Our text today is Luke 9:28-43.
This is the prototypical mountain top experience. The archetype, if you will. All talk of “mountain top” experiences refer back to this one, or perhaps, Sinai, which is definitely evoked by this story, as we’ll see in a moment. But, as is usually the case, there is more going on in this remarkable encounter with God than first meets the eye (or ear).
In Luke’s story, Jesus has just begun to let the disciples know that the path ahead of them is not a smooth one. In spite of the miracle of feeding the 5,000 that has just taken place, he is not on the fast track to being crowned king in the way they expected. In fact, Jesus says, this road they’re on is leading to “great suffering,” to rejection and death. And finally, to resurrection. Then he turns to them and invites them to follow him to the cross.
‘Take up your own cross,’ he tells them, ‘and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, will save it.’
It is against this backdrop of Jesus’ prediction of his fatal encounter with the powers in Jerusalem that the transfiguration takes place. Of course, Matthew’s version of the earlier story has Peter stridently objecting to Jesus’ prediction of his death in Jerusalem and Jesus, famously, says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”
So it’s a week or so later – Luke says 8 days later – that Jesus takes with him Peter, John and James, and they head up a mountain to pray. This was probably typical. Throughout the gospel stories Jesus takes a few of his disciples with him to pray at a distance from the crowd. Usually these same three are there, as in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But this time, while they are on the mountain praying, something remarkable and surprising happens; something none of them are prepared for, it seems. Jesus’ physical appearance is transformed – he is “transfigured,” as it were. And in the bright light of this transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear and speak with Jesus.
And what are they speaking to Jesus about?
Speaking to Jesus about his departure
They’re speaking to him about his departure. This is where the story gets kind of “Close Encounters.” You almost expect that he’s going to depart right then and there. Perhaps Moses and Elijah have come to take Jesus… right now!
Luke’s choice of the word “departure” refers to the Exodus. Jesus death & resurrection will be like the great exodus from Egypt. Freedom from bondage to death. Not only this, but you have God appearing to them in a cloud, which happens on Mt. Sinai as well as along the entire journey from Egypt to the promised land. Luke is telling his hearers that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel; that Jesus is, at last, the final Exodus, the final passage to the promised land.
But Peter, it seems, has a slightly different concern about the word “departure,” and without thinking, Peter begins to offer an alternative plan.
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.
I love that Luke adds this commentary. Peter was talking nonsense! But Peter was troubled and afraid and, like all good ENFPs, he processed his thoughts out loud, which is calculated to get you in trouble. You can take my word for it.
Speaking when we should be silent
This story has implications for all of us – not only for the overconfident extroverts among us. When we have had an encounter with God, we are prone to speak when perhaps we should be silent. And so Peter ends up saying something that, with our critical distance from the situation, looks patently ridiculous!
Peter has no idea what Moses and Elijah are talking to Jesus about. He’s like someone who walks in on a conversation that is already underway and jumps right in, offering his opinion. And besides, Peter doesn’t want to hear any story about Jesus departure.
As we can see, Peter is completely ignorant of the divine mysteries of this encounter. And yet Peter speaks boldly about what he “knows” is the case about this powerful encounter with God.
Haven’t we all done that? Haven’t we all caught ourselves speaking boldly and with certainty about things, which are, at best, mysteries? The glory that shrouded Jesus was incomprehensible to those who were closest to him. But the temptation to speak about it was overwhelming.
And what is God’s response? Peter is rambling on about what he doesn’t know, talking foolishness about building dwellings. You might expect God, at this point, to hide the proceedings from Peter – just remove Peter from the situation because he clearly doesn’t get it and he’s now become a distraction. This faithlessness, it seems, would earn him a place in the next room.
But this is not what God does. Watch this. Peter says, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Luke makes sure we understand what a fool Peter is being by adding, “—not knowing what he said.” And what is the next thing that happens?
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
God thinks, “This will shut him up…” as the cloud of God’s glory completely envelops the group. God’s response to Peter’s arrogance is not to remove God’s glory but to immerse Peter, John and James more deeply in God’s glory.
And after this a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” “When the voice had spoken,” Luke says, “Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent…”
Now they’re getting it. Peter’s ignorant ramblings have been met by the incomprehensible glory of God and how they are silent. And the voice from heaven says, “Listen!”
This reminds me of something I heard my friend Peter Rollins say when he was here last year. It’s not because of a lack of God’s presence that we wrongly discern God’s character and will. It is rather an overabundance of God’s presence that blinds us. We suffer not from an absence of God but from the hyper-presence of God. And so the cure for Peter’s over-confidence in this case is to reveal even more of God’s glory. And the result is that Peter cannot speak anymore about it.
The way I see it, Peter, John and James received a remarkable gift. They had the amazing privilege to be with Jesus when he had his encounter with God, Moses and Elijah. They were confronted by the glory and mystery of God and their proper response was silence.
When God enters our life and touches us, sometimes our only response is silence. When we’ve begun to understand something of the overwhelming love and grace of God, we realize we cannot speak of God anymore. There’s nothing more to say; we can’t add anything to God’s grace.
We stand in awe.
Back into the action
At a fundamental level Peter was wrong. They were not going to build permanent dwellings on the mountain so that Jesus, Moses and Elijah could stay there with Peter, James and John forever. That was completely missing the point.
And aren’t we tempted to want the same thing? For the mountain top experience to be the main thing? To preserve it and somehow make it last forever? To just stay there with God in this amazing moment of glory and beauty where we for a brief moment have clarity about who God is and who we are?
But that’s not how the story goes. They come back down the mountain to experience the realities of life: pain, brokenness, disease, stubbornness and faithlessness.
At the bottom of the mountain there is no sense whatsoever of the God who was just revealed on the top of the mountain. And so the disciples find themselves called down from the mountain top to live in a broken world that has not experienced God’s revelation to the same degree. They are called from the immediate presence of God to now mediate God’s presence in the world.
And here’s the thing…
Even after that amazing encounter, they find themselves powerless to solve the sick boy’s problem. Even this powerful experience of God has not completely cured the disciples of their own disease, as we might expect. So Jesus steps in and heals the boy.
Astounded at God’s greatness
The result of all this is this:
“All were astounded at the greatness of God!” (Vs 43.)
I think this is Luke’s point! Peter James and John were astounded by God’s greatness on the mountain. Now they, along with the other people at the bottom of the hill, are astounded by God’s greatness in their lives.
And all are speechless.
It occurs to me that the church would benefit by being speechless on more occasions. Usually we’re worried – as individuals, but also as “the church” in society – about speaking, about saying something. But sometimes the most important witness we can bear is to be speechless in the face of God’s greatness.
And the cure for our runaway mouths, Luke tells us, is worship. It is the glory of God revealed to us in glory on the mountaintop, or in the dirt and mess of every day life, that renders the church appropriately speechless.
May we be a bit more “speechless” this week as we live our lives in awareness of God’s glory all around us.