Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
I have often found that those who are most interested in mountains – or the sea – are not particularly interested in track and field sports.
The pursuit of solitude, separated from the rush and glamour of the more televisual sports, the demands of teams and trainers, the commentary of armchair supporters – all add up to a particularly social form of leisure, and this does not appeal to all.
So there is that call of the mountains and the seas, which comes on a different kind of wind.
People find that they come close to God – or perhaps that God comes close to them – when they are alone. All can of course find this in personal prayer, provided that they can overcome distractions and wandering thoughts.
But both Moses and Jesus were called to the mountain tops, and they were called there from out of their pressing day-to-day commitments.
Moses went up Mount Sinai, accompanied by Joshua, and spent 40 days there. He entered the cloud and abode with God, separate from all else. While he was there, God instructed him on the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the form and layout of the their place of worship.
While the 10 commandments would provide Israel with their moral and spiritual compass, the form of their worship would define their routines and give them a visual focus.
And so Moses and Joshua were drawn away from their own preoccupations and into that realm where God set the agenda for their lives.
Jesus also went up mountains or into the wilderness. He would go into the wilderness to pray, and following His baptism he went up what is now known as the Mount of the Temptation, in the limestone or sandstone scarps above the Jordan Valley. Here He meditated on the form and direction that His ministry was to take.
He also gave the Sermon on the Mount from a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, as if giving a new statement of the principles of the Kingdom of God. If Moses had come down Mount Sinai with the 10 commandments and with laws on the ceremonial and social life of the community, then Jesus also gave the people law of a new kind, which would not so much condemn and show their need for salvation and mercy in their daily lives.
And so the Transfiguration of Jesus took place up a mountain in Galilee. Like Moses, Jesus was accompanied: this time by Peter, James and John.
And there, Jesus met Moses: giver of laws and visitor to Mount Sinai, as well as Elijah: dweller in deserts and wild places, the greatest of the court prophets who challenged King Ahab’s abandonment of the Lord and his acquiescence in the cult practices of his wife from Sidon. Elijah, victor of the contest of Mount Carmel, when the prophets of Baal were shown to be false in their worship and in their practices.
But more than that, Elijah was also a precursor to John the Baptist, whose baptism Jesus had received in the River Jordan.
Whereas the lives of Moses and Elijah were over, Jesus was very much in the here and now and His work would complete the ministries of both Moses and Elijah.
But there was something else in this meeting, for Moses had been banned from entering the Promised Land and had also spent the last 40 years of his life in the desert, and before that another 40 years as a shepherd. Even his life in the court of Pharaoh had been as an outsider.
Equally, Elijah had lived in the wilds, knowing little personal comfort and having a life of confrontation with King Ahab. This was not any kind of life of ease.
Yet Jesus had said to one would-be disciple that the birds of the air had nests and foxes had lairs but the Son of Man had nowhere of His own where He could rest.
If the lives of Moses and Elijah were sacrificial, then Jesus’ would be that much more for His climax would on a cross outside Jerusalem. No view of the promised land or fiery chariot here.
The Transfiguration of Jesus both lifted Him back into the Glory of the presence of God and it pointed Him to the centrality of the cross that lay before Him. It was after this that He began preparing His disciples with warnings of His own passion and death.
In this sense the Transfiguration marked the beginning of His final journey to Jerusalem.
For us the inclination may be to seek out spiritual or mountain-top experiences as if they were means of finding ourselves or of gaining some kind of special insight or focus of our spirituality.
But these are not sweeties for the especially holy: rather they are God’s summons to new devotion, new duty and new directions in self-denial.
What we can do is to set time aside for God in prayer and reflection so that He can draw us into His fellowship and fit us for the tasks He has already given us. I certainly think that an invitation to renewed self-denial and encounters with the cross is one that I would be inclined to shrink back from: for who was ever in a real hurry to meet the cross: close up and personal?