Updated: Jan 31
This is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Today’s lessons focus on Moses and Jesus going up onto high mountains, each with assistants, where they hear the voice of God.
Moses stayed forty days on Mt. Sinai, before he went down with the tablets. Jesus had already spent forty days in the wilderness, before beginning his ministry.
Both Moses and Jesus begin their ascents after a six day period. On the seventh day the glory of God shone forth.
Matthew begins his story by stating, “Six days after Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Christ.” That marks a period of time that began at the end of chapter 16, when Matthew wrote how Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. That event took place in the district of Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus had led the disciples.
Caesarea Philippi was also a town, in the Roman province called Gaulanitis. Today, that region is known as the Golan Heights.
The Golan Heights had been part of Syria until the Six Day War, when the Israelis took control. They refuse to relinquish control over a significant part of the Golan Heights afterwards, because of the strategic position of Mount Hermon.
A view of Mount Hermon from inside Israel.
Mount Hermon is only 10 kilometers from the ancient town of Caesarea Philippi. There are actually three nearly equal peaks there, which rise to roughly 9,200 feet above sea level. Mount Hermon equates to a “high mountain,” as Peter called it.
The strategic advantage of that mountain range is it overlooks the Hawran Plateau and the city of Damascus. The highest peak of Mount Hermon is at an elevation that is 5,900 feet higher than the elevation of the plateau of Damascus.
Surrounding the Sea of Galilee are mountains, but they are only about 500 feet above the elevation of the surrounding terrain. The Sea of Galilee is actually around 700 feet below sea level, making the Jordan River Rift Valley seem more mountainous than it is.
Mount Tabor is one of the mountains in the area surrounding the Galilee region. On top of that mount is where a Christian church is dedicated to the transfiguration of Jesus. That is where many believe the transfiguration took place. However, Mt. Tabor is only 1,880 feet above sea level. That is not a “high mountain.”
Mount Tabor is actually what is called a “monadnock,” which is defined as, “a small mountain that rises abruptly from a gently sloping or virtually level surrounding plain.” It is something like a place I was brought up near.
I was raised in the Atlanta, Georgia area and nearby was Stone Mountain. That is the world’s largest exposed piece of granite, and it rises to an elevation of nearly 1,700 feet, with it being over 800 feet above the surrounding terrain. From the top of Stone Mountain one has a panoramic view of Georgia, stretching for many miles. Stone Mountain is a tourist attraction because it is so accessible.
As a youth, I walked up Stone Mountain several times. There is a path along the gentle sloping side, with scenic spots along the way to stop and take a rest. As you near the top, the grade becomes steeper, so much that I would be on my hands and knees, grabbing hold of bumps in the rock surface, pulling with my hands and pushing with my feet, just to get up the last 50 yards. Once on top, there is a large, relatively flat area, with a building that has a gift shop and a bucket lift station. I climbed Stone Mountain by myself a few times.
This is looking down from the side of Stone Mountain you are not allowed to climb, because it is too steep.
In my early twenties, I climbed rock faces with friends, in and around Atlanta. Once, three of us climbed a rock wall at Tallulah Gorge, near where the Great Wallenda had set up towers for a tight rope performance years before. The towers remained.
We enjoyed rappelling down, just below where one tower stood, and then climbing up the shear wall there. We used only small cracks, nooks and crannies to place wedges (called “chocks”) and to use for hand and foot holds. Of course, we were secured to a rope tied off to a tree at the top, which went through the hooks to the chocks and us. Three climbers in a row were secured by rope, hand and foot holds, and wedges in strong cracks in the rock. Smart climbers prepare, as the danger is from slipping and falling.
The rope would keep us from falling all the way down, even if you were the lowest climber. Still, a fall meant temporarily (at least) dangling upside down, hooked to the rope and the most secure chock holding, stopping the fall. There is always a danger if you hang upside down too long. A helmet helps you keep from being knocked unconscious; but when you climb as part of a team, someone will help you get upright.
The point of this lesson is it is too dangerous to climb “high mountains” alone.
High mountains, like Mount Hermon and Mount Sinai, are much taller than anything I ever attempted to climb. It makes sense to see how climbing such a mountain could require ropes and more than one climber, in order to safely reach the top.
We read elsewhere in the Gospels about Jesus going into the mountains near the Sea of Galilee to meditate and pray. He went alone at those times, leaving all the disciples behind to do other things. However, when Moses embarked to a high mountain, he took Joshua with him, leaving Aaron and Hur behind. Likewise, Jesus took three assistants, leaving the other nine disciples behind.
