A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Transfiguration Sunday, March 2, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 17:1-9 and Exodus 24:12-18
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“The Transfiguration” by Raphael

There are three groups in Raphael’s “The Transfiguration.”[1]  At the top of the painting is the mountaintop group.  We see Jesus in super-clean white, floating above it all, above the fray in the lower half of the painting.  Floating with Jesus are Moses and Elijah.  I’m not sure which is which, but I think Moses is on the left because he seems to be carrying heavy, large stone tablets.  And we see the three disciples, Peter, James, and John, on the ground in fear.

On the lower left, we see a group of men.  Two are pointing up at Jesus, pointing up at what’s happening on the mountaintop.  Given the book in the lower left corner and the fact that the group is all men and there are nine of them (9 in this group plus the 3 on the mountaintop equals 12) and where they are pointing, I assume they are the disciples.  But pay attention to where they are also looking.  They’re looking at the third group, on the lower right.

This third group is people, ordinary people.  And the people are pointing toward the boy.  In fact, the disciples aren’t just looking at this third group.  They’re looking at the boy in the group.  And there’s something that’s not quite right about the boy.  It’s as if the man in green has brought the boy to the disciples.  “Him, here – he needs your attention.”  And the disciples are pointing to the action on the mountaintop, as if to say that up there is where the people’s attention needs to be.

Drama up on the mountain.  Drama down below in the valley.  In the background, is the sun rising or setting?  Is this the beginning or the end?

In the scriptures, mountains are often the places where people most vividly experience the presence of God.  It was on Mt. Sinai that Moses spoke with God.  It was there he received the 10 Commandments, given to help the people of Israel live in freedom.

The prophet Elijah also journeyed to Mt. Sinai when he was discouraged and afraid for his life.  There, God spoke to him, giving him encouragement and direction for the tasks that lay ahead.

For Moses and Elijah, the mountain-top experience of intense communion with God was an event with a purpose:  to equip them to be leaders of God’s people in the valley, in the ordinary places of life, down here where the presence of God is usually less vivid.  For them, the mountain was the place where God gave instruction and encouragement, and then sent them back into the world.

The geographic imagery of the mountain as the place of communion with God is understandable.  On top of a mountain, heaven seems closer and the cares and concerns of the world seem farther away.  The mountain offers a place of quiet and peace, of sanctuary, of escape.  There, one cannot help but realize the vastness of the universe, and stand in awe of its Creator.  There, it seems as if the world stops spinning, and time stands still.

While the gospels don’t explain his motivation, I have long thought that what drove Jesus to the mountain was the realization that his earthly ministry was nearing and end.  The time had come to set his face toward Jerusalem – there to suffer and die.

Six days earlier, he had told his disciples about the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem.  And he told them, challenged them, warned them:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The Gospel of Matthew does not tell us what happened during those six days between Jesus’ announcement about his suffering and the trip up the mountain.  But I can imagine the disciples, confused and frightened, bombarding Jesus with questions and proposing alternatives to the way of suffering and death.  And, when every alternative was rejected by Jesus, I imagine a dark silence falling upon the group as each disciple and Jesus himself wrestled with their private doubts and fears.

And perhaps that is why Jesus went up the mountain.  Perhaps it was those private doubts and fears.  Perhaps it was a need to pray in a place that felt closer to God than down in the valley, down here.  He took Peter, James, and John with him.  And on this mountain, something extraordinary occurred.  Right there before the disciples’ eyes, Jesus was transfigured!  He face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

You see, when people experience real communion with God, a transformation takes place – a transformation that is visible in their faces and evident in their lives.  How and why this happens remains a mystery, but what happens is clear.  Close communion with God empties one of oneself, in a sense, and fills one with the glory of God.

As Jesus’ transformation took place, two other figures appeared in glory – Moses and Elijah.  Men who represent the law and the prophets, who had known close communion with God in their mountain-top experiences appeared.  And they spoke with Jesus.  Whatever they said, it is clear that, for Jesus, this mountain was like theirs – a momentary respite, rather than a permanent escape from the world.

