Readings: 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17: 1-9
The Theme for the service today is `Mountains`. We don’t have many in or around Perth but in some countries they are the dominant feature of the landscape. It would be hard to imagine Switzerland without its mountains and yet there was a time when no one dared to climb the mountains because of the fear that they were the domain of evil spirits. Thunder often rolled across the peaks and flashes of lightning could be seen - very dangerous places. Some people even believed that there were dragons in the mountains.
This was particularly true of Mt Pilatus overlooking the town of Lucerne. The legend was that the body of Pontius Pilate was thrown into the lake on top of the mountain and the good people of Switzerland were forbidden to climb the mountain. Six ministers defied this order and climbed up in 1357 and were severely punished. The rule was relaxed but it wasn’t until 1585 when a citizen of Lucerne taunted Pilate by throwing stones into the lake.
Now if you climb a mountain in Switzerland you will more than likely find a plaque set into the rocks with words from Psalm 8: `O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth`. Somehow or other, from such vantage positions, surrounded by magnificent scenery, you could feel that you are much closer to the presence of God than when you are in deep valleys or city streets.
In the Bible, mountains are often associated with the presence of God. Moses climbs Mt Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Elijah tackles the priests of Baal on Mt Carmel and there all experience the power of the true God. The beatitudes were presented by Jesus from a mountain and today our reading from Matthew is about the occasion when Jesus took Peter and James and John and went to a high mountain where he was transfigured before them. There are many comments that have been made about that incident which is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke but with a number of different details.
- MARK – Elijah and Moses come to speak to Jesus and Peter is described as suggesting that three tabernacles be created `for he did not know what to say` (9:6) – a bit like making a cup of tea when you don`t know what to do. The three disciples are described as being afraid.
- MATTHEW – the name of Moses comes before Elijah and when Peter or the other disciples show their fear Jesus reassures them. Once again Peter offers to make three booths but, unlike Mark it is not suggested that he did so because he just didn`t know what to do.
- LUKE – preserves the order Moses and Elijah but gives an account of their conversation with Jesus – they `spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem’. The disciples are described not as being afraid but as being asleep. No comment is made about the actions of Peter.
According to Mark & Matthew, as they come down from the mountain Jesus instructs them not to tell anyone about what they have seen until he rises from the dead. Luke simply says that the disciples kept silent.
But, in spite of these variations, no doubt coming from the different traditions from which the gospel writers drew their material the main point remains the same – the appearance of Jesus altered, and this created very strong emotions in the three disciples. If they had had any doubt about the identity of Jesus then the experience on the mountain top resolved their doubts for they heard the voice saying `This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him`. This was much the same words as had come at the time of the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan – God was well pleased with Jesus as he identified himself with ordinary people – not claiming any special privilege but submitting himself to the baptism of John. Now Jesus shows his willingness to accept the consequences of his life-style and teaching – to bow his head before his enemies and to accept the death that he knew awaited him in Jerusalem. I reject out of hand the idea that his impending death was something that God required of him – a payment for the sins of the world and required by God before forgiveness could be granted. What happened to Jesus was the product of a life which challenged and confronted people of power and influence who could not bear to accept that the way of love and compassion was God’s way rather than the way of retaliation and revenge. In the second letter of Peter the claim is made that the writer was an eyewitness of the transfiguration and that the central truth of the Christian faith is that Jesus was the beloved Son of God. There were apparently false prophets around spreading cleverly designed myths, perhaps including the idea that Jesus only appeared to have a human body and the writer wants them to know the truth.
Have you ever had a mountain top experience? I don`t mean climbing a mountain and being greatly impressed by the view – although the people who put the plaques on mountain tops certainly thought that God was present in the beauty displayed. I`m thinking more of moments when you really do feel the presence of God in a way that does deep things to your feelings. For some people that might come through music – I`m not very musical but whenever I hear `Jesus joy of man’s desiring’ it moves me greatly. Others find mountain top experiences in literature or films or art or in visiting a Church or Cathedral of great beauty. It may be because you are in a place where someone of great importance has been – preaching in the Church in Geneva and seeing a plaque on the wall `John Knox preached here 1536-1539` or sitting in Calvin`s chair. It could be hearing about someone who has acted in a way which shows that they are very close to the spirit of Christ in spite of being in great danger of being ridiculed or persecuted. At a very basic level I am moved by cricketers who walk when they know they are out; sports people who graciously praise their opponents; politicians who admit their mistakes and, at a deeper level, people who offer forgiveness even to those who have murdered members of their family.
One of the books that has greatly influenced me has the title `Dying we live`. It is a collection of letters written by people facing execution because of their opposition to Hitler – almost without exception they have neither fear nor bitterness. Three Catholic priests were executed on November 13, 1944 simply because they were Catholic priests. One was Dr Lampert, Vicar-General of the Diocese of Innsbruck who just before his death wrote ‘The hour has now come – the hour so `terrible` for you and for all who love me, the hour of liberation for me. On the Way of the Cross, I am approaching the last station; there has been darkness but the `day` is dawning. `In thee O Lord I have hoped. Alleluia`
I believe that it is possible to have mountain top experiences whenever in our daily life we act is a way which reveals our willingness to be obedient to the ways of Jesus. It may not be dramatic but it surely brings us closer to God. Sometimes when you visit a dying friend you discover that they do more to lift your spirits than you do for them. In giving we often receive more than we give and in serving find that the joy far outweighs the cost of whatever we do. This thought has been expressed much better than I could ever do by Albert Schweitzer whose book `The Quest of the Historical Jesus’ offended many Christians because his conclusion was that there is much about the life of Jesus that will ever remain a mystery. But he went on to say:-
`He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word `Follow me` and sets us to the tasks he has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship and, as an ineffable mystery, they will learn in their own experience who he is`.
Through obedience we can have mountain top experiences even though the pathway is through deep and dark valleys that lead us to unexpected vistas and encounters.
I conclude with an excerpt from my favourite Psalm, Psalm 139
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there! If I make my bed in the grave, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning or dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.