Mountaintops and Tabletops from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.
2 Kings 2:1-12
1Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.’ But Elisha said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel. 3The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent.’
4 Elijah said to him, ‘Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they came to Jericho. 5The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he answered, ‘Yes, I know; be silent.’
6 Then Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So the two of them went on. 7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ 10He responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ 11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As there were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God."Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John," We're not really told why this particular group is brought up the mountain. Perhaps they are special disciples, Jesus's inner circle of intimate friends. Perhaps these disciples are going to be called to special leadership within the group after Jesus's earthly ministry comes to a close. Perhaps these disciples had special needs, and this mountaintop event was a tutoring session to make sure they didn't fall behind the other disciples in their class.
My guess is that, at least from Mark's perspective, Peter, James, and John, needed a few extra study sessions. None of the disciples understand what's going on in the gospel of Mark. The law and the prophets all point to God revealed in Christ, but nobody expected God to pour his glory into a peasant from Palestine. It seems like every time Jesus does something amazing, something that identifies him as God's Son, the disciples are either terrified or confused. Peter and James and John are leaders in that group, for no one is so terrified or confused as they.
With two millennia of perspective, we know the leaders that Peter and James and John become. How they step out of their terror and confusion to become giants of the faith. In this passage though, they are still disciples with special needs, unaware of how God is going to act through them. ”The whole scene is addressed to any disciple struggling to see, hear, comprehend, and believe the gospel reality.” For Mark, that meant Peter and James and John. Any of us could find ourselves led to a high mountain. Many of us, when we feel terrified or confused, long to have the comfort and assurance of that mountaintop experience, when "Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves."
There doesn't seem to be anything special about the mountaintop. The mountain is not even named, unlike Horeb, the mountain of The Lord to which Elijah fled and encounter God in the still small voice. Neither is it Sinai, where Moses received the law and passed it on to the emerging nation of Israel. Jesus has not brought them up to a traditional shrine, or a magical stage. It's just a high mountain where the Jesus and his disciples with special needs can be apart, by themselves.
The mountain is not special, but the encounter they have is. The location isn't magical, the God who meets them there is powerful. God shows up and does something amazing. It's also one of only a few times in Mark's gospel when God doesn't do something through Jesus, but to him. Leading them up the mountain is the last action Jesus takes until the end of the passage, when he orders Peter and James and John to "tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead." Everything else in the passage happens to Jesus, a passive participant in what God is doing on that mountaintop.
Jesus "was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” It’s as if a veil has been removed, and Jesus’s divinity can shine through. Perhaps his disciples, who struggled with Jesus’s teaching about the cross and the empty tomb, in the passage immediately preceding this one, needed to see that Jesus is so much more than one who teaches with authority.
More than just a teacher, Jesus is the son of Man, to whom both the law and the prophets point. “And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.” Elijah, the great prophet, and Moses, the lawgiver, appear to testify that this Jesus is the Messiah, just as Peter had confessed six days ago. The presence of the law and the prophets points all the more to Christ’s holiness.
Peter’s response to glimpsing Christ’s holiness, and the weight of the tradition which points to him, is so true to his role as as disciple who just doesn’t understand what’s going on. “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Not knowing what to say, however, does not stop him from talking. he opens his mouth just long enough to put his foot in it. “Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
“Dwellings” may be a bit grand for the kind of structures Peter was offering to build. It could a dwelling in the sense that a pop-up tent you’d use at a tailgate party is a dwelling, just to provide some shade for folks to gather. It could be a dwelling along the lines of Lucy’s booth from Peanuts, where people come by and receive psychiatric help and wisdom for the low price of five cents. It’s not a grand home, it’s a simple shelter where people can drop by whenever they’d like to encounter God.
But God is not limited to the mountaintops, neither does God act only within the booths Peter would like to build. One theologian, facing Peter’s offer, posed the questions, ”… what if the kingdom of Christ had been confined in this way to the narrow limits of 20-30 feet? Where would have been the redemption of the whole world?” Of course we know that God’s reach extends beyond the narrow limits we might put upon God. It’s not the mountain than reaches up to God, it’s God who continually reaches down and acts on both mountains and valleys, in homes and vast open spaces. The place is not especially holy, the God who is in this this place is holy. No dwelling could contain God.
Just as Peter finishes his offer to provide some shade for the Great Prophet, the Lawgiver, and the Son of Man, God intervenes. “Then a cloud overshadowed them, God does not appear as a blinding flash of light, or as an avatar on the mountaintop. God remains hidden in the cloud, leading Peter and James and John to the identity of Christ, just as the pillar of cloud led Moses and Israel to the promised land. “…and from the cloud there came a voice.” God’s voice tells them the truth about this man they call teacher, and yet is so much more than they imagined, giving the terrified disciples with special needs comfort like the still small voice that spoke to Elijah in his moment of fear.
Even though God remains hidden in the cloud, they know where God is hiding, where God is acting. ”The life of faith is a life of becoming increasingly at home with God’s hiddenness.” Moments like the Transfiguration are when God shows us where he’s hiding, leaving us with an obvious hiddenness. We see God hidden in the midst of the cloud that overshadows us on the mountaintop, and we see God hidden in the midst of the community who gather around the tabletop.
That’s why we gather around the table, not because it’s especially well built of has a relic of a saint. It’s just a table, four legs and a top. But we gather around this tabletop because God meets us here, hidden in the community that gathers around us, but present with us in a very real and mysterious way. We gather here because we believe the voice of the LORD who says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Just as Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves, so we are elevated by the power of the Holy Spirit to dine with our Lord. We are given the truth that sets of free to watch for God-with-us.
We gather because we have seen God in our midst, and because we have encountered the Son of Man, risen from the dead, and whenever we eat of this bread of drink of this cup, we proclaim our Lord’s saving death, and his resurrection, until God finishes, then, his new creation, and find ourselves lost in wonder, love, and praise.