All of this morning’s lectionary readings are about mountain climbing, something that was incredibly important to me in my childhood. It was an amazing experience that I shared with my father. In fact, it was among our last shared experiences of the sort when I set off to climb Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks with my father and my oldest daughter. But my father, already in the last decade of his life, bowed out from joining us under intense pressure from my mother. When my daughter Christi and I reached a fork in the trail an hour into our climb, there was my father, who had left my mother to shop in Lake Placid and literally had run along a shorter but more challenging path in order to meet up with us and finish the climb to the mountain top.
Spiritually speaking, the mountain-top experience was a very common metaphor in my youth. Going to Christian summer camp was always a mountain-top experience, as were many retreats and rallies with Youth for Christ or my church youth group. We often said how sad it was that the mountain-top spiritual experiences could not be perpetuated after we returned to our everyday lives with their challenges, temptations and failures. The pledges we had made on the mountain top soon faded. As God said through the prophet Hosea, ‘Your love for Me is like the morning mist, like the dew that goes early away” (Hosea 6:4). We found ourselves frequently falling under that condemnation.
Decades later I now reflect with a great deal of pleasure on those childhood mountain-top experiences. I’ve been blessed in recent years to have had a renewal of similar ones both in seminary and in ministry. God seems ever-ready to bestow them on us if we’re faithfully putting ourselves in a position to receive them. They may be periodic spiritual “highs” that never will be a completely “normative” part of our Christian walk. Yet they are times of refueling, of restoration, of rejuvenating that lead us forward with a jump-start that we all need from time to time. They may transcend the weekly experiences of worship that for some can become repetitive and mundane, even though they should not. In the best sense, they may reinvigorate our understanding of weekly worship and lead us to new and more frequent mountain-top moments.
I’ve never lost my childhood fascination with mountains, and on our summer travels I always try to include some place where I can get my “mountain fix.” Of course it has to do with those treasurable past experiences, both physical and spiritual; but I think it also has to do with my reading of Scripture from an early age and my appreciation of the important place mountains have had in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus. It was incredibly moving for us last September to see some of those mountains mentioned in Scripture, among them Mount Nebo, where Moses was allowed to view the Promised Land that he would not be able to enter; Mount Carmel, where Elijah did battle with the prophets of Baal; the Mount of the Temptations of Jesus; the Mount of the Beatitudes and the Feeding of the 5 Thousand; Mount Tabor and the snowy Mount Hermon, one of which may have been the Mount of the Transfiguration; the Mount of Olives with its Garden of Gethsemane; and the Temple Mount and Mount Zion in the city of Jerusalem.
God seems to love mountains even more than I do, as He chooses to meet with His people on their slopes and peaks. He met with Moses on the slopes of Mount Sinai when He spoke from the burning bush and again on the top when He gave Moses the law, not once but twice. Of course God is everywhere, including right here in this room this morning; but clearly God shares my love of mountain-tops. In fact, He probably has placed that love in my heart.
We heard in our reading from Exodus 24 that “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction.’ Then Moses went up to the mountain, and the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” What an amazing experience this had to have been for Moses. And he came down with those tablets of stone, inscribed by the very finger of God, the second set of which were preserved in the Ark of the Covenant until the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 b.c.
In Psalm 74:2 the psalmist says to God, “Remember Your congregation that You purchased of old, the tribe You redeemed for Your own possession, and Mount Zion where You dwelt.” Psalm 76:4 says, “In the light of splendor you appeared, glorious from the eternal mountains.” And in our Psalm for today, Psalm 2, we hear God saying, “But as for Me, I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain.” That holy mountain of God remains to this day the holiest of all places for Christians and Jews and it’s one of the 3 holiest of all places for Muslims. The palpable sense of God’s presence on that holy mountain brings one to a prayerful acknowledgement that God is truly there. It’s also the place to which Jesus will come when He returns to establish His Kingdom and, according to Hebrews 12:22, it will symbolize the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.
The mountain that’s our focus today in both the epistle reading from II Peter and the Gospel reading from Matthew is the one we call “the Mount of the Transfiguration.” We cannot be certain what mountain this was. A Byzantine Church of the Transfiguration was built on Mount Tabor as early as the 4th century, and there are both Orthodox and Franciscan churches there today. But Mount Hermon fits the geographical flow of Matthew much better. Several other possibilities have been put forward by various scholars. Peter simply called it “the holy mountain.” It may be that God did not intend for us to be certain of the site in question so that we would not be tempted to worship the site itself rather than remembering the significance of what happened there.
Today, the last Sunday before Lent, is called “Transfiguration Sunday” in the Lutheran and Methodist calendars and this is why it appears in the RCL readings for today even though Catholics, Anglicans and others observe it on August 6. In some ways Peter’s first-hand recollections of his experience on the Mount with Jesus are even more compelling than Matthew’s account of the event in his Gospel. They also may dispel the notion that Peter was culpable for doing something rash or inappropriate in his wish to build three booths on the Mount. Had that been the case, he might have been less likely to have referred to the incident at all.
