(Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18)+Psalm 77:13-20+Romans 12:1-13+Matthew 17:1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother
and brought them up a high mountain, by themselves (Matthew 17:1)
I have questions. What is this “six days later?” What exactly happened six days before?
Well, I’m going to tell you.
At the end of Matthew 16, Jesus says to the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, killed, and will rise again. Peter rebukes him and in turn gets rebuked. And Jesus then has a few words to say about the cross and self-denial, about losing one’s life in order to save it.
He has set his face toward Jerusalem.
While we do not know what happened in the six intervening days, I can imagine the disciples murmuring amongst themselves about Jesus. What on earth was he talking about? He had said “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father” (Matthew 16:27). How does that fit with being handed over to the authorities and getting himself killed?
To make it perfectly clear to those closest to him – Peter, John, and James – he takes them up Mt. Tabor at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley, not far from Nazareth and along the way from upper Galilee to Jerusalem. And there, right before their eyes, Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (17:2), and he is joined by the two great prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah. We don’t know what they were saying, but it was enough for Peter to want to stay there, to put up some real estate, and bask in this experience forever, maybe.
But just as it had at Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven calls Jesus beloved and pleasing to God (see Matthew 3:17), but this time, that voice adds something else: “listen to him” (17:5). The disciples are knocked over from terror, and what are the first words they hear Jesus say after that, after being told to listen to him? They hear, “Get up and do not be afraid” (17:7).
Have you ever had the experience of looking at a bright light or being out in the bright sun, and whatever object you are looking at imprints itself in your vision so that when you close your eyes, the image is still there? It’s kind of like those optical illusions that you are supposed to stare at one point, and as you draw the image further away, something else appears. Well, that image of Jesus on the mountaintop in dazzling white and accompanied by the prophets stayed with these three as they listened and followed on that dusty road to Jerusalem.
And once there, that imprinted image became visible again, except this time, it was not Jesus robed in white and flanked by prophets. No, this time it was Jesus, beaten and stripped and nailed to a cross, not with Elijah and Moses, but with two criminals.
The parallel is easy to miss, but if Peter and James and John were paying attention, maybe it finally dawned on them that this friend of theirs who was called beloved on the mountaintop is equally beloved here. That he is at once beloved of God and in a very human way, feeling abandoned by God.
Jesus was not just one thing. This is why the early theologians of the Christian communities tried to explain the divinity of Christ without denying the humanity of this person we call the Son of God.
The disciples could not stay on the mountaintop any more than Jesus could stay on the cross or in the tomb. There must have been a stark moment of clarity for these three, a realization of just who this friend of theirs truly was.
Perhaps in this moment when they recognized in the man hanging on a cross the glorified one from the mountaintop, it also dawned on them that this was their path, too. To listen to Jesus is to obey Jesus. That word, obey, comes from the Latin obedire which is active. It’s about listening and doing. It doesn’t just mean to hear with our ears. It requires our attention. It requires an obedient response from us.
We can get an idea of what that response might be from the text we heard from Leviticus a little while ago. Most people think of Leviticus as the place where all the prohibitions come from. But the 19th chapter is also a manifesto of what God intends for us to do – to leave a portion of the harvest for the hungry and poor to glean from; to leave some grapes in the vineyard for the alien residing in the land to gather; to pay someone their wages as they earn them. This theme is continued in the 12th Chapter of Romans: to despise what is evil, to cling to what is good, and to love one another.
That image imprinted in our own minds of who and what Jesus is – these are the things we are to listen to. From the mountaintop to the tomb, the way of Jesus is the way of love, and that love was poured out for us on the cross.
St. Augustine preached a sermon (78) on the transfiguration in which he said
Come down, Peter! You wanted to rest on the mount. Come down and “preach the word, be instant in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine” (2 Tm 4:2).” Persevere, work hard, bear your measure of torture — so that you might possess what is meant by the white garment of the Lord, through the brightness and the beauty of an upright labor in charity …This Peter did not yet understand when he desired to live on the mount with Christ. He was reserving this for you, Peter, after death. But for now He says, “Come down, to labor on the earth; on the earth to serve, to be despised, and crucified on the earth.”
Maybe crucifixion is not what we’re after in our time and place, but it is what is on offer, to love and serve God and neighbor without counting the cost. Christianity is not a popularity contest. It isn’t a multimillion dollar advertising campaign to make us look cool and appealing. It is a way of life, of obedience, of service. If this season of Epiphany has taught us anything, it is what that kind of life looks like. It isn’t all about the mountaintop. That road to Jerusalem is part of it, too. But remember what Jesus said, don’t be afraid.
 With thanks to Dean Andrew McGowan for this reference.