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When I was very young--probably about six years old--my parents and my brother Jim, two years younger, took a vacation to Colorado. And while we were in Denver, one evening we visited a local amusement park.
Now, the closest I had every been to anything like this was the Mitchell County Fair, but there was really no comparison. And the one thing that stands out in my memory, more than fifty years later, was when my father suggested that we ride the roller coaster.
Well, Jim and I had never ridden a roller coaster, ANY roller coaster; so we just figured that Dad knew what he was doing, and that this was a good idea.
I can still picture in my mind how that roller coaster’s string of cars slowly climbed to that first peak; how, as a small child I was dazzled by the night lights of Denver as I looked out over the city as we climbed higher and higher; how my father, sitting in the seat just ahead of us, turned to his two young sons and said, “Hang on!”
And then, as the front cars passed the peak, I began to feel the tug of acceleration, as we were soon no longer crawling uphill, but FLYING downhill. And Jim and I were scared silly.
We were totally unprepared for this experience, unprepared for that glorious view in that moment at the top, and unprepared for the trip back down.
I suppose that if I were to go back to that roller coaster today, if it’s still there, that ride would not have nearly the same effect that it had on me then. And I know that there are many wilder, crazier rides we can find in amusement parks today, because I have been on them. But that ride, at that time in my life, and at that moment at the top, has continued to send me messages throughout my life.
Throughout scripture we find many peak, or mountaintop, experiences. And my two favorites are Moses on Sinai with the tablets of the commandments and Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
But today, I would draw your attention to another mountain, another peak experience, the mount of transfiguration.
At the opening of the seventeenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, we read, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.”
Now, we don’t know why he took these three. Maybe they were just available. Or, maybe all the disciples knew what was about to happen, and these three WANTED to go.
I’m reminded, again, of my youth. I was active, in high school, in what was then the Methodist Youth Fellowship. And I was blessed with many opportunities provided me by my church and my parents to attend camps, and institutues, and conferences.
And although like Peter, and James, and John, I was TAKEN to these events, I also TOOK MYSELF, in that I WANTED to go, I DECIDED on my own to attend them.
But were any of those events, could ANY event in our lives, be like that which those three men witnessed?
“And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
Well, no, I doubt that any event in our lives could be quite so dramatic as that. But there are parallels. For example, there was that period of history called the “enlightenment.” And we may speak of ourselves as being personally “enlightened.”
We speak of “seeing the light.” We may speak of seeing a person “in a new light.” And that was EXACTLY what Peter and James and John saw. They saw Jesus in a new light. But this was not merely God’s special effects department showing off.
And if all we want are special effects, we can go to the movies.
But in fact, the visual transfiguration is the least important part of this mountaintop experience. All that the visual change does is call something to our attention. And if Jesus had gone to the mountain to only put on a light show, I doubt that this would be recorded in scripture. No, there is something else happening.
“Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with [Jesus].”
Now, obviously, this is a vision. Moses and Elijah are no longer living. In fact, they have been dead a long time. But what are they DOING here? And why are THEY, in particular, in this place?
We are told that they are “talking with [Jesus],” but we don’t know what they are saying. Yet, I don’t think that’s important. What IS important is that they are here. And the prophet Malachi can help us out with this. Malachi’s is the LAST book in the Hebrew Scriptures. And in the last chapter of that book, and in the last few verses of that chapter, we read, “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” And after one more verse, we leap to the new covenant and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The last two persons of which the prophets spoke in the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was Moses and Elijah. And here on the mountain Jesus is linked with them.
It is not WHAT they might be saying to Jesus that matters, but their very PRESENCE with him that is significant. For in that presence is the confirmation that this IS the Messiah. Jesus has been linked with the law and the prophets.
So what are Peter and James and John to DO with this mountaintop experience? What do WE do with mountaintop experiences? Well, frequently, in the MIDST of such an overwhelming experience, we don’t know WHAT to do. We have heard, and maybe even said, that some experiences leave us “speechless,” or “at a loss for words.”
But Peter, never at a loss for words, speaks right up and says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
And sometimes I wonder whether Peter really EXPERIENCED this event which just took place. It’s like being so concerned with where and when we are going to eat Sunday dinner that we don’t really EXPERIENCE the worship service on Sunday morning.
