Epiphany stories are very familiar to us – for good reason. Each year we begin and end Epiphany with the same story. Epiphany begins with the wise men following their guiding light, to find baby Jesus. Each year we end Epiphany with the story of a “glow in the dark Jesus” on a mountaintop.
Today we read about Moses’ adventures on the mountaintop with the Divine. We hear Paul compare Moses’ veil and the veiled hearts of the people, with Jesus who removes the veil that uncovers divine light. Put these stories side by side, and the Old Testament prepares us for understanding Jesus’ transfiguration more deeply.
The story plots are similar. A mountain is the setting for Moses’ encounter with God. Jesus ascends a mountain again to encounter God. God seems to enjoy mountains. Moses goes alone up the mountain. Jesus takes friends with him. Moses comes down and his face glows like he’s been to a tanning booth up there. He can’t see his glow, but the people sure do when he comes down. They are terrified by a glowing face, and who wouldn’t be? They tell him, “If you’re going to glow down here, cover it. You scare us.” Jesus’ face and also his clothes glow. Instead of covering up, he lifts the veil that conceals his identity to reveal who he really is. Did these stories literally happen? I can’t say. I do know that theology is better told in stories than propositions.
Now to Luke – I imagine the disciples are glad to get away with Jesus for some fresh mountain air. Life with Jesus down in the valley can be messy – all these needy people interrupting him, mission trips, demons, the sickly and all their demands. And the disciples have just had their cages rattled. Jesus has said he’ll suffer and die, which has to be troubling. And then he tells them if they want to follow him, self-denial and a cross are in their future. I wonder if we take Jesus’ words seriously enough anymore to give us pause – to rattle our cages a bit? Off they go – Jesus with James, John, and Peter.
On the mountain Jesus is praying. The disciples’ eyes are closed, too – but not for prayer. A dazzling light radiating from Jesus’ face and clothes grabs their attention. And then two dead guys appear from nowhere. It’s Moses, of Exodus fame, and the prophet Elijah, who people expect as a sign Messiah’s arrival is near. Here’s what puzzles me. How do the disciples know that’s Moses and Elijah? They wouldn’t have Bible picture cards to pull out and check – nor would these guys be wearing church name tags – you know, ones that say, “Hello, My Name Is.”
The three spiritual heroes begin discussing something. The disciples lean in to overhear their discussion. They’re talking about Jesus’ upcoming departure from Jerusalem. The word for departure also translates “exodus.” Like Moses leading Hebrew slaves out of Egypt into covenant with God, Jesus, too, leads us from bondage to sin, guilt and fear, and restores us into another and new covenant with God.
As quickly as they came, Moses and Elijah disappear. Peter wants to build something like Three Flags over Mt. Tabor, right there – to capture the moment for posterity. Before he can elaborate, fortunately a cloud drops over them. Now they are terrified, silenced in darkness. A Godly voice repeats words spoken over Jesus at baptism: “My Beloved Son – My Chosen.” God adds, “Listen to him,” which means, “Know who he is, why you are here, and obey him. He’s the real deal.” After that the cloud disappears. Jesus is alone with them. Nothing else is said, until Jesus’ exodus from Jerusalem will make sense – pointing us toward Easter and Pentecost, God fulfilling His promise for all peoples.
Next day, we’re down in the valley. Life continues as before. The mountain is a mere memory now. The crowds press in again, a demon possessed child with a frightened father, and disciples who can’t maintain faith – await Jesus. We can go to the mountain but can’t stay there. In the valley, work awaits, a budget must be raised, communion bread baked, hustle up more people. It’s the church. It’s not always real glamorous.
What have been your mountaintop experiences? I hope you recognize when they’ve come. They do. If we’re awake, God is likely to transfigure and transform us, too. It can happen anywhere – while reading a poem – and something anew strikes us, gazing at a painting, on a retreat, awaking to nature’s beauty and complexity, a snowfall’s serenity. Suddenly another world glows and lifts a veil from our hearts. God reawakens faith and strengthens us for what lies ahead – our lives down here in the valley – in our work, in the church, in our neighborhoods, in denying ourselves and doing something for others.
We can go to the mountaintop, but we can’t stay there. I worry more that we never make time to get there, not that we linger too long. I rarely hear anyone say they regret they pray too much, read the Bible too often, overindulge in worship, care for too many hurting folks. We are so consumed in daily life – the messes that keep showing up – we fail to look and see what God wants to give us – that thin place where God lifts us up and pulls back the veil, and again we glimpse glory, so we can live fully in God’s reign in the valley.
We are transfiguration people. I don’t mean we glow in the dark. God transfigures us, changes and transforms us to see others in a new way, just as the disciples began to see Jesus in a new way, to see Christ in all. And we join Jesus to heal the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, bind up those the church wounds, love all, forgive all, welcome all, tell the old, old story to all. We are transfigured. God lifts the veil, and our lives glow with God’s, and then life in the valley begins to look different.