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March 2, 2014 - Matthew 17.1-9

“Down the Mountain”

Matthew 17.1-9

March 2, 2014

 

 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John 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 dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “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.” 5 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!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 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.”

 

Have you ever taken a trip in which once you got there, you can’t seem to remember how you got there?  Have you ever missed a trip, even though you were supposed to take it?

 

Recently, I read the story of a preacher – a traveling preacher, one of these real Wall Street looking dudes that travels the country doing seminars for a living – who was on a plane for a 90 minute flight.  He sat in seat 14 E, and a little lady from the country sat in seat 14 D, next to the window.  He was trapped – he was her only outlet for conversation.  It was obvious that they were very different kind of people.  He wore a grey flannel suit, with creases sharp enough to give you a paper cut.  She was in a sweat suit.  He carried an aluminum briefcase and laptop, and she carried two Wal-Mart bags.  He wanted to ignore the flight, but she was drinking in every little detail of the trip.

“Wow!  Did you feel that when we took off?...This seat is much more comfortable than a bus…I didn’t realize they made apple juice in a can, but this is very good…well look at this, I’ve got my very own packet of mayo for my sandwich…the peanuts are free, too?...Those pine trees look just like peat moss from way up here…” on and on she went.  She could not stop talking and everyone around her was doing their best to ignore her.  She was not rude at all, but everyone else was not at all interested in what was happening on the trip, and she seemed a bit crazy to those around her to care so much about this trip they were on.[1]

 

Every trip has its high points and its low ones.  Sometimes you are stuck in the valleys, and sometimes you are up on top of the mountain.

 

Mountain Top experience.  The phrase is filled with meaning.  A spiritual cliché – but accurate.  It speaks of a moment in our lives when we see things more clearly than we ever have before; or when we have such a wonderful experience that we feel like we have reached the pinnacle or summit of existence – “It can’t get any better than this.”

 

The biblical text this morning is about a mountain top experience of Jesus and his disciples.  It is profoundly significant theologically.  Here is the voice of God signifying that Jesus is God’s Son, here is Moses the giver of the law conferring his mantle of authority to Jesus, and here is Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets, conferring upon Jesus the mantle of prophetic authority.  It is truly a hallmark event, one worthy of remembering, and celebrating.  

 

One of the distinctives of Matthew’s gospel is that he is writing for the Jewish audience, and he makes it clear in his account of this event that Jesus is the new Moses.  And he is the new Elijah.  It is hard to overstate the importance – from a Hebrew standpoint – of this event.  It is truly a Mountain Top experience for these Jewish disciples.

 

Camp Rockmont and Scotty – 1987.

 

Mountain Top Experiences can be very formative for us.  They can be the greatest moments of our lives, like marriage, childbirth, graduations, etc.  They can be especially formative for us if we are speaking of events in which we are primarily are thinking of them in a spiritual sense.  It seems that I had a “MT” experience on every youth retreat that I took as a teenager in my home church.  It seems that I can remember almost all of them.  I remembered 22 of them at last count.  Every one provided me with some sort of spiritual euphoria, something great to remember it by.

 

What is the definition of the word “retreat?” Retreat is to run away from battle.

 

“Get up and do not be afraid.”   These are the words Jesus says to the disciples after they have cowered in fear.  That is one of the reasons that God has planned for us these Mountain Top moments.  They will help carry us through the valleys that are to come.  Jesus knew what lay ahead.  He did not have to have foreknowledge of the future to know that the Pharisees and Sadducees were out to get him.  They all knew that.  But it is incredibly important to note that Jesus tells us not to fear, and that he tells us to get up.

 

Sometimes we get depressed by the valleys we encounter.  When a loved one dies, when we lose our job, when we are given an unfavorable report from the doctor, when we fight with our families, when we fail, we are in the valleys, and we wonder if the mountain top we remember was real or not.  We wonder, “Where is God now?”  It is important to remember that the same God that was there on the mountain is the same God there on the cross.  The transfigured face of Jesus, transformed by light, is also the same as the disfigured face of Jesus, transformed by pain.

