It’s not the first time God is revealed on a mountain.
The Transfiguration, with its clouds and voices — its dramatic lighting and its mountaintop views — reminds of the God who has been revealed like this before. Most especially, the Transfiguration in Matthew is full of details that draw our attention back to the story of Moses. In worship last week, Dr. Jonathan Walton reminded us how Moses climbed Mt. Sinai, hearing the voice of God in a cloud. It was on the mountain that God spoke to Moses the words of the Ten Commandments, sending him back down the slope to tell the people what he had seen.
The Transfiguration has much of the same — it has the same vista, the same dazzling light and swirling fog, the same dramatic voice, the same mystery of something happening beyond our knowing and just above our heads somewhere in the realm of God. The scene has all of these elements that remind of Moses — and just so we can’t miss it, Moses even makes an appearance in the scene. And just like that first mountain scene, with its tablets of stone, this scene also has commandments — imperatives and instructions intended to shape the lives of God’s people in this world. At Mt. Sinai there were ten, and on this mount of transfiguration, there are at least three — three commandments with which those disciples descend, never to be the same. Do you notice them in the passage? In verse 5: “Listen to him.” In verse 7: “Get up.” And again in verse 7: “Don’t be afraid.” Listen to him. Get up. And don’t be afraid. Three commandments that might just form a summary of a life lived in the way of Jesus.
“Listen to him,” says the voice booming about us. “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Like Peter, James and John, we’ve heard those words before — the words that parted the skies at Jesus’ baptism, signaling his identity and our own. The words that became what Henri Nouwen once described as a “golden string” that would tie together all the days of his life and ministry. And now these words tie us back to his baptism, with the reminder that he remains who he was promised to be. “Listen to him. Listen to what he says. Watch what he does.”
And so they had. They had listened and watched as he described and then lived out a whole new way to be human and to be faithful — this way of selfless love. They had listened as he said what we repeated this morning in Ian’s dedication: “Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me.” They had listened as he climbed that mount and looked out at all those people, saying, “Blessed are you who are poor in spirit… blessed are you meek… blessed are you humble.” They had listened as from that same perche he said “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” And they had listened, just before this passage today, some six days earlier, when for the first time he described for them how he would go to Jerusalem, endure great suffering and die. They had listened as he then said, “If any of you want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me… if you want to find your life, you must give it away…”
With that, they must have been tempted to stop listening. To join Peter in his resistance, “Surely not, Lord.” Perhaps that’s why they need this booming, backlit reminder on the mountain.
Tony Campolo, a longtime professor at Eastern Seminary in Pennsylvania, has spoken about encounters he will sometimes have with his students’ families. It seems that every now and then one of Campolo’s students will not only listen to Jesus — not only understand the words of Jesus and recount them on a test or paper — but will actually try to live them out. So they will do things like go from seminary and live in communal houses where rooms are given to the vulnerable in society. They don’t worry about paychecks because they commit to giving everything away. They take the red letters of Jesus seriously and make the Sermon on the Mount their guide.
One of these student’s parents came in to Campolo’s office with some opinions about this. A father began to talk about his son and how he was living in a shared space with a few others students and then a woman who was homeless and a man who was mentally ill, neither of whom were paying their share of rent on time. The father was not very happy about this. He was not happy that his son was giving so much away, and he began to rant about Dr. Campolo’s interpretation of Christianity and his son’s understanding of the call of Jesus and it came to a head when the father brought his hands down on the desk and said, “I am all for living a Christian life… up to a point and then it’s enough.”
It sounds like a prayer I pray. I listen to these words, I watch the way of Jesus, and I say, “Jesus I am all for following in your way of life…. up to a point and then it’s enough.”
It’s the prayer and pattern of so many disciples. Because his is not the only voice we can hear. Our lives are full of competing messages about who we are, and what we can do. For every echo telling us we are beloved, there are booming reminders of our flaws or our failures. For every urging that we be the ones in whom God’s love is known, there are so many amplified voices telling us how to be people of fear, and hatred, and suspicion, and bigotry. For every invitation to follow in the way of Jesus and to give our whole lives to it, there are far more saying with peter, “God forbid it, Lord. This suffering, this death it should never happen to you. And to tell you the truth, it should never happen to us, either. This cross you ask us to take up asks too much, it costs too much.”
So we need to listen to him. Especially as we go from here.
We need to to listen and watch as he walks down from the mountain into the valley of human need. Listen as he moves toward Jerusalem, as he stops for outcasts along the way, as he binds up the wounds of those around him, as he proclaims release and freedom for those who have never known it. Listen as he says, “You can love one another as I have loved you.” Listen as he says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”Listen and watch as he gives his life away for others, “It is finished,” he’ll say. And then we need to listen as he says, “Why are you always looking for the living among the dead?” We need to listen through the whole of it, as he tells us, “The one who saves his life will lose it and the one who loses her life for my sake will find it.”
If we’re listening, as he calls and commands us, we are more than passive. In the Hebrew tradition, to listen is also to obey — in fact these two concepts are linked in Hebrew. Hearing implies doing — which leads to a second commandment on the mountain that day.
“Get up,” Jesus says.
Peter, James and John seem content to continue passively listening, residing in the thin place of God’s presence, where the view is so dramatic and it’s so easy to see God and hear God. “It is good for us to be here,” Peter says, “Let us build dwellings to mark this moment. Let’s memorialize. Let’s honor forever what happened up here. Let’s make permanent and accessible the revelation we have experienced. Let’s build three booths.”
