Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Highest Mountain

The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Luke 9:28-36

There’s something about the mountains. It’s not just getting away from it all. When you’re in the mountains you feel like you’re on top of the world. You can see panoramic views you can’t see from down below. You marvel at the grandeur. It’s easy to understand why when you experience something exhilarating it’s called a “mountain-top experience”.

We all know what that’s like. Peter, James, and John experienced it. Actually, they literally experienced it. There they were, on the mountain. And when they witnessed what God showed them they didn’t want to leave. This is good being here! Let’s stay here and set up shop. No way we’re going back down the mountain to our ordinary lives.

They thought they had reached the pinnacle. The highest mountain. It would seem so. Isn’t that why Jesus brought them up there? Here, I want to show you something no one else has seen. So it must be where it’s at, right?

Well, the problem is that Jesus didn’t want them staying up there. He brought them up for a short time. What He really had in mind was to make the trek back down the mountain. Because the Mount of Transfiguration wasn’t really the highest mountain. No, there was one that was higher, even if it wasn’t taller. And even if it wasn’t as spectacular. The highest mountain in the world, even, doesn’t compare to it.

God has a thing with mountains. He uses them for important stuff. We see that in our Scripture readings for today. Moses was brought by God up to Mt. Nebo. There he could see the Promised Land. Only from that vantage point could he really see the splendor of what they had been wandering toward for forty years. But there’s another mountain from which we have the vantage point of seeing the true Promised Land. That’s because it’s a higher mountain, even if it’s not as tall as Mt. Nebo.

The most famous mountain of all, of course, when it comes to Moses, is Mt. Sinai. On that mountain God also made a spectacular display, although unlike Peter, James, and John, the Israelites wanted to get out of there. And they weren’t even on the mountain. The display of God’s glory they saw was of smoke and fire and thunder. But though God showed His awesome power on that mountain, there is still one that is greater. It reaches higher because it shows God in His fullness, not just His holiness.

And what about Moses’ cohort, Elijah? It was on Mt. Carmel that God showed his power through the actions of Elijah against King Ahab and the prophets of Baal. Ahab abandoned the worship of the true God and opted for the message of the 450 prophets of Baal. It was on Mt. Carmel that Elijah made his stand against Ahab and the so-called god of Baal. Setting up two altars, the prophets of Baal prayed to no avail to their wisp of a god. But when Elijah prayed to Yahweh, fire was sent blazing down from heaven upon the altar. A spectacular display of supremacy, but Carmel is but a mound against the mountain that reaches up beyond sight.

It’s actually on the Mount of Transfiguration that this highest of all mountains is spoken of. It’s in the midst of Jesus’ spectacular display of glory that is pointed a mountain which shows us fully who Jesus is and why there was yet one more ascent to make. You see, Moses was invited up the great mountain of Sinai. God brought him up to the peak of Mt. Nebo. Even in that singular moment when God called him in the burning bush God came to him on a mountain, Mt. Horeb. Elijah displayed for all to see on Mt. Carmel who the true God is. Jesus gave the opportunity to three of His disciples to enter on top of a mountain which was unlike any other, in which Jesus was transfigured before there very eyes.

But all of these mountains are plains compared to the one which only Jesus could ascend in order for us to attain heaven. Not many people can climb Mt. Everest, but it can be done. No one can make their way to heaven, no matter how much they might try to stay on the mountain of their self-delusion. Believing all paths lead to salvation. Turning God’s mercy into a flabby notion that God won’t condemn anyone. The mountains we raise of our own sense of self worth, however, are what we most often rely on. But how many times do we have to keep ascending those mountains before we realize we invariably slide back down? What will it take for us to acknowledge that we can’t claw our way up the mountain into heaven? The only way for us to reach heaven is for Christ to ascend a mountain that He alone must ascend.

And that is why He came back down the Mount of Transfiguration and set His face toward Jerusalem. That is why on the Mount of Transfiguration He and Moses and Elijah were speaking of His “departure” which, Luke says, He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

There was a mountain there, right in Jerusalem. More of a hill, really. But it’s the highest mountain there is because of the fact that Jesus ascended it for His “departure”. In other words, His death. Calvary is the highest mountain because it reaches heaven.

