Mountain Tops in Our Faith
By Pastor Daniel W. Brettell
In today’s Gospel, Peter, James, and John climb a mountain with Jesus. And at the top of that mountain they have a religious experience that fills them with emotional wonder. This experience is so incredible that they don’t want it to end, and when it does end, they don’t want to come down from the mountain. They want to stay there on top of the mountain with Jesus.
Have you ever had that kind of experience? I’m not just referring to religious experiences—have you ever had an experience or a moment in your life that you just didn’t want to end; a moment that you want to recapture and hold onto forever? Perhaps it was your wedding day; maybe the birth of a child; or maybe it was a glorious sunrise over the ocean. I’m talking about experiences that changed your life in some way; experiences that are measured in the depth of your emotional response.
You see, that’s what’s happening to Peter, James, and John in today’s lesson. They’re having an experience that is so overwhelming emotional that they simply don’t know how to respond on any logical level. So, they want to stay there on that mountaintop. What’s interesting in the lesson is that Jesus never says to them, “No, we can’t stay here,” it’s just implied that he leads them down off the mountain. Now, think about that for a moment; Jesus leads them away from the experience; he leads them down the mountain. But imagine—just imagine—what would have happened if Jesus had said, “Okay, we’ll stay here. You go ahead and build those three dwellings for Moses, Elijah, and me. We’ll just stay put.”
Imagine what would have happened.
NOTHING WOULD HAVE HAPPENED!! That’s what I want you to understand today. NOTHING WOULD HAVE HAPPENED!! And we wouldn’t be sitting here today. We wouldn’t be anticipating the beginning of Lent, because there would have been no agonized prayer in Gethsemane; no pain and suffering on that cross outside of Jerusalem; no cold and dark of the tomb; and no joy of Easter morning. NOTHING! Absolutely nothing would have happened, and we would not be here today as saved and redeemed children of God.
Jesus knew that, so he led his three emotionally-charged disciples—his friends—down off that mountain top and back to the reality of the world; the reality of what was to come for him . . . and for them. You see, Jesus knew; he knew what was coming. That’s what he spoke to Moses and Elijah about up there on the mountain.
“Behold, two men were talking with him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory, and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:30-31).
There’s a word in that verse that we need to take note of and carefully consider. It’s the word “departure.” In the original Greek, that word is exodon . Does that word sound in any way familiar to you? Listen to it again—exodon . If you’re connecting it to the English word exodus you’re on the right track. And you’re absolutely right if you’re connecting exodon to the fact that Moses is present. Here in Luke’s Gospel we commonly translate exodon as departure. But we could just as easily . . . and just as appropriately . . . translate it as exodus. On top of that mountain, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are discussing his exodon . . . his departure . . . his exodus . . . that will take place in Jerusalem. In fact, if we use exodus here, we may actually get a better understanding of what Luke is trying to tell us with this lesson. Because this is where the lesson is really making its point.
Think about what exodus means. Think about Moses’ relationship to exodus. What was Moses doing with the people of Israel? The exodus he was leading them on; what was it all about? In the exodus from Egypt, Moses led the chosen people of God to the Promised Land. When Jesus has his exodon in Jerusalem, he leads us into salvation . . . into the Kingdom of God.
And that’s why Jesus couldn’t stay up there on that mountain. He had an exodus to lead. He had to come down from the mountain top so he could lead us into salvation. Peter, James, and John had to come down for another reason; and it’s a reason that applies directly to us and the way we witness to our faith.
On April 3, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered one of his most famous speeches. In his speech, Dr. King talked about the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. He talked specifