One of the most powerful and mysterious stories from the Gospels is that of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop before three of his disciple; Pete, James, and John. In this story, Jesus leads his three followers up on a mountain and before their eyes his clothes become dazzling white and his face shines and suddenly, standing and conversing on either side of him, appear Moses and Elijah, two of the most significant figures from Hebrew Scripture.
This story appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, which includes the Gospel of Matthew. One important theme throughout the entirety of Matthew’s gospel is a repeated parallelism between the figure of Moses from Hebrew scripture and Jesus. Matthew, in a number of different ways, is constantly presenting Jesus as a new kind of Moses, putting Jesus in settings and situations that are meant to remind us of the life and ministry of Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, through the desert, and to the precipice of the promised land across the Jordan river. The author of Matthew’s gospel begins this parallelism from the very beginning. As soon as Jesus is born, he and his family flee into Egypt for safety, as the ancient Israelites did starting with Joseph. They then travel from Egypt back to Nazareth in the region of Galilee, but only after surviving the killing of many children at the hands of Herod, much like the Passover story in Egypt. When Jesus begins his public ministry, he famously in Matthew chapter 5, goes up on a mountain to expand on the Law to his followers. The Law that Moses went up on a Mountain in Sinai to receive from God in the book of Exodus as the Israelites were wandering for those forty years in the desert.
It is this continued parallelism that we find in the story of the transfiguration. Just as we hear in the story from Exodus chapter 24 of Moses going up the mountain to receive the tablets of the ten commandments and the other instructions of the Law from God, we see Jesus going up on a mountain and being transfigured before the three disciples he brought with him, with a shining face and glowing clothing and finally revealing Moses and Elijah with him in conversation. So, what are we to make of this story, this otherworldly occurrence that is both entirely unique and at the same time flows so naturally from the stories of Moses interacting with God from Hebrew scripture?
These three disciples, Peter, John, and James, three of the first four disciples called all the way back when Jesus first began his ministry along the see of Galilee, follow Jesus up a mountain not quite knowing what to expect. Clearly, by their terror, they had no idea what was going to happen. Like Moses in the story from Exodus, they encounter God on the mountaintop, in a thick cloud that descends on them and in a booming voice, and they see the vision of Jesus’ deepest identity, and in return their deepest identity. They see that Jesus is not just an individual with an individual mission but is deeply rooted in the history and lineage of his tradition. In Jesus’ identity exists all the law and the prophets, all the hopes and dreams collected over hundreds of years by these generations and generations of Jewish people. Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of Heaven, for justice and equality and unity and compassion was not his own, it belonged to Elijah before him, and Moses before him, and Joseph before him, and Jacob before him, and Isaac before him, and Abraham before him, and before any of them, it belonged to God. There is a similarity to the stories of these people, hundreds of years apart, encountering God, because they are all participating in the story of God, in the hopes and dreams of God, in the vision and mission of God in the world.
Moses participated in encountering God first in the burning bush, and then in a pillar of cloud in the desert, and then on the top of Mount Sinai. He led God’s people out of bondage, through the trials of the desert, through pain and frustration and hopelessness in the face of a promise that seemed as if it would never be fulfilled. He led them to the precipice of that promised land, and if we remember the story of Moses life, and specifically the end of Moses’ life from the book of Deuteronomy, we remember that for all his participation in this mission of God, he never himself made it to that promised land. He was brought up to the top of Mount Nebo at the end of his life, just east of the Jordan river from Jericho, and God showed him the vision of the land that he had spent so much time and energy and sweat and tears and years longing for and leading people toward and he never set foot in it. That is, he never set foot in it until this story of the transfiguration. The mountain that Jesus ascends in this story with his disciples is most likely Mount Tabor, just southwest of the sea of Galilee and West of the Jordan river in that very promised land that God told Moses he would never enter, and yet there he stands, conversing with Jesus and Elijah, on the other side of the Jordan from where he died. On the other side of the Jordan from the desert where he wandered. On the other side of the Jordan from where he first encountered God. On the other side of the Jordan from where he was buried. He has made it to the promised land, and yet, the mission of God had still not been fulfilled.
Almost two thousand years later, in a church in Memphis Tennessee, on April 3rd, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bore witness to his participation in the mission of God in the world in a speech to sanitation workers who had gone on strike to protest poor working conditions in Memphis. Martin Luther King, two thousand years after Jesus brought Moses into the promised land, was taking part in that same mission that Jesus undertook to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth, where there is equality, and justice, and compassion, and an undeniable equity. Martin Luther King shared with the crowd that night in Memphis that if he could choose to have lived in any time in any place in any moment of history in the world, he would choose the very one he was living in. He knew that there was no time like the present to do the work of the kingdom of Heaven. He knew that the struggle in modern America for equality and an end to racism is the product of the same struggle that has been going on throughout history since the beginning of time. The same struggle that Moses encountered, the same struggle Elijah encountered, the same struggle that Jesus encountered. He knew that he was taking part in a dream that was not just his own, but had been Jesus’ before him, and Elijah’s before him, and Moses’ before him, and before any of them it had been God’s dream. The dream of the promised land that is not so much a physical territory but a kingdom in which all are equal, and everyone has what they need. King knew that there was no time to wait to bring this dream about. As he said that night, “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” He brought to this time and this place and this crowd a hope for the future in the midst of dire circumstances. As he said, “When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”
In his final moments on stage that night, as he cast his vision for what America could be, for what the world could be, for what the kingdom of Heaven could still be, he ended his speech like this:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, April 4th, 1968, at the age of 39, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee. He, like Moses, had been to the mountaintop. They had seen the promised land. They had been shown the vision of what the kingdom of heaven could be. They had experienced God in “the cloud of the impossible,” the unfathomable, that which could never be, that which is seemingly hopeless, and yet God brings into being anyway. They had seen it, and they died before they could cross that river. But Moses’ people did cross that river, and hundreds of years later, his descendant Jesus of Nazareth brought him to the promised land on that mountaintop in front of Peter, and James, and John.
Now we stand here, in the year 2020, fifty-two years after Martin Luther King, Jr. told us he could see the promised land from the mountaintop, and yet, we have not yet crossed the Jordan together. But we are at a turning point in this journey. Those of us in positions of power and privilege are finally beginning to recognize that we have not been in the promised land either. If all of us cannot dwell in the promised land, none of us can dwell in the promised land. Because we would be mistaken to think that King was telling us that white America was in the promised land and that black America was trying to get in. What he was trying to get us to see is that when even one person is left out of the promised land, none of us can dwell there. If one person is oppressed, then no one can be free. To echo King’s words from Memphis over 50 years ago, our choice is not between equality or non-equality, but between equality and nonexistence.
On the way down the mountain Jesus himself would tell his disciples that he too would not make it to the promised land before this death. But as we know, in the resurrection even the tortured, wounded, and murdered Jesus would walk again, treading alongside his disciples toward the unfolding Kingdom of Heaven. For in Christ all the dreams that flow from the dreams of God are fulfilled. In Christ Moses finally entered the promise land. In Christ Jesus was brought back into relationship with his disciples. And we can know that in Christ Martin Luther King will someday step foot into the promised land he saw from the mountaintop. Because in Christ dreams never die with the people that proclaimed them. They live on as God’s dream for all people.