Exodus 24.12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9
We find ourselves perched on the transfiguration mountain between two seasons. We look back at Epiphany, a joyous season of light that followed the birth of a baby. A baby who will save and love his people in ways the world has never seen. Epiphany is a season of hope, of understanding who Jesus is. Finding him on top of a mountain, dazzling and bright, is in many ways the perfect way to end this season.
At the transfiguration we hear of the presence of the glory of God, in all its magnificent splendor – dazzling white clothes, Jesus’ face shining like the sun, the presence of the returned prophets. The rest of our readings take seriously the grand-ness of God –we hear today that God is great, awesome, exalted, king, enthroned, holy, majestic. God is present in pillars of fire, clouds that cover whole mountains, and appears like devouring fire. It reminds me of the Sunday School song about our God – is so great, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing our God cannot do. To sit in the presence of this God is awe-inspiring.
And yet from our perch on top of our mountain we can see Lent and Holy Week coming. We know what is to come. The humiliation, the suffering, the death. If our God is so great, so strong and so mighty, then why does it come to this? Why the cross? How can our God be both awe-inspiring and broken and beaten and killed as a common criminal?
Who God is goes far beyond what we can understand. So yes, God is both majestic and crucified. We hear a lot of the majestic metaphors in our readings today, but the number of metaphors for God in scripture is incredible. God is like a devouring fire AND is a suffering servant. A mother eagle and a king. A shepherd and a judge. Light and night, word and silence, a spring and a rock, a path and a fortress.
God is all of these things because first and foremost (especially in Matthew’s gospel), God is Emmanuel, God is with us. And God is able to be with us in a multitude of ways. God isn’t limited to being one or being like one thing.
It is why the transfiguration itself isn’t the end of the story. The disciples see Jesus with Moses and Elijah, they hear God confirming who Jesus is – and telling them (and us) to listen to him. You’d think that’d be enough. The End! Easy faith because they’ve seen the glory of God. But even knowing who God is, we find ourselves on the ground, like the disciples, fallen in fear. We don’t know exactly what they were afraid of. Perhaps they are afraid of what is to come – just before this story Jesus has told them about his suffering, death, and resurrection. Perhaps they are afraid of what will happen to them – if Jesus is about to get into so much trouble, it can’t be good for them either. Perhaps they are afraid of the unknown – we talk about resurrection all the time, but they at that point were without Easter, without resurrection. Perhaps they are afraid of change – going forward to Jerusalem will be far different then their journey thus far with Jesus.
We too find ourselves afraid – of what is to come, of what will happen to us, of what we don’t know, of change. And what does Jesus do in this moment of fear?
Jesus comes. Leaves his conversation with the prophets, steps out of the glorious and majestic moment because he sees his beloved friends in fear. Jesus touches. Jesus touch is profoundly healing. Jesus touch reminds them that God is not just off at the top of a mountain, God is real, tactile, touchable. Jesus says ‘get up and do not be afraid.’
Does he then go back to the dazzling white, the glowing moment? No, he leaves that behind. The disciples are left with Jesus alone. And then in a most simple, but powerful and profound action, he goes back down the mountain with them. His identity as Emmanuel, God with us, points to his purpose – to be with the ones he loves even though he knows it will lead to the cross.
Our relationship with God is not dependent on us climbing a mountain to find a glowing deity at the top. Certainly, we will have mountaintop moments, certainly we will have profound moments of meeting God face to face. But our relationship with God is about God stepping with real human feet – tired, bony, dirty feet – down the mountain, back to the messy world with us. When we fall in fear, God is there to pick us up, to heal us, to encourage us, and walk right next to us. Jesus knows the consequences of this action – knows what will result from living a life perfectly faithful to God. Jesus knows that putting love first will be utterly incomprehensible to the powers in this world, he knows it will lead to his suffering and death.
But he also knows that God’s greatest power is in suffering. And just as God interrupts Peter as he is babbling on about building tents to remind him just who Jesus is, God will interrupt death as the world is babbling on about what we think power is to remind us just who Jesus is. God with us, whose power prioritize love, whose power is wrapped up in relationship, and whose power will always win the day, albeit in difficult, surprising, but ultimately joyful ways.
So enjoy the mountaintop for a moment – look back to Christmas, forward to Easter, and know that for all of the detours, pain, and chaos in between, Jesus himself will be with us, reminding us – get up and do not be afraid.