It’s like students who are so obsessed with grades that they never get around to really LEARNING anything. I once had an English teacher who didn’t much care for the novel “Gone With the Wind” because the plot was too simplistic: “Girl meets boy, girl loses boy; girl meets boy, girl loses boy; girl meets boy, girl loses boy.”
Well, his analysis was correct; but I am suspicious that in the process of deconstructing the plot of the novel, he failed to EXPERIENCE the story being told.
And, we might well ask ourselves whether we read scripture that way. Quite frankly, I’m not impressed with how many times a person has read the Bible all the way through, or even with how much time a person spends reading it. That is all superficial quantification.
What I would like to know is this: what scriptural passages have truly taken us to the mountaintop?
I don’t think God was much impressed with Peter’s response to the vision. And in fact, if I read scripture correctly, God even interrupted Peter’s little speech:
“While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
And although this is partially the same message which was heard at the baptism of Jesus, I get the feeling that God is verbally beating the disciples over their heads trying to get their attention.
If Peter had not piped up with this noise about making three dwellings, would God have needed to intervene? Was not the vision enough? But sometimes we need to be shaken out of our superficial responses to God’s messages.
I’ve long believed that God is constantly available to us through prayer and contemplation; but I also believe that God continues in revelation even to those who do not actively seek to be in touch with their creator.
God keeps trying to bring the significance of the mountaintop experience to us.
And, in this case, God was successful.
“When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”
But aren’t there really TWO mountaintop experiences here? One involves an implicit message, and the other contains an explicit message. And if we don’t get the first one, we are bound to get the second.
But the problem with an implied message is that it IS implied. It’s a soft sell. For ages we have been told to love our neighbors. God told us that in the Jewish Torah. And God cuts us a lot of slack. God lets us get away with a lot of not paying attention. And then we get hit with explicit messages. And we have wars. And those who are paying attention know that it is the absence of love, it is hate, that brings on those wars.
And consider our environment, the most subtle of God’s implicit messages. It we take care of God’s world, it can take care of us. And again, it can take a lot of abuse. But finally, we need the explicit messages. And we experience pollution.
Dirty air and dirty water. Even poison air and poison water.
And God’s words to the disciples regarding Jesus should be loud and clear: “listen to him.”
“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And they WERE afraid! But we run the risk of misinterpreting Jesus’ message here.
When he tells us, “do not be afraid,” he is NOT telling us that it’s all over and we can forget it as if it had never happened.
Because God’s messages are NOT all over; and we should NOT forget; because in some form or another, God’s messages will continue to come to us. But Jesus is telling us that HE is with us, and THAT is reason to not be afraid.
But how frequently, when we get past the trauma of the moment, do we forget God’s messages to us? Explicit messages come in tragic forms, and with God’s help, we move through and beyond them.
But when we arise from them, having been released from fear, we also tend to release ourselves from memory.
When I came off that roller coaster in Denver I had been scared silly. I was probably white as a sheet. I remember my father teasingly saying, “Do you want to go again?” But I could walk away from that roller coaster and go on with life.
I could walk away from it with no fear. But from life, on the other hand, we cannot walk away. And it, too, is a roller coaster, with peaks and valleys, with mountaintop experiences and rapid descents.
“And when [the disciples] looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
In those church activities I attended as a youth, I can recall being warned, more than once, of the mountaintop experience. Because when one really gets inside a mountaintop experience, more than Peter did, coming down from the mountain can be difficult.
Taking a deeply moving experience from the mountaintop home with us, into the valley, could be a real test for us.
But the most troubling question in all of this is whether we can hold on to that peak experience. Can we take at least some of it with us? If we have a moving worshipful experience in the sanctuary on Sunday morning, can we take it out the door with us?
Does it make a difference in our lives? Or, like Peter, do we miss the point altogether? I recall, years ago, coming home from a Sunday morning worship service with my mother, and I was strongly critical of the sermon. And my mother’s response was that it was not the place of the parishioner to be critical of the pastor’s sermon. So we agreed to disagree. But in retrospect, I think she may have been partly right. I continue to believe that parishioners should be critical; but to WHAT are we responding? Do we respond superficially, like Peter did; or are we immersing ourselves in worship to try to find our way to God?
Are we seeking the mountaintop experience with Christ? Or does our critical eye seek the flat plain? And if we do seek the flat plain, what significant message do we then take into our daily lives? Amen.
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