GOSPEL: Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray….35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Read the whole passage)
Today, we come to the end of an unusually long season after Epiphany… Nearly two months ago, a lifetime ago, we gathered with the wisemen around the Christ-child to worship this new king sent to save the people. And in the weeks that followed, the divine Christ was revealed to us in different ways, each time pushing us, making us ready for today. For this journey up the mountain of Transfiguration… because on the mountaintop our Epiphany lingering, our time of sitting with Jesus as he is revealed to us in new ways, will come to an end. On this mountain, Jesus charts a course that puts him on a collision course with our efforts to be like God, to be in control of our own fate.
Transfiguration Sunday is a hinge Sunday, a Sunday that swings us from one part of the story into the next. From the dark of Christmas night, into the bright noonday desert sun of Lent. Transfiguration is that moment where the bright lights are too much to take in and our eyes need some time to adjust.
Things begin innocuously enough down in the valley, where Jesus decides to bring a select few with him to climb a mountain. Peter, James and John… oh, and the rest of us… are chosen to follow Jesus up the mountain. If you have ever had the chance to climb a mountain, you will know that it is not as glamorous as it sounds. It is mostly staring at the ground and the feet of the person in front of you as you tiredly trudge uphill. Once in a while there is a stop or pause to admire a view, but then more trudging.
So after Jesus, Peter, James and John have trudged up their mountain, the disciples are understandably tired, sleepy even. And in their tired and sleepy state all of a sudden, Moses and Elijah appear. The two greatest prophets of Israel. And they standing next to Jesus… but not normal Jesus. Jesus in dazzling white, looking suitably prophet-esque himself.
Now before unpacking what happens next, it is important to know about all the clues we missed up until this point. The religious practice of Israel of the day was centred around the Jerusalem temple and laws of Leviticus. Making sacrifices in the temple and keeping the laws to maintain one’s purity and righteousness was how you stayed in God’s good books. The burden of righteousness of salvation rested on the shoulders of people. And the Jerusalem temple and its priests were the chief judges and gatekeepers of righteousness, making sure that only those who could keep the law and make sacrifices were given righteous status.
But before the levitical laws and Jerusalem temple, there were the prophets of Israel. Messengers appointed by and speaking on behalf of God who brought God’s righteousness and mercy and compassion to God’s people. These prophets were the patriarchs of Israel, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But chiefly Moses and Elijah. And these prophets represented God away from the temple, and apart from the following the law. They often came preaching from the wilderness, they met God on holy mountains, they brought the very voice of God to God’s people.
So as Jesus and his disciples trudge up this mountain, the clues are there. Jesus is not aligning himself with the centre of religious authority, with the temple and its laws. But rather with the prophets of old, those appointed directly by God to represent God to the people.
And there on the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus receives his prophetic appointment, just as Moses and Elijah did. Confirmation that God was sending Jesus, the Messiah, to bring God’s righteousness, God’s love and mercy to God’s people.
And even in this moment Peter cannot escape the burden of keeping the law, the sense that he must do that work of saving himself.
“It is good for us to be here, let us make three dwellings.”
Peter wants to preserve this holy moment and make it a holy place, a place where the faithful can go to earn their righteousness. Peter just cannot imagine a faithfulness that doesn’t include his responsibility to earn his salvation.
And we get it.
We totally get the feeling of this burden.
Even as good Lutherans who know that we cannot earn our own salvation, but rather it is given as gift by grace through faith… We too still act as if the burden of faithfulness is ours.
Our world, and often the church too, conditions us to think that it is our good actions, our gifts of generosity, our ability to be moral and of good character, our prayers and worship, our biblical literacy and theological understanding are the things make us faithful. We fret over our families and communities when they start to show a waning interest in church, will they still be saved? We fear God’s punishment when the pews seem a little emptier than they used to and the budget a littler tighter than we like. We wonder how we have failed God when it is clear that world simply doesn’t care about what Christianity has to say anymore. And we often lap up the advice of experts and gurus of church mission and growth who promise to give us the secrets of successful faithfulness for just a small speakers fee.
So yeah, we totally get Peter’s feeling of being burdened. We would almost certainly want to do the same thing if we were standing on that mountain, we would try to capture the moment for a deposit in our faithfulness bank account.
Yet, before Peter gets too far into his plans for righteousness earning,
Just as God spoke in Jesus’ Baptism, just as God spoke over the waters of creation, God speaks again.
“This is My Son, My Chosen, listen to him!”
And what is that Jesus has said?
Well, he has NOT told his disciples and the crowds that earning their righteousness comes through keeping the law and making sacrifice at the temple.
In fact, the last time that Jesus said anything before going up this mountain was to predict his death. That he will suffer, be rejected and be killed. And on the third day be raised again.
Jesus has just told his confused disciples that he is coming to meet God’s people, to meet them in the midst of their suffering and rejection. And to die just as they die. Jesus has just told his disciples that he has come to bridge the distance between God and creation, and has come to carry their burdens.
Jesus has come to carry their burden of righteousness earning to the cross.
Jesus has come to carry our burden of faithfulness to the grave.
Jesus has come to carry the burdens of God’s people so that we don’t have to.
This Messiah born in the manger, baptized in the Jordan, who turned water into wine in Cana, who filled the fishing nets on the lake, who preached on the plain… this Jesus, transfigured Prophet of the most high God does not stay on the mountain for an important reason.
God’s prophets are not sent to go up mountains
They are sent to go down.
To bring God down to God’s people.
Jesus the Messiah is coming down the mountain with Peter, James and John… and the rest of us… so that we can know that it is not our burden to earn our righteousness, it is not our burden to be faithful… but that God has come to be our righteousness and our faithfulness for us.
God has always been coming down to meet us and to carry our burdens… even if we are trying to be faithful all on our own.
God comes down to meet us every time we gather as community, no matter how many of us there are.
God comes down to us whether we are in church every week, or have forgotten that church entirely.
God comes to down to us despite our morals or character, regardless of our prayers or biblical literacy.
God comes to meet us in this place and in many more places of worship whether they are full or nearly empty, whether the budget is easy to meet or underwater, whether we follow the mission expert’s steps to success or have no idea where to begin.
God comes to meet us because we are God’s people, weighed down with burdens that only God can carry.
And so God comes to carry them and to carry us.
In God’s Word spoken here, in the waters of God’s cleansing grace, in the bread and wine of mercy, Christ’ body and blood – in all these things, God comes down the mountain to us.
And so on this Transfiguration Sunday, as we also go down the mountain with Jesus, we are reminded God is always on the way down to us.