The Transfiguration of Our Lord: February 24, 2019
Ever done any rock climbing? Mountain Climbing? I have not. I don’t like climbing a ladder, so rock climbing is not going to be my thing. Those who do the climbing “thing” say few experiences offer similar challenges, the same exhilaration, or that kind of sense of accomplishment. I can tell you that I think I have felt similar things when I have run up a big hill and get to the top and look at what’s below. I feel something similar crossing the finish line of a 13-mile race.
But today, we are talking about mountain climbing and Moses. Has anyone climbed more mountains than Moses did? Have you ever read through Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy long enough to figure out how many times Moses hauled himself up and down Mt. Sinai alone? (Remember, that is where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.) The point of these journeys was not to experience what is called a climber’s “high.” Sometimes the reason why Moses went up a mountain was to talk to God when the Israelites were misbehaving or driving Moses nuts. Other times, God simply said, “Come,” and Moses went.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, we join Moses, already in progress, in the wilderness and on a mountain. This mountain is not Sinai, but Pisgah. And this is, in fact, the last day here for Moses. Moses has led the children of Israel through the wilderness for over 40 years. It is time for them to enter the promised land. Moses is not going to get to go, because he had disobeyed God sometime earlier (although I think God did Moses a favor). But in those previous 40 years, Moses went up on mountains many times to talk to God, or more often, to be talked to by God.
In Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, there are many verses where we see Moses leading God’s people on their journeys. And there are many verses when Moses stood before God to plead for food and drink, or often to ask for patience! I am guessing we can relate to that. We have those times where we go to God in prayer, maybe not on an actual mountain, but we go be alone and talk to God and pray for spouses, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, crazy uncles, weird friends, anyone who needs God’s help or God’s direction.
In our text today, Moses in on the top of a mountain with God for the last time. Maybe you have heard that expression, “a mountain top experience?” In the physical sense, these things occur when we feel especially clear on what we are to do or feel especially blessed. You know, when you get the new job, new promotion, new kid, that raise. In those moments you feel like you are on top of the world, that you are walking in tall cotton, where you can say, “bring me the finest meats and cheeses in all the land!” Spiritually, these things happen to some of us when the Holy Spirit makes crystal clear what God wants from us or what God has given us.
But the thing about the whole mountain top thing is that we always, always have to come down the mountain, return to our normal routines and schedules, and that clarity we had of what we are to do and what God wants us to do can disappear. Quickly we forget the words and commands of God. When Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandment Tablets, he smashed them in anger when he saw the people worshipping a golden calf. In our case, instead of smashing the tablets of God’s Word when we see the Israelites worshipping a Golden Calf, our culture and peer pressure and our distractions and worries and stuff lead us to ignore what God says we are supposed to do. We think we can force God’s gifts to produce for us what we want, when we want it. God told Moses to command a rock to give water for the people to drink. Moses whacked it twice with his staff. (This is why Moses did not go into the Promised Land.) Moses wanted to do things his way. We want to do things our way. I have beat on that same rock, over and over again, if you know what I mean. Have you?
That’s why, I think, we know what it was like for Moses on Mount Pisgah. This will probably happen to us, too. Many will come to realize it is time to go, and go with God, but will do so with unfinished business here. Moses never quite finished the work he was given. In all probability, neither will we.
On this Day of the Transfiguration, we stand on top of another mountain. Once more, we have joined Moses. Peter, James, and John have come along as well, and we know there are two other very important people here. One is Elijah. He, too, had often gone to Sinai to pray about his troubles. One day he had offered God his resignation as a prophet. To his surprise, God accepted. Soon enough God took Elijah as well. (Chariot of Fire)
The last one on the mountain that we mention today is Jesus. He speaks with the two old-timers. They tell their stories of journeys never finished, of missions left incomplete. It would not surprise me if, while they were talking, Jesus looked toward Jerusalem. There He will finish what Moses did not—the exodus itself. There He will break the power of a bondage (Egyptian slavery vs. slavery to sin) which is way worse than anything Pharaoh, Ahab, Nebuchadnezzar, Antiochus, Herod, Caesar, or any other oppressor of Israel could throw at them.
But wait. Jesus left from the mountain and the conversation, but not without hearing, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; Listen to Him!” This was the same voice that had spoken to Him at His Baptism, that said, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”
To those words, Jesus will cling as He faces the tempter and his phony visions for what sets us free. Next week we’ll rewind a bit to the beginning of the Gospel, and fast with Jesus who, having not eaten for forty days, would face the temptation to free the world with bread, test His Father in heaven, and cheat on His mission for us by aligning Himself with Satan.
Along the way, from temptation to transfiguration to trial, one sentence keeps Jesus, or us, from giving in. “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Can anything give us more freedom than those words have already given us?
We follow, and soon enough we find ourselves in Jerusalem. Or rather, on the way out of Jerusalem. We are joined by Simon of Cyrene, who now carries a cross behind Jesus. Then, we go up another small mountain, a hill really, and still hearing those baptismal words however faintly in our ears, we also hear the young mountain climber, Jesus, speak in return to the promising voice. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Now while we are not yet in the Promised Land, we know what Jesus has done for us. In this world where folks still shoot each other, starve, get sick, hate, curse, and die, this Jesus has indeed worked a freedom more valuable than anything we know because His death and resurrection make those things powerless. The promising voice that announced, “You are my Son, whom I love,” one more time spoke those words over the fallen Jesus as He lay in His grave. That Son of God rose. Freedom was His, and is now ours as well, because the exodus is complete. What Moses started, Jesus finished. Jesus finished what Moses started, and we get the benefits—faith, forgiveness, eternal life.
And now, even as Moses laid hands on Joshua and Elijah gave his blessing to Elisha, so Jesus pours out His Spirit on us, and we move on from this mountain to run the next lap of the journey, down from the mountain peak, into the valley, doing our jobs as members of the body of Christ—His hands, His feet. And what shall we do? With our baptismal blessings, we go straight for the valley, where Satan works and does his thing. We go where we go every day, every moment, with the Holy Spirit in here, called and blessed and gifted, so we can comfort, forgive, offer hope, be the light for those in darkness, and do that by the power of the promise that makes us God’s sons and daughters.
This is Moses’ epitaph at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy: “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt.” In grace, our epitaph echoes that of Jesus Christ’s: “This is my son, my daughter, whom I love, my chosen one.” And after that is written? We’ll meet Him on a mountain. We’ll be with Him in the Promised Land/in Heaven. Together. Then we will get to see Him face-to-face.
In Jesus’ Name.
Adapted from Material in Concordia Pulpit Resources.