"Coming down the Mountain"

February 18, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
(revised from Feb. 25, 1990 message delivered at Greencastle, PA COB)
based upon Matthew 17:1-9

 

In the movie, "Parenthood", a comical and yet serious look at an American family, there is a key scene which reveals the central point of the film. In this scene, the parents are arguing over the current state of affairs: a son who needs special care in elementary school; an extended family that seems to be falling to pieces; a job which has demanded too much of a man trying to be employee, father and husband; and a wife who has just announced that she is pregnant again, the same day her husband quit his job.

Into this heated discussion walks grandma. A woman wise with the 70 years she has lived, Grandma interrupts and speaks of how much she has always enjoyed riding the roller coaster at the amusement park. "Some folks like the Merry-Go-Round, but it just goes around and around, without much thrill, and without getting anywhere," she says. "I prefer the Roller Coaster."

What Grandma seemed to be saying, just as what the film was trying to get across, is that family life is alot like a Roller Coaster. You have your ups and your downs, which can be both frightening and exciting. Those who prefer the Merry-Go-Round may have a real hard time raising a family, especially when the roller coaster starts going down. You gotta come down some time.

This truth about family life, is just as true for our life in Christ. There are mountaintops, and there are valleys. Traveling the way of faith is alot like riding a roller coaster. Our scripture lessons this morning, from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, describe mountaintop experiences. But they also speak about coming down the mountain.

After the children of Israel were freed from their bondage in Egypt, God led them through the sea, and on to a mountain - Mount Sinai. It was there that they really encountered the living God. For many, this meeting was not a pleasurable experience. In fact, it was frightening. How do you describe the presence of the glory of God? You can't, really. But you try. The description in Exodus speaks of a thick cloud that descended on the mountain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, fire and smoke. I don't think the writer could fully capture the awesome nature of that moment. God's greatness, God's glory, is always beyond us, beyond our ability to comprehend, beyond our ability to describe.

While we were created in God's image, God is not like we are. The children of Israel became very aware of that as they looked up the mountain in fear. Moses, their leader, climbed up the mountain and stood amidst the cloud, the thunder, the fire. It was there he received the law of God, to bring back down the mountain. The pinnacle experience in the life of Moses was when he asked to see God's glory. God allowed Moses to see as much as he (Moses) was capable of absorbing. Not only is God's glory, God's presence, beyond our ability to comprehend or describe, it is totally beyond our ability to even perceive more than just a small part.

As the description goes, inadequate though it may be to convey what really happened, God placed Moses in a cleft, a small cave in the rock, and covered Moses with His hand. Then God passed by, only taking away His hand after he had passed by, so that all Moses would see was God's back. God's face would be too much for any human being to see and live. So Moses beheld, he saw something he couldn't really describe with words: God, or at least a small portion of the Master of the Universe.

And then, Moses had to  come back down the mountain. That must've been some roller coaster ride, in and of itself. People down at the bottom themselves saw God's glory, or a tiny fraction of it, as they looked at Moses. How do you describe such a thing? They said his face shone, though he himself didn't know it. It was enough to give them the heeby-jeebies. They were afraid of him. Thus, Moses had to start covering his face, or else they'd never get anything done.

Well, the experience at Mt. Sinai has been a mountaintop time for the children of Israel from that day on. An experience to remember. It led onward through a roller coaster ride called the wilderness. Moses came down the mountain to guide God's people to the promised land. I tell you now, that was one long ride, so long that no one who experienced the mountain, not even Moses, lived to see the ride end. You could almost say that God was trying to get them used to the roller coaster, because if they didn't, they'd never get accustomed to the promised land. You can't live on top of the world, at least not in this life. You gotta come down the mountain.

Our New Testament lesson tries to describe another summit experience. Again, such an episode is beyond our ability to comprehend, let alone put into words. Jesus took three of his disciples with him up a high mountain. Which mountain it was we haven't a clue, though surely there are travel guides today in Israel who insist the hill they point to is the one. I believe scripture's silence about the location of this mountain is on purpose. Otherwise, folks might be tempted to concentrate on the mountain, and not what happened there.

Peter, James, and John went up there with Jesus and it's from their perspective that the story is told. There, on the mountain, they see Jesus in an entirely different way. How would you describe it? They said he was transfigured, that is, he was changed. His form changed. One of the key tenets of our faith is that Christ was fully a man, and yet, nearly beyond our comprehension, he was also fully God. On that mountain, Peter, James and John, beheld, even for just a moment, the glory of Christ who was not just a human being, but was also fully God. Now, how on earth could you describe that transformation? You really can't.

While we were created in God's image, God is not like we are. Likewise, the living Christ - fully human AND fully divine - is not as we are. The disciples saw, but did they really see? Did they comprehend? How could they really describe it? Still, they "were eyewitnesses of Christ's majesty," God's glory, as Peter wrote later (2 Peter 1:16). Jesus was transfigured, transformed, on that mountaintop, his face shone His garments became white as light.

Mark's gospel tries to describe it as a glistening, intense white (not to be confused with the color of anyone's skin). In Luke's gospel, his clothes are called "dazzling" white. Something that dazzles makes you lose your clear sense of vision. Literally, it puts you in a daze. It overpowers. It deeply impresses. It may even confound with its brilliance. No wonder God's glory is so difficult to describe, let alone comprehend.

But that, amazingly, is what those three disciples experienced. They saw Jesus in a whole new way. Two others were with Jesus on that mountain. One was Moses. Is it any wonder he was there? On another summit he saw at least a portion of God's glory, and took down with him the law of God The other one with Jesus was Elijah, possibly the greatest of all prophets. He himself encountered God upon yet another mountain. Only, God's glory there had nothing to do with clouds, or wind, or thunder, or earthquakes. God's glory was revealed to Elijah in a still, small voice. The glory really had nothing to do with the mountain.....

There on the "Mount of Transfiguration" stood Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Did the disciples understand? No. Do we? Not really. God's glory is beyond our comprehension. Upon the mountain, being dazzled by everything he witnessed, Peter said something to the effect that they ought to build booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. A good Jew, Peter did remember the mountaintop experience of the children of Israel, and their journey through the wilderness. Every year, Jews still celebrate the Festival of Booths to remember when God dwelled in the cloud which came down the mountain and entered the tent of meeting along the wilderness Way. Even today, many build little booths, or temporary shelters in which to sleep and eat - to dwell as if in God's presence.

Peter instinctively was reaching into his faith to celebrate something he could not comprehend. As it was, his words seem silly in the presence of God's glory. If God did not dwell on the mountain, nor in the Temple, then neither would God dwell in a booth. God's glory cannot be so contained. But that's OK. We are not judged on our miscomprehensions of glory.

After Peter spoke, a cloud descended. God then spoke clearly. "This is my much loved Son. Listen to him." And at the voice, Peter, James, and John, fell down on their faces and worshipped, being filled with awe. The next voice they heard was Jesus, "Don't be afraid," he said  as he touched them, a very human touch, "get up." Together Jesus and these three disciples went back down the mountain. You gotta come down some time. The road ahead for Jesus led to Jerusalem, to a cross on another hill, eventually to a tomb. The roller coaster leads onward.

Today, as we follow the Christian calender, we are on a mountaintop called Transfiguration Sunday. It's sort of like being at the top of a roller coaster, before the exhilarating and, perhaps, frightening ride down. Ahead lies the season of lent, beginning this week with Ash Wednesday, a day of confession and repentance. During Lent we journey toward Jerusalem, a place which is more than a geographic location. What happened there, so long ago, is the mountaintop moment of our faith. Envision the next seven weeks, if you will, as a roller coaster ride, travelling from mountaintop to mountaintop.

Of course, some of us prefer Merry-Go-Rounds. Is that the way of faith, though? On this Lenten Journey we will not travel alone. In the weeks ahead, we'll be joined by some who faced this trip before us: Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Ezekiel, to name a few. Be forewarned, the car will get a bit crowded before we reach the end. Furthermore, there will be "down" times, as well as "up" ones. These are all a part of the journey.

Before I forget it, let me mention another person who is travelling with us. In the Roller Coaster of life, Christ Jesus is right beside us. He's urging us to open our eyes, to raise our hands up even as we travel down. He's there telling us not to be afraid, but to rise up even as we journey down....

Yes, the Christian Life is like a Roller Coaster. And it can be frightening, even as it is exhiliarating. The temptation we face is to choose to live as if on a Merry Go Round.   It's safer, y'know. The only problem is, the Merry-Go-Round just goes around and around, and the slight up and down is just an imitation of the mountaintop and the valley. Of course, in an amusement park, the roller coaster is also somewhat circular, so as an image for describing our life in Christ, it falls short. Even so, I think we understand enough to come down the mountain with Jesus. You gotta come down sometime.

Now, for many of us, we'd sure appreciate a bit of the heights. We've been walking through the valley an awful lot lately. But the valleys and the mountains are all a part of the same journey. In preparation for this sermon, I thought through the times when I have encountered God's glory. Strange as it may seem, many of those mountaintops were in the valleys.

Think of your own mountaintop experiences. If they're like mine, they may be intimately connected with the valley times. How has God been using them to transfigure/transform you? (same word) Or, have you been afraid to trust God on this roller coaster called "Life," prefering instead the safety of the Merry-go-Round?

                    "Come, come ye saints, no toil nor labor fear,
                                        but with joy wend your way.
                    Though hard to you the journey may appear,
                                        grace shall be as your day.
                    We have a living Lord to guide,
                                        and we can trust him to provide.
                    Do this, and joy your hearts will swell:
                                        All is well! All is well!"
    (Hymnal #425)

1996Peter L. Haynes

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