Journey Up and Down the Mountain
This sermon was presented to the Ashburton Baptist Church by Geoff Pound on Transfiguration Sunday, 26 February 2017. It concludes with some questions for personal and group study.
Matthew 17:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
17 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
The business coach, Dan Sullivan, tells about his life when he was stationed with the US army in Korea. One of Sullivan’s jobs was putting on shows for the troops. On one occasion the singer, Frank Sinatra went to Korea to entertain the people in uniform. Dan Sullivan studied him carefully.
One of the vital things Sullivan learned was that, Frank Sinatra doesn’t move pianos. Sinatra has others to do that. Sinatra does only two things:
Frank Sinatra sings and Frank Sinatra prepares to sing. That is all.
Sullivan wasn’t taking a potshot at any lack of Sinatra’s servant spirit. He was highlighting the star’s ‘unique ability’. He was getting his students to think of their supreme gift. Their most valuable talent. The one thing that they bring to their life or their business that nobody else can bring.
When we read the Gospels we may wonder what exactly Jesus did.
What did he bring to the table? What was his unique contribution?
It may be hard to define. Intangible. Elusive.
In our reading today, we get a clear understanding.
Whatever it was, he understood it.
Whatever was his secret, he wanted his disciples to know and practice it themselves.
Today’s reading begins (v1) with Jesus going up the mountain with his disciples to listen to God and it concludes (v9) with Jesus and his disciples coming down the mountain to minister to people.
What did Jesus do? He didn’t move pianos.
He goes up the mountain and down the mountain.
What did Jesus teach his followers?
To go up the mountain to meet with God and down the mountain to minister to people.
17 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
Six days later. Six days after what?
Probably Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-20) when Jesus asks the pivotal question: “Who do people say that I am?” And the disciples answered, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
And Jesus says, ‘What about you? Who do you say that I am?”
Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Jesus said, “Blessed are you. You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”
After circling around Galilee, this was the defining moment. Jesus could now turn and set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Six days later…If we look back we see Jesus and his disciples grieving at the death of John (Matthew 14: 1-12), the sick crying out to Him for a cure (Matthew 14: 14), the hungry calling for bread (Matthew 14: 13-21), Jesus trying to get a break on the lake and getting caught in a storm (Matthew 14: 22-36), there are people shrieking for deliverance (Matthew 15: 21-28), more hungry mouths to feed (Matthew 15: 32-39).
So many demands. Their Do List is so long. Their email inbox is overflowing. They must have felt exhausted and peopled out. But Jesus shows them what they’re to be about. They’re not to move pianos.
They’re to go up the mountain to be with God.
Down the mountain to minister with people.
Watch an accomplished pianist run through their scales before every performance.
Watch how Serena Williams prepares herself for every ball she serves on centre court.
Watch how Steve Smith moves like a cat on a hot tin roof before every ball he faces.
In whatever sport or discipline, the great performers have developed this pre-shot ritual. It’s mental as well as physical. It’s fine tuning. It’s dropping into the groove. Getting out of our own way. It stops us from overthinking. It’s conditioning the mind for the best possible service.
Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
It’s a wrench to get away from the people.
It takes great effort to leave our daily demands.
But Jesus shows this inner circle that regularly leaving the familiar and going up the mountain is an absolute necessity.
A high mountain…
Have you got a special mountain in your life and memories and if so, why is it so significant?
In our personal study and small groups, we might also like to think about mountains in the Bible: Mount Ararat, Mount Sinai, Mount Hermon, Mount Carmel, the Mount of Olives, Calvary.
In addition to their solitude, the beautiful view and the perspective they give, why are these high places so significant? Where is our mountain today where we go to get in touch with the divine?
2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
The view these disciples got was not out there. It was right before them. Jesus was transfigured. Literally ‘metamorphosis’. Remember we learned this in school science and watched maggots turn into a fly, then a caterpillar and finally a butterfly? We saw tadpoles change into frogs.
So this metamorphosis in Jesus was dramatic and extensive. Surely the disciples would have remembered how Moses’ face shone after encountering God on Sinai and the white clothes of the One in Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7: 9).
A monk strode into a pizza shop and, when asked to order he said,
“Make me one with everything.”
The pizza proprietor appreciated his humour and when the monk paid with a $50 bill, he pocketed all the money.
The monk said, “Hey, where’s my change?”
The owner said, “Change must come from within.”
Jesus says that change comes on the mountain.
Change comes from regularly encountering God.
Change comes from basking in the light of God.
Change comes from allowing God’s radiance to energize us.
This God is like a devouring fire. As C S Lewis says, “There is nothing tame about Aslan, the lion Christ of the Chronicles of Narnia.
Walking up the mountain and seeing the sweat on Jesus’ brow and the flexing of his muscles the disciples were reminded of his humanity.
But up on the mountain with his face shining and his clothes dazzling, they got a glimpse of Christ’s divinity. There’s new light being shed on Christ’s uniqueness.
3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Who knows how they saw these two men back from the dead but here is a pulling back of the curtain of time to show these two figures who represent the Law and the Prophets.
