Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, July 24, 2021
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Mountain Top Moments

Mark 9:1-10

The Transfiguration marks the end of the season of Epiphany and begins the transition to the season of Lent in the Church’s annual life. It is an appropriate transition. Epiphany means “manifestation.” Jesus is revealed to be the Son of God and Savior of the world at Epiphany. His glory is made manifest, plain to see in the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration also marks the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross. Jesus is the Messiah, but not a Messiah as people expected him to be.

This event is preceded by Jesus’ visit to Caesarea Philippi. After being with his disciples for a couple of years, Jesus takes them to a lonely place in the mountains to the north of the Sea of Galilee. He asks them, “Who do you say I am?” Peter famously responds, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus affirms it. He is the one they have been looking for and hoping for.

But we quickly learn that he will not be the kind of Messiah they were expecting. The expectation was that the Messiah would be a great conqueror, a hero that would restore the worldly kingdom of Israel. He would drive out their enemies and restore their long lost fortunes. Instead, Jesus tells them that he is going to Jerusalem and he will die there and then rise from the dead. It seems that they are unable to hear the second part of that because of the first. They can’t abide the thought of a Messiah who dies. They challenge his words and assure him that he must be wrong about this.

Jesus says, “Some of you standing here right now will not die before you see the Kingdom of God arrive in great power.” Jesus is talking about the Transfiguration. It is meant to confirm their hopes in Jesus. He may not do what they are expecting, but he is absolutely the one they are looking for.

Six days later, Jesus takes three companions. These number details refer back to Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24. God’s glory covers the mountain for six days before he calls Moses to come up. And when Moses is called up, he is accompanied by three named companions: Aaron, his brother, the high priest, and Aaron’s oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu.

This is one of several points of contack between the Transfiguration and the Old Testament. Obviously, Moses met with God on a mountain top. Centuries later, the prophet Elijah was called back to Mt. Sinai to meet with God. The radiance of Jesus recalls the glory reflected on Moses’ face when he came down from the mountain after being with God.

Why does Jesus only take these three disciples with him? Well, they are his inner circle, his most trusted disciples. Perhaps he thought they were the only ones ready to see and experience these things.

But I think there is a takeaway for us. If we want to see and experience glorious things, we must draw close to Christ, too. We must have an intimate and trusting relationship with Christ if we hope to experience glorious things.

People have long wondered what mountain they were on. The traditional place for the Transfiguration was Mt. Tabor. But Mt. Tabor is not a good answer for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it was about 35 miles away from Caesarea Philippi. For another thing, it wasn’t really a high mountain. It was only about 1000 feet high. And finally, in the first century, the Romans had a fortress and a garrison of soldiers stationed on Mt. Tabor. Hardly the kind of place you would want to go for a mountain top moment with God. Besides, Mark tells us later that Jesus didn’t leave that region until after the Transfiguration. Of course, when I was the pastor at the Mt. Tabor UM Church, they never liked to hear that.

The most likely location was Mt. Hermon, the highest mountain in the region, which was only about ten miles from Caesarea Philippi. And at over 9200 feet in elevation, it’s certainly a high mountain, high enough to be snowcapped most of the year. Today it is home to the only ski resort in the nation of Israel. And I have to say that as an enthusiast of the mountains, I really like the idea of Jesus and his disciples climbing to the top of an honest to goodness mountain.

There Jesus’ appearance is changed. He becomes radiant. The same word was used to describe the glare of the sun in first century Greek. This is an anticipatory revelation of his glory. It’s a foretaste of his second coming, his return in glory.

Moses and Elijah appear with him. There was an expectation that Moses and Elijah would return before the Messiah came. Of course, Scripture tells us that Elijah did not die but was instead taken up into heaven. Many Jews expected that he would return just as he was taken. And while the Bible doesn’t say this, there was also a belief among many Jews that Moses also did not die but was taken up. Together they represent the Law and the Prophets, the Old Testament. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises made there.

Peter speaks up and says, “Hey, this is great. Let’s all just stay here. I’ll make three shelters (or tabernacles).” Tabernacles, of course, recalls the Feast of Tabernacles, a time to remember how God protected and provided for Israel during the long years in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan.

A cloud covers the mountain. In the Old Testament, a cloud is used to describe a visible manifestation of God’s presence. And from the cloud, God speaks, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” The message recounts both Mark 1:11, God’s message at Jesus baptism, and Deuteronomy 18:15, the promise of a prophet greater than Moses, whose words must be heeded. This is a confirmation to Jesus, that he is doing the Father’s will, and to the disciples, that he is the one they have been hoping for. Even though events will not play out the way they are hoping!

On the way down, Jesus tells them not to talk about this until after the resurrection. Why not? I think there are two reasons. One, given the expectations of a conquering Messiah, it might be a problem if people heard about this. But also, and more importantly, the disciples themselves can’t fully grasp the meaning of this event until after they have the perspective of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension back into heaven. It is a confirmation, but not one they will fully grasp at the moment.

I’ve always found the reaction of Peter on the mountain to be interesting. “Let’s stay here.” I think that mountains are good places for drawing our minds upward and outward. We gain perspective on mountains. We see things in a different way.

Mountains have great appeal. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of George Mallory. In 1924, he and another climber, Sandy Irvine, attempted the summit of Mt. Everest. At one point they were seen through a telescope less than a thousand feet below the summit. Whether or not they made it has remained a mystery ever since. What we do know is they never came down. Mallory’s body was found high up on the mountain in 1999. Irvine has never been found.

When he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory famously responded, “Because it’s there.” There is something alluring about the beauty and the danger of mountains. But mountains are intense places, physically and spiritually. They’re not places where we can live.

I think we should seek them out. We should seek out those mountain top moments with God, the moments when the veil between heaven and earth is a little bit thinner. But we can’t stay in those moments. They are too intense. We need them to be strengthened and affirmed in our faith, to have our hope confirmed. But then we need to come down from the mountain and live “in the valley,” in the realities of life.

When Jesus descends from the mountain, he is confronted with the reality of a child possessed by a demonic spirit. The world is a hurting and needy place. We need what the mountain offers to live in it, but the world needs what we find on the mountain just as much.

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