Up the Mountain or Off the Cliff
Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Feb 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9: 2-9
Fear, to a great extent, is borne of a story we tell ourselves…”—Cheryl Strayed, United States, b. 1968, Author, Adventurer
Modern Nazareth is in the North District of Israel, in Galilee, not too far from the city of Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee. As a scholar I know has observed, “the Nazareth of New Testament times was nothing like the sprawling city one encounters today.” The Nazareth of New Testament times “was a small farming village, probably with between two and four hundred inhabitants.” That small village is where Mother Mary first saw the angel Gabriel and it is where she and her husband Joseph raised Jesus.
In contrast, modern Nazareth is a teaming city of 78,000 inhabitants. It has the distinction of being the only Arab city in Israel. Its inhabitants are Israeli citizens but 69% of them are Muslim and 30% are Christian. There are a lot of tensions between the majority Muslim and minority Christian population. Those tensions make it easier to imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to have returned there, to his hometown, as he was becoming a well-known preacher, and to have so angered his homies with his preaching that they decided to seize him and to throw him off the edge of a cliff to his death.
But this death was not to be, as we read in Luke 4: “They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4: 29-30).
In modern Israel, just outside of Nazareth, this story is remembered on what is called “Mount of Precipice.” It claims to be the cliff from which Jesus was about to be thrown. There’s a plaque there commemorating the event, but the plaque, written in bad English, gets the story wrong: it says “Mount of Precipice also known as the Leaping Mountain—according to old tradition Jesus jumped from this mountain when fleeing his pursuers.” At 1204 feet, that would have been some leap. But the Bible says only that Jesus, “Passed through the midst of the crowd and went on his way.” For Jesus, no leaping was required, merely presence of mind.
Perhaps the view from the Mount of Precipice was enough to give Jesus his presence of mind. As the angry mob was about to throw him over the cliff, Jesus would have enjoyed a scenic, panoramic view of the Jezreel Valley, site of so much of both Biblical and non-Biblical history and the metaphorical scene of Armageddon, as described in the Book of Revelation. And to his north, he would have seen rising above the valley, Mount Tabor, also within walking distance of Nazareth.
Mount Tabor, also known as Mt. Carmel, is the traditional site of the Transfiguration, which is our Gospel story for today.
Now of course the Transfiguration, which we remember today, happens a good deal after Jesus’ confrontation with the angry Nazarenes. That confrontation in Nazareth happened early in his ministry. By the time Jesus is ascending Mt. Tabor with his three disciples, he has been preaching for almost three years. Back when the Nazarenes were getting ready to throw Jesus over the cliff, we only have a hint of who Jesus is—after all, there’s something mysterious, perhaps even quietly miraculous, in the way Jesus “passes through the midst” of his accusers “and goes on his way.” We see a hint there of the man who will sleep through a stormy sea and then calm it with a word; who will terrify his disciples by placidly walking on raging waters of the Sea of Galilee.
But by the time Jesus, Peter, James and John are trudging up the goat path that leads to the crest of Mt. Tabor, Jesus is quite established as a prophet like his predecessor Elisha, who once lived on Mt. Tabor; and his disciples are quite familiar with his miraculous abilities. The question that is before them all is, what next? That question has been quietly flying among Jesus’ disciples and is causing a stir among the entire population of Galilee. This miracle worker and healer, this prophetic preacher who has assumed the mantle of John the Baptist—this guy is going places. But where is he going? Is he going to lead a movement against King Herod? Is he the promised one to return Israel to her glory days? Is he going to be executed just like John the Baptist before him?
And do we want to follow him?
As he climbed Mt. Tabor, Jesus could look south and see the Mount of Precipice, a craggy rock outcropping covered with stubby desert sage. He could see the knife-edge of the precipice from which he was nearly thrown to his death. And though now he was climbing to the smooth rounded crest of Mt. Tabor, the Mount of Precipice was just within sight to remind him that to climb any height is to risk falling to your death.
I am struck by the geographic conjunction of these two heights. We often talk about “mountaintop experiences.’ I think the story of the Transfiguration is the source for that metaphor. We think of mountaintop experiences as these glorious, amazing experiences of closeness to God, experiences where the thin veil between this world and the next is lifted and we catch a glimpse of the eternal and experience transcendent joy. That’s how we imagine the experience on Mt. Tabor.
But just off in our peripheral vision is the Mount of Precipice, there to remind us that to climb any height is to risk falling to your death, or maybe even getting thrown off.
“Courage,” writes C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, “is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at its testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on condition.” We think of a mountaintop experience as a transcendent experience; but for Jesus climbing Mt. Tabor, it is that point of highest reality where his virtues are at the testing point. Jesus is climbing the mountain in order to answer the “what next” question that is on everyone’s lips. On the mountaintop, Jesus will be revealed to his three disciples for who he is: The Son of God. For the world to see him for who he really is limits Jesus’ choices profoundly. There is no turning back. On the Mount of Precipice, Jesus simply turned around and walked through the crowd that was trying to throw him off the cliff. But here on Mt. Tabor, once Jesus is revealed as the Son of God, there is no turning back and going the other way. Jesus has to walk right to the cliff’s edge and either jump or be thrown over.