Again Jesus is shown to be in continuity with all that has come before but on this mountain we see how much higher he is.
Nobody was speaking to Peter but he has to talk and unfortunately, it’s rather inappropriate:
4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Is this mountain-top experience a promise, a foretaste, like a movie preview of what heaven will be like?
Peter is enjoying everything so much he says, ‘Let’s make it permanent!
Let’s give ourselves to fulltime contemplation!
Let’s forget those miserable people down below.
Let’s bottle this blessing?
Tradition suggests that Mount Tabor is this high mountain (because its closest to Caesarea Philippi). It’s strange that others have done what Peter rashly recommended and built churches and monasteries high up on this mountain.
Lord, ‘if you wish’. It’s so nice he’s leaving his proposal up to Jesus. There’s no direct disapproval of Peter’s prattling on about building some tents but this is brushed aside by the clouds and a voice;
5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Where’ve we heard this before?
The mountain top is the place to hear again and again God’s delight.
The mountain top is the place to keep our mouths shut and our ears open.
On the mountain there’s so much to see yet isn’t it ironic that the significant call is to listen?
A doctor said: “Patients enter my consulting rooms armed with a file of Googled results. They sit down and instead of telling me their symptoms, they proceed to tell me the diagnosis of their condition and what medication they want me to prescribe!” Medicine by Dr Google!
Jesus could sympathise with this GP for we, like Peter, so often come with our Googled plans and strategies and things we want Jesus to bless, when all the time the Voice is thundering: “This is my beloved Son, Listen to Him.”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.
The disciples had seen the metamorphosis of Jesus.
They saw Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah.
Now in hearing the voice they’re overcome with fear.
Jesus is calling you and me to a transformation.
This transformation isn’t a small thing. It’s not like a fresh coat of paint.
It’s not just an upgrade on our operating system.
It’s metamorphosis. It’s wholesale change
No wonder these disciples were afraid. We like our sinful ways. We like the way we are.
We might be flawed but at least its comfortable and familiar.
Jesus goes to the mountain not just to be transfigured himself but to offer the same opportunity to his disciples.
He was offering them change.
He is offering us the opportunity to shine like the sun.
If only we could have this terrifying experience of the holy God.
Annie Dillard alerts us to the dangers of such a fully-blown encounter:
“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It’s madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
So we move from Christmas-Epiphany, the season of light and revelation, to the increasing darkness of Lent as Jesus journeys down to service and his ‘death march’ to the cross.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
How strange after such a mountain top disclosure that Jesus commands secrecy.
Here’s another good discussion question:
“Why is this transfiguration experience a secret?”
So many questions.
The challenge is to practice transfiguration right here, right now with our dazzling, transfigured Christ.
We’re called to make the journey up the mountain of meeting God and to follow Him down to serve in the messiness of life.
How can we make this practice part of our everyday experience?
The story assures us that the gifts we receive on the mountaintop will continue to illumine us not only on the level ground but even when we walk in the valley of the shadow.
We confess that so often we get it wrong.
We fail to break from our busyness to go with you to the mountain.
We talk when you call us to listen.
We want to build monuments when you call us to move on.
We want to stay when you urge us downwards.
Forgive us. Help us to see. Enable us to hear.
When Your glory comes
may we open our eyes
to see it.
When Your glory shows up
May we let ourselves
not by fear
but by the love
When Your glory shines
May we bring it
back with us
all the way
all the way down.
Image: View of Mount Tabor, thought to be the mount of Transfiguration.
Questions for Personal and Group Study
- Got a favourite mountain in your life and memory bank?
- Think of the mountains in the Bible and define why they are significant.
- Where do you seek to get away to? Got a mountain? A lake? The beach? A garden?
- How do you find wrenching yourself away from your work to spend time on the mountain top with God?
- What sort of ‘up the mountain-down the mountain’ rhythm are you seeking to establish in your life?
- What exactly are the important components of the mountain top experience that Jesus models for his disciples?
- What kind of God do we meet on the mountain? Prescriptive? Commanding? Comforting? Loving? Other?
- How much do you see yourself in Peter with his talking, his proposal for permanence and his fear?
- What other significant issues arise for you in this Scripture passage?
 Joan Chittister notes that “Mountains…in Greek, Hebrew, Roman and Asian religious literature, were always places where the human could touch the divine, Joan Chittister, ‘The Role of Religion in Today’s Society’, 30 Good Minutes, November 24, 1991.
 This thought comes from W J. Davies & Dale C. Allison The Gospel of Matthew Vol I, II ICC Commentaries T.&T. Clark.
 The photo is a view of Mount Tabor, thought to be the mount of Transfiguration.
 Annie Dillard, ‘An Expedition to the Pole’ Teaching a Stone to Talk Harper & Row, 1982.
 Georg Wrede in 1901 published a book entitled, ‘The Messianic Secret’. This secret is in all four gospels (15 times) and is especially prominent in Mark’s Gospel (13 times).