Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
Holy mountains. The Mount of the Transfiguration is among several holy mountains that are part of the landscape of today’s Middle East, in particular Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But there are other mountains in other parts of the world that are reckoned by other peoples to be holy . . .
It rises 1,142 feet above the flat desert floor, with a circumference of nearly six miles. It is the largest monolithic mountain in the world. That means it is constituted of one single, undivided rock. As with an iceberg, geologists calculate that nine-tenths of this monolith’s mass lie below the red desert sands.
I’m speaking of Ayers Rock, the iconic stone mountain that stands at the very center of the continent of Australia. The colonizing British of the late 19th Century named it for an early provincial official, but the current Australian government encourages people to honor the mountain’s Aboriginal name, which is Uluru.
The minority Aborigines are the native Australians. Anthropologists suppose they have been present on the continent for 40 thousand years. Their religion has been largely animistic, meaning they have looked for answers to life’s deepest questions in the plants, animals and even inanimate objects that form their environment.
Aboriginal tribes have identified forms and figures on the face of their holy mountain which remind them of various birds, reptiles and other creatures which have been thought to possess a spiritual essence and to relate a narrative of creation they call Dreamtime. Even the gigantic rock itself is believed to have a soul.
That’s why the Aborigines have been unwilling to climb Uluru and to walk on its flat top. They don’t want to risk transgressing or treading upon the holy. In consideration of these peoples who are now respected as the “traditional owners” of the land, the Australian government officially discourages hikers and backpackers from going up the mountain. Nobody is forbidden, but warning signs are everywhere.
I thought how different our Christian and Jewish understandings are, when it comes to mountains. In our traditions, mountains are not holy in and of themselves. They are made holy because of something that happened there. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills—from whence cometh my help,” sang the Psalmist. “My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121.1-2).
Thus it was that that One you and I recognize to be the Lord did not place warning signs at the foot of the holy mountain in our text today. Rather he called his closest disciples together and personally guided them aloft.
The apparent reason for the journey was to clarify the identity of the rabbi these men had been following for months. We can look back several chapters preceding Mark 9 and readily observe the disciples’ increasing confusion about their master—who he was, why he shielded his true identity, what was the point of his seemingly selective and occasional miracle-working.
Many have supposed that the ultimate clarification appeared at the end of Chapter 8, where the teacher conducted his pupils to the far north of the country, to a place known as Caesarea-Philippi. “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked along the way. The disciples offered several suggestions. Then Jesus made it personal: “But who do you say that I am?” (vv. 27, 29).
We can imagine that the impulsive disciple Peter first hesitated, and then gulped, before finally proposing, “You are the Christ [the Messiah]!” Peter got it right, of course, but quickly fell from favor when Jesus spoke of a personal future involving not messianic conquest, but rather suffering and death. Mark records that the disciple “rebuked” his Lord, while Jesus’s response to him was harsher: “Get behind me, Satan!” (vv. 32, 33).
So what exactly was everybody to make of this teacher, whose parables, examples and figures of speech were so hard to get one’s head around? This healer, who opened the eyes and ears of the blind and deaf, but didn’t want anybody to talk about it? This worker of signs and wonders, who fed vast hordes, but who insisted that the take-away was something far deeper and longer-lasting than full stomachs?
Who was this mysterious, enigmatic person? In the minds of the disciples, it must have been high time to clear the matter up. They had not long to wait. For in only a few days they came to the holy Mount of the Transfiguration.
Mark called it a high mountain apart. The traditional site is Tabor, a perfectly bowl-shaped prominence standing a few miles west of the Sea of Galilee. At fewer than 2,000 feet, it seems no one would have called it a “high mountain”—until we recall that the word “mountain” in the New Testament refers to any sort of elevation in the topography.
For a certainty Mt. Tabor is “a mountain apart.” I will long remember my first ride up in an Arab taxi. The driver wowed his nervous passengers by taking the dozen or more hairpin curves at excessive speed, shouting “Ooooo! . . . Ahhhh!” at every turn. (Thankfully, we drew a different driver for the trip back down.)
Some of you have been there. The crest of the mountain feels like a different world. There’s room for an Orthodox basilica and a small monastery, linked by a pleasant, shady avenue. The view from the top is stunning and evocative—the Valley of Jezreel to the south, the Sea of Galilee to the east, Nazareth to the north, and Mt. Carmel and the Mediterranean to the west.
