February 19, 2023.
Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:15-21; Matthew 17:1-9.
What is it about mountains? Everything about them tells us to keep our distance. Mountains are places of unexpected chasms, unpredictable storms, unstable footing. And yet people just can’t stay away. For some it’s about adventure and conquest. But many others find on the heights of mountains, a profound sense of spiritual presence.
The holiness of high places is ancient and universal. Denali in Alaska is sacred; so are Rainier, Ararat, Kilimanjaro, Fuji, and Nanda Devi to name just a few. Though human civilizations have risen and ebbed, though religious identities have been stripped away, altered over time, or simply forgotten, these places remain resonant with the sacred.
Exodus 24 tells the story of Moses in the Sinai Peninsula. He is sojourning with the Israelite people. In their long migration out of Egypt they spend an extended period of time in the presence of a looming mountain. Interchangeably called Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb, it’s slightly under 7,500 feet in height. It was sacred long before Moses ever came there.
The mountain is a brooding place of stormy temperament, suitable for the purposes of Israel’s God. God has summoned Moses to the heights for numerous conferences. Mt. Sinai can be ascended in about four hours but Moses spent much longer in his coming and going.
Sometimes he was accompanied, but mostly he went alone. It’s almost as if Moses went up the mountain as much for sanctuary, as for God’s summons. A respite from the complications of leadership.
Israel was a hungering, migrant people constantly diverted on their way to a new identity. Moses didn’t have a blueprint for his work. Only the voice of God. And on Mt. Sinai, Moses most clearly heard God’s voice and saw God’s glory.
But close encounters with God, visions of holy things, messages of faith, are difficult to sustain over the long term. Moses struggled to keep the Israelites faithful to God and the covenant. They were endlessly creative in their unfaithfulness, because it’s often easier to follow your own way than to discern the way of God, as we know all too well, if we will admit it.
The epistle of second Peter was written some years after the time of Jesus. The sense of what it mean to be a follower of Jesus was being challenged. The community was beset with conflicting teachings presented by well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning teachers. The people struggled to hold on to their faith.
Second Peter appeals to people to trust the witness of the apostles. Jesus is God’s Son and our Lord. The letter reminds believers of the theophany (a God reveal) to the disciples on the mountain. The mountain, in this case is particularly significant.
Jesus often went to the hills to pray. This time, he led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. While this may have been Mount Tabor in Galilee, a better candidate might be Mount Hermon. Jesus had been teaching near there according Matthew 16. It lies just to the north of Caesarea Philippi and stands over 9,000 feet in elevation. The name means “sanctuary”. It was known to be a high place, sacred to Canaanites and earlier pagan peoples.
The mountain marked the northernmost limit of Joshua’s conquest. Comprised of three distinct peaks with saddles in between, it’s covered in snow year-round. Its meltwaters feed the Jordan River. The climb up is an adventure, the views extravagant.
It was the perfect place for another God reveal. Since as we know, God goes big when it comes to announcing Jesus. In the gospel of Matthew a theophany precedes every major turning point in the narrative. The baptism of Jesus is one. After that Jesus took on the message of John the Baptist and went public with his ministry. And now, on this mountain the narrative shifts toward Jerusalem and the cross.
It’s strange really that the disciples don’t seem at all perturbed by the vision on this day. Jesus shining like the sun, the appearance of Moses and Elijah – these are amazing things! Yet Peter simply offers to build three shrines. As if this will be a permanent thing. A theophany exhibit of the Law, the Prophets and the Messiah all together in harmony. Our work here is done!
It seems to fit Peter’s preference that Jesus evade the shame of the cross and the mortality of death. Better for Jesus to stay on the mountain and be permanently adored. Down below is only the work of answering injustice and inequity, and facing threat and humiliation for it.
Peter hadn’t even finished speaking when God’s presence broke over them with unearthly brightness and the sound of God’s voice. The three disciples dropped to the ground, boneless. They might have stayed there and never returned.
But Jesus was not done. They were not done. So Jesus touched them and called them out of their terror in words reminiscent of healing and resurrection. Get up. Fear not. We’re going down the mountain. Hush, don’t say a word. For now. The time will come for that later.
We still don’t entirely know what this vision is all about. Jesus also seems to have been asking the disciples to stay open to its meaning. To hold on to the universal human experience of the holy moment, the presence of God, the voice of God. Even when, especially when, Jesus is no longer bodily present. Because God’s Word never dies.
Faith in practical terms is holding on together. Faith is living the values of our God when other voices clamor for our devotion. It is living with trust in God when there is silence, and when there is confusion, and when there is conflict. It is continuing to look for God and listen for God. Helping one another interpret what God is saying to us in this moment. Faith is not being fearful of what we have seen and heard. Or that we have seen and heard something sacred and holy.
Faith trusts that God never ceases speaking to us or revealing God’s glory. God speaks in the high places, but also in our hearts. All we need to do is pay attention.