Sermon Seeds: Come Up and Down

Sunday, February 19, 2023
Transfiguration Sunday | Year A
(Liturgical Color:  Green)

Lectionary Citations
Exodus 24:12-18  •  Psalm 2 or Psalm 99  •  2 Peter 1:16-21  •  Matthew 17:1-9

Sermon Seeds
Focus Scripture:
Matthew 17:1-9

Focus Theme:
Come Up and Down

Thrill and Rejoice (Click here for the series overview.)     

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

Sometimes we need perspective. Our observations could benefit from a different point of view. Our situation needs further definition or clarity.  We need to discover what has been hidden or reveal what only we have known.  Perspective provides a place to perceive possibilities. 

In the gospel reading, Jesus takes a select group of his disciples on a field trip to gain a new perspective…on him…on his life and ministry…that will ultimately frame their own futures.  They go up on a high mountain.  That alone is reminiscent of another ascent toward revelation we’ve encountered before. Moses is called up to the heights of Mt. Sinai to receive the Law.  Earlier in the gospel narrative, Jesus asserted that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  This ascent holds parallels to Moses’ assignment and moment.  

We may remember how the Holy One shows up in the Exodus narrative. The cloud that moves forward to be followed and drops low to be heard. The entry of Jesus into the world is not an aberration but a new iteration of the presence of God among God’s people.  Recall also how God spoke through the prophets in the generations following Moses, who served as both prophet and priest. The introduction of Elijah into the Matthean account underscores how God uses people to act and speak on behalf of God.  

In Jesus, divine presence and human action meet. Only the moment of Jesus’ baptism can rival the clarity of demonstration of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.  And in this moment, the Voice shows up again with those words of blessing, affirmation, and commissioning.  That first moment was public; this far more illustrious one was private.  The first moment occurs in the water—a low place for all to see.  The second moment takes place on the mountaintop—a high place designation for special revelation.

The vision (v. 9) we call the transfiguration takes place on the “high mountain” which has traditionally been associated with revelation and profound religions experience. Symbolically, it is a place where heaven touches earth. In the vision Moses and Elijah are present alongside Jesus. Their presence reminds the reader that the law and the prophets come together and are fulfilled in Jesus. Each of these figures has special prominence in this text. – Anna Case-Winters

In Mathew’s account, we have witnessed Jesus take to the mountain for revelation before. While Luke portrays Jesus delivering his great sermon from the plains, Matthew takes care to establish that the revelation comes from the mount. We recognize the prominence of this positioning as intentional from the gospel write whose emphasis is, among others, the coming reign of God. In these mountaintop encounters, Jesus exposes the crowd (through discourse) and his companions (through demonstration) that the reign is coming and is to come.  It’s already established but not yet complete. These mountaintop moments expose them—and us—to on earth as it is in heaven. 

The disciples receive an intimate and particular experience. The allusions to other biblical threads are overwhelming in unpacking this passage. The most prominent being of Elijah and Moses:

As in other narrative portions of the Gospel, Matthew draws out parallels between Moses and Jesus. This association is made even more prominent in chapter 17 where there are at least seven points of parallel between Jesus in the transfiguration and Moses at Sinai. Both the transfiguration and the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai were “mountaintop experiences.” Jesus takes three companions with him (Peter, James, and John) just as Moses took Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu (Exod. 24:2). The reference to six days in Mathew 17:1 recalls Exodus 24:16, where a cloud covered Mt. Sinai for six days before God spoke to Moses on the seventh day. In 17:2 it says that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun.” Similarly, Exodus 34:29–35 says of Moses, “the skin of his face was shining.” The bright cloud overshadowing at the transfiguration (Matt. 17:5) reminds the reader of the cloud overshadowing Sinai and the manifestation of “the glory of the Lord” (Exod. 24:16). In both cases, the others who are present react to their transformed state (17:6; Exod. 34:30) with fear that Moses and Jesus seek to calm. These multiple associations reinforce the identity of Jesus with Moses and affirm Jesus’ role as the authoritative interpreter of the law.

Elijah’s presence has other associations. There was an expectation in the tradition that Elijah would come before the new age was issued in. The encounter with Elijah on the mountaintop provokes them to pose a question: What of this expectation? Jesus affirms this expectation but makes the bold claim that Elijah has already come. John the Baptist was “Elijah.” Making this forthright association supports the expectation that the eschaton has in fact arrived and that Jesus is the promised Messiah. There is more that follows, however. It was not part of the expectation that Elijah would be so poorly received. Of John’s reception Jesus recalls, “they did not recognize him and they did to him whatever they pleased” (17:9). – Anna Case-Winters

John the Baptist is the silent presence in this story. Through Elijah and the repetition of the words from heaven, we recall his preparatory work and ministry leading to Jesus. His time serves as one bookend. He too was a companion of sorts to Jesus from the time he leapt in Elizabeth’s womb upon coming into proximity to Jesus in Mary’s. As Jesus came, John the Baptist retreated. When Jesus retreats, Peter, James, and John will be called to come into prominence and leadership in the continuation of Christ’s mission on earth. They bookend from the other side, confirmed by the parallels to the baptism of Jesus.  

