By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Have you ever had a bona fide mountaintop experience? A time when you felt an unusual outpouring of the Holy Spirit? A one-on-one encounter with Jesus Christ or the Lord God Almighty? A feeling of ecstasy in which you were momentarily lifted from the mundane physical world and elevated to the world of the Spirit?
Over the years, any number of people have shared their mountaintop experiences with me. Some came at a retreat or summer camp. Others on a mission trip. In some cases, the person was alone. In others, they were in part of a group. Each experience was personal and unique and as varied as the individuals sharing them. They ranged from a simple warm glow to an out-of-body experience of speaking in tongues or having a vision. And, while I can’t begin to give a rational explanation for mountaintop experiences, I don’t doubt their veracity one bit.
Mountaintop experiences are something we’ve known about for a long time. A good example is John’s testimony in the 21st chapter of Revelation, where he says:
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth:
for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away,
and the sea is no more.
I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
I heard a loud voice out of heaven
saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with people,
and he will dwell with them,
and they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them as their God.
He will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
neither will there be mourning, nor crying,
nor pain, any more.
The first things have passed away.’
He who sits on the throne
said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.'”
The Bible is filled with mountaintop experiences. For example, there’s …
• Abraham, who had a vision in which God told him all that was to come, how he would bear a son and, through him, become the father of a multitude, and how he would prosper in every way and live to a ripe old age and die in peace. (Genesis 15)
• There was Jacob, who wrestled with an angel all night until he received a blessing … and a new name. (Genesis 32:24-28)
• And Gideon, who met the Lord on the floor of the wine press trying to hide wheat from the Midianites. (Judges 6:11)
• And Samson, who called on the power of God to bring down the mighty Philistines. (Judges 16:28-30)
• And Isaiah, who said, “In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple.” (Isaiah 6:1)
• And who could forget Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones? (Ezekiel 37)
The list goes on. Each has one thing in common: A close, personal encounter with the Lord God Almighty.
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The readings from the Old and New Testaments this morning add more fuel to the fire: Moses stands in the presence of God on Mount Sinai and receives the Ten Commandments; Jesus stands between Moses and Elijah on Mount Hermon, as a voice from heaven resounds,
“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
And so, this morning I’d like for us to think about mountaintop experiences – those you’ve had and those you’ve heard about. My hope is we’ll be able to put them in perspective in such a way as to strengthen our faith and bolster our witness to the living Christ among us.
To begin, let’s just say up front that mountaintop experiences are important. Like romance in a relationship, or a breakthrough on the job, they’re the icing on the cake. They’re what get you through the day-to-day toil and grind of everyday living.
For example, we all know it takes more than puppy love to sustain a healthy marriage or build a strong family. It takes hard work. But, if that’s all you’ve got, it’s not much fun. You need moments of intimacy and ecstasy every once in a while to make it worthwhile, moments in which you look back and smile to yourself and say something like, “All of a sudden, there we were, just the two of us on the ski lift holding hands.” Aaaah ….
Meredith Wilson got it right when he penned the words,
“There were bells on the hill,
but I never heard them ringing;
No, I never heard them at all
till there was you.”
(The Music Man)
The same is true of vocation. Every once in a while we need a sign of affirmation and approval – a breakthrough – to validate that our time and talent have been well spent. A mountaintop experience for a salesman might come in closing the deal of a lifetime; for an attorney, in winning the big case; for a teacher, in seeing a student make it to the big league.
A mountaintop experience may come but once in a lifetime; yet, that the satisfaction of that one moment can linger forever and make all the drudgery and hard work worth the effort.
Mountaintop experiences are important. That’s the first point. But it’s not like you can pick them up at the store. And that’s the second point: Mountaintop experiences are a gift. You can’t manufacture them or conjured them up on demand. As often as not, they come about without warning, when you least expect them.
I’ll never forget the night of Donna’s pinning ceremony, when she graduated from nursing school. Her mother, Louise, and brother, Charlie, made the long trip to Sherman just to be there for her. I got the boys – ages seven, nine and eleven – all spic and span and dressed for the occasion. We loaded up and got there an hour ahead of time to get a good seat.
Just before the pinning itself, the dean was to announce the recipient of the Marlene Anderson Award, given to the top nursing student of the class. Donna had told me of three students who, in her mind, were the top choices. There were the usual preliminaries, of course, about the significance of the award and a reminder that it was the students themselves who selected the recipient. That was followed by a moment of suspense. Then came the announcement: “And the winner of the Marlene Anderson Award this year is … Donna McLarty!”
