Down from the Mountain

Exodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-9

You'll probably think I am obsessed with mountains; we just finished examining the Sermon on the Mount the last four Sundays, and here we are again. Firstly, I am not a mountain guy, so I have no particular obsession with them. Secondly, we're following the Lectionary, the assigned readings for churches, and I don't pick those. But since we are on the subject of mountains, I do remember one trip we took with friends when Christy and I lived in England:

That's Mount Snowdon in Wales. It's the highest peak in the British Aisles, south of Scotland. None of us are climbers, but there is a fun option there: a rack and pinion train, built in 1896. It takes an hour to make the 4.7 mile trip to the summit. Wales is a stunningly beautiful country, and the views from Snowdon were breathtaking. But here's the thing: you ride up the train, you check out the scenery, walk around. But eventually, you have to get on the train. There's only so much to do. No one lives there.

The mountain in the Gospel of Matthew is better understood as a metaphor than a specific place. When Jesus goes to the mountain, it's to teach. The mountain is his platform, his pulpit. He brings folk up to the mountain to listen and learn. Or experience. So the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew Chapters 5-7, is a summary of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the resurrected Christ meets the disciples again on the mountain to bless them and send them into the world in ministry. And in the middle of the Gospel we have this story of Jesus' Transfiguration on the mountain.

The Transfiguration is all about mystery, and awe, and wonder, and glory. Jesus' clothes are changed to a dazzling white. Moses and Elijah, heroes of the Old Testament, appear and speak to Jesus. The three disciples Jesus brought with him, Peter, James, and John, absolutely freak out. They didn't expect this-- no one could have! They may have thought this would be a spiritual retreat, or prayer time, or a private lesson. Not a powerful vision of glory. Their teacher is transformed. Heroes of their faith, whose stories they heard as kids in Sunday school, appear with Jesus and talk to him. How amazing is that? Peter just can't stand it. He interrupts the conversation: "Jesus! This is incredible! How about I pitch some tents-- one for you, one for Elijah, one for Moses-- so we can all camp out together?

As soon as the words exit his mouth, Moses and Elijah disappear. A terrifying sight, a cloud from heaven filled with lightning and fire, descends around them, and a voice shouts from the cloud: "This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!" Scared to death, the disciples hide. But then everything changes. All the noise, the commotion, the confusion... is gone. They're left alone with Jesus, who:

  • touches them
  • calls them to stand
  • encourages them not to be afraid
All while leading them down the mountain.

Here's the deal: as beautiful and awe-inspiring as the mountains are, nobody lives there. Sooner or later, and it's almost always sooner, folk board the train to go back down. The mountain is not a retreat center, somewhere to hang out for several days. It's a place to experience the word of God, be transformed, and sent out. Sometimes people think about the church as a place to come that is isolated and insulated from the outside world. A place where no one disagrees and there is no messiness. Nope! The church is full of messiness. The church is not a retreat center. We don't live in churches. We come, bringing all of our messiness with us, to experience the praise and worship of God: through music, prayers, fellowship, sermon... but then we go out into the world. And that's a messy place too!

The Old Testament reading also took place on a mountain: Moses went there to receive the stone tablets inscribed with God's covenant with the people. While Moses was there, the same cloud Peter James and John witnessed enfolded the mountain. There were flashes of lightning and fire. It was terrifying to the Hebrews below in the valley. For Moses, it was a moment of intimacy and communion with God. And he probably would have liked to stay there. But the mission wasn't to the mountain-- it was to the people. What did he find when he finally returned to the people? During his absence they fashioned a god of gold and worshiped it. Yup, ministry is messy. 

When Jesus, Peter, James, and John descended the mountain they were immediately approached by a man whose child was ill. "Your disciples couldn't help him," the father said. Jesus felt the same rage as Moses did when he saw the golden calf: "How long must I be with you?" Yup, ministry is messy. After he cured the child, the disciples asked why they couldn't do it. "Because of your weak faith," Jesus said. "But if your faith is just the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, 'Go into the sea,' and it would do it."

We have a cookbook at home, sort of a comfort food type book, and over and over again: meatloaf, anything that involves mixing stuff together, it uses the same phrase: "Using your hands..." Not a spatula, not a utensil. Your hands. I guess there is something about getting one's hands dirty that makes the recipe so much better. And ministry is like that. Church is like that. People are like that. There are no perfect people or places. If we find ourselves there we can see God face to face, but only for a moment; we have to descend the mountain and find the people Jesus loves and wants to save.

Before and after the Transfiguration, Jesus predicts his coming betrayal, death, and resurrection. Messy. People are messy. We get sick, we lose loved ones, we vote one way or another. But we're called to be with them and love them anyway. No one lives on the mountain! You may encounter God's presence there, but briefly; and you will be transformed. So get on the train, and follow Jesus down to where he always is: in the messiness of people. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.