20. January 2013
Exodus 34:29-35; Matthew 17:1-9
Everyone wants a mountaintop experience. Maybe you have had such an experience figuratively or literally. Would you describe any events in your life this way? Or if you considered the general contour of your life’s topography would it be more valleys and shadows than mountains and brilliance? No wonder then that when we are trudging through those ravines of life we look forward to the small peaks with the joy, hope, and clear vision they bring. We want those experiences that thrill and delight.
This desire applies not only to our daily lives but to spiritual lives, too. We desire to see the glory of God, to receive the exhilaration of His presence, to see clearly the landscape and the path of our life, and to delight in all His many gifts. We want from God a mountaintop experience to remember.
This is, of course, why we see some people in church only infrequently like on Christmas and Easter. They know those days will be filled with joy and comfort. They’re not so sure that the weekly grind of the Divine Service will provide the same. And if we’re honest, we’ll say they’re right. The weekly service often seems more of a valley with each of us more slouching than leaping towards the promised land. Our prayers are drudgery, our voices lackluster, and our attention waning.
The problem is that we are wrong to judge the value of our life experiences based on whether they make us happy or not. Anyone with the wisdom of age will tell you they learned as much or more from the rotten experiences of life as they did from the moments of joy, peace, or hope. The war-torn scars of the soldier, the withered hands of the worker, or the stretch marks of the mother all tell of an experience that was difficult yet incredibly valuable. Those experiences may have glimpses of glory but were often difficult drudgery.
God never promises your life will be easy nor every moment a mountaintop experience. Your heavenly Father “disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb 12:6; cf. Prov. 3:11). God works this way in your life, both body and soul. He allows you to experience pain, grief, and disease to strengthen your trust in Him. You will suffer even death because of your sin. You are dust and to dust you shall return. This discipline of your body is not His final work. God promises healing and will give it. Ultimately this is the gift of Jesus in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Just as Christ died and rose so also you who are in Him will die and rise.
God the Father is also attentive to your soul. He gives you His commands that confess His perfect will. Given your sinful condition these accuse you and terrify your conscience. You are tempted to sin but never more than you can handle. This holy Law is a guardian or taskmaster. It restrains evil in you, shows you your sin, and shows you what God expects of you. This word is humbling for no one keeps it. It’s discipline scares our soul, frightened to death of the prospect of hell. As with bodily discipline this is not God’s proper work. His Law always gives way to the gift of the Holy Gospel. For there is forgiveness in God the Son. His death and resurrection gives you forgiveness. There is no more condemnation for you have been freed by His blood.
Our physical and spiritual experiences with God are not always what we would call a mountaintop experiences, if by the expression we mean that they are comfortable and happy. When Moses brought the God’s holy Law to the people from Mt. Sinai, did they receive him joyfully? No, this “mountaintop experience” scared them. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.
Moses came as the messenger of the almighty God and a little bit of that glory wore off onto Moses. But remember that this was after Moses’s second trip up Sinai. After the first trip he returned to discover the people worshipping a golden calf. Moses showed God’s displeasure by melting the calf and forcing the people to drink it mixed with water and God himself sent a plague upon them. In His mercy God heard Moses’s intercession and forgave the people. God called Moses to once again travel to Sinai and there cut new tablets for the Law. When Moses returned to the people they were rightly frightened. Would God again be displeased with them?
This righteous fear continued. Every time Moses went in to speak before the LORD, he would return with his face shining. The people knew that He had spoken with the LORD. When Moses lifted the veil they would hear the God’s Word. They would have a “mountaintop experience” in God’s way. The words Moses spoke did not always lift their spirits but they were always for their good. The people hated the reflected glory in Moses’s face and were terrified when the veil was lifted. For Moses’s ministry was of the Law and thus of accusation, condemnation, and death.
This is not the mountaintop experience our bodies long for nor the one that is our soul’s hope. Perhaps that is why St. Peter acted the way He did on Mt. Tabor? perhaps he thought he was finally having the mountaintop experience that everyone hoped for. After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
One has to wonder if Peter had not paid attention in his sabbath lessons. Jesus and Moses shining in glory shouldn’t make happy or comfortable. He should be frightened out of his wits. When anyone goes up on a mountain and ends up with shining flesh it is a moment of terror. But not Peter. He said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter wants to continue to dwell on the mountain, to be accused by the Law, and to know only God’s terrifying glory. He wants to live under the Law and not the greater and proper work of Jesus to die for their sins.
Jesus converses with Moses and Elijah and is speaking of His exodus (according to St. Luke.) From the mountain of Transfiguration Jesus turns His face toward Jerusalem where He will climb another mountain. On Mt. Calvary the true glory of God will be revealed, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father. On that mountain Moses’s ministry of condemnation will cease. Jesus will die for the sins of the world, ushering in a new ministry of righteousness. The glory of Jesus (and Moses and Elijah) that Peter wanted to package in tents on Tabor will be shown to have no glory at all. As St. Paul said, “What once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it” (2 Cor 3:11).
Peter was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. Now Peter, James, and John make the connection. Now they know that the glory in Jesus they see is truly the glory of God. Now they are rightly terrified, fearing God’s judgment and His holy presence.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Already at this mountain a new mountaintop experience begins. God’s holy Law is surpassed by the gift of Jesus. The Father’s voice that terrifies is followed by the Son’s voice of comfort. Brilliant glory is shrouded so that we would bask in the cross of Christ.
This is a different sort of mountaintop experience. It begins when Jesus comes to you. After you are terrified by the Father’s discipline, the Son comes with the touch of forgiveness. He speaks to you tenderly and says “Rise, and have no fear.” These words are greater than Moses. Their glory more brilliant than even the sun.
Jesus tells death “It is finished” and he transfigures it into eternal life. He says to water, “save” and it is transfigured into a saving flood. He says to bread and wine, “body and blood” and He is transigured for your forgiveness. He calls sinners “forgiven” and you are transfigured into the redeemed. He says to His church “shine” and we are transfigured into cities shining on hills. From that little mountain of Calvary now a greater mountain is rising up in you. For Christ has gathered you together to Mount Zion to give you the best experience of all—forgiveness in Him.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church