Sermon notes 02-23-20 The Point of the Mountaintop
2 Peter 1:16-21 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 17:1-9 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, which is always the last Sunday on the Church calendar before the season of Lent. Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday, and Lent is of course the season in which we in the Church journey together toward Easter. Transfiguration Sunday is placed just before Lent on the church calendar because in the Scriptures our Lord’s transfiguration on the mountaintop takes place just before Jesus begins his own journey toward Easter.
Matthew begins his account of the Transfiguration by saying, “And after six days.” That should make us wonder what was happening six days earlier. If we look back to Matthew 16 we find Jesus and his disciples were at Caesarea Philippi. It was there where Simon Peter made his great confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And it was there when Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Six days later, Matthew tells us, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up, by themselves, for the ultimate mountaintop experience. That expression “mountaintop experience” is one we have probably all heard, and I hope we can all say we have had mountaintop experiences, but I wonder if you have ever thought about the source of that expression? Both of our Scripture passages this morning are about what is likely the main source of the expression, “mountaintop experience.” In 2 Peter, when Peter writes about being an eyewitness of the Lord’s majesty, he is referring to the story of the Transfiguration that Matthew tells in our Gospel passage.
The Transfiguration story and other stories from the Bible are undoubtedly the origin of the expression, “mountaintop experience.” Mountains are very frequently the location of significant events in the biblical stories. The ark comes to rest on the mountains of Ararat; Moses sees the burning bush on the mountain and later receives the Ten Commandments on the mountain; the Lord passes by Elijah and speaks to him in a still small voice on the mountain; the psalmist lifts up his eyes to the mountains seeking help from the Lord; before his transfiguration on the mountain Jesus preaches the sermon on the mount; Jesus prays in the Garden on the Mount of Olives … the night before his crucifixion on Mt. Calvary, and he ascends into heaven near Bethany on the Mount of Olives.
These are just some of the mountaintop experiences that are described in the Bible. So the phrase “mountaintop experience” has come to mean a moment of significant revelation given by God, or a time of feeling especially close to God, or perhaps, like the disciples, an experience of seeing Jesus as never before. Many of us crave those mountaintop experiences, those spiritual highs, and on those all too infrequent occasions when we have a mountaintop experience, we are like Peter, we want to set up our tent and try and make the experience last forever …
… but that would be missing the point of the mountaintop experience. We see in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus that mountaintop experiences are not intended to last forever. When we try to stay too long on the mountaintop, we miss out on the journey of life that often takes us through the valley.
I am reminded of one of the top two or three road trips Kim and I have ever taken together. It was several years ago on Veterans Day weekend and we were traveling to visit my brother who lived in West Virginia at the time. It was the kind of perfectly clear day you get at that time of year, with a cloudless blue sky and the sun illuminating everything with a golden autumn glow. The route we chose took us through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia… and it was spectacular. Although it was late in the season and somewhat past the peak of fall color, there was still plenty of foliage, often a rich, reddish cinnamon brown. The roads through the mountains had many twists and turns, and it seemed that there was a breathtaking, gorgeous mountain view around every curve… and that is at least partially my point. We stopped to take in the glorious view at several places, and we might have been tempted to stay at any of those places indefinitely. But if we had stayed indefinitely at any of those places, we would have missed many other spectacular views, and we might never have completed the journey to my brother’s that we had set out to accomplish.
Do you ever have those moments that you wish could just last forever? Have you ever had a time on the mountaintop that you never wanted to end? Do you sometimes wish that things would stay the same and not change, or even that you could go back to the way things used to be? In our story today the disciples of Jesus have one of those ‘forever’ moments, or at least one they wanted to last forever. Peter, James and John, see a glorious vision of a transfigured Jesus along with arguably the two greatest heroes of their faith, Moses and Elijah.
It is not easy for us to imagine what this experience must have been like for them, because it is unlike anything any of us have experienced. But I think we can all agree, this would have blown those disciples away. Peter is so overwhelmed he doesn’t know what to do, other than offer to set up tents so that they can all camp out there indefinitely. Jesus never responds to Peter’s offer, but a cloud envelops them, and the voice of God says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And apparently none of them says another word about it, until after Jesus accomplishes what he had set out to accomplish.
If we were to keep reading Matthew 17 we would see that no sooner do Jesus and the three disciples get down from the mountain then they come to a crowd and are met by a man whose son is possessed by a demon. Jesus casts out the demon and heals the boy, and then he urges his disciples to have the kind of faith that can move mountains. But we should ask, what if Peter had succeeded in getting Jesus to camp up there on the mountain? What would have happened to the boy if they had stayed up there indefinitely? And what about the crowds in the valley? Would they not have been deprived of their own glimpse of the majesty of God if Jesus and the disciples had stayed on top of the mountain?
And of course that is not the only implication, by any means. Remember that Jesus was on his journey toward Easter. His death on the cross for our sins, his resurrection that overcame sin and death, his ascension to the right hand of God where he is even now interceding on our behalf—where would all of that be; where would we be, if Jesus never came down from that mountain? Jesus would not have accomplished what he had come to accomplish if he had stayed up on that mountaintop with Moses, Elijah, and the three disciples.
And what about our mountaintop experiences? Remember the questions I asked earlier: Do you ever have moments that you wish could just last forever? Have you ever had a time on the mountaintop that you never wanted to end?
Do you sometimes wish that things would stay the same and not change, or even that you could go back to the way things used to be? I think this story has something to say about that kind of wishful thinking.
Our mountaintop experiences are designed by God not just to give us warm and fuzzy feelings —they are designed to fill us with the Spirit of God so that we have the courage and strength to do the work of the kingdom in the valley. That is the real point of the mountaintop, the purpose for having mountaintop experiences. We might want our mountaintop experiences to last forever, but they are not meant to last forever. They are but momentary glimpses of glory, to inspire and sustain us for the battle down in the demon-possessed valley.
It is all too easy at times to look at the needs of the world, at all those whose lives have been marred by demons of addiction and dis-ease, at all the sin and brokenness and disaster and pain and sorrow in the world, and to lose hope in the face of it all. Even among people of faith, we can lose sight of the Gospel vision and conclude that the world is beyond saving. The point of our mountaintop experiences is so that we can remember them when God seems far away and life seems empty and useless.
They may happen when we literally stand on the top of a mountain and are captivated by the view. They may happen when we witness the birth of a child, or the death of a saint. They may happen when we have an intimate conversation or a family meal. They may happen on a Walk to Emmaus or during a church service or in a quiet room during prayer. But whenever and however our mountaintop experiences happen, they remind us that there is a deeper reality beyond the everyday mess that our lives and the world can often seem to be. They give us a glimpse of the divine, and that glimpse gives us the hope of the eternal glory that is our destination. Let us pray.
Thank you, O God, for sending your beloved Son to save us from our sins. You have given us glimpses of his glory and our destination. Help us by the power of the Holy Spirit to bear witness to him by living transformed lives in this life that help to bring about the transformation of the world you love.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.