 

One of the things we see is that Jesus is beloved by God. We could never have seen that down in the valley, never have guessed that he is beloved by anybody. Already he has been misunderstood by his disciples, rejected by his hometown, drained of his power by his neighbors’ scoffing unbelief and plotted against by the authorities. Even more powerful winds of hell are about to be unleashed.  Jesus knows that he “must undergo great suffering and be rejected.” Jesus beloved? Hardly.

But if we see Jesus for real on that mountain, we see ourselves for real too. The Matthean community would surely have recognized the parallels between themselves and Jesus. If Jesus’ ministry experienced rejection, failure and violence, so did theirs. Down in their own valley, all they could see was their life and hope slipping away. But up on that mountain they could see themselves in Jesus’ light. They could see their own baptismal garments dazzling like the sun, see the cloud of God’s care hovering over them, hear God calling them “beloved.” Once again they could trust the promise that “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

And so it is for us. Sometimes nothing is more discouraging than ministry in the messy middle of things. Trying to speak a word for peace in a war-mad world. Trying to promise hope to a culture that mistrusts what it cannot grasp, that takes no checks, only cold cash. Down in the valley, it is often hard to see how ministry in Jesus’ name can be sustained.[2]

 

What we see first, of course, is Jesus. Yes, we also see dazzling clothes, the cloud of divine protection, Elijah and Moses. We hear, “This is my Son, the beloved.” But as Morna Hooker has commented, the transfiguration account can best be understood as a “christophany,” a moment when we see “who Jesus Christ really is.” What gets transfigured is not Jesus but our perception of him. Our vision changes; we see Jesus for real.[3]

 

Mountain Top experiences are awesome experiences, which is why Peter makes the suggestion that he does.  He wants to stay there.  He wants to build three “dwellings” and remain on the mountain.  Peter has only partially grasped the significance of the event.  He wants to freeze the moment – to make it last forever.  But faithfulness – being a disciple - will require that Peter follow Jesus down the mountain.  Jesus heads down the mountain for a reason.  Jesus has to get to Jerusalem.  He heads down the mountain in order to go to Jerusalem – in order to go to the cross.  Jesus’ path led him down off that wonderful mountain straight into Jerusalem where he gave up his life.  We are to follow him.  That means we are to follow Jesus off of our mountain top experiences and toward the cross each of us is called to bear.

 

Many times those experiences are preceded by great hardship or effort.   Childbirth, for example.  The contrast has a lot to do with what makes the mountaintop so wonderful – it is so much greater than what is usually happening in life.  Indeed, most of life seems to be the journey between the mountain and the valley.

 

But the Mountain Top experiences are not the only part of the journey that is worth noticing.  The MTs are just part of the trip.  Remember the story of the woman on the plane I told you at the beginning of the sermon?  You might be wondering what that has to do with anything.  It dawned on that preacher as he was leaving that she was the only one who enjoyed her trip, and I mean really enjoyed the trip.  In fact, she was the only one on the whole plane that was really there for the whole trip.  Everybody else was busy doing their own thing.  She was taking the whole trip, and she enjoyed it better than anyone else.  There are too many Christians that only are interested in the “good” parts of the trip.  Too many of us are just along for the ride, hoping to get to our destination intact.  We don’t pay attention to the instructions when they are given, and the only part of the trip we seem to be interested in are the peanuts and the in-flight movie.  Too many of us only want the Mountain Top, only want the good parts, aren’t interested in service, or loving each other, or any of the other hard things.  We act as if we are in this thing for ourselves, and not in it because Jesus died for us.  Like Peter, we want the Mountain Top and nothing else.

 

The thing is we have no right to the Mountain Top if we aren’t there in the valleys.  Our ultimate destination is assured by the grace of God, but the trip becomes a richer, more rewarding experience if we are willing to be there every step of the way.

 

Following Jesus is also about following through on following Jesus.

 

We are all on a journey together; a journey with God.  Jesus has gone to great lengths to get you on this plane.  Are you going to pay attention to the trip?  What are you cheating yourself out of just because you are more interested in what has you occupied at the time?

 

Come join the journey and live the mountain tops and the valleys.

 

[1] William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 33, No.1, Jan. – March, 2005, [Logos Publications: St. Paul, MN] p.26.

[2] From“Reality Show” by Thomas G. Long, The Christian Century, March 7, 2006

[3]  - Ibid.