There’s something about mountains that evokes the sacred. It’s no accident that the ancient Greeks imagined their gods dwelled atop Mount Olympus. Many religions and cultures have seen mountains as manifestations of the holy. The Taranaki people of New Zealand view Mt. Taranaki as sacred. The Navajo view four mountains that mark the boundaries of their historic territory as sacred. The Incas believed that their high villages in the mountains were portals to the gods. Buddhism and Taoism recognize sacred mountains. Tibet’s Mount Kailash is a sacred place to five religions: Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Bon Po, Sikhism, and Ayyavazhi religions. And then, of course, there is Mount Sinai in the Hebrew Bible, the place where God revealed the law to Moses.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
February 27, 2022
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-43
I get it. I feel that way about mountains. On a bike trip through the Adirondacks a few years ago, it was all I could do to avoid stopping to take pictures of every mountain I saw. I get why they’re often considered holy.
Part of our feelings about mountains’ holiness is that we tend to associate up with better. Two author-linguists describe this as the conceptual metaphor good is up, noting that many of the expressions we use in speech equate things going up with a good or happy result. Perhaps another reason is that if you believed that your gods lived in the sky and the sky was just “up there” a ways, then mountains were closer to the sky and thus holier.
But I think there is a deeper reason that goes beyond linguistic convention or a simplistic understanding of the cosmos. Mountains are majestic and powerful; their immensity and age make them feel timeless, eternal. Divine.
II. THE TEXT
And so it should come as no surprise that both scripture lessons for tonight, focusing on encounters with the divine, take place on mountains.
In the passage we read from Exodus, Moses returns from his encounter with God atop Mount Sinai. An encounter so profound that Moses’ skin began to shine, so much so that the other Israelites were afraid to come near him. Moses’ mountaintop experience with God left him transformed and radiant.
In the Gospel Lesson for tonight, we read of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain. In addition to the mountain setting, this passage has a lot in common with the passage from Exodus. First of all, Moses makes an appearance alongside Elijah. Second, after praying, Jesus himself becomes radiant. The text notes that “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” There’s even a cloud that covers them and a voice that comes from heaven. So, the text is clearly being linked with the narrative from the Book of Exodus.
There is much that can be said about the story of the Transfiguration. You can talk about the presence of Moses and Elijah representing the Law and the Prophets, two of the three sections of the Hebrew Scriptures. You can talk about the disciples’ odd suggestion to make three temporary dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. (Pastors love to talk about that one: “They just wanted to stay there on the mountain forever, but Jesus knew they had to get moving.”) You can talk about the voice from heaven telling the disciples who Jesus is and that they should listen to him.
But I want to talk about what Jesus was talking about with Moses and Elijah. The text says that Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” At first glance, it appears that Jesus is being counseled—and perhaps consoled—by Moses and Elijah in preparation for his impending death. In fact, the beginning of this passage tells us that this happened “about eight days after saying these things”—“these things” referring to predictions of his death and resurrection that he has just told the disciples. That seems fairly straightforward.
But there’s something interesting about the word choice. In the Greek, when they are talking to him about his “departure,” the word that is used is the word ἐξοδοςexodos “Exodus.”
III. JESUS’ EXODUS
This does more than simply make a nice literary tie-in with the Moses story: it reframes what Jesus is “about to accomplish.”
See, it is easy for us on this end of five hundred years of Protestantism to focus on Jesus’ self-sacrificial death and blood atonement for our sins. It’s easy to think that Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah about his upcoming death and what that will mean for those who believe in him. It’s easy to interpret Jesus’ death solely in terms of that reconciliation for sinners. We have a lot of experience doing that.
But I think that’s a misdirection. Because if Jesus is really talking to Moses and Elijah about his Exodus, then we have to think in far more expansive terms. Because the Exodus was not about individual deliverance from sin—it was about communal deliverance from oppression, injustice, violence, slavery, and dehumanization.
The Exodus was the beginning of a nation—a nation rooted in justice and righteousness, a nation whose example would declare that God is on the side of the oppressed, on the side of justice, on the side of the slave and the poor. The message of the Exodus was a radical challenge to the power systems of the day—it declared God and Pharaoh enemies, and God prevailed.
In the same way, Jesus’ gospel is a gospel of liberation. A gospel that smashes privilege and power. A gospel that lifts up the plight of the lowly, the disenfranchised, the poor. It’s a gospel that begins in Luke’s telling, with Jesus reading from the scroll in the Nazareth synagogue:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.—Luke 4:18
It’s a gospel that declares God and Caesar enemies and tells us God will prevail.
The Exodus led a people out of bondage into a new land where they were called to establish an alternative social model to those of the kingdoms around them. In the same way, the Gospel calls us out of our bondage to power and injustice, to create an alternative community grounded in justice, love, service, and fellowship. These are not things that we can do alone. The gospel is not fulfilled merely because one of us gets a birth on that train to Zion when we die.
IV. GOSPEL OF THE PUNCHED TICKET
I am so sick of Christians who view Christianity as a means for getting your ticket punched for the afterlife and see it as requiring nothing of them. All you have to do, apparently, is say, “I believe that Jesus saves me from my sins,” and that’s it. You’re done. You don’t have to do a single thing that Jesus said to do. The Gospel requires nothing of you. You can still be a hateful, vindictive, violent person, and it’s all right because you’ve signed on the dotted line.
That kind of hyper-individualistic Christianity is a scourge because it becomes too easy to divorce Christian faith from any of the social ethic that is at the heart of the Gospel. It’s that kind of perverse theology that allowed a woman on television the other day to claim that we should be supporting Putin because he’s a devout Orthodox Christian, supports the church, and “looks out for his people.” Apparently, imperialism, dictatorship, murder, militarism, and oppression are okay so long as you sign on the dotted line. Or worse, so long as you say you’ve signed on the dotted line. Something tells me the former KGB colonel isn’t terribly devout.
We don’t need this kind of Christianity anymore.
Because this kind of Christianity is inauthentic; it’s not what Jesus was proclaiming. And it’s not what he was attempting to “accomplish at Jerusalem.”
It’s one thing for me to have a nice experience of a mountain while I’m on my own riding my bike. But that kind of mountaintop experience is not what these mountaintop experiences that we read about tonight are about.
See, there is something that we often forget about those mountain experiences: they were communal experiences. Moses might have been on top of that mountain along with God, but he came down into the midst of the people, to whom he brought the law of justice and righteousness.
Jesus might have been by himself when he was talking to Moses and Elijah, but he came down from that mountain, taught his disciples, and went up to Jerusalem for the commemoration of the Passover Exodus, to be among the people, to stand up to Empire, and to inaugurate in our midst the beginning of something new, something powerful.
It’s not the mountain that makes the experience holy; it’s the fact that the experience has something to say about our lives—our lives together, as a people, that convinces us of the presence of the divine.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When 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.