What kind of a religion glories in a mountain like Calvary? In a cross where the experience of Jesus is bitter and gruesome? Why not in a majestic event like the Transfiguration? Why were Peter, James, and John so wrong? Isn’t Jesus truly glorious? Isn’t Jesus truly Lord of all and doesn’t He eternally reign over all? The Old Testament goes to great lengths to glory in the eternal Mt. Zion, the heavenly counterpart of the chosen city Jerusalem. Why is the hill of Calvary the center of the universe when it comes to God?

There’s a reason Moses and Elijah were with Jesus at the Transfiguration. And why they were talking with Jesus. Because we have to know that no mountain will show us glory apart from the hill of Calvary. No mountain-top experience will last if there is no cross. The Mount of Transfiguration is not really about the glorious experience of itself at all. It’s about the glory of God that is known ultimately on the mountain of Calvary.

When Jesus went up the mountain with the three disciples it was to pray. Jesus did not suffer Himself to be lead up the hill of Calvary to pray, but He did pray there. The most wonderful prayer of all, in fact, was uttered by Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is why there is no true glory of God only in the Transfiguration, because without the cross there is no forgiveness.

While on the Mount the appearance of His face was altered, and His clothing became dazzling white. It was a glorious sight, but there is no more glorious sight than the face of Jesus being altered from the scourging and His clothes tattered and torn and even stripped from Him. Isaiah prophesied that His appearance would be “marred more than any man”. Who usually thinks of glory when picturing the bloody face of Jesus on the cross? God does. Not because He’s a sadist, because His supreme glory is His mercy upon fallen man.

The men God had brought at distinct points in history to significant mountain tops now appeared in glory with Jesus as He was transfigured in a dazzling display of glory. But their mountain-top experience was done a little differently than how we would do it. Moses and Elijah thought this was the perfect time to talk about Jesus’ impending suffering and death. What good at all would it do for Jesus to come to this mount and give a glimpse of His glory if everyone was lost? Moses and Elijah are pointing us to the highest mountain of all, the one that leads us to eternal glory in heaven as they experience it now.

Luke tells us that Peter and his compatriots were very sleepy. They almost missed the big show! But they got to see it after all and thought it was marvelous. Exactly the opposite of what they thought when Jesus was taken into custody, beaten, and nailed to the cross. On the Mount of Transfiguration they wanted nothing more than to remain there. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, they couldn’t get far enough away.

As if to bring Peter, James, and John back to their senses, God the Father covered the scene with a cloud. Even the creation spoke what it thought of Jesus the Son of God being humiliated through crucifixion as the clouds covered the sky and darkness reigned for three hours until He died. But the light of God’s salvation could not be darkened during those six hours Jesus was on the cross. It was in the darkness of that moment His love and glory showed through most brilliantly.

How Jesus must have longed on the cross to hear again those words spoken of Him by His Heavenly Father at His Baptism: “This is My Son, My Chosen One” and here again in His Transfiguration. But there was nothing of words of comfort like that as Jesus hung limply on the cross. What He received instead was abandonment. He cried out to His Heavenly Father: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Do we understand now why God the Father said of His only-begotten Son at the Transfiguration, “listen to Him”? If there’s ever something you should hear it is this, what Jesus said on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” It is in that sorrowful death of Jesus and the being forsaken by His Father that you and I are given mercy.

For a moment, there on the Mount with Jesus His disciples saw Moses and Elijah. But it didn’t last, just as all mountain-top experiences do not last. Suddenly, Jesus was alone. It was time to go back down the mountain. For three years the disciples had been with Jesus. But in the moment when normally they would think to be there for Him when He most needed them, they were nowhere to be found. He was alone there on Calvary. And it has to be that way. The mountain of Calvary reaches up to heaven because Jesus alone has paid the penalty for the sin of the world. Amen.

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