On the Mountaintop and In the Clouds
A Reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For February 26 2017, Transfiguration Sunday
Based on Matthew 17:1-9
Jesus goes up a mountain and meets Moses and Elijah: Moses, the hero of the Exodus, who led the enslaved children of Israel across the Red Sea fleeing from a pursuing army; Elijah, the prophet who shamed 400 prophets of Baal and then ordered that they all be killed; Moses, who also ascended a mountain to receive the law instructing Israelites how to remain faithful; Elijah, who climbed a mountain in order to see God pass by, adding the assurance of God’s presence to the critical call to faithfulness. Moses and Elijah were expected to return to earth to witness the arrival of the Messiah: Moses for the establishing of a new covenant and Elijah for the fulfillment of the prophet’s call to justice. Listen now as the disciples watch Jesus meet with Moses and Elijah.
We’ve come to this time and place, aware of changes all around us. The governing empire has changed, has become more threatening, more persecuting, more unjust. People whom we know, whom we love, whom we consider to be family to us are being treated inhumanely. The cities are places of increasing violence, of increasing intolerance, of diminishing safety. Whom can we trust to lead us to safety and to lead us in righteousness?
Once upon a time, Moses led the children of Israel out from Egypt to a mountain. But before the mountain were the ten plagues, and that final plague was the specter of death for all firstborn. You know the story of Passover. The wailing cries of mothers mourning the deaths of their children followed the Israelites as the left the borders of Egypt. Pharaoh said go, but then sent the military to follow. Yes, a miracle of parting the sea – but that miracle also came with the screams of horses stuck in the mud, the screams of warriors drowning. Those cries echo as Moses goes up on the mountain. On that mountaintop, shaded by clouds, Moses received ten commandments from God – the basis for Jewish identity, the basis for all Jewish law.
We want the assurance of Moses, to have such a definitive encounter with God and such clear expectations carved out for us. But we forget that when Moses came down from that mountain, shining with the glory of God, people were afraid of him. He will lead the children of Israel through the wilderness. It is not an easy path. On another mountaintop, Moses will die. He climbs that mountain so he can see the promised land that he will not enter. The bible tells us that God buried Moses – a secret grave so it cannot become a venerated shrine. Moses is anticipated to return at the Day of the Lord, the conclusion of time, to observe the fulfillment of the law.
Once upon a time, Elijah fled from the cities because Ahab and Jezebel wanted him dead. The prophet had spoken out against their unjust laws. Along the way, Elijah challenged 400 priests of Ba’al to a contest. Ba’al was the religion of Jezebel: Elijah criticized Ahab for having a foreign wife and bringing foreign gods among the Israelites. Elijah won the contest, but shamed those foreign priests – and then led an army to kill all those foreigner religious leaders. So Elijah fled into the mountains to escape those who were now seeking revenge. There Elijah hides in a cave as God passes by – tornado, earthquake, firestorm: God is not there, but God is in the still small voice.
We want to hear a similar still small voice but we forget the earthly politics which led to Elijah’s divine encounter. Are we willing to be accept the prophetic role of confrontation? Elijah comes down the mountain to once again be pursued by soldiers, mercenaries, bounty hunters. It was not an easy path. Elijah’s bright light comes when he is picked up in a fiery chariot – swing low, sweet chariot coming for to carry me home. Elijah rises to the heavens: the end of his life, but not necessarily his death. Elijah is anticipated to return to observe how the Messiah fulfills the prophets at the Day of the Lord.
Jesus has encountered tough times. Herod is a puppet governor for Rome. The Romans dislike him, because he is too Jewish; Jewish leaders dislike him because he is too Roman. Nobody trusts Herod because he is a sociopath, killing or assassinating anyone who he perceives is a threat to his power. John, the baptizer, perhaps Jesus’ best friend, had criticized Herod’s granddaughter. John had been arrested, imprisoned, executed by Herod. Jesus did not criticize Roman authority directly. He did question the allegiance of certain Jewish leaders to Roman governorship.
In many of the gospel stories it is apparent that Jewish leaders were trying to discredit Jesus, trying silence him, trying to injure his reputation, his relationships, his reputation. They did not have the tools of social media – facebook, twitter, snapchat, email, newsfeeds – but they were trying to run a negative social campaign.
So Jesus climbs a mountain. On this mountain Jesus meets Moses and Elijah. His face is made to shine. The disciples with him see Jesus is changed. They describe the change as glowing, but the changes are more than what can be seen. They will relate to him differently now, and he will relate differently to them. Jesus will come down the mountain and begin a journey to Jerusalem where he will be forced to climb another hill, carrying a cross. It is not an easy path.
I want to go up to the mountaintop, to be surrounded by cloudy mist, to see lights that are stronger on the mountaintop than they are in the valleys or on the plains. I admit: I am hesitant to confront the powers so that a mountaintop retreat is necessary. I am afraid of going to the mountaintop for that divine encounter because I know these stories, I know what happens after being on the mountaintops: troubles with others, confrontations with power and authority, persecution. I also know that after the mountaintop there is a beloved community: the children of Israel learn to travel and celebrate together; Elijah is mentor to Elisha; Jesus and the disciples talk and share and pray and will eat the Passover meal together.
But this beloved community is not just a bunch of individual people acting as their conscience dictates. This beloved community seeks out one another in order to discern together how they, as a community, as a congregation, will act deliberately and with intentionality. The members of this beloved community hold one another mutually accountable – for no single individual can accurately perceive God’s call all by themselves: God’s call comes clearly when we hold one another closely in prayer, discussing how God is leading us, and agreeing to common practices of dignity, integrity, and authenticity.
Those are the promises that lead me up the mountain and into the clouds.
Why will you go?