Mount Hermon is actually snow covered most of the year, and it is where the only ski resorts for Israel and Lebanon are located. Mount Sinai has an elevation of over 8,000 feet, and I watched a YouYube video the other day, showing Christian pilgrims making the ascent of that “high mountain.” Those climbers were amazed that it was snowing; and they walked a path where snow was on the ground. The snow came from the clouds that were present; and one of the climbers remarked how it was so much like in Exodus, with the clouds surrounding the mountain.
It may very well be that Moses and Jesus took assistants to help in reaching the higher altitudes of those high mountains, because they knew they would encounter weather, either rain or snow. So, when we read, “Moses set out with his assistant Joshua,” we can assume Joshua was going to assist with the climb, rather than assist Moses in his talk with God.
In Exodus we read how Moses went up “the cloud covered mountain,” and “the cloud covered it for six days.” We read in Matthew that “Six days after” … “Jesus took … and led them up a high mountain.” It is said that “from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved.’” So, we know a cloud was nearby.
Whenever we see film of high mountains with clouds around them, we know there is weather there, with snow and winds making conditions hazardous. To think of clouds being around a high mountain for six days, imagine how much snow could be falling. High mountains are snowcapped because of clouds moving by, and clouds are water vapor mixing with the cold temperatures of high altitudes.
Think of the recent snow and ice we had, as little as that was. When the clouds were still overhead, the snow had a sleepy look to it. Then, after the clouds moved away and the sun came out … what happens to sun on white snow?
It can be blinding. Then think about Exodus where we read, “the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” The sun, that huge fireball in the sky, was reflecting brightly on a snow covered Mount Sinai!
This is snow on Mount Sinai.
Now see how Matthew says, “[Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Snow blindness is an eye problem that comes from “exposure to sunlight reflected from ice and snow, particularly at elevation.” The technical name is photokeratitas, where the ultraviolet rays of the sun are not blocked from harming one’s eyes.
Wikipedia reports, “Fresh snow reflects about 80% of the sun’s UV radiation,” and “this is especially a problem … at high altitudes, as with every thousand feet (approximately 305 meters) of elevation (above sea level), the intensity of UV rays increases by four percent.”
So, let’s imagine that Mount Hermon has had six days of snow, just as did Mount Sinai. The arid conditions of the area mean clouds bring snow to the high elevations, but nothing in the valley down below. Jesus knows God is coming to meet him, just as did Moses. Jesus takes three assistants and begins to hike up the mountain, into the snow, while the clouds are still there, making things white.
On the seventh day the Lord called out to Moses. On the seventh day God called out to the disciples. The seventh day is the Sabbath, the day of the Lord.
For us Christians, we call the Sabbath “Sun-day.” The sun shone upon Moses and Joshua, just as the sun shone on Jesus, Peter, James, and John. The Sun came out from behind the cloud, into a blanket of pure white snow. That is symbolic of holiness.
What we get from today’s Gospel reading is how, “[Jesus] was transfigured before them.” Then we are told, “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with [Jesus].” This is called the “Transfiguration.”
The Greek word written is “metemorphōthē,” which means, “he was transformed” or “he was transfigured.” From “meta’ – change – “morph” – form – we can see how Jesus changed form. It means the outward appearance of Jesus was altered.
His face “shone like the sun” and “his clothes became dazzling white.” Jesus was exalted and glorified by the presence of the LORD, regardless of the presence of snow. However, the light on the snow could have altered the eyes of the disciples so they were allowed to see that transformation.
Peter wanted to build tabernacles, because God had instructed Moses to build one so the LORD could live among the people of Israel. If they knew they were going into snowy conditions, they would have brought tents and supplies, so Peter was simply asking if they should pitch tents for their guests.
God told him to be quiet and listen to Jesus, because things had transformed from the freedom from bondage in Egypt (Moses), to a nation split (Elijah), to an exiled people under Roman bondage (Jesus); but Jesus was going to transform the disciples; and, in return, they would transform many more of humanity.
Three disciples witnessed three forms of Christ. One who had died and was buried outside Israel, one who was born in Israel but left to ascend into heaven without dying, and one who would be born and die in Israel, but then resurrect and ascend. They saw a trinity in Jesus.
We read this today because we are about to spend forty days on the mountain, so to speak, with the season of Lent coming. We need to have our own transformation.
Rather than spend forty days getting a Law to follow – to decide what little thing we can try to give up for less than a month and a half – we need to become like Jesus and change form. We need him to change from being something nebulous – like a cloud, as a super human – into someone who suddenly joins with us, talking to us from within.
Then we can hear the voice of Jesus as he tells us, “Get up and do not be afraid.” We will go down the mountain together, knowing the security of our lifeline is tied to a power that will never fail. From there we can go well beyond forty days of sacrifice.
We need to understand why Peter wrote, “You will do well to be attentive to the prophetic message of Christ, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
May you be filled with the Holy Spirit so your faces shine like the sun.