The Mountain in the Valley

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

 "In Jesus heaven and earth intersect." (Bill Loader)

Matthew's placement of this story says almost as much as the story itself. Immediately before, Jesus tells those who have just confessed he is Messiah of his coming death and resurrection. Immediately afterward, the disciples face an unassailable demon and Jesus, healing the boy, tells again of his death and resurrection.

The Messiah must die, and if any want to be his followers they must take up their cross and follow him. (16:24) Yes, they will lose their lives, but they will be brought to the intersection of heaven and earth. And before their own physical death they will be called to go down from the mountain top to face evil at its most intractable, evil which would throw an innocent child into the fire. The intersection of heaven and earth is very much on earth.

This is no endless cycle of life that Matthew is talking about. He very carefully says Jesus took them up the mountain after six days: after six days God saw everything was "very good," and on the seventh day God rested. (Genesis 1:31 – 2:1) Things are coming to a completion.

New Testament numbers are not accidental or casual.  To worry whether the variation between six or eight days (Matthew vs Luke) is a problem, or to seek to harmonise the numbers by saying each of them is a loose way of saying "one week" is to miss Matthew's point and misunderstand the way he uses symbolism.

If we seek to ground this epiphany in a literal historical narrative we drag it back to earth; we pull earth out of its intersection with heaven, seeking to corral wonder in a wooden literalism. We will be brought down from the mountain soon enough. Let us come the down on the right path.

As Loader notes, some suggest The Transfiguration is a post-Easter epiphany that has been transposed to its present position in the gospel. I find his understanding more persuasive; "it appears coloured more by imagery which pertains to the climax of history, when Moses and Elijah were expected to reappear." This is not a (purposely) misplaced proof of Jesus resurrection, but a pretelling of what his resurrection points to, or enables. The world will be completed. It will be "very good." It is not post Easter reassurance but pre-Easter promise.

The story happens on the mountain, the place we go to be close to God— this is a true "high place." He is transfigured; his face shines like Moses' face when he had been in the presence of God. (Exodus 34:29) But Jesus is the greater Moses, for Moses and Elijah speak to him, not he to them; he is their superior. Bill notes that in Matthew's telling, Elijah is subordinate to Moses; he has changed the order of their naming from that of Mark.  Matthew is highlighting the role of Moses in our Christian tradition: Jesus "has not come to replace Moses but to bring the authoritative interpretation of the law." (Bill Loader)

In Mark's version Peter also suggests building three dwellings. (Mark 9) Clearly this is a tradition that both Mark and Matthew felt important to include. Mark signals it is an inappropriate response by saying, "He did not know what to say, for they were terrified." (Mark 9:6)

Matthew omits this, but as in Mark, the voice of God makes the priorities of life clear: "This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" God actually interrupts Peter— "while he was still speaking!" (Stoffregen)

The divine pronouncement is a clear reflection of the words of God at Jesus' baptism. (Matthew 3:17) Jesus remains on course in what God requires of him. The pre-Easter promise is also a divine vindication of what Jesus has said about how he is to be Messiah, and what must happen to the Messiah in Matthew 16.

Recognising who he is and listening to him— which clearly implies acting on his words — is far more important than the building of fine houses and the celebration of liturgy. There may well be a dismissal of our tendencies toward pomp, ceremony, and construction here.

In Nehemiah 8, the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem built booths in which to live for a short time.

..all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them; for from the days of Jeshua son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so... And there was very great rejoicing. (Neh 8:17:18)

The booths were a symbol of God's rescuing them from exile and wilderness, and of God's faithfulness. They were also a symbol of Israel re-embracing the law.

So Peter was not wrong in his understanding of what was happening— that there was some great restoration, and that God was being faithful. His understanding was inadequate and limited. In this Messiah there is a new and greater thing happening than we had previously expected.

As Matthew will show us in the next verses, (17:10-22) the kingdom and the glory is not to be captured, or maintained, or even to be enjoyed, by remaining on the mountain top. The kingdom will be manifested and experienced down in the valley as people are set free.

So here we have the same Jesus who was born among us and baptised with us. He is with us. He brings us to places where heaven breaks in upon us. When we are overcome by fear he touches us saying, "Do not be afraid." (17:8) When all of life has us fall on our face because it is too much to bear, he touches us and says do not be afraid, and we see "no one except Jesus himself alone." This too, is the intersection of heaven and earth.

And when we go down the mountain, or emerge, fearfully even, from our little shelter in the wilderness and meet intractable evil, he will touch that and drive it out. (17:18)

He offers us the transformation of our world— or is it that he offers to transfigure us— if we will take up our cross and follow him?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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