Four Steps Down the Mountain

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Text: Matthew 17:1-9

The only single event in Jesus’ earthly life more shrouded in mystery and enigma than the mountain-top experience of the Transfiguration is the great mystery of the Incarnation itself. While the Transfiguration is described in each of the three synoptic Gospels, it has been only weakly celebrated in the traditions of the church. Like the disciples who first witnessed the Transfiguration, the church has also seemed unsure of what it meant, what its purpose was, and what it calls Christians to do today.

The Transfiguration

To quote my preaching professor, understanding the Transfiguration comes down to  your having come to the mountain, gone up the mountain, and learning that you must go back down again. Come to worship, go to serve.[1]

Shortly before this passage (between six and eight days, if you take into account the three gospel accounts), Jesus made a clear call to the disciples to take up their cross if they were to follow Him. If they were to follow Him, they had to put heart, mind and soul into their commitment.  There could be no hesitation and no delay.

It’s a very powerful scene that Matthew presents. Jesus undergoes a physical transformation that is visible to the disciples – which is an experience that any of us would find awe-inspiring.  But before they can take a breath, Moses and Elijah appear, and begin talking with Jesus.

Finding themselves in the presence of Moses and Elijah – the Law and the Prophets – brings the disciples to a point of awe – fear, joy, and overwhelming all stirred into one mixture, a mouth-drying, heart-thumping, knee-buckling experience on a mountaintop.  After rejoicing at the presence of the heroes of their faith, they were suddenly reduced to blubbery, quaking jelly by the power and splendor of the voice from above. They could not understand the power of God’s presence, nor the implications of what the He was saying. It’s no wonder that they fell to the ground!

Jesus, as He Really Is

A goodly part of the disciples’ response came from the shock at discovering just how much they had underestimated Jesus.  They had appreciated Him, but never really realized just how important of a place in the universe  He has.  Peter did something that almost any of us would do: confronted with a powerful mystery, he is filled with the desire to do something – anything – to respond to it, attempting to understand what is going on.

For most of Christian history, we’ve been like the disciples –appreciating Jesus but underestimating his size, power and effect on our lives.  We’ve been like farmers in ancient Greece looking up into the sky, ignorant of the fact that the sun is 1.3 million times bigger than Earth and able to push spacecraft with sails through the solar system at breathtaking speeds.

What Jesus said to the disciples can be summed up as, “Get up, come down, keep quiet (until the time is right), then speak out!” These four steps for getting off the mountain work just as effectively in our lives today.

When God does something dramatic or something “mysterious” happens in our lives – good or bad – we too can get scared. Depending on genetic predispositions toward adrenalin overload, we react with “fight-fear” or “flight-fear” – lashing out in panic or retreating in misery.

The sudden death of a loved one – how can death stalk us and life and God still be good? Or recession strikes and suddenly we have no job, no career, no self identity – how can we find a new path for life?

Even positive experiences confuse and confound. God calls us, challenging us to serve in ways that threaten the stability and comfort we have worked so hard for – how can we respond?

Seeing Jesus as He really is can help us find our way back down from those mountaintop experiences and re-enter daily life with a sense of direction and purpose – not fear. While Jesus did not explain the meaning behind the Transfiguration mystery, he did give us a map for coming back down from the mountaintop experiences in our lives.

Four Steps Down the Mountain

Let’s take those four steps from what Jesus said to the disciples:

Get Up!

While still overwhelmed with fearful mystery, Jesus got the disciples back on their feet . Getting into a more positive posture prepared the disciple’s minds and hearts to follow their bodies. Jesus specifically told the disciples, “do not be afraid,” for he knew the unpredictable nature of a fearful heart. Once upright, the disciples could see the ordinary mountaintop – which helped them get their bearings and know where to walk next.

Come Down!

Once the disciples are standing, Jesus immediately gets them moving so they don’t stand around contemplating what they have just experienced. This is important.  After a powerful experience, fear can turn to anger and you might run away from the situation.  But avoiding change is not adjusting to change – and if you lock yourself away behind doors of fear and confusion, that’s all you will know.

You can’t stay put!  Peter had wanted to remain on the mountaintop, to prolong the experience of being in God’s glory.  Neither fear nor fascination should stop us from returning to the ongoing ebb and flow of life. Even if we don’t feel normal, even if it seems we are just going through the motions, Jesus calls us back into the fray.

Keep Quiet (Until the Time is Right)

Some things require that you stay quiet, and let your understanding grow.  We don’t always need  our questions of “what now” or “why me” immediately – so we need the time to listen to that voice from beyond ourselves say “be still and know that I am God.”

Speak Up!

NOW is the time for triumphant testimony. After shaking free from fear, re-entering life and contemplating life’s mysteries, Jesus declared that at that point it was time to shout about it. For his disciples, this moment did not arrive until after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Only then could they recall the wonder of the Transfiguration moment and yell to the world that Christ is alive and in the midst of this and every mystery.

Life will move us from the mountaintop to the valley more than once. Regardless of where we are in the journey, it’s important to the vision of the mountaintop alive so we don’t lose the power of the Transfiguration.

Sources Consulted:

“Four Steps Down the Mountain,” Homiletics, February 1993

“The Power of Sonlight,” Homiletics, March 2011

Morris, Leon The Gospel According to Matthew (IVP, 1992)

Wilkins, Michael J. Matthew (Zondervan, 2004)

[1] Holmes, Zan W. Jr. “Encountering Jesus” (Abingdon Press,1992)