Peter wanted to make it something more permanent:  “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.”  One can almost hear the thoughts behind Peter’s suggestion:  At last, an alternative to the way of suffering and death!  Here we can capture the moment, commemorate the glory!  People will come, away from the cares of the world, and see and know the true majesty of Jesus.  Surely this, and not the cross, is the full revelation of Jesus as the Son of God.

But God rejected Peter’s plan.  A voice in a cloud said simply, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well please; listen to him.”  When the disciple’s heard this voice, they fell to the ground in fear, realizing they were in the presence of God.  But Jesus came and touched them, healing their fear and raising them again, as if from death itself.  And when they looked around, they saw no one on the mountain except Jesus.  The moment of glory had past.  The mountain top experience was over.  And they made their way down into the valley once again.  After all, there’s a boy waiting down there and he needs Jesus’ healing.

And apparently it was enough.  Apparently it was what Jesus needed.  And I guess it was enough for the Peter, James, and John, too.  For Jesus did go to Jerusalem and his disciples went with him.

It is as if that holy moment on the mountain, that deep communion with God, was a foretaste of what was to come.  It is as if, in that moment, Jesus knew in his whole body that death was not the final word.  He knew that if he went to Jerusalem and confronted the principalities and powers with the truth, they would kill him.  But there, on that mountain, he also knew – not just in his head, but in his heart and bones – what the resurrection meant.  “Tell no one about the vision,” he told his disciples, “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

On that mountain, Jesus got a sense of the future.  Then he came down to the valley, down here, and picked up his cross so he could get to that future.  Raphael’s painting demonstrates the tension between the call of the mountaintop and the call of the valley.  We are called both to the deep reassuring experiences of the presence of God and to the needs of the world.

But do we really want the mountaintop experiences?  I mean really want them?  I suspect the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’  Yes, because we desire communion with God.  No, because we know, “Holy ground is not safe.  It is full of mystery and magic and power.  We aren’t in control … on the mountain.”[2]

Annie Dillard describes how dangerous it can be to experience the full mountaintop communion:  “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we 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 is 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.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[3]

If there is one constant in life, it’s change.  How much more exciting if the change is God drawing us to where we can never return.  And how much more scary and dangerous.  After all, we’ll be asked to take up our crosses and follow.

For some in our community, some elements of the changes we are experiencing are painful, even cross-like.  Yet, I am convinced that the changes are the result of hanging with God.  Yes, the hanging with God may have looked more like the way Jacob did it at Jabbok than the way Jesus did it on the mount of the transfiguration.  It may have resembled more of a wrestling match than a moment of awe and glory.  But I am convinced it is the result of hanging with God.

It is important for us to remember that, as we move through and into these changes, we need to keep returning to God.  Hanging with God will empower and ground us, help us to hold steady and remain faithful.

Sociologist Daniel Chambliss did a three-year empirical study of excellent swimmers.  He found beyond natural differences in ability, the one thing that made the winning difference was commitment to “those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of life.”[4]  He calls this “the mundanity of excellence.”

Commitment to the little things is crucial to the religious life as well.  We don’t often think in those terms.  We are more likely to focus on the importance of the mountaintop experiences – dramatic conversions, overwhelming encounters with God, powerful moments of prayer.  We search for peak experiences and fear that some people have talent for religious life, a talent that we are somehow missing.  But the truth is, in our life of faith, our task is to come down from the mountain and transform the holy moment into a holy mission of daily commitment.

Faithfulness down here consists of tending to the mundane activities of faith until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of life:  praying and doing laundry; offering signs of mercy and signs of justice; listening to one another and studying the scriptures; journaling at home and sharing the Lord’s supper in worship.  The major difference between many of the saintly figures of the church and us is not their “natural talent” or disposition.  Rather, it is the way their habits, disciplines, and practices prepared them, in gracious openness to God’s work, to live extraordinarily faithful lives.

This is a good time, as we enter Lent, to start our practice sessions of tending to the average, daily hanging with God.  May we each put extra care into the ordinary activities of faith, so that we may become extra-ordinarily faithful.

Amen.


[2] Anthony B. Robinson, “Have You Been to the Mountain?” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional email dated 10 February 2013.

[3] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

[4] Daniel Chambliss, “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,” Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), 85, available at http://www.lillyfellows.org/Portals/0/Chambliss-Mundanity%20of%20Excellence.pdf.

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