I wish you could have seen the look on her face! It was a combination of surprise, astonishment, shock and disbelief; then overwhelming graciousness and humility. It stands out as one of the high moments of her life, a true mountaintop experience. And it came totally by surprise.
Mountaintop experiences are a gift of grace. They’re also the catalyst of transformation. Matthew says that Jesus “was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2) Those who’ve had a genuine mountaintop experience are transformed in the process.
In 1988, Donna and I took a youth group on a mission trip to Ecuador. We did a Vacation Bible School in a little barrio on the outskirts of Quito. It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun, as well. One of the youth was a girl named Brent. To be honest, she wasn’t high on my list of kids who were cut out for mission work. Be that as it may, she signed up and did her part.
A couple of years later, she called me out of the blue and asked if I’d write her a letter of recommendation for her. As it turned out, she was applying for the Peace Corps. “Brent … applying for the Peace Corps?” I exclaimed. “The same Brent who kept losing her passport and asking, ‘Are we almost there yet?'” She laughed and then said, in all seriousness, “That experience changed my life.”
Mountaintop experiences are the catalysts for transformation. When you’ve been to the mountaintop, you never see things in quite the same way again.
But they’re not meant to last forever. That was Peter’s problem – he wanted to hold on to the moment:
“Lord, it is good for us to be here.
If you want, let’s make three tents here:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4)
It’s also the problem of those who’ve been to a Marriage Enrichment Seminar or gone on a Walk to Emmaus: Try as you may, it’s just about impossible to keep the old flame burning.
No, mountaintop experiences are best understood as moments in time – significant moments, to be sure – moments in which time seems to stop and the whole world stands still – but moments, nonetheless. In which case, it’s nice to keep a journal or a scrapbook to flip through every once in while, then put back on the shelf, as you go on to whatever God has in store for you next.
There was a woman in my church years ago whose favorite saying was, “We’re making memories.” Every time we did something special – like the Souper Bowl of Caring this weekend – she’d say, “We’re making memories.” And we were. But, in doing so, we always knew that memories were a thing of the past. Mountaintop experiences are not meant to last forever.
Finally, mountaintop experiences inevitably lead to the valley below. Look at what follows on the heels of Jesus’ transfiguration: He and Peter and James and John come down from the mountaintop only to meet a man with a son who has epilepsy begging for Jesus to heal him. So much for the ecstasy; there’s work to be done and not a moment to spare.
Mountaintop experiences are best seen as fleeting moments in time leading to a new chapter of sacrifice and service to the glory of God.
This is seen in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It recalls the Last Supper, where Jesus met with his disciples in an upper room to share a meal and celebrate Passover.
Can you imagine how many meals they’d shared over the course of their time together? I know, for example, they’d eaten in the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38); and in the home of Zaccheus (Luke 19:5). Undoubtedly, they ate most of their meals on the road, as they traveled the hills of Galilee together.
Yet, of all the times of breaking bread together, this one meal stands out as a mountaintop experience. For, as Jesus broke the bread and gave it his disciples, he said,
“This is my body which is given for you.” (Luke 22:19)
And as he poured the wine, he said,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20)
All of a sudden they were on the mountaintop with Jesus. It was a moment they’d never forget. And then, what? Just as quickly as it began, it was over, and they on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus would be arrested and they would be scattered to the four winds and, in time, persecuted and put to death.
Here’s the sum of it all: Mountaintop experiences are important; they’re a gift of God’s grace and love; they’re the catalyst of transformation; they’re not meant to last forever, for they inevitably lead to the valley below.
In closing, I couldn’t think of a better illustration than the speech Dr. Martin Luther King delivered on April 3, 1968. It was given in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he was assassinated. It’s entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” He was there in support of the city sanitation workers, who were on strike. It reiterates his call for non-violence, the hallmark of his life and witness, and it ends with both a question mark and an exclamation point. But, rather than paraphrase it for you, here’s the last paragraph in Dr. King’s own words:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now.
We’ve got some difficult days ahead.
But it doesn’t matter with me now
because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.
Longevity has its place.
But I’m not concerned about that now.
I just want to do God’s will.
And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.
And I’ve looked over.
And I’ve seen the Promised Land.
I may not get there with you.
But I want you to know tonight,
that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
And I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord.”
May God give us such mountaintop experiences as this; that, by God’s grace, we, too, can be instruments of peace and love and so, help reconcile the world to God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.