Imagine if you could build a place above it all, above the grime and lowlines of your life to bask in the glory of God. Wouldn’t you do it? Wouldn’t you at least try?
If all this wasn’t enough, what happens next? Well, a cloud overshadows them. Now this is right out of the Old Testament. This is the moment they’ve been waiting for. God himself, the Creator the heavens and the earth, the almighty Father has showed up on the mountain. Then it happens; they hear the voice of God on the mountaintop. And what does he say? He directs their gaze away from the cloud, away from Moses and Elijah and focuses them back on Jesus. For God says, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And we are told in the text that right after God says this, in an instant, everything disappears. No more cloud, no more Moses, no more Elijah, no more gleaming white Jesus. The transfiguration moment has passed and what they are left with is our Lord. Well, they’re left with more than that. For they are left with a Word from God himself. A commandment given on the mountaintop to listen to the Son of God.
G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy tells a tail of a man who sets sail from England to discover a new land. But after setting out he gets turned around in the fog and mistakenly returns back to England. Thinking, though, that it is a new place he went out to discover he finds himself looking at familiar things as if seeing them for the first time. This sort of thing is what has just happened to Peter, James and John. They’ve climbed up the mountain for their moment of heavenly glory and what they are directed to is the one that they already had with them. They are called to see Jesus for the first time as he really is. The beloved son of God who walks in their midst. And what is more, they are to listen to him. They are to heed his Words, and his alone.
See, the amazing thing about the story of the Mount of Transfiguration is not what they go up on the mountaintop to see and experience. The amazing thing is that this Son of God comes back down the mountain. Mankind is so consumed about going up, looking up, climbing up, by any means possible that they can miss the simple wonder that He has already come down. That’s right, the glory of God has come down, all the way down. Down into your lowly lives, down into your darkness and sin and confusion. He comes down bearing the glory of God with him to speak words of wonder and life into your ears. He comes down into your broken lives and says, “I forgive you all your sins. I have found you and I will not let you go.”
Like Peter, James and John we are directed to the one who came down for us, directed to his voice. A voice that has come into your life. A voice that has been bound up with water to wash you and declare you to be the children of God. A voice that hears your confession and absolves you of all your sins. A voice that comes in with and under bread and wine to feed you the very body and blood for our Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins.
Our Lord doesn’t direct our gaze upward but focuses us on the gifts given right down here in our midst. They are foolish and lowly to our world, they don’t come with blazes of light and emotional highs, but they are the very workings of God. These gifts, not up on high but right here, become the heart of our fellowship. These gifts drive our love and compassion. They turn our lives of death and corruption into the promises of life and light. You do not have to climb the mountain, for God’s Son has come down for you.