The story of the transfiguration is a strange, other worldly one. To make sense of it we have to think about one of the actors in the story, Moses, and his own mountaintop encounter with God.
Like Jesus, Moses goes up the mountain just before a new covenant is made between God and human beings. His mountaintop encounter with God is a sort of pre-meeting, roughly analogous to a pep talk with the coach before a vital sporting fixture, or - if you prefer a more spiritual analogy, think of it as a retreat, a time of quiet and reflection, before a big task. In Moses’ case he needs to be on retreat with God for forty days and nights, like the forty days and nights which Jesus spends in the Wilderness before his own ministry begins. But for Jesus, the Transfiguration experience is immediate. No sooner do he and his friends ascend the mountain than Moses and Elijah appear to talk with him, and then the cloud of God’s presence overshadows them and God speaks from the cloud.
Of course, in the story about Moses’ mountain-top experience he has to wait for six days outside the cloud of God’s presence, before he is called to enter it, whereas on the Mount of Transfiguration the cloud appears only fleetingly and stays above Jesus and his friends in the sky. They don’t have to enter it to encounter God’s mysterious presence for he is already with them in Jesus himself, as the voice confirms.
Despite the enveloping layer of cloud, we are told that the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire - and even from the valley below the whole people of Israel could see it. By comparison, the appearance of God’s glory in Jesus is almost brought down to the human scale. True his face shines unbearably bright, like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white, but it’s not an earth-shattering,world-shaking experience. For in Jesus the full glory of God is revealed, or incarnated, in a human face and in a single human existence. Perhaps that’s why Peter, James and John are able to see it, and to hear God speaking to them.
In the Exodus story about Moses, there are three versions of his encounter with God on the mountain. In one of them, the one we read today, he is probably alone, for although he takes Joshua with him it’s unclear whether Joshua can enter the cloud of God’s presence or has to stay behind. But there are two earlier versions, as well. In one Moses ascends the mountain with his brother Aaron, to receive the Ten Commandments, and in the other he is accompanied by seventy-three of the tribal elders of Israel, and they all eat a meal in God’s presence. However, all they seem to see of God is his feet, or perhaps his foot-stool, and beneath it something like a pavement made of sapphire, which shines with other-worldly clarity. In other words, they glimpse God at the point where he connects with earth, but they don’t see his full glory revealed, even in miniature. How much more striking is it, then, to be told that the disciples have encountered God’s Beloved Son and lived to tell the tale? But, of course, they didn’t really understand what they had seen - in spite of the voice from the cloud - until after Jesus was raised from the dead.
Once, many years ago, my wife Helen and I set out to climb Skiddaw, one of the highest mountains in England. We chose to go up the hard way but, when we were nearly at the top, bad weather forced us to turn back.
We have always meant to try again and last year one of our friends, who does a lot of mountain climbing, said, ‘If you want to go up Skiddaw, why not go uo the easy way - from Keswick,’ which is one of the towns in the Lake District. The guide book confirmed that this was indeed the easiest way up. It said, ‘This is a route suitable for grannies and children in pushchairs.’ That was reassuring for Helen, who is a granny now!
So, last autumn, up we went! Actually, it was a lot harder than we expected. I don’t think I would have made it without some heart medicine which I happened to be carrying with me at the time. But a couple of puffs of this medicine, which comes out of an inhaler that you breathe in, gave me the energy to make it to the top.
When we were just below the summit someone coming down warned us that it was very windy. ‘I was really frightened,’ she said. ‘I had to cling onto my husband to stop myself from being blown away!’ We thought she was probably exaggerating a little bit. How wrong we were.
Just below the summit I was still smiling but already I was holding onto my hat, just in case it blew away. And, on the top of Skiddaw, the wind made my hood stand up straight behind my head.
Helen is quite a bit lighter than me, so she found it even more difficult when the wind was giving her a buffeting. Her hat and jacket billowed out as the wind filled them and tried to pick her up off the ground! Eventually she had to take shelter inside a little wall made of stones collected on the mountain. Which reminds me of Peter on the mountaintop with Jesus. It was evidently so windy up there that the only thing he could think of was to make three shelters, one for Jesus himself and one each for the two prophets Jesus was talking to, Moses and Elijah.
But, of course, climbing up a high mountain is totally worth it. The feeling of standing on the top really is like being ‘blown away’, it’s exhilarating. And you get to experience moments like the one when the shadow of a bright cloud made a striking pattern in the sky above the Lakeland scenary, as it may have done when the disciples heard God’s voice apparently speaking to them from behind a bright cloud.
Even as the rain gathered, and the sky grew dark and stormy, there were wonderful moments when the sun still broke through the clouds on our descent and transfigured the scene with such beauty that we simply had to stop and stare, and drink it in. Is that the sort of experience which the disciples had when suddenly they saw Jesus in a new light and began to understand just a little bit more about him?
Have any of you been up a mountain or a high hill and had that kind of mountaintop experience - an out of this world, out of the ordinary feeling quite different from being only a little further down?
Or, have you ever been in a power cut at night when the house where you were staying was plunged completely into inky darkness, and even the street lights went off outside? What cheers you up again? When someone lights a candle or a torch, or better still when the lights come back on!
On the mountaintop Jesus’ friends had two feelings simultaneously - a tremendous feeling of exhilaration that was completely out of the ordinary, when they suddenly felt that they were finding out more about Jesus than they had ever noticed before, and the sense that they were seeing Jesus in a new light and that he was rolling back some of the darkness from their vision. May he do he same for us!