These moments are transitory—not intended to last but to move them forward.  John the Baptist does not suggest that he and Jesus remain the River Jordan forever because he understood that the moment had broader implications. Peter, James, and John do not comprehend that truth yet, but they will.  That’s likely part of the reason they are told to keep this experience to themselves until the appointed time. 

In this story the ascent to the heights of the mountain and “peak” experiences of encounter with God is followed by descent into suffering and service in the valley of need where God’s calling beckons. Ascent and descent are inextricably bound for the followers of Jesus, just as they were for him. – Anna Case-Winters

Just as they are for us. We too are called to both the mountain and the river. We may encounter in extraordinary, dazzling moments that inspire wonder and awe. It is good to be there. At the same time, we were not intended to stay there. Those times when God calls us to come up empower, fortify, and inspire us to come down.

We come down to the realities of life where gun violence is inexhaustible and woefully under addressed. We come down to the impact of the loss of freedom and rights and the rise of authoritarianism. We come down to a world at war and with a changing climate yielding devastation from every corner of the globe.

But, we come down from the mountaintop.  It was said that when Moses came back from a face to face encounter with the Holy One, his face glowed. I imagine that when Peter, James, and John returned to the world below, there was something different about them that reflected this transforming experience. It was said that, later, once the mantle of this ministry passed onto them, people in need of healing would be lined up on the side of the road. Just the passing of the shadow of the then apostles would lead to their healing.  So maybe, those three men didn’t glow, it was the shadow of this private moment that they maintained as a remnant of the glory.

Whatever the case, whether light or shadow, the glory of God prevails. We come up to glimpse heaven. We come down to bring that connection with us. The kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven—glory to God!

Come up and come down.  

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

The black experience is existence in a system of white racism. The black person knows that a ghetto is the white way of saying that blacks are subhuman and fit only to live with rats. The black experience is police departments adding more recruits and buying more guns to provide “law and order,” which means making a city safe for its white population. It is politicians telling blacks to cool it or else. It is George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon running for president. The black experience is college administrators defining “quality” education in the light of white values. Ift is church bodies compromising on whether blacks are human. And because black theology is a product of that experience, it must talk about God in the light of it. The purpose of black theology is to make sense of black experience. 

The black experience, however, is about more than simply encountering white insanity. It also means blacks making decisions about themselves—decisions that involve whites. Blacks know that whites do not have the last word on black existence. This realization may be defined as black power, the power of the black community to make decisions regarding its identity. When this happens, blacks become aware of their blackness; and to be aware of self is to set certain limits on others’ behavior toward oneself. The black experience means telling whitey what the limits are.

The power of the black experience cannot be overestimated. It is the power to love oneself precisely because one is black and a readiness to die if whites try to make one behave otherwise. It is the sound of James Brown singing, “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Aretha Franklin demanding “respect.” The black experience is catching the spirit of blackness and loving it. It is hearing black preachers speak of God’s love in spite of the filthy ghetto, and black congregations responding Amen, which means that they realize that ghetto existence is not the result of divine decree but of white inhumanity. The black experience is the feeling one has when attacking the enemy of black humanity by throwing a Molotov cocktail into a white-owned building and watching it go up in flames. We know, of course, that getting rid of evil takes something more than burning down buildings, but one must start somewhere.

It is the sane way of living in an insane environment. Whites do not understand it; they can only catch glimpses of it in sociological reports and historical studies. The black experience is possible only for black persons. It means having natural haircuts, wearing African dashikis, and dancing to the sound of Johnny Lee Hooker or B. B. King, knowing that no matter how hard whitey tries there can be no real duplication of black soul. Black soul is not learned; it comes from the totality of black experience, the experience of carving out an existence in a society that says you do not belong.

The black experience is a source of black theology because this theology seeks to relate biblical revelation to the situation of blacks in America. This means that black theology cannot speak of God and God’s involvement in contemporary America without identifying God’s presence with the events of liberation in the black community.

— James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation – Fortieth Anniversary Edition

For further reflection

“And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.
They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,
within – oh endlessly – within us! Whoever we may be at last.
Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?” ― Rainer Maria Rilke
“He must have lit up the sky that day on the mountain, what we call the transfiguration.
Jesus on the mountaintop unveiled a foretaste of heaven and glory. Light filled him so that the witnesses remarked on a hue of white that was whiter than any shade possible.
It was a sci-fi transportation to another dimension and while Peter and John were still reeling, Moses and Elijah showed up.
It broke the barrier between heaven and earth for Jesus was the one who could belong to both at the same time. A citizen of heaven, a citizen of earth.” ― Sara Lowe

“Transfiguration of the self is painful since it represents sprouting downy wings that give flight to a battered soul.” ― Kilroy J. Oldster

Works Cited
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.

Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the gathered assembly to a time of testimony of mountaintop experiences.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (, also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page:

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

Lectionary Texts
Exodus 24:12-18  •  Psalm 2 or Psalm 99  •  2 Peter 1:16-21  •  Matthew 17:1-9

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