“There appeared Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” Matthew 17:2
I’m not a mountain climber, but I do enjoy hiking. I have to acknowledge that, not being as young as I once was, I now tend to avoid steep trails at high altitudes. However in past years I have enjoyed the challenge of a climb. Claudia and I have climbed the mountain trails on Scotland’s Isle of Arran, on Mount Snowden in North Wales, Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, and Gatineau National Park north of Ottawa. On arriving at the summit it was always tempting to pause awhile to admire the view. We found that, if we stopped too long, our stamina began to wane and we’d be tired for the descent. One thing was certain, it’s often a lot more awkward coming down the trail than going up. It can be a muscle wrenching experience where you have to constantly keep your eyes fixed on your feet. It also helps to follow in the tracks of an experienced climber ahead of you.
This morning’s gospel account occurs in three gospels with a common agenda. Matthew, Luke, and Mark identify the rabbi Jesus of Nazareth with the Messiah. They narrate how he fulfilled the expectations of the Law of Moses and of the Prophets, and ushered in a divine rule of justice, mercy and compassion with the gift of eternal life for those who follow in his way. Each of them describe a mountain top experience of three fishermen who were completely out of their element. Instead of fishing, they had climbed well above sea level to stand on top of a mountain. No doubt exhausted, it’s no wonder they shared a vision of their friend and rabbi transfigured before their very eyes. His clothes that had been covered with the dust of the road they had traveled together, became dazzling white. They visualized Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet conversing with Jesus, and from the clouds overhead they heard a voice commanding them to listen to Jesus and to take him seriously.
We might wonder about the significance of something so out of the ordinary that is repeated in three of our four gospels. Our story of the transfiguration of Jesus is shared and recorded in the rabbinic story telling tradition known as midrash. Midrash are interpretations and commentaries on the Torah. Rabbis used midrash to encourage others to apply the Law of Moses and teachings of the Prophets within contemporary experience. We’ve heard two very similar stories this morning, one of Moses climbing up a mountain, the other of Jesus. They are midrash, and we are not expected to receive them in any other way.
Both stories are extremely complex. They were originally associated with the a Jewish festival that took place at the time of the grape harvest. It was called the Feast of the Tabernacles because a vast proportion of the work force for harvesting the grapes had to come out from the city of Jerusalem to work in the surrounding countryside. Families would camp out in the vineyards and dwell in temporary shelters, called tents, booths or tabernacles. They were reminded of their ancestors who had lived that way for many generations in the wilderness. It brought back memories of the great leader Moses who had given them the Ten Commandments. It also reminded them of the times when they had neglected those commandments. They recalled how the prophet Elijah had urged them to return to the Law of Moses. Like Moses, Elijah had climbed a mountain to talk with God.
The first story was very popular in Jewish folklore. It described Moses coming down from a mountain after he’d had a private conversation with God. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, others noticed that his face was shining. Who knows, maybe it was from exposure to the sun and the wind? But, as far as those who met him were concerned, Moses reflected the glory of God, and they were terrified enough to ask him to wear a veil. This same fear prompted them to take seriously the teaching that Moses brought down with him from the mountain.
The second story described Jesus hiking up a mountain to pray. As he prayed, his appearance changed in a way that dazzled those who were with him. Their initial fear prompted them to listen to the teachings of Jesus.
As mythic tales these stories invite us to explore another dimension, another perspective, another reality, and to be changed by what we see. As such, the story of the transfiguration of Jesus is not to be taken literally. It describes a vision or dramatic insight into his identity. As midrash, it is encouraging us to pay attention to Jesus’ teachings and to conscientiously follow him regardless of the consequences.
How can we test a vision or a dream? Visions that have the quality of coercion or divisiveness are met by Jesus who invites all people into a reign of divine justice, mercy and compassion that offers eternal life. Visions that advocate violence and destruction are met by Jesus who stands silently before his accusers.
Visions of certainty, power, self-protection and pride are met by Jesus who is prepared to climb another hill that leads toward a cross. Peter, James and John were not with Jesus when he climbed the hill of Calvary. They hadn’t as yet understood the meaning of their vision of Jesus transfigured on the mountain.
The visions and voices recorded in our Scriptures, are always insights that challenge common assumptions in a positive, and life fulfilling manner. Whether they came to Moses and the liberated Hebrew slaves on Mt. Horeb, to the prophet Ezekiel and exiled prisoners by the banks of the Kebab River, to disciples of Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or to Saul on the road to Damascus, these visions supported, guided and developed courage and hope within the faith community.
Remember, Peter, James and John shared a vision that included Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus on the mountain. When Moses came down from Mt. Horeb he was dismayed to find the Israelites had abandoned the God who had delivered them from Egypt. When Elijah came down from Mt. Carmel he became so disillusioned he prayed that he might die under a juniper tree. Mountain top visions inspire us to make the kingdom of God a down to earth reality at the bottom of the mountain. It can be a heart breaking task unless we place our trust not in our own abilities but in the grace of God alone. We are here to worship God and to follow Jesus, perhaps to a mountaintop experience, but always down below, along a road that challenges us to walk with him.
If we had listened to yet another mountaintop story of Elijah, we would have heard three similar stories this morning. As it is, we heard two stories of two leaders; on two mountains; with two sets of bewildered onlookers. Two legendary tales about God’s invisible glory being lifted like a curtain or veil, but for a brief moment. The experiences were brief, but their consequences were lasting.
These mystic tales are about transformation. That’s why Moses went up his mountain in the first place. That Old Testament legend was passed on from generation to generation of Jews to remind them that God had called them to be agents of transformation.
Moses had received his God given teaching and guidance to pass on to a people so that they could be transformed and become a holy people – where they would uphold the dignity of every human being, pursuing right relationships with one another, with their neighbours, friend or foe, and with their God. That’s the entire the point of the gospel story. For a moment, the disciples saw the Law of Moses and prophets fulfilled in Jesus.
This vision not only clarified for them the identity of Jesus but also the scope of his mission. Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses by calling us to glorify God, and to honour and respect the dignity of others. Jesus fulfilled the destiny of the Prophets by challenging us to ensure that God’s blessings of unconditional love, justice, mercy and peace is extended to all people whatever the personal cost. Before any such vision can be part of Christ’s redemption of this world, the bearer of the vision must be prepared to come down from the mountain and to walk in the dust of the road that leads to Jerusalem.
And so, what about us? Remember, Peter, James and John shared a vision that included Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus on the mountain. When Moses came down from Mt. Horeb he was dismayed to find the Israelites had abandoned the God who had delivered them from Egypt. When Elijah came down from Mt. Carmel he became so disillusioned he prayed that he might die under a juniper tree. Mountain top visions inspire us to make the kingdom of God a down to earth reality at the bottom of the mountain. It can be a heart breaking task unless we place our trust not in our own abilities but in the grace of God alone. We are here to worship God and to follow Jesus, perhaps to a mountaintop experience, but eventually down below along a road that follows steps of Jesus. We shall be challenged. Jesus moves ahead of us. When we follow his tracks they will lead us to his cross.
The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo