The Mountaintop is Our Fuel, Not Our Mission
By Bishop Chris Giesler
Sermon Text: Matthew 17:1-9
When was the last time you said the word “Transfiguration”? It is certainly not a word frequently heard at the barber, beauty salon, grocery store, or gas station.
“Transfiguration” is a churchy word that we generally trot out once a year, and then it goes away for another 51 Sundays. So today is the day we read Matthew’s account of this miracle. While we can certainly call this event a miracle, it is unique among others that appear in the gospels in that it happens to Jesus rather than something he is doing for others.
Let’s take a look at Matthew’s Transfiguration account.
Just before this event, Peter has made the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus, accompanied by his disciples, sets his face to begin the journey to Jerusalem for what will be his crucifixion. Just as they start this journey, Jesus invites three of the disciples, Peter, James, and John, to climb to the top of a mountain. Does this sound reminiscent of the account of Moses going up the mountain to receive the ten commandments? It should. But once there, the appearance of Jesus changed; it was transfigured. The text says that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
But if that were not enough to amaze those disciples, all of a sudden, Elijah and Moses were standing with Jesus. These two were the pillars of the Old Testament narrative, and it would have blown these disciples away. Putting this in terms of US history, it’s like saying that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln came and stood among them. I have had the privilege of visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, several times. And every time I go, I get a lump in my throat just standing at the foot of that statue and then turning to read the Gettysburg address. Could you imagine what it would be like to see Lincoln in person? Now you know what’s going through those disciples’ minds.
Finally, to top that all off, a cloud comes over them, and out of the cloud, the voice of God comes forth, saying: “This is my son the beloved; listen to him.” Pretty amazing stuff, but why did this happen?
First of all, let’s look at the placement of this story within Matthew’s Gospel. As I mentioned before, this occurs just after Peter’s confession of faith and at the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, where we will meet him in just six weeks. This event is crucial to Jesus’ emotional and spiritual well-being; he is going to need this profoundly sacred moment. These words from the cloud are an affirmation that will be his courage through betrayal, denial, beatings, humiliation, pain, and even death.
So what might this event have meant to Peter, James, and John? The text says that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. What is happening here is that, for this moment, Jesus had his humanity pulled back, and all that was left was his divine presence. We affirm as Christians that Jesus is both fully human and divine. For most of Jesus’ life, the disciples saw the fully human Jesus. Yes, they heard bits of the divine, but here on this misty mountaintop, they saw Jesus’ divinity. They had all witnessed miracles that could not be explained except to say that this man was from heaven, but these acts of love were performed by someone who looked just like they did. But at this moment, I believe the disciples were given a glimpse of the full divinity of Jesus. The dirty clothes, the dusty feet, and the human features were, for just a moment, all removed. All they saw was divine radiance.
As Christians, we are responsible for placing ourselves in situations that will help us see the divine in life. Moments like:
- The beauty of spring
- The wonder of somebody doing something extra special for you
- The satisfaction that you might feel when you know that you have done something kind for somebody else
- The birth of a baby into our lives
- The joy of giving praise to the one who gave you live
- The joy of carrying Jesus in your heart throughout the day
- The feeling you get when sitting on a mountaintop and you sense the dynamic presence of God in your life.
In moments like these, I see God clearly, and I understand Jesus’ love dynamically.
This mountaintop moment was so profound for Peter that he offered to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah so that this moment be prolonged. Why go back to the world if this moment is so good?
As the saying goes, a boat is safest when it is docked in the harbor, but that is not what boats were made for. Jesus could have stayed on the mountaintop, but that’s not what he was sent for. Life on the mountaintop is safe, and we DO need these moments, but that is not what our Christian vocation is. Mountaintops are to fuel our mission, not become our mission. OUR MISSION is to spread the Gospel of Christ in word and deed and to be engaged in the world, in lives, in love, and in service.