There are two significant mountains in Scripture where God speaks. In the southern part of the Sinai penninsula rises a mountain which has been known to the local Bedouin tribe for centuries as “Jebel Musa” – the mountain of Moses. The landscape, like all of the Sinai, is harsh. Ancient red granite rock greets the visitor to Sinai. What is not rock is sand, and what is not sand is dust. There are 2 main paths up to top. There is the main route which is used by the Bedouin, a series of switchbacks wide enough for a camel to walk upon. There is another, rather less trodden path – it is comprised of hundreds of steps carved into the rock by monks many centuries ago. The second path is appropriately named “The steps of repentance”. It was designed as a form of penance for the monks of the Monastery of St Catherine, which has been part of the mountain for almost 1700 years.
When you finally get to the top of Sinai, there is a spectacular view of the desert landscape for miles around. It is a jagged and rough place – a fitting spot for human beings to experience the majesty and, yes, even the terror of coming into the presence of God. It is the mountain of the giving of the Law – the commands which Moses gave to the people of Israel.
NIne km west of Nazareth rises another mountain – Mount Tabor. It commands a view of fertile valleys, the villages around the sea of Galilee, and it’s slopes are covered with lush greenery and gardens. It is the traditional site of the Transfiguration. There is only one route up to the summit: and though it is steep it is worth the climb. As opposed to camel, you can take a Mercedes Benz stretch limo for about 30 shekels. By the way, like the camel handlers in the Sinai, the taxi drivers are also Bedouin tribesmen. When you get to the top you see the variety of greenery – Mount Tabor receives that rare commodity – “rain”. Just as God spoke one set of words on the top of Mount Sinai, so he also spoke another set of words on the top of Mount Tabor.
If Sinai is the mountain of the Law, then let us think of Tabor – the mount of Transfiguration - as the mountain of Grace.
Law can only restrain us on the outside– but grace transfigures us on the inside. We are invited to a new vision of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and we invited to be transformed by grace, not by law. Perhaps you are still living on Mount Sinai – thinking that faith is only about following the laws – seeing God merely as the one who rewards or punishes. Or you are thinking that keeping yourself “good” in God’s eyes is impossible, but you think it is what God wants of you anyway.
Like Peter and James and John, we are all invited into a vision of God in Jesus.
And maybe like Peter our first reaction to being invited into a new vision of God in Jesus is to turn our attention elsewhere.
Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." On one level this is another echo of the Sinai stories - the making of booths. But there is also another level to be considered. Peter represents here an all too common experience in the church. When God is doing something spiritual, we turn our attention elsewhere. In this case it seems that Peter thinks what is required is a building project, as if walls and wood could contain God.
“God shows up – let’s go to Home Depot”
Now it doesn't of course have to be a building project, but when God in Jesus makes his presence known, that is what we should pay attention to. If God is at work, don't get bogged down in the wrong things. We can be like Peter when we spend our time and energy only on the "externals" - the mere trappings of church - and then we can miss out on the presence of Jesus in our midst.
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid."
The voice is like that which was heard at Jesus’ baptism. Only this time there is an addition: “Listen to Him.” But when the disciples hear this voice, they are afraid. And so are we. Because this also promises us something wonderful and terrifying at the same time. God calls us to be transfigured as well. He calls us to be his beloved, but he also calls us to share in the transfiguration of Jesus. And that means change. As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, God invites us to take a look at ourselves and see where we need to change: a habit, an action, an attitude. We are often afraid of change – but the change which God has in mind is to make us more fully into the beloved children he has called us to be. And sometimes this involves “growing pains”. He calls us to be “Christ-like”. As we learn to see Jesus, we begin to see who God calls us to be.
Now the law given by Moses was intended to shape and form people from the outside. After all, how many people slow down when they know that a photo radar trap is up ahead. That’s how the law works – it only makes a change in behavior from the outside. But grace, transfiguration – is the kind of change that takes place on the inside, and as we open up our hearts and minds to the vision of God in Jesus, we receive the Spirit of God to be changed from the inside.
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’
Touch from Jesus –
All too often we castigate these expressions of fear on the part of humans as some sort of divine bullying - as if the disciples' fear was God's fault. It is entirely possible, and I think more likely, that human fear at the manifest presence of God is rather an indication of problems within ourselves, rather than in God. Jesus touches and reassures: do not be afraid.
This passage is a fitting end to the Epiphany season - we have followed Jesus from birth, to early childhood, to baptism - all events which gave us insight into who he is. The Transfiguration gives us a "final" glimpse of who he is. The season of revelation is complete.
I'll add a few notes and details tomorrow... You know, Moses and Elijah - representing the Law and the Prophets - bearing witness to Christ (as he himself said he wold fulfil); Elijah & his mountain experience; the difference between mere change and transfiguration; whether or not you can see Armageddon from the top of Mount Tabor; the echo of Moses' face shining in the Sinai stories to the imagery of the transfiguration; why Jesus orders them to tell no one; learn to see the glory without the transfiguration,