Transfiguration.19 “Falling” Luke 9:28-36

Going up on a mountaintop sounds like a great thing. But for folks in bible times, for some still, mountaintop experiences are deadly. Sometimes, people fall off mountaintops and die. Happens all the time. Moses died on top of Mt. Nebo, not long after his brother Aaron died on top of Mt. Hor. The thing about those deaths too, that is a little disturbing, is that God is the One who provides the push (!)…

Aaron thought he’d gotten away with the golden calf business (he was the one who said “OK” when Moses was up on Mt. Sinai getting the Ten Commandments—another mountaintop experience that was harrowing—and everyone was sure that Moses was dead so they told Aaron to make new gods for them, and the golden calves were the result). Aaron also had not been the best dad (his two oldest sons died in the tabernacle experimenting with contemporary worship and innovative uses of incense, which it seems Aaron might have prevented by insisting on the ’41 hymnal). But it was the business at Meribah when the people complained they were dying of thirst and Moses and Aaron were supposed to just talk nicely to the rock to get water out of it but instead Moses whacked it with his staff and took credit for the miracle which is the reason Aaron had to bite it on Mt. Hor…

Moses too got called up by God to Mt. Nebo. God said, “let’s take a little trip. I know a spot with a lovely view. Oh, no; you won’t need a suitcase. You’re not coming back…” Elijah too had his own near-death experience on Mt. Sinai aka Horeb. He was on the run from wicked Queen Jezebel who was going to kill him, and decided to take refuge on the holy mountain. God met him on the mountaintop (being a good climber, I notice, seems almost a condition of employment for prophets and apostles) and said “what are you doing here, Elijah?” and proceeded to send a hurricane that tore the mountains in pieces around him, then an earthquake to shake him up some more, and finally a fire to burn whatever was left. A close call for Elijah.

Now, the apostles were better bible students than they often get credit for being. They went to Saturday School. They grew up with Arch Books. They knew these stories. So when Jesus says to Peter, James, and John, “c’mon guys! Let’s go climb that high mountain!” It was not, for them, what perhaps popular imagination would see. It was not a wonderful, exhilarating day out with Jesus, a mountaintop experience in the popular sense, but more a great opportunity to die—like one of those tragic Everest expeditions you’re always reading about. So I imagine it was with some Kierkegaardian fear and trembling that they ascended the mountain (perhaps Mt. Herman, a 10,000 footer in the far north of Palestine).

This was 8 days after Jesus had told them that whoever would follow Him must deny himself, take up the cross and follow—that whoever would save his life will lose it, but only those who lose life for Christ’s sake will ever really find it. So you might think the invitation to go with God to a mountaintop will be like a lovely summer picnic with an amazing view, but for them it probably sounded like a great chance to die, in the manner of Moses and Aaron and lots of people who’ve perished on mountaintops. They were more like this pastor I knew who was on a plane once and a young woman next to him said “Father! I’m glad you’re on the plane.” He said “why?” “Because I’m afraid of flying.” “So why would my being on the plane make you feel better?” “Because you’re a man of God and I’m sure he won’t let anything bad happen to this plane today.” He said “Well, the way I see it, God loves me and wants me in heaven and this plane could be the way to get me there today.” Crash catechesis ensued…

That’s how it seems to have felt for Peter, James, and John. When they get to the top of the mountain, Jesus’ face and clothing were strangely altered, glowing white, like the sun, scary-like. And then two men whom they recognized somehow as Moses and Elijah were standing there talking with Him and what they talked about was His exodus, the death Jesus was about to die in Jerusalem. Ominous! Now, strangely; Luke says they were at that point “heavy with sleep” and most people go “How could such extreme fear make you sleepy?” But remember: all the apostles and evangelists (and Jesus too!) use the word sleep as a euphemism for death. Like Isaiah beholding the unveiled glory of God in the heavenly house, they seem to be flying apart at the seams…

But somehow they get woke and see His glory and Moses and Elijah standing by, relaxed and happy because death, fires, storms, have accustomed them to this sort of thing and Peter says his line: “Master, it is good for us to be here! Let us make three tabernacles—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah” not knowing what he was saying. I think this line makes all the difference in how you hear the story. Some will hear sincerity—Peter genuinely glad to be there and wanting by his building efforts to make the glory last.

I don’t hear that. I hear a man literally scared to death, who thinks it is terrifying to be there, but wants to be reverent and cool and remembers when Moses’ face shone with heavenly light from being with God, the Israelites put a bag on his head until it went away. The tabernacle is just a little more kosher bag to hide away that Heavenly Light. Be careful what you wish for, I think Peter is saying. You think you want to see Heaven, but maybe not exactly in the sinful state we’re in now…

When the cloud of glory enveloped them, they were sure it was the End and were fearful. But the Voice said “This is My Beloved Son! Hear Him!” And then it was over. They uncovered their eyes, looked around and it was just Jesus, the non-shiny version standing alone with them, all glory covered. And they were greatly relieved but didn’t feel like talking about it much at all.

What is the takeaway for us? Well glory is a tricky thing, isn’t it? We think we want it, but sinners who get a direct glimpse are scared to death thereby. Like the song says “I’m falling/ In all the good times I find myself longing/ for change/ And in the bad times I fear myself… we’re far from the shallow now.” And the Glory of God is the deep end of the pool(!) for it wounds in order to heal, kills to make alive.

Jesus said right before our Gospel that “Some won’t taste death till they see the Kingdom in its glory.” And the three who saw, Peter, James, and John would say “You do want to taste death before you see that!” Unless you die with Jesus, you really can’t live enjoyably with Him at all. Golgotha is the real mountaintop experience we all need(!!!). It’s there that our sin dies. Peter gets his wish! Jesus covers His glory in the dark dying of the cross where it shines in a way we can see it, love it, live in the Light. Unless you come to Calvary’s holy mountain first—sinner ruined by the fall—you’ll not enjoy the top of the Holy Mountain where the glory of God shines undimmed.

Which is exactly where we’re headed this week. To Golgotha. To the Cross. That dying with Jesus we may live, and in the darkness at noon on Calvary find the Light of life and Peace surpassing all understanding guarding heart and mind in Christ the Crucified. Amen.