The redemptive story of scripture can be told in many and various ways. I like to tell it through the story of two mountains. Not the characters one normally pictures when thinking about the story of scripture, I admit. Yet, like the Appalachians in the East and the Rockies in the West of America, these two mountains tower over the biblical narrative and in many ways define its landscape.
The first one is well known: Mt. Sinai. Located in the vast rocky wilderness of the peninsula separating Egypt from Canaan, this mountain first appears in the early chapters of Exodus. It’s not a pretty mountain. In fact, the other name it goes by in scripture, Mt. Horeb, means ‘wasteland,’ which perfectly reflects the state of God’s story at this point. For the children of Israel have been toiling in slavery for 400 years, and Moses has fled for his life from Pharaoh’s court and found himself in the wasteland near Mt. Sinai. One day, while Moses is on the mountain, God appears to him and calls him to lead his people out of slavery. Moses, though frightened and unequal to the task, returns to Egypt, confronts the Pharaoh, and leads the people out of slavery. As God commanded him, Moses brings them back to this mountain where God calls him up to give the law that would define Israel’s way of life for the next 1,000 years.
While Moses is speaking with God on Mt. Sinai, he gathers the courage to ask a question. “Show me your glory,” he says. God responds:
I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The LORD”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But . . . you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live . . . See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen (Exodus 33:19-23).
This was a bold question. To see God’s glory, after all, was to see God, and no one had seen God since Adam and Eve walked with God in Eden. Their sin, which passed to all humanity, had now made this vision impossible for the holy God cannot be in the presence of sin. For if they saw him, God told Moses, they would die. So God does a most gracious thing here. He allows his glory to pass by Moses so that the prophet sees the “back” of his glory, back being a sanitized translation of the Hebrew word meaning “backside.” This is the most of God that the greatest prophet of Israel was ever able to see.
The second mountain in our story is not so well known: Mt. Tabor. Located in lower Galillee, at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley, this mountain is smaller than Mt. Sinai but much prettier, with rows of green trees covering its heights. And unlike Mt. Sinai, which dominates the first part of scripture, this mountain only appears once, in a relatively short story from the Gospels. At this point in his ministry, Jesus has been preaching throughout Galilee for several years. In fact, he has recently revealed to his disciples for the first time that he had to go to Jerusalem to be handed over to the authorities and crucified, a sure sign that he sensed his earthly ministry was coming to an end. Shortly after this troubling revelation, he takes his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, to this second mountain. The Gospel writer continues:
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then 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.” While 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!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone (Matthew 17:2-8).
In this mysterious moment, known to history as “the Transfiguration,” Jesus reveals to the disciples his true nature. And to their shock, his true nature is the glory of God shining from his face. Present with the disciples, and beholding the same incredible sight, is Moses, the prophet who had asked on Mt. Sinai to see God’s glory. Only now, on Mt. Tabor, does he get what he hoped for. Only in Jesus does he see God face to face.
In the story of the two mountains, bound together in the figure of Moses, we hear the redemptive story of God, that the God who revealed himself incompletely in the law, which is to say he showed us his backside, reveals himself fully in Christ. That the God whose holiness did not allow him to be in the presence of sinful humanity without causing their deaths is now able, through Christ and his sacrifice, to dwell fully with humanity. And that the God of the cosmos speaks with us face to face, as he always intended. As I noted earlier, this story can be told in many and various ways. The apostle John puts it this way: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, that makes him known” (John 1:18). And the apostle Paul says: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
If you notice from the story of Mt. Tabor, Peter wanted to stay on the mountain. But Jesus, no longer transfigured, leads them down the mountain and then, not long after, on to Jerusalem. You see, there is one more mountain in this story. It’s called Golgotha. It’s the smallest of the three and the ugliest. It takes its name from the odd formation in its rocky surface, that of a skull. From this third mountain, Jesus will show God’s glory in a different way. He will show it through a cross.
Jesus’ walk down the mountain, then, is a movement from his ministry to his passion, which the Church marks in the movement from Epiphany to Lent, a 40-day period of intentional reflection on Jesus’ sacrifice.
Honestly, it’s not a joyful time in the life of the Church. Methodists, like many traditions, begin the journey by placing ashes on our heads and remembering that we are made from dust and returning to dust. Other traditions refuse to say the word “Hallelujah” during this season. Still other traditions fast regularly to identify with Jesus’ sacrifice. My guess is that all of us, like Peter, would rather stay on Mt. Tabor, basking in God’s radiant glory forever. But as we saw from Moses’ experience on Mt. Sinai, this would be impossible if it were not for the sacrifice on Golgotha. Only by this sacrifice can the glimpse of Mt. Tabor become an everlasting reality for those who follow Jesus and have the Spirit.
So we say on Transfiguration Sunday, hallelujah for the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus. And we will not say it again until Easter Sunday when death is defeated in resurrection and the veil of God’s glory is forever torn.
Let’s enter these next 40 days with hope that death never has the last word. Let’s remember that the hope we have in Jesus is a face to face relationship with God and that no sin we have done, no hurt we have caused, no brokenness we have experienced, and no shame we have felt can ever again hide that glory. Let us walk with confidence in this wasteland knowing that we shall soon see the glory of God.