“High on a Mountaintop”
Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9
February 3, 2008
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
There’s a song by Loretta Lynn called “High on a Mountaintop.” “High on a mountain top. We live, we love, and we laugh a lot. Folks up here know what they got. High on a mountain top, where the rest of the world’s just a little bitty spot. I ain’t coming’ down, no never I’m not. High on a mountain top.” I like the occasional country song about mountains. There’s something about the mountains. Don’t get me wrong, I like the beach too, but there’s something unique about being up so high and being able to see for such a long distance, not to mention the beauty of it all. There’s something special about the mountains.
I have such fond memories of the mountains growing up. My family used to always take a picnic and a drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway. We’d stop at one of the parks and eat our fried chicken and potato salad by this big creek, though one year my mother happened to leave the picnic basket on top of the car. We had to make do with KFC that time. After lunch my father would take me and Morgan “canoebing” (as I called it when I was five) out on Happy’s Lake. I would always insist on paddling the canoe and we’d just go around in circles. The mountains have always been a special place for me.
Mountains are special places in Scripture too. The Ten Commandments were given to Moses on a mountain. Abraham bound Isaac on a mountain. The Temple in Jerusalem was built on a mountain. Noah’s ark came to rest on a mountain. And, the story of the transfiguration, our gospel lesson this day where Jesus’ appearance changed, took place on a mountain.
If you’re anything like me, growing up in church I’ve heard sermon after sermon about “mountain top experiences” and the need for us to come down off the mountain and get to work. And that’s a great sermon, and true—but this is one story I have a hard time preaching on. Some times our words can actually say less than silence. Some times silence can say so much more than words. I mean, I could offer several illustrations about mountaintop experiences and the need for us to come down off the mountain to minister to those in the valleys. I could tell you a story about my visit to Mt. Tabor where the transfiguration is believed to have occurred. I could tell you about the frightful trip up the mountain in a taxi where my face was transfigured and turned white with fear, but I think any illustration or explanation of this incredible story would actually take away from the story itself.
We should all identify with Peter who can’t help but say something when he sees this vision of the divinity robed in flesh. I can sympathize with Peter. There are always times where we feel like we have to say something. Peter sees this vision of Jesus chatting with Moses and Elijah, and he wants to say something, he wants to do something, he wants to take part in the vision. But then Peter hears the voice of God, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” And Peter closes his mouth and falls to the ground. The voice of God didn’t command Peter to say anything but rather to listen. That’s a lesson we can all take away from this story. It’s important to simply keep our mouths shut and our ears open some times. Why do you think many monks take vows of silence? It’s not to see if they can do it—it’s so that they can focus on listening to and for God. The importance of listening—that’s one of the lessons Matthew teaches us on this mountain of the transfiguration.
But when you are on the mountaintop, you can generally see other mountains as well. When they come down from the mountain, Jesus tells them to tell nobody about what they saw until he had been raised from the dead. Matthew is showing us in these words another mountain in the distance that Jesus would be lifted up on.
Matthew is giving us a glimpse, a foresight of another mountain we will visit in about six weeks. On the first mountain Jesus is covered with white clothes and dazzling light, three disciples surround him, Moses and Elijah are on his right and left – Six weeks from now there’ll be another mountain, there Jesus will be covered, not with dazzling clothes but w/ blood and sweat, surrounded not by disciples, but Roman soldiers, not by prophets, but by 2 thieves – he will be different, broken body, ripped open by the tragedy and the valleys of human life.
Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the season of the cross, in three days in this sanctuary we’ll smear ashes on our faces as a reminder of our walk with Jesus through the valleys of life. But before we begin that journey, God will pull back the shadowy veil between this life and the next, and give us one more touch, one more sign that the fulfillment of God’s love for the world is embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, one more reminder that perfect love casts out fear, a reminder that Christ shares equally in God’s glory.
It won’t be a long moment, few of these sorts ever are, but it will be enough. For you see, just behind me is another mountain, not really a mountain, but a rise, an altar, where Jesus will once again appear, transfigured in the form of bread and juice – He won’t stay long, as with the other mountain stories, he’ll come down, right down these stairs, into the midst of human life. Christ lives in us and through the Sacrament, he nourishes us and gives us strength to go from this place of worship back into the world to work for healing and mending in the brokenness in the world. In the words of Loretta Lynn, up here “folks know what they’ve got.” Now it’s our job to share it with others, not just keep it to ourselves. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.