Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany. It is also Transfiguration Sunday when the story of Jesus and three companions going up to the mountain is read. A familiar story repeated in all three of the synoptic gospels. So, of course, I have blogged about this story many times before. Today I am going to focus on a couple of aspects of the tale.
Mountains are wonderful. I love to hike up them (although I prefer safe paths) and I love to see them towering above me when I drive or walk past them. There is always something exhilarating about mountains. I remember hiking in the lake district (NW England). As one hikes up the hill sometimes it feels like the end is in sight but then as one continues the walk upward the realization that it was just another ridge and the mountain continues. Yet, when the summit is reached it is a wonderful feeling of achievement.
In today’s story (Luke 9: 28-36) Jesus, John, James and Peter went up a mountain to pray. The text does not include any details of their journey into the mountains. I have no idea how arduous the hike was or how long it took them. I can only imagine, I think it must have been quite a journey as passage reports that Jesus’ companions were “weighed down with sleep.”
Regardless of how difficult the walk it was so worth the journey. They saw an amazing sight. I imagine it was something they never forgot. I think in every person’s journey through life, there are some amazing mountain experiences. These are highlights. Special moments that remain forever in one’s memory. But it is not just having a good memorable experience. It is more than that, they impart something that brings change. I’m sure Peter, James and John were not the same after their mountain experience.
Yet, the thing about mountain experiences is one doesn’t remain there. When Andy and I hike in the Lakes and reach a summit we enjoy the experience. We are exhilarated to have reached the top. We may linger and enjoy the view, we may rest awhile absorbing the beauty of the place. Then we start back down to the valley. That is where we live and work.
It was the same for James, John and Peter. The mountain experience was a source of nourishment. It was a special time. They would never be quite the same again. I’m sure the memory of it carried them through the hard times to come. It was also preparation for their everyday work. The went down the mountain and continued the work of ministry.
I think something else happened in this story. There was a theological shift in how God is viewed. There are a few stories in the New Testament which seem to have extra special significance. I think this is one of them.
In all three of the synoptic gospels this story follows Peter’s acknowledgement that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter has recognized Jesus as Messiah even though others thought he may be Elisha or another risen prophet. Then in this transfiguration vision the disciples saw three figures who they interpreted as Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Peter impetuously wanted to build three booths but at that point a cloud overshadowed the three disciples.
The text comments, “They were terrified” (34). Andy and I have been overshadowed by a cloud on a mountain. It is a pretty scary thing. We had hiked up a mountain called Coniston Old Man. We set off in brilliant sunshine, although it got progressively colder and wetter, but as we reached the summit the cloud came down. It was disorienting. We could not see the path in front of us. I imagine the disciples felt the same disorientation, but for them there was a significant difference.
I’m sure it wasn’t just the effect of the cloud that terrified them. It was the whole scenario. It was the presence of Moses and Elijah. They were inside a cloud which had echoes of the story of God speaking with Moses. The Old Testament God could be a somewhat fearful presence. That theme repeats itself throughout the story of Moses.
In this transfiguration story a change happens. I think a significant change. A new view of God is revealed. No longer a God to be feared but a kinder, gentler view is presented. I really like the phrase in Matthew’s version of the story where he says, “Jesus came and touched them,” and said, “Don’t be afraid” (Matt 17:8). I love this new view of God that is portrayed. A God that tells the disciples no longer to be fearful, a God who touches as a friend. I think this is really important.