June 2019   
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Matthew 17:1-9


            Many of us have had what we call “mountaintop experiences” where we felt closer to God than we ever did before.  It may have been a week at camp, or a mission trip, or a revival meeting, or perhaps a group event where you experienced peace and harmony like nowhere else.  Or it may have been an experience all alone with God in the woods.  Peak experiences are wonderful.  The challenge is coming down from the mountaintop, returning to the real world to face the grind of everyday life.  We had a spiritual high yesterday, but where is God today?  Most of us would rather stay on the mountaintop.

            In today’s scripture, Jesus takes His inner circle of followers to a literal mountain top.  The scene appears to be Mt Hermon, a snowy 9000-foot peak that dominates the northern end of Israel.  While He is up here on the mountain (Luke says He was praying), it says that Jesus’ appearance changes dramatically.  Jesus is transformed. (The word here is a word from which we get our word “metamorphosis”.)  Jesus’ face starts shining as bright as the sun, like Moses’ face shines as he comes back from talking with God.  His clothes turn the color of pure light.  One can picture how the bright sunshine and snow of Mt Hermon could have played a role here, but there is also a super-natural element to what Jesus’ followers see that day on the mountain.

            Jesus’ closest followers get a preview of Jesus in His heavenly glory.  They see Him like they’ve never seen Him before.  They get a preview of what no one else will see until after He rises into the heavens.  As they stare in disbelief, they get another baffling surprise.  Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus.  (How do we know it was them?  Apparently by what was said.)

Peter is so overwhelmed by what he sees and hears that he can’t think straight.  He blurts out, “Master, this is great that we can be here to see this! Let’s stay right here on the mountain! Let’s make this moment last.  Let’s build all 3 of you a place to stay.”  Suddenly, a bright cloud swallows up the whole party, and they hear a voice coming out of the cloud: “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him!”

Talk about a paranormal experience!  The whole scene scares the living daylights out of Peter, James, and John, who fall face down on the ground.  Jesus reaches down and touches them. When they look up, the cloud is gone, and there’s no one there but Jesus.

We can sure see ourselves in the story of Jesus with His followers up on the mountain.  We can see ourselves filled with excitement over the ultimate spiritual high.  We can see ourselves wanting to stay up on that mountain, wanting to make that moment last forever, not wanting to go back to life down at the bottom.  We can see ourselves being swept into the blindness of that cloud.  We can hear the voice of God penetrating our dullness with the words, “This is my beloved Son!  Listen to Him!”  We can feel ourselves paralyzed with fear, collapsing to the ground.  And then, we can feel the touch of Jesus, lifting us back to our feet.  We look around, and all that we’ve just seen is gone.

What a bummer that we can’t stay on that mountain!  Jesus makes us go down and face the world of headache and heartache.  As soon as Jesus returns with His inner circle, He has to fix a case of failure, a demon that His followers have failed to cast out.  Even Jesus sounds exasperated.  “How long am I going to have to put up with such a clueless, screwed-up generation?”  Welcome back to life at the bottom of the mountain!

Jesus knows it will get worse.  3 times He warns His followers that there’s a steep downgrade ahead on this mountain road: their Master will be nailed to a cross to die.  Meanwhile, Peter, James, and John are to keep what they saw on the mountaintop secret until He rises from the dead (whatever that means).  Can you imagine having to keep that mountaintop experience entirely to yourself?  How frustrating to have to “sit on it”!

For 3 days, the memory of that glorious mountaintop experience gets shoved aside by the brutal reality of a crucifixion and a cold body laid in a tomb.   If that day came to mind at all, thoughts of that day failed to comfort them.  They could only wonder what it was all about, whether it was just a bad dream, a deceptive illusion.  Only after Jesus rises from the dead does the mountaintop suddenly make sense.  And now that He has risen, they can declassify that story and share it with others.

More than 30 years later, writing in his second letter, Peter harks back to this day on the mountain as the defining moment for his faith, the evidence that Jesus is more than an all-time hero.  Peter doesn’t appeal to Jesus’ resurrection, but to His Transfiguration.  He writes, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.  For He received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to Him by the Majestic Glory, saying ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.”

Coming down from the mountain is always a challenge after a peak spiritual experience.  It’s hard to face the everyday world again.  After feeling so close to God, it’s hard to come back and translate that experience into handling people who are hard to get along with or conquering problems we’ve never managed to conquer.  We come back from camp or from that retreat - how are we going to handle our parents?  We come back from Promise Keepers - how are we going to handle our boss or our spouse?  The temptation is to stay there.  We are afraid to trade a spiritual high for a discouraging dose of earthly reality.  We are afraid that the change in our lives won’t last.

The desire for escape can lead to living in the past, reliving our experience while avoiding the challenges of today.  As a pastor, I find it tempting to withdraw from the world and lock myself in the world of the Bible, without coming out of my hiding place to meaningfully tackle the needs of today.  Escapism is an enemy of faithfulness to God.

In his book Real Followers, Pastor Mike Slaughter writes, “Christianity is the only religion that is not about escape.  Every other religion in the world is about tuning out, finding your center, or tuning into self.  Jesus is more interested in using you to engage the needs of the world… Jesus is about taking God to the street and meeting people where they are.” 

In his book Unlearning Church, Slaughter says, “We hear God on the mountain, but we see God when we come down and serve people.”  Jesus is our example, he says.  After his mountaintop meeting with God, Jesus came down to serve human needs.  Jesus shows us how “any real God-encounter will lead us to get down and work where people are.” 

 The antidote to our urge to escape is to hear the voice that came from the cloud on the mountaintop that day: “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to Him!”  It has been said that all Christian ethics is a response to that command on the mountain: “Listen to Him” - listen to Jesus.  To those who first read this story in the Gospels, as well as to us, the message is clear.  Jesus is our final authority.  The earthly Jesus is also our heavenly Lord.  That’s what that preview of His glory on the mountain was all about.  Jesus is the unique Son of God who enjoys the lasting approval of the Father.  And what does Jesus want us to do?  He’s not going to let us stay there on the mountain.  Jesus wants us to go back down and translate our faith into the grind of everyday life.  The voice from the cloud says: “Listen to Him!”

Let us pray.  Lord, we want to stay here where it’s safe.  We don’t want to face the demands of the world again.  Help us to replace our urge to escape with a burning desire to translate our faith into the daily life of the world. We ask for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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