Mountaintop Experience

Exodus 34:29-25, Luke 9:28-36, February 7, 2016 

Today is a kind of pivot in the church year. This is the last Sunday before the Season of Lent starts—you all know about the pancake supper followed by worship with communion this Wednesday. We’re also moving away from Epiphany today, having spent three weeks considering the different events in Jesus’ early life and ministry that were unmistakable signs that he was God’s son.

Except, we haven’t quite moved away from those stories. This morning’s gospel lesson sure sounds like another unmistakable sign that Jesus is God’s son. It comes at a turning point in Luke’s gospel. Up to this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has been travelling a bit, mostly up north in Galilee and across the sea, and up near Capernaum and a little in Samaria. He’s made a couple trips to Jerusalem, as a boy his family made an annual trip there. He’s been gathering disciples and training them and sending them into the world. Unique in Luke is Jesus’ tendency to go off in private and pray. Once when he was doing this with his disciples nearby he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And the disciples replied, some said he was John the Baptizer, whom Herod had killed; some said that he was Elijah; others that he was a prophet.

This is an important distinction, Jesus asked what the crowds were saying about him—and his disciples answered. Then he asked, “But who do YOU say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” [“Messiah” means “anointed” or “Christ.”] And at this point, the whole story changes! Jesus told them, for the first time, that he would undergo great suffering and be rejected by the religious leaders and killed and rise from death three days later.

Peter identified Jesus as the Christ—and everything changed! Eight days later Jesus took his inner circle, Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray. And while they were there Jesus’ clothes became very white and Moses and Elijah appeared with him, talking.

I want to break in here. This is a stunning story, but when we talked about it at Evergreen on Wednesday, we had a question: How did they know that Jesus was talking to Moses and Elijah? If Moses appeared to you today in a cloud, let’s say, how would you recognize him? Maybe he’d be carrying tablets with the 10 Commandments, or his staff which he used to part the Sea of Reeds and bring water out rock. So maybe you could identify Moses, but Elijah—how would you know Elijah if he was talking to you?

I have to say I don’t know. Maybe Moses and Elijah were wearing name tags. It is very significant that Elijah was up there. He was considered the forerunner, the announcer of the coming of the Messiah to Jews. In what we know as the Old Testament he was a prophet and performed a lot of miracles. But what really set Elijah apart is that he didn’t die. He was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, while his apprentice, Elisha, watched. And the last two verses of the Old Testament speak of Elijah: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents…”[Malachi 4:5-6]

Centuries later when rabbis would discuss unresolvable questions they would acknowledge that they were stuck by saying, “We must wait until Elijah comes.” And today when Jews celebrate Passover at the seder meal, tradition has it that they keep the door unlocked and pour a glass of wine for Elijah. The text does not indicate how Peter, James and John knew that it was Elijah with Moses and Jesus, but his presence with Jesus would have been VERY significant.

This is a story that is pointing us forward. Even the first words—eight days after---point us to one day after seven, the first day of the week, the day of the renewal of Creation, the day on which Christ rose. And this discussion with Moses, another mountain climber I’ll talk about in a minute and Peter, the most impulsive of the disciples wanted to build a dwelling for Moses and one for Elijah and one for Jesus, so they could stay in this moment, on the mountain, and as soon as the words left his mouth a cloud overshadowed them and they entered the cloud. And there was a voice from the cloud that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

You should remember the last time a voice came from the sky, when Jesus was baptized, God said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That happened at Jesus’ baptism, which we marked two weeks ago in our extended Epiphany. This time, though, the sky isn’t speaking to Jesus, but to his disciples. Giving them marching orders for when they get off the mountain and return to the real world.

 And really, after they get off the mountain Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.

The story about Moses shining on the mountain is quite different, but there are significant parallels. Moses went up the mountain three times before the Old Testament passage today. He got the 10 commandments, he got a different set of laws, and the third time God revealed to him the “blue prints” for the Tabernacle. Moses was away from the people for long stretches. When he was away getting the plans for the Tabernacle, Aaron, his brother, crafted the Golden Calf, which they worshipped as a god. When Moses came down the mountain the third time and saw the dancing around the Golden Calf, he smashed the tablets, and God’s presence left the Israelites’ camp.

What would happen next? They all knew how badly they had sinned…and Moses went off alone and pleaded with God, reminding God of God’s commitment to rescue the people…and they got a new start. God ordered Moses to cut two more tablets, and Moses went up the mountain, again, and took dictation. And this time, when he returned to his people, his face glowed so brightly it was painful for them to look at him. Moses didn’t know he was glowing so brightly.

 We can think of Moses as a mediator, as bridge between God and the people. It’s no accident that the conversations between God and Moses happened on a mountain. Believers of all kinds conceive of God as being above—and to have a mountaintop experience is to become closer to God. Moses was the one who was strong enough to endure God’s presence and relayed God’s will to his people.

Think about mountaintop experiences that you’ve had. Perhaps they’ve been literally on the tops of mountains. Perhaps they have epiphanies, moments of sudden, startling clarity. We talked about these experiences at Evergreen on Wednesday. For those gathered, going to church camp during the summer when we were in middle school were mountaintop experiences. We were away from home, and in an environment where it was possible to really integrate one’s faith into everyday living.

No one can stay on the mountaintop. We always have to go back down. But we return changed—those experiences at camp, or glowing radiantly from God’s presence—or hearing the voice of the Living God—we carry those experiences with us.

Peter, James and John did. They did not understand the significance of what they experienced in that moment. And it appears that they neither heard nor understood what Jesus was saying when he told them they were headed to Jerusalem—and what “departure” from them there would accomplish. They didn’t get it. All at once, right away. But they were able to recall that experience, of being completely in God’s presence. An experience that made Moses glow. That’s the experience that Christ invites us to share as we journey with him, to the Cross during Lent. Amen.