Sermon text: Matthew 17: 1-9
4,098 feet above sea level rests the granite summit of Cascade Mountain, outside of Lake Placid, New York. When I was 17 my parents let me pick the trail to hike while we were on vacation and I picked Cascade Mountain. It was only 5.6 miles! And it only went straight up! Boy, did I ever hear about my choice of trails…even 17 years later I still hear about it.
In all honesty, it was a difficult and steep hike, but it was absolutely worth it. My parents called it quits when we reached the lower overlook and they urged me to continue on to the top. The view was purely amazing, astonishing, breathtaking. It was a 360 degree view of the world, with a lush green carpet of trees stretching as far as the eye could see, dotted with bright blue lakes, and a dozen other mountain peaks that climbed into the sky.
On this granite summit I caught my breath and reveled in this literal mountain top moment. The beauty was stunning, and I admit that I was a little surprised a just how beautiful it was. I was expecting a good view for all the effort of this long hike, but this was beyond my expectation.
I wonder what expectations Peters, James, and John had as they climbed up the mountain with Jesus in our Gospel story. I also wonder how shocked and surprised they were when Jesus lit up like a Christmas tree.
We will never know what those three disciples were expecting on that journey with Jesus, but I doubt that they were anticipating the events of the Transfiguration. Our God is truly a God of surprises. This Transfiguration is yet another moment when God shocks the world.
We have celebrated the season of Epiphany for the last two months. It is a season of light, of illumination, and revelation in Jesus Christ. Each weekend we discovered the significance of Jesus. We heard of the babe born and celebrated in Bethlehem—this child who is the light of the world, heralded by a star. We learned about how we, as his followers, are also called to be his light. In this season we have gradually opened the intricately wrapped Christmas gift of Christ and we are astonished at the amazing generosity of God.
We are shocked that God is humble enough to come to us in Jesus. Humble enough to be born in a cattle stall. Humble enough to travel with twelve men who could hardly comprehend the importance of his teachings. And as we anticipate the beginning of Lent, we know that he is humble enough to lower himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.
But now, in the splendor of the Transfiguration, God reminds us of Jesus’ true identity. God transfigures Christ. God gives him a new and exalted appearance, making his face to shine like the sun and his clothes dazzling white. Jesus, the light of the world, becomes a holy lighthouse shining like a radiant beacon from that mountain.
Peter, James, and John witness this wonderful event. They see the brilliance of Jesus and the otherworldly appearance of Moses and Elijah. Immediately Peter has the idea to preserve this fine moment and to create three dwellings for the holy men. He wants to capture the magnificence of the moment. Peter want this moment to last forever.
But before Peter can even finish his sentence a voice from heaven interrupts him. God cuts Peter off. God repeats what was said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples hear this booming voice, this theophany from heaven, they hit the deck, falling to the ground in fear.
God commands their attention and directs their attention to the only thing that is needed: Jesus. Listen to Jesus!
As quickly as the disciples’ mountain top moment began, it ends. Every mountain top experience must come to an end. After all, how long can you survive on a summit of that magnitude?
My own mountain top moment atop the Cascade Summit ended just as swiftly. On that peak I stood, looking at the beauty of God’s creation, and in an instant a low cloud blew in and engulfed the mountain. The warm sun was replaced by strong gusts of wind and thousands of miniature droplets of water. The view vanished. As quickly as it began it was over and I was forced to retreat down the trail.
As for the disciples cowering in fear with their eyes closed, it all vanished as quickly as it appeared. No dwellings built. No visitors retained. For this moment, Jesus’ Transfiguration, was not meant to be preserved forever. Instead, it was a sampling of the promise we will find in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is a foretaste of the joy to come.
When it is all over—when Moses and Elijah go home and the booming voice is silenced, when Jesus’ clothes and face return to normal and the disciples’ fear abates, all that is left is Jesus. After all of the signs and symbols the disciples are once again with their Lord, teacher, and friend. Jesus, the one whose clothes and face shone like the sun, the equal of Moses and Elijah, the one proclaimed to be God’s own beloved son, will not leave them when fear strikes their hearts.
It reminds me of another mountain story, one at the close of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus gathers his disciples and promises that he will be with them until the end of time.
When all else fades, Jesus remains. He reaches out his helping hands, touches us, comforts us, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Jesus comes to us when we are arrested by fear and are in need of healing. He raises us to new life, just as he will be raised after his crucifixion.
We all have mountain top experiences of one kind or another in our lives. We know how they impact our lives and leave a lasting impression in our memories. But we must always return to the valley. We descend from those blissful moments back into reality, back into a world that can be cruel and painful. But today we are reminded that Jesus is always with us, extending a hand in our times of need. On the mountain, in the valley, and everywhere in between, Jesus is there, reaching out to raise us to new life. AMEN