It is always important to remember that Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday before we enter Lent. This mountaintop experience sets the stage for Jesus’ momentous, courageous decision to go to Jerusalem, there to meet his enemies directly, and to be killed by them. Jesus knows that to “set his face to Jerusalem,” as the Bible says, will result in his death on the cross. In fact, Jesus might never have climbed Mt. Tabor in the first place if he hadn’t already been thinking about his death. He could have avoided a lot of trouble if he’d left it to people’s imaginations to guess who he truly is rather than deciding that he would reveal it, once and for all, to his key disciples. He could have continued to glide through the crowds of his enemies safely, with no harm coming to him, just as he had done on the Mount of Precipice if only he hadn’t admitted who he really was.
But he decided instead to live into who he really was as the Son of God. That once and for all decision meant that had to screw his courage to the sticking place and confront his enemies in Jerusalem and then die on the cross.
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at its testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” It is good for us to understand that Mt. Tabor is the point of highest reality not in the sense of being that wondrous transcendent experience but rather the highest reality of Jesus’ truest testing point. Will he be who is intended to be—who God has called him to be?
Our testing points are just the same. At some point, probably at many points in our lives, we are called to live into our highest reality. We are called to make some courageous moral decision, whether small or large.
And you may have noticed in those moments, that you yourself are having to look honestly at who you really are. You are asking yourself:
Am I the kind of person who will stand up for someone else who is in trouble?
Am I the kind of person who sees unkindness or cruelty and says nothing?
Am I the kind of person who just goes along with the gang even when I know what they’re doing isn’t right?
Am I the kind of person who uses another person for my own advantage?
Am I the kind of person who cheats to get their own way?
Am I the kind of person who does what I am told, even when I know it’s wrong?
Am I the kind of person who puts my interests and needs before the needs of others?
At those true testing points, where it takes courage to decide what you will do, the real question is, “Who am I?”
And in the case for us as Christians, it is Who am I called to be?
Recently I was reminded of an incident from when I was dating. For awhile I was in a relationship with a woman whose husband had recently suddenly died at a young age. I was put off by how she talked about him. She seemed to believe that he was still with her spiritually and would sometimes talk about him as if he was right there with us. I was in my mid-twenties and this really freaked me out. So after dating a few weeks, I ghosted her. That’s the slang today for just never getting in touch with someone again—don’t return her calls, avoid places she might be, and so forth. It wasn’t brave and it wasn’t kind, but I was young.
But then I complicated things by joking about it with some friends in a public setting. What I’d said got back to her and she was deeply hurt. I was ashamed of myself.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that this sweet young woman had experienced a terrible trauma and was coping in the only way she knew how. I didn’t need to be her boyfriend, but I did need to be kind. I certainly didn’t need to be making fun of her. I really regret how I behaved and I hope that it’s made me a more compassionate person and pastor.
But the person I was to her is not the person I am called to be. Part of my disappointment in myself is that I know God expects better of me than that, and I expect better of me than that, too.
My point is that sometimes we are called to have moral courage and we fail. We come too near the cliff’s edge of the Mount of Precipice and turn around and run like the devil. But even then, God has placed Mt. Tabor within our view. We can catch a glimpse in the corner of our eye of the person God calls us to be, and so even though we’ve failed to show the moral courage we needed to show in the crisis, we can at least have the moral courage to look honestly at our failures and sins and strive to be better people, strive to learn from our mistakes so that next time we arrive at that testing point, at that point of highest reality, we have the resources to be the person God is calling us to be.
As a church and as a nation, all of us have faced that testing point, that point of highest reality, over and over again this past year. We may not be thinking of it that way, but we should—this is as high a reality, as a great moral test, as most of us will ever experience in our lifetimes. The pandemic, protests, riots, violence, grief and loss, lives constrained by rules and limitations—all this has pushed us to the precipice. I think that Jesus ascending Mt. Tabor is an apt metaphor for this moral moment. Because we are at the testing point as we have never been before in our lives, we are seeing ourselves as we truly are. We have to ask ourselves, are we being who we truly feel God is calling us to be in this time of testing? How well are we doing? Have we responded well? Have we responded poorly? If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably see we’ve done a little of both. There are ways we’ve responded well and ways we’ve responded poorly.
When we are in these times of testing, these times of heightened reality, God is saying to us “You are my own dear child.” The question we should always ask ourselves is, am I acting like God’s dear child? Is the person I’m being the person God wants me to be?
If in some cases the answer is no, it’s not a cause for panic. It is the nature of testing that sometimes we fail. Thankfully, when we stand on the peak of Mt. Tabor, we stand with the God of grace and mercy. God can and does forgive us and renew us. The mistakes we’ve made, the ways we’ve disappointed God and others—including ourselves—are not, in God’s presence, immutable and unchangeable. When we have the courage to face them honestly, they become the doorway to the person who we are called to be.
But let’s also remember to celebrate the ways we have faced the time of testing well—the ways we’ve been willing to be self-sacrificing, to serve others, to be patient and loving and kind, to let go of slights and insults, to forgive, to think about the needs of others before our own, to reflect seriously on how our life impacts the lives of others positively and negatively.
Celebrate those amazing ways you are passing the test. Celebrate the ways you have lived into the person you know God has called you to be. Celebrate it by thanking God, who is shaping you into the person you need to be—the person God is calling you to be—the person you want to be. Thanks be to God for that.