Those are all busy places, but none of their hubbub reaches the top of the mountain. None of the cacophony that Jesus would encounter when he descended into the valley later that day. Only quiet serenity. Truly “a mountain apart.”
What happened there was unique and extraordinary. We read that Jesus went apart from Peter and James and John and “was transfigured before them.” Transfiguration is the same as our word metamorphosis: it refers to a change in appearance. The best description Mark could produce was the look of Jesus’s robes, which were “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
The color white suggests high holiness. (That is why we wear white stoles over our own robes to mark high, holy days in the church—Christmas, Easter, weddings and funerals.”)
These disciples already had some sense of their teacher’s holiness. Early in Jesus’s ministry (Mark 1.24) they recalled at the Capernaum synagogue “a man with an unclean spirit.” The demon-possessed man cried out, “I know who you are—the holy one of God!” What the disciples lacked was a sense of their teacher’s absolute distinctiveness—the singularity which would set him apart from all other means and measures.
Presently there appeared alongside Jesus two others, whom the disciples somehow recognized as Moses and Elijah. Moses the Lawgiver had descended another mountain—Mt. Sinai—some 1,300 years earlier, with the commandments of Yahweh in his hands. These became the moral and ethical standards by which God’s people would henceforth be identified.
The Prophet Elijah, on the other hand, represented all of the Old Testament’s prophets, who stood against principality and power and insisted that a holy people must go forth in righteousness and make their nation a holy place.
The text describes these two figures as real, living persons, come from another place, translated from another dimension. As such, they proceeded to converse with the living person of Jesus. As to their subject matter, the gospel writer Luke—ever a stickler for details—reported that they spoke of Jesus’s “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9.7).
Peter, no doubt smitten by the contrast between that and what he had always assumed, was left to stutter. It was a very revealing stutter: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
“Tabernacles” or “booths” is the word Peter chose. Three identical booths to acknowledge the equal eminence of the three persons who would inhabit them. The Lord (in Peter’s view) had risen to the level of the Law and the Prophets. But was this a compliment?
Now enter the voice of God the Father, the great and final Clarifier of every man’s confusion, who was having none of this. Speaking as he had once spoken to Moses, from the interior of a cloud, the Lord God declared, with solemnity and finality, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”
We read from the Book of Romans (10.17 nkjv), “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” But we see that not everybody gets it. Not everybody listens to the voice of God. Some have to be shown.
And so with Peter and James and John. “Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” Only Jesus.
All through their lives, they had done as well as fishermen might—these three. They had tried to keep the commandments, to pray in the synagogue, to study the Torah. They had tried to mind their families, their vocation, their villages, making them safe, secure and livable places in a difficult world. They had tried to live right, and make the right decisions, when confronted with difficult choices.
Yet doubtless one thing always haunted them and oppressed them. Jesus himself said it as well as any Old Testament prophet. When he had first delivered the memorable Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said this: “Unless your [right-living] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Before long these disciples would once again be asking, where is there hope? What can save us? And Jesus would remind them, “With people it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10.26-27 nasb).
How vital to our purpose in the world it is to get that! How vital to get that word out! For that is the best news the human ear will ever hear. With people salvation is impossible, but not with God. With people solutions may seem non-existent. But not with God.
There is much in life that we can get right, and much good that we can and should perform. But we are called to remember that our faith and our future will never rest upon what we may accomplish, but instead upon what has already been accomplished in our behalf, and the world’s behalf.
Moses and Elijah will always matter. Doing right, being good, and making the best choices will always be our human responsibility before the one human who fulfilled all righteousness. But that can never be the core of our message and our mission to a humanity that will never make the grade.
“For I handed on to you,” Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “. . . I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures . . .” (1 Cor. 15.3-4 nrsv).
First importance. In our outreach to people—poor, needy, confused, sinful people—what remains of first importance? At day’s end, we recognize that the problem isn’t that our world is askew—it always has been. The problem isn’t that we can’t get our act together and get everything right—we never will.
The problem is that people are sinners. “All have sinned and come short . . .” (Romans 3.23). Time after time, we have chosen to go our own way and live out of harmony with the One who created us. But there is a fix for that. What remains for us now is to go forth courageously, and proclaim the fix: Jesus, and only Jesus.