a sermon on Matthew 17:1-9 and 2 Peter 1:16-21
preached on Transfiguration Sunday, March 2, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There’s nothing quite like the view from a mountaintop. Some of you have been with me to see the view from atop Bear Mountain, only some forty-five miles from here, so you know that it is quite a memorable scene. The vista stretches across the Appalachians to the west, up to and past West Point looking north, down along the beautiful Hudson River and across to Connecticut to the east, and finally all the way back down to the Manhattan skyline. It’s one of the most unusual and surprising sights of nature within a short drive from here! But even if you can’t travel that far, there’s an incredible panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline just a few blocks from here on one of the highest hills in Whitestone!
This incredible view from mountaintops has made them an important place for people for many centuries. In earlier times, while the difficulty of building on top of a mountain made using them for cities difficult, the highest points of the landscape were always most suitable for castles and fortresses because it made it easier to see the enemy coming. Beyond their beauty and practicality, mountaintops have also been important places of spiritual life and insight in many cultures and religious traditions. In Greek mythology, many of the gods made their homes and assembled for divine gatherings on Mount Olympus. The mountainous areas of Nepal, Tibet, and India, nestled among the highest peaks of the world’s mountains in the Himalayas, are also home to countless monasteries and the cradles of Hinduism and Buddhism. One sherpa there, a mountain guide for climbers of the highest peaks in the world, told the Times last year, “Mountains, to us, are holy.”
And in the Bible, these holy mountains are everywhere! Moses encountered God again and again on mountaintops, first in a burning bush atop Mount Horeb to receive instruction to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of slavery to the Promised Land, then in fire and smoke atop Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, and finally in the clear air atop Mount Nebo, where he could see the Promised Land that he would never inhabit. Various mountains figure especially prominently in the Psalms, culminating in the comforting words of Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
And the great city of Jerusalem was built atop a hill, with a climb steep enough—and holy enough—to merit a particular set of verbs in Hebrew that indicate that one is “going up to Jerusalem” or “coming down from Jerusalem.”
Even with all these holy mountains throughout scripture, the greatest view from a mountaintop in the Bible comes in the transfiguration of Jesus, recounted for us in our reading this morning from the gospel according to Matthew. Each year, this story leads us into Lent as Jesus makes his way down the mountain from this brief moment of exaltation toward his execution at the hands of the religious and political leaders of his day and finally to his resurrection to new life. Like any mountaintop view, the view from the top matters immensely.
As Matthew tells it, Jesus took three of his disciples on a hike up a mountain by themselves. Once they reached the top, something happened to Jesus. Exactly what happened isn’t clear—“transfiguration” is a word that just doesn’t have much reference beyond this context!—but Matthew does tell us that “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” But this change in appearance was only the beginning of it all, for Jesus and the disciples were soon joined by Moses and Elijah, who came to talk with Jesus. Then, in one of those moments that makes Peter the most loveably stupid of the disciples, he offered a classic ridiculous suggestion:
Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain–one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah? (The Message)
Peter’s absurd suggestion was soon drowned out by a voice from a cloud that had suddenly overshadowed them, proclaiming,
This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!
Jesus had of course heard these words once before, at his baptism by John in the Jordan, but now his divine being and calling were being made clear to others, too. The disciples didn’t know what to do. The view from this mountaintop had shifted quickly from a beautiful landscape to an incredible declaration of God’s glory, so “they fell to the ground” but then were also overcome by fear. Jesus told them to get up, not to be afraid of this strange gathering on this unexpectedly holy place, but when they got up, Jesus was alone by himself with them. As they headed back down the mountain, Jesus told them to keep quiet about what they had seen—at least “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Now the other thing about views from mountaintops beyond their beauty is that they can vary dramatically. I grew up going every few years to the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, and they were appropriately named not because of any smokestacks around but because of the fog that could appear out of nowhere and turn a clear day into a gray mess. Nearly every mountain has this sort of changing view. When the weather is clear, the view is spectacular, but if it is foggy, rainy, snowy, or anything else, you might as well be in the valley because you aren’t going to see anything of any importance.
So on this Transfiguration Sunday, what is our view from this mountaintop? Does this story and this vista make something about Jesus more clear than it was before? Is the view from this high and holy place clear or cloudy as we look to the things behind us and before us? Can we see and understand the gifts that God is placing before us in these days and respond with joy and gladness? Do we have the confidence in God’s mercy and grace to journey the Lenten road with Jesus and trust that we will find our way to more mountaintops ahead—to the Mount of Olives to pray with Jesus and the disciples, to Golgotha to share in the despair of death, and finally after the resurrection to the mount of the Ascension to witness Jesus’ return to glory? Will we do as Second Peter suggests and pay attention to this mountaintop view “as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”?
Now there will surely be days on this journey when our view is not very clear, when the pathway to the summit is not easy, when what happens there is confusing or uncertain, when we start babbling incessantly about nothingness like Peter, when we fall down in fear and wait for Jesus to come and touch us and tell us that there is no reason for us to be afraid. Yet still, slowly but surely, the Spirit opens our eyes to the incredible view from the mountaintop, a vision of Jesus Christ, transfigured and transformed, making a way through all the wilderness of our world so that we too can be made new.
So today as we make our way to this table, to this little mountaintop where we too are promised a glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus Christ, may the Spirit clear our view from the mountaintop so that we can go forth as transfigured people ourselves, shining forth the glory of God in all that we say and do until the transformation of all things begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is complete and all things are made new.
Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.