The Transfiguration of Our Lord: A Sermon about Downward Ascents

Thanks to Pastor Erik Haaland of Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis for sharing with us this wonderful Transfiguration sermon, which he preached on February 23, 2020.

You can also listen and sing with us on Oh, Wondrous Image, Vision Fair. And at the end of this post is the full version of the beautiful painting you see here—Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park by Stephen Glowacki.

Beloved people of God,

For me it’s hard to hear these great stories about mountains and not think of some the mountains I’ve experienced in my own life. I wonder if it’s the same for you, too?

Once, in college, I joined a group of friends on a backpacking trip in the Beartooth mountains of Montana, not so far from where I grew up in the town of Billings. We spent one day hiking up a forested valley, then another crossing what they call scree—loose rock on the face of a mountainside. Then just above the tree line we passed Froze to Death Lake. (That’s it’s real name!) And from there we headed on up toward a gap in a ridge. Near the top there was a small herd of big-horned sheep, who were astonishingly beautiful creatures, and to my great relief, left us entirely alone.

Then, finally, we made it to the top of that ridge. . . . And I wonder if many of you haven’t had something like this same experience: approaching the top of a ridge or a mountain range, you get there, and all of a sudden there are whole new worlds in front of you. You go from the single valley you’ve been in and looking at for, in our case, the last day and a half . . . and then suddenly you’re on top of the world. And there are valleys and lakes and mountains (whole worlds!) that you’ve never seen before. It feels revelatory. Holy.

It’s not hard to see why, throughout human history, mountains have been experienced as holy places—places of encounter and revelation, of transfiguration.

Consider the significance of mountains in even just this one religious tradition: our own.

At the heart of what the Jewish people call the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, stands the story of Moses being called up to the heights of Mount Sinai to receive the gift of the law. This is the holy Word of the Lord, that will guide the people in justice and in truth.

And the details of the story are simply fantastic. The mountain is covered with a mysterious cloud, which is the very presence of the glory of God. It’s a glory that, at the very same time, is like a devouring fire. Fire in a cloud! And Moses enters this glory—this cloud and fire—for forty days and forty nights. Which is biblical code for “a very long time.”

And when Moses finally comes down, bearing the gift of this law, his face is shining so brightly he’s forced to put on a veil so as not to terrify the people.

It should come as no surprise that the story of Jesus includes some mountains, too.

This is what happens on the holy mountain. Moses enters into the glory of God, and the whole of Israel gets a glimpse of God’s majesty.

But that’s not the only mountain story in scripture. The great prophet Elijah, fleeing for his life, also makes a pilgrimage to the mountain—the holy mountain, Sinai, where he hides in a cave as the glory of the Lord passes by. We’re told there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks into pieces. And after that an earthquake, and after that a fire, and after that a sound of sheer silence. And in that silence, Elijah hears the still, small voice of God, encouraging him on.

Another great mountain in scripture is Zion—Jerusalem, the city on a hill. And in the tradition, Mount Zion becomes a symbol for all of Israel’s hopes and dreams: of restoration, healing, and life. The tradition even dreams of all the nations streaming to Jerusalem, finding there their heart’s desire.

The prophet Isaiah also speaks of a mountain. In the twenty-fifth chapter, Isaiah has this vision of a mountain on which the Lord of hosts makes for all peoples a feast, a feast of rich food and well-aged wine. And on that mountain death is destroyed, and tears are wiped away. Elsewhere in the Book of Isaiah the Lord says, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

[Listen to Oh, Wondrous Image, Vision Fair]

In scripture, the mountain is this holy place where we meet God face to face—where we encounter the awesome and transformative glory of God. The mountain—the holy mountain—is a symbol, too, of our highest hopes. A symbol of God’s redemption and healing of this whole broken, broken, beloved world.

And so then, it should come as no surprise that the story of Jesus includes some mountains, too.

For the past three Sundays we’ve been hearing portions of Jesus’ Sermon . . . on the Mount. It’s surely no coincidence that Jesus’ most profound teaching takes place on a mountain. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the new law-giver, summing up the law and the prophets in his commands to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It’s like this new clarity of revelation descending from the heavens and shaking the foundations…transforming the way we see the world.

We get another glimpse of that mountain in today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus is suddenly transfigured. All of sudden his face is shining like the sun, and his body is wrapped in a garment of light. Moses and Elijah are there, talking with him. It’s as if these mountain-goers of old are right there with Jesus—not in opposition, but standing right alongside.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, a bright cloud overshadows them all. And I absolutely love that . . . a bright cloud! Maybe it’s like the cloud of old that’s paradoxically filled with fire!

And out of that bright, flaming cloud a voice declares Jesus beloved.

Some consider this story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop to be a kind of image of resurrection—one that occurs in the middle of the story rather than at the end. The transfiguration of Jesus is this revelatory moment where it becomes clear who Jesus really is . . . that this one is the beloved Son of God. That this is the one who heals and saves. This is the one whom we are to follow. That this is the one to whom we must listen. The transfiguration is an image of the resurrected Christ in all Christ’s beauty and glory.

In fact, Jesus says as much when he tells Peter and James and John that this experience on the mountain can only be comprehended—and thus shared—in the light of the resurrection, after he has risen from the dead.

It is Christ’s downward ascent that lifts us up on high.

Which means also, that this experience on the mountaintop can only be comprehended in light of something else that takes place in Matthew’s gospel: namely, what happens “at the place where Jesus had no garments, and, in darkness on a different sort of mountain, talked [not with Moses and Elijah, but] with a couple of bandits.”1 When, on Golgotha, he hung on a cross.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once called Christianity a “downward ascent.” A downward ascent. To follow Jesus into his resurrected, transfigured glory is at the very same time to follow him in his humility, in his solidarity with and love for this whole suffering creation. In Christ, God’s glory and God’s self-giving are one and the same. A downward ascent. That’s the way of Jesus, and that’s the way he calls us to follow.

And this means that our true mountaintop experiences are not likely going to be in the places we expect. In fact, our true mountaintop experiences are not likely to be on mountaintops. It’s not likely to be in the midst of those rare experiences we crave and spend so much money to have. Or in those great accomplishments that we think will somehow make us our full selves. Or in those great barns of wealth we all seem to be scrambling to build.

No, that is not where God’s glory is to be found. There is no hope of transfiguration or resurrection there.

But the path of Jesus…now that’s another story. His is a path that invites us to sink into our creatureliness…into our full humanity…into the bonds that link us with each other and the earth and our siblings everywhere. The path of Christ is one of humility, and of resistance to the oppressive powers of his day…and of ours. The way of Christ is a descent…into love for each other…into love even for those whom we call our enemies.

But here’s the thing: this downward journey is in fact the way on high. It’s where resurrection happens—along the way as well as at the end. This way of Jesus is itself the mountaintop—the place where whole worlds of beauty unfold before us.

It is Christ’s downward ascent that lifts us up on high. It is the downward streaming love of God that heals and transfigures us—our broken, weary spirits—and set us on this path of love in Jesus’ name.

It is on this downward ascent that we find ourselves face to face with Christ, the great morning star, the crucified One, who shines with God’s own truth and light.

Alleluia, and Amen.

  1. From Fred Niedner in Sundays and Seasons Preaching.
"Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park" by Stephen Glowacki ( Oil on canvas.
Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park by Stephen Glowacki. Oil on canvas.