Sermon: The beauty of the mountains

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Feast of the Transfiguration, 27th of February 2022

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
Luke 9:28-36

Mountains are places to encounter God. Looking up at them from the surrounding plains we see their peaks reaching into the heavens. Climbing a summit is an escape from everyday life. Looking down from them we have a ‘God’s eye’ view of our surroundings, and can see the interconnectedness of all things: rivers joining lakes; roads linking place to place. Most importantly, mountains are simply beautiful. Years’ ago the church sent me to live for six months in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute in Switzerland, and every single day I saw the Jura Mountains looming up over Lake Geneva, and every single day that sight took my breath away. It is no wonder that we refer to our most immediate encounters with God as mountaintop experiences. It is no wonder that Moses encountered God on Mount Sinai; that the Psalmist calls us to worship God on his holy mountain; and that it is on a mountain that Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah, and God speaks directly to Peter, James, and John. Mountains are places to encounter God.

A photo of mountains in the distance, with Lake Geneva in the middle ground and rooftops of Nyon in the foreground.

The Jura Mountains over the rooftops of Nyon

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, the quintessence of mountaintop experiences. The Transfiguration marks a turning point in both the gospel and the church year. Jesus and the disciples are on the road to Jerusalem. We know where that road leads, to Jesus’ betrayal and death. We know that today’s Feast of the Transfiguration will be succeeded by Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent, culminating in Good Friday. The disciples, too, are beginning to get hints of this. Immediately before today’s reading we’re told that Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and that Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.*’ Jesus then told them, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ He also told his disciples, that they, too, must take up their own crosses, daily, and be willing to lose their lives. (Luke 9:18-27) This is the context within which the Transfiguration takes place.

As I said last year, every detail of the Transfiguration that the gospels give us: the mountain; the dazzling white clothes; the presence of Moses and Elijah; the over-shadowing cloud – tells us that here is a direct encounter with God, a theophany. In the presence of Jesus the separation between earth and heaven has been overcome. But Luke adds a detail that is not present in the versions of the story told by Mark and Matthew. In today’s reading, we are told what Jesus, Moses and Elijah talked about. Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus ‘of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’. The Greek word for departure is ‘exodus’.

The Exodus was the formative experience of the people of Israel. They had been in slavery in Egypt, and God had heard their cries of distress and saved them, leading them to safety and making a covenant with them. Because of the Exodus the basic pattern of Judaism, one that we inherited as Christians, is the ‘saving reversal’ from a situation of despair to one of salvation. Because of the Exodus, the people God had led from slavery to freedom were to love the alien living among them as they loved themselves (Leviticus 19.34); they were never to sell each other into slavery because God had already redeemed them from slavery (Leviticus 25.42); and when they kept the sabbath, ‘your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day’. (Deuteronomy 5:14-15) The holy God described in today’s psalm is a lover of justice, and that justice was seen not only in the Exodus but in the way the people of Israel were to live in response to it. Now we hear of a second exodus which Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem with his death.

On the mountain the three disciples ‘were weighed down with sleep’, but had managed to keep awake to see Moses and Elijah. In the garden of Gethsemane sleep will overtake them completely, but for now Peter blurts out the first thing in his head: ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ Matthew and Mark tell us that when Jesus responded to Peter’s confession that he was the Messiah of God by saying that he must suffer and die, Peter rebuked him. (Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 8:31-33) In Luke’s telling of that exchange Peter does not rebuke Jesus and so Jesus does not respond ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Even so, here on the mountain Peter seems to want to hold on to the glory and avoid the suffering that Jesus knows is coming. Peter needs to learn, as we all do, that despite its wonder and beauty we cannot spend all our time on the top of the mountain.

Peter’s other mistake, apart from wishing to hold on to the mountaintop moment, was to believe that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were equals. But how could he not? It was through Moses that God gave the law to the people of Israel; Moses was so close to God that after he and God had spoken his face glowed with reflective glory and the people were afraid to come near him. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets, taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire rather than dying. For Peter to equate Jesus with these representatives of the Law and the Prophets was to honour him. But now Jesus’ uniqueness is revealed to the disciples. A cloud overshadows the mountain, and from the cloud a voice declares, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the disciples look around Elijah and Moses have gone, and Jesus is alone. Jesus is not merely a prophetic figure or a teacher of the law. Jesus is not the equal of Elijah and Moses, Jesus is God’s Beloved Son; what is happening here on the mountain is a revelation of God.

Jesus is greater than Elijah and Moses, but he will enter his glory through suffering and death. God’s Beloved Son will undergo betrayal, rejection, and abandonment by the Father as he dies at the hands of his enemies. This is the teaching that Jesus has been giving; the teaching confirmed by Jesus’ Father when he orders the disciples to listen to Jesus. There cannot be resurrection without crucifixion; there cannot be glory without suffering. After they leave the mountain, the disciples keep silent and tell no one what they have seen. The story of the Transfiguration cannot be told without the story of the cross. Even for the disciples who have now seen Jesus’ glory revealed, there is no way of understanding who Jesus truly is until they have seen him suffer, die, and rise again; until his exodus has been fulfilled.

This is the paradox of our faith, the apparent contradiction at the core of Christianity. We believe that in Jesus we encounter the God who is enthroned on the cherubim, who causes the earth to quake and the peoples to tremble; the God whose glory is so great that it was frightening even when seen second-hand on the face of the human Moses. Conversely, we believe that we encounter God through Jesus’ suffering, rejection, and death. The glory of God’s presence cannot be separated from the pain of the world.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, the revelation of the glory of God in Jesus Christ. We encounter God on the mountaintop, on the beautiful, wild, isolated summit from which we get that God’s eye view of the world. But we cannot stay there. Mountains may be places to encounter God, but they are not the only sites where that encounter can happen. God is not only with us in places of glory and beauty. Over the next seven weeks, starting with Ash Wednesday, we will accompany Jesus on his exodus, his journey towards the cross. Like the first Exodus this will be for us a revelation of God’s love and salvation, and an inspiration to us to live lives of justice. Today we celebrate heavenly glory and beauty on the mountain, but we know that God can equally be seen in the suffering Son of Man dying in desolation on the cross on Good Friday. The Lord our God is holy, and that holiness is revealed in many ways.

Photo of mountains in the distance, with fields in the foreground.

Jura Mountains from the fields of Celigny

Because God’s holiness is revealed in beauty and in suffering, in the glory we celebrate today and the shame of the crucifixion, we know that whether we are experiencing joy or sorrow, whether we are in triumph or despair, whether our lives are glorious or obscure, God in Jesus Christ is always with us. Mountains are beautiful, but even if we feel ourselves to be living on the plain, even if our lives seem weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, God’s Son, the Messiah, walks beside us on the exodus that will ultimately lead us to the kingdom of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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