My own childhood mountain-top experiences always left me with profound sympathy for Peter, who probably wanted to extend his time with the transfigured Christ by building booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. The rebuke He is thought to have received from the voice of God was in fact much gentler than the ones he’s received from countless preachers who say, in essence, “There goes the ever-impetuous Peter, once again trying to get ahead of where Jesus wanted him to be or misinterpreting his circumstances and springing into inappropriately impulsive action, an act right up there with his slicing off the right ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest, in the Garden of Gethsemane.” Then we’re admonished by the preachers not to emulate Peter’s actions on the mountain top, but to learn from Peter by way of negative example.
On the contrary, I think that Peter’s suggestion sprang from an altogether laudable spiritual inclination. In fact, the voice of God from heaven may have been one of affirmation rather than of rebuke, saying in essence, “Yes, Peter, this is indeed My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased,” the same Person you yourself identified just a few days ago at Caesarea Philippi when you made your great confession of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). I know that if I had been James or John, I might have sprung into action to help Peter build those booths and to extend the experience before descending back to real life. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the booth-building at Succoth was a symbolic anticipation of Messianic times, when Elijah would return, Messiah would appear and the perceived space between God and His people would be eliminated. In that light, we should be applauding Peter for his remarkable spiritual acuity in capturing the meaning of the moment.
Later Peter wrote about the Transfiguration in a spiritually powerful and succinct fashion. I find it interesting that in his second epistle Peter makes no mention at all of the appearance of Moses and Elijah. His focus is entirely on Jesus Himself, Who as the incarnate Son of God personally embodied all that Moses and Elijah had ever represented to the children of Israel as lawgiver and prophet. And that’s precisely the point for us. Peter wrote that they “were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is My beloved Son with Whom I am well-pleased,’ and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.”
For Peter, whatever witness may have been given by Moses and Elijah to the majesty of Jesus, it was the voice of the One he calls “the Majestic Glory” that was by far the most important. It was God the Father declaring once again that this man Jesus was His beloved Son in the very same words that were spoken from heaven at the baptism of Jesus by John. Luke adds to these words of God the descriptive title, “My Chosen One,” and all three of the Synoptic Gospel writers add, “Listen to Him.” The disciples had no idea how very short their time for listening to Jesus would turn out to be. We have the great advantage of being able to hear Jesus through the words of Scripture whenever we choose to be reading them and listening to Him.
So powerful was this moment that when the three disciples, James, John and Peter, heard the voice from heaven, the voice of “the Majestic Glory,” they fell to the ground terror stricken. I imagine any of us would have had the identical response. This voice, added to the fact that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light,” would have struck an overwhelming sense of fear and awe in anyone who could have witnessed the scene.
All three Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration immediately move on without further commentary to relate the events that followed the descent of Jesus and His disciples from their mountain-top experience. But Peter adds a sentence the importance of which in this context is easily missed. He writes, “So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.” That was the message of the Transfiguration for Peter’s readers in the first century; and its beautiful, poetic and challenging message remains the same for 21st century Americans. “We have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.” That’s what Peter retained from those three simple words of the voice from heaven, “Listen to Him.”
Note that Peter’s sentence is all about light: the shining lamp, the dawning day and the rising morning star. In a spiritual sense Peter is saying that the same radiance that made the face of Jesus shine like the sun and His garments become white as light on the Mount of Transfiguration is now shining in our hearts. This is our take-away from the account of the Transfiguration. Only three disciples were privileged to experience the event itself. But Peter tells us that the event has made the prophetic word more sure, and that we would do well to pay attention to it, not just once or twice a year when it’s Transfiguration Sunday or when the passage shows up in our Gospel reading, but whenever we reflect on the light of Christ that’s meant to shine forth through each one of us, today and every single day that we name His Holy Name and proclaim His Holy Word.
Jesus is indeed uniquely the light of the world, as He said in John’s Gospel; but in the Sermon on the Mount, He said unequivocally that we are the light of the world, a reflection of all that He was when He walked on this earth. We are the city set on a hill. We carry on the work that He did in the brief time of His incarnation 2000 years ago. He promised His disciples that they would do even greater works than He Himself had been able to do. In His High Priestly prayer in John 17 He prayed to the Father, “As You have sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” Then He added, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word.” That’s us: through what we like to call “apostolic succession,” we are among those who have believed in Jesus down through the centuries and who are called on to bring His light to a world of darkness. That’s exactly what Peter meant when, reflecting on his experience of the transfigured Christ, he said that our witness to Him must be “a lamp shining in a dark place.” We’re living in a dark place and the light we are to share is desperately needed.
Do you feel inadequate for that task, that awesome responsibility? I know I do. But here’s how Peter concludes his challenge: it’s not something that we do “by an act of human will,” our own wills being notoriously weak; but we do it as persons “moved by the Holy Spirit” who speak from God. In other words, the very same Holy Spirit Who inspired the writers of Scripture and ensured that they were not offering their own private interpretations now illumines our minds and speaks to us and through us. It’s a process superintended by the Holy Spirit from start to finish so that the truth of Scripture is safeguarded and guaranteed. And it’s why we firmly believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture as well as the truth of our proclamation of it in our time and in all times without altering it in any way.
And so, in the words of the beautiful prayer often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, may we pray, “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.” Then we will hear Jesus cheering us on with His words, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” We proclaim the peace of Christ in a world where we know there to be no other true source of lasting peace. Jesus is our peace (Ephesians 2:14), and we are to bear His holy light to our dark world. To Him and to Him alone be all honor and glory and praise both now and forever. Amen