Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 9:29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 9:30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 9:31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 9:32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 9:33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” –not knowing what he said. 9:34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 9:35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Last week, the wilderness was a character in the gospel reading. This week, we find a mountain and a cloud featuring significantly in the narrative. These other-than-human characters (wilderness, mountain, and cloud) and the prophets of old (Moses and Elijah) link Luke’s story of Jesus to the Israelites’ covenant relationship with God. Wilderness, mountain and cloud also remind us that God’s Earth is the locus of mystery: the place where human and other-than-human Earth beings are transformed through encounter with the divine. The current ABC series The Magical Land of Oz is yet another reminder of this.
For Jesus, the mountain is already a place of encounter with God, a place of prayer. Luke has Jesus spending a night in prayer on an unidentified mountain before he chooses the Twelve. Jesus now takes three of his closest friends (Peter, John, and James) up another unidentified mountain where the aspect of his face changes and his clothing becomes dazzling white. Elijah and Moses, the key prophetic figures of Israel, “appear” and enter into dialogue with Jesus, God’s definitive prophet.
This episode seems to point to a time in Jesus’ ministry when he accepts his likely fate: if he continues to challenge oppression and injustice, he is certain to encounter opposition, even death. He struggles with this realisation in the wilderness and comes to terms with what it involves on the mountain. The voice of God reaffirms the identity of Jesus and calls for a response: “Listen to him”. These words are reminiscent of Moses’ instruction to the Israelites: “Your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (Deut 18:15). For Luke, Jesus is the prophet-like-Moses whom they must heed. Peter wants to hold on to the experience of glory, to “make tents” and settle down. He prefers not to face the difficulties involved in fidelity to the mission. But that is not the way of discipleship. The tents evoke once more the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness.
Like Jesus and his companions, we too need the occasional glimpse of glory. We also need the good sense to follow through on the path that brings life, despite the pain. We can feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges facing us and by the opposition we sometimes experience. If we are to hear the prophet-like-Moses in our times, we have to come to terms with the personal costs involved. Some of us actually need to go alone or together to a mountain top or place of extraordinary beauty to discover again the strength that comes from encountering the divine. I grew up in the shadow of Mt Macedon. I once climbed within view of Everest. Every now and then, I climb Mt Buninyong. At such times, I know the wonder of God revealed in the beauty of the earth itself even as I sense its fragility and susceptibility to destruction.