Readings—Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; II Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
On this last Sunday after the Epiphany, the season that celebrates the infant of light coming into the world in a stable in Bethlehem, we conclude with the Gospel according to St. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration. On a mountaintop, Jesus shone brilliantly, accompanied by Peter, James, and John, the inner three disciples. And Peter wanted to build a monument to commemorate the event, perhaps so that people would trek to the mountaintop as an act of devotion. Peter’s idea was immediately revised. A voice from the heavens, no monuments, Peter, just “listen to him”.
Clearly, the pairing of the Transfiguration with the Exodus text of Moses on the mountaintop was in fact envisioned by St. Matthew himself. On Mount Sinai (whose location to this day is still unresolved), Moses was alone for forty days and for forty nights – a long time, and he was shrouded in clouds. Even Joshua, his successor, did not go all the way to the top. It was just Moses and God, while the people waited, and waited, and waited at the base of the mountain where they observed “the glory of the Lord”. The visuals were similar in Exodus and the Gospel, but also very distinct.
Psalm 99 clarifies it:
v. 1 The Lord is King; let the people tremble; he is enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth shake.
v. 2 The Lord is great in Zion; he is high above all peoples.
v. 5 …fall down before his footstool…
v. 7 He [God] spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud…
People “tremble”; earth “shakes”; God is “high above”; God thunders “out of the pillar of cloud”. Distance is essential; there is no intimacy here.
How different this is from Jesus speaking to the three who “fell to the ground and were overcome with fear”. Jesus said, “Get up and do not be afraid”. Do not be afraid. And then, and I think this is the key, they came down the mountain to resume their ministry. They did not stay for forty days and for forty nights. Jesus did not haul down tablets of stone bearing commandments; Jesus returned to the ministry of loving people.
Unlike Moses, and unlike St. Matthew’s model of Moses on Mount Sinai, this Jesus of Nazareth’s glory is found in the valleys rather than on the mountaintop. His glory is to be found in lovingly hanging out the Peter, James, and John, with Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, James the Lesser, and even with Judas. His glory is to be found engaging with Mary Magdalene, Martha, Mary, and the woman at the well. His glory is to be found with the Gerasene demoniac, with the ten lepers, and with the man hanging beside him on the cross.
You and me, we sometimes get to the mountaintop, but we mostly live in the valleys, like the Mississippi River Valley, the Delaware River Valley, and the Susquehanna River Valley. And that is where Jesus spent his time, with people like us!
That, my friends, is the glory of Jesus; he brought his love to where we live, where we move, and where we have our being.
We proclaim it in the Nicene Creed:
For us and for our salvation he came down from Heaven; …he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
His glory was in his becoming one of us, and in his loving us, not staying on a mountain top in fire and cloud.
St. Paul in his letter to the congregation in Philippi got it right:
…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death upon a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2: 6-11)
That, my friends, is the true glory of God. Out of love for us he came down from heaven to be with us. He came to be birthed in a stable among us, he came down off the mountaintop to hang out with us; he came to live in the valleys with us; he died like one of us.
And the light [still] shines in the darkness [for us], and the darkness did not overcome it, does not overcome it, and will never overcome it.
Love shines forever, and this is God’s everlasting glory.