David A. Davis
February 26, 2017
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.” Jesus took them up a high mountain. He took them up to the Mount of Transfiguration. You don’t have to be a bible scholar to know that when someone in the bible goes up a mountain, some cool God thing is about to happen. Beginning with Moses and the call of God from the burning bush at Mt. Horeb. And when the Lord summoned Moses up to the mountaintop of Mt. Sinai for the giving of the Law. And when Moses went up into the mountain of God for the tablets and according to the Book of Exodus, the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai for six days and on the seventh day God called to Moses and Moses entered the cloud and stayed up there for forty days. And when Moses went up to Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah to see the view of the Promised Land and God told Moses that he could see it but Joshua would be the one to crossover. Mountaintops and God-moments. Really, far too many to name in scripture.
In his gospel Matthew works very hard to portray Jesus as the next Moses, Jesus in the leadership-tree of Moses, Jesus in the tradition of Moses. Jesus as the fulfillment of the law. Jesus as the Great Teacher of the Law. Jesus of the “You have heard it said….but I say unto you” genre of preaching. So mountains are important in Matthew. From the Mount of Beatitudes, to the Mount of Transfiguration, to that mountain at the very end of Matthew’s gospel where the Risen Christ proclaimed the Great Commission and the Great Promise. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….Remember, I am with you always”, Matthew, Jesus, Moses, and mountaintops.
In the case of the Transfiguration, a high mountain. While it is not possible to know which of the mountains in the region was the actual Mount of Transfiguration, the earliest of Christian traditions anointed Mt. Tabor as the location of this mysterious and miraculous occasion. Jesus, Elijah, and Moses together. Peter wanting to pitch tents, preserve the moment. Jesus taking on the glow. The voice from heaven, “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The disciples falling to the ground in fear. Jesus coming over to touch them and tell them not to be afraid. Peter, James and John looking up and seeing no one but Jesus. Jesus telling them to not say a word…yet.
Mt Tabor is in an area just below the Sea of Galilee. The lower Galilee they call it. It was my colleague Jeff Vamos down at the Lawrenceville Church who pointed out in our bible study a few weeks ago the irony that the earliest Christians built a church at the top of Mt Tabor. How they must not have received the memo from Peter about maybe skipping the construction part. That for Peter, the suggestion to build something didn’t go over very well. Mt. Tabor and the Church of the Transfiguration. My study bible suggests that Mt Hermon might be the spot. Mt Hermon is much further north. The peak of Mt Hermon straddles modern day Syria and Lebanon. And it’s a lot higher than Mt Tabor. It is also much closer to Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is where Peter made is bold statement of faith in response to the question of Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus called Peter the Rock upon which he would build his church. Jesus told Peter he would give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Caesarea Philippi. There with two feet planted squarely on the emperor’s turf, surrounded by all the worship and adoration of everything but the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, Peter made his confession. From that point on, Matthew writes at the end of chapter 16, Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem. That we would suffer and be killed and on the third day be raised. All of it there at Caesarea Philippi.
You will remember that Peter tried to put a stop to all the talk about suffering and death. “This must never happen to you!” “Get behind me Satan” is how Jesus responded to Peter, the freshly minted Rock of the church. “If any want to become my followers”, Jesus proclaimed, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus on the cross and his suffering and death. Jesus right at Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi in the shadow, in the foothills of Mt Hermon. Jesus standing waist deep in the powerful current of the empire down there and with the beams of his radiance waiting to be revealed up there. With the Mt of Transfiguration looming on the landscape, and with his glory about to be revealed up there in the clouds, Jesus smack in the middle of worldly power teaching his followers about discipleship, and sacrifice, and giving up of self.
Folks writing about the flow and structure of Matthew’s gospel often point out how the story of the Transfiguration here in chapter 17 comes immediately after all that I just described from Caesarea Philippi in 16. The Transfiguration comes immediately after Caesarea Philippi. But notice it doesn’t come immediately. It comes six days later. “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.” Six days. One could argue that the reference is to the Sabbath rhythm of creation. A nice biblical interlude of time. One could illicit from the “six days” a literary illusion to Moses, to his six days up on the mountain waiting to enter the cloud for another forty. It could be a reference to the length of the Jewish festival of booths. A celebration and remembrance of the wilderness wanderings and the tent dwelling, the booth dwelling of God’s people. Six days. On the face of it here in Matthew, the Transfiguration happened six days later.
Six days. Six days between Jesus’ anointing of Peter and his establishment of the church down there and when he took the three to the high mountain up there. Six days between Jesus’ teaching that first introduced his passion down there and when Jesus countenance took on a divine appearance up there. Six days between Jesus issuing a call to discipleship down there and when that voice boomed from heaven declaring God’s pleasure up there. Six days. Six days for his disciples in the northern mountain range. Miles away from seeing him walk on water and feeding the five thousand. Light years away from sitting at his feet and letting that blessing waft over them and the crowd gathered around. (Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek….). Six days with the echoes of a Caesarea Philippi kind of discipleship ringing in their ears. Six days. Six days before glory.
Who knows which mountain it was and who knows what on earth they did for those six days? You can only imagine that they would have wanted stayed close to him. They kept listening to him, letting it all sink in, trying to figure out what it all meant. That they kept trying to live as he taught, and do as he said, and soak up all that he had to offer. That they rose every one of those six days determined to be faithful, to give praise and adoration to God, to care for one another, to share their lives with those they met along the way, and to follow him. That on the front side of glory, they were sort of fumbling around; trying to put others first and deny themselves. And best guess? They probably weren’t very good at it. Trying to point with their lives away from the worldly ways of Caesarea Philippi, away from the world’s way of doing things, away from the powers and principalities, trying to point with the faithfulness of their lives away from all of that, and point to him, and his love, and his way, and his kingdom. It must not have been all that easy on the front side of glory. Six days.
It’s interesting about the fear, the fear that brought the disciples to their knees. Their fear came in response to the voice from heaven. Their fear came on the mountaintop. Their fear was in response to his glory. That’s when Jesus went over to them, touched them, and like pretty much every angel in all of the bible, Jesus said, “do not be afraid”. “Get up and do not be afraid.” If he said it up there, you know he had to have said it down there. There around Caesarea Philippi. Sometime during those six days. He just have said it as the disciples were following, living, trying to be faithful on the front side of glory. Of course they weren’t connecting all the dots of Jesus and his passion. They weren’t able to figure out the “A + B = C” of Jesus and his death on the cross for us and our salvation. But they were trying to be faithful there in one of the epicenters of the empire. With two feet firmly planted on the world’s turf, brought to their knees by the fear of a Caesarea Philippi kind of discipleship where self isn’t first, and saving your life means be willing to lose it, and Jesus tells you to take up your own cross. Six days before glory. Jesus must to have said, he had to have said, I so hope he said to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” If he said it up there, he had to have said it down there.
For most of us there have been, there are, there will be some mountaintops along the way. This way of faith; God’s call upon our lives, living by grace through faith alone, servants of the kingdom, our life in God. Yes, there are some mountaintops. But most days, if we’re honest, most days, a little bit of every day, these days, it’s more like the front side of glory. Six days before glory. Down here you and I are called to be faithful, to give praise and adoration to God, to care for one another, to share our lives with those we meet along the way, and to follow him. It is a Caesarea Philippi kind of discipleship and we’re not very good at it! Pointing with our lives away from the worldly ways of the empire, away from the world’s way of doing things, away from the powers and principalities, trying to point with the faithfulness of our lives away from all of that, and point to Christ, and Christ’s love, and Christ’s way, and God’s kingdom. Embodying down here the gospel of Jesus Christ; the gospel of loving your neighbor and welcoming strangers and turning the other cheek and forgiving others and serving the victim in the ditch and embracing the lost son and searching for the lost sheep, and caring for the least of these, and taking up the cross, his and yours.
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Like the disciples, we may never put it all together: Christ, his suffering, his death, his being raised on the third day. This side of glory, you and I might never figure it all out. But the rest of his teaching, most of Jesus’ teaching, when you listen to him, it’s pretty clear. It’s not easy, but its clear. Down here, when you’re up to your eyeballs in Caesarea Philippi, most days, most days, these days, it’s not easy, but’s clear.
And that’s right when Jesus comes, reaches out and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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