But discipleship doesn’t involve monuments. It involves movement. In the words of Baptist New Testament scholar, Alan Culpepper, “Faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment but by following on in confidence that God is leading… The view from the overlook may be majestic, but the road beckons.” Any time we have listened to Jesus — any time we have heard or seen the work of God revealed to us — the next thing we must do is get up. Spring into motion. Recognize we have an active role to play in the world, because of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, because of the promise of life that Jesus proclaims, because of the awareness that God is with us wherever we go.
Dorothy Day used to say, “I want to live my life in a way that doesn’t make sense if God doesn’t exist.”
How else would we make sense of the radical actions that her faith compelled? She established the Catholic Worker Movement, opposed war, provided direct aid to the poor and homeless while also acting and advocating on their behalf. She faced arrest and resistance throughout her life. She lived in relative poverty out of her convictions.
It makes me wonder what exactly I’m doing because of what I’ve heard and believed. So much in my life keeps me stationary and settled, rooted and calm. So much in the life of a church can do the same, as so much of what we do is tied to a literal foundation. But what are we doing differently because we’ve heard from Jesus? Because we know his word beloved is our word too? Because we know his forgiveness extends to us? Because we know his life finds us, and invites us to get up and follow?
These questions confronted a gathering of Christians in the small French village of Le Chambon in the 1930s. Much of Europe was already beginning to fold before Hitler and Nazi Germany, and in this village of only about 5,000 people, a church decided to do something. They acted as a rescue route for Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. They used coded letters to one another to relay Jewish refugees from house to house, promising the delivery of “Old Testaments” to throw off Nazi officials. When they knew a raid was coming, they moved Jewish refugees out onto their outlying farms where the Nazis were less likely to go. They provided food, clothing, shelter, false identification, and even education and places of worship for the Jewish people — all illegal actions, understand. One of the refugees who survived the Holocaust because of these villagers recalls that “Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your parents were or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents – children who cried in the night.” And they did all of this at great risk to themselves, their friends, and their families.
When asked in the decades following the war why they resisted in this way, the people of Le Chambon were confused. They did not understand the question. “What choice did we have?” they said. Their faith compelled them and they saw no other choice. If they refused to harbor the Jewish refugees and resist the Nazi regime, they would no longer be Christians. To deny others was to deny their faith.
What are we doing that just doesn’t make sense… unless we’ve heard from Jesus? “Get up,” Jesus says. And he leads them down the mountain to the valley — because that’s where people are waiting for those who live differently because of what they heard. That’s where, as we see, there is a sick boy and a desperate father. What did the light and power of transfiguration look like to them from down in the valley of suffering? They must have felt distance, detached from whatever God was up to. So Jesus goes down the mountain to them. He heals this boy, and then he moves forward to offer healing to so many more, eventually even to you and me. And that doesn’t happen if the followers of Jesus stand still. Get up. And if you do, you’ll need to remember the third thing he urges on this mountain.
“Don’t be afraid.”
We know fear. Fear is what fills up our world. Fear is what we read about. Fear is often what we pray about if we are people who pray. And if we don’t pray, fear might be what keeps us from opening our mouths or believing it makes much of a difference. Fear is what keeps us in place, legs locked, bodies stiff, actions stalled. And so we need this command, which is at the heart of scripture: “Do not be afraid.”
These words are a hallmark of the Gospel. They are the words, for instance, with which the angel Gabriel greets Mary in the quiet of her home. These words echo from the heavenly host across a field of sheep, to the shepherds as they keep watch by night. These are the same words Jesus uses when his disciples are in the boat, amidst a storm, when they seem him approaching on the water: “It is I. Be not afraid.” And, perhaps most importantly, these are the words the angel of the Lord uses when he encounters the woman who bring their spices looking for Jesus in the tomb: “Do not be afraid.”
We hear it so often in our faith that sometimes we trivialize the message, as though faith and following Jesus mean the absence of all fear. In truth, whenever we are on our faces like these disciples, whenever we are trembling, whenever we are worried or anxious about what is ahead, it might be precisely because we are people of faith, who are seeking to give our all to a call greater than ourselves.
The Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier was once asked, “How do you help your patients get rid of their fears?” Tournier said, “I don’t… Everything that’s worthwhile in life is scary. The important things are hard. And the hard things are scary. Don’t presume to get rid of your fears; look for fear. Do the thing you’re afraid to do.”
The followers of Jesus can do the things we’re afraid to do with the echo of Jesus’ words and the promise that God is with us as we descend from the high and lofty, to the often lonesome valley below, and all that is ahead for him and for us.
It’s not the last time God is revealed on a mountain. In our liturgical calendar, Transfiguration Sunday comes just before we enter the season of Lent. So as we stand on this mountain, we anticipate the mount on the other side of Lent. Here, in dazzling light and power, we encounter the Jesus we so often want — removed from the realities of this world, close to us where we can always see and hear, so unmistakably powerful. But that’s not the Jesus we get. Not ultimately. No, that Jesus descends into the pits of human brokenness, and on the other end climb another slope to suffer and die, modeling power in meekness and greatness in service and finding your life in giving it away. And the Jesus we get turns out to be the Jesus we truly need.
So we are invited to follow him from here — all the way down, and back up again. It’s a way that comes close to human suffering; that takes up our own crosses; that lies out the secret he whispered that to find your life you have to give it away. And anyone who is going to follow in that way is going to need to remember to do at least a few things: Listen to him. Get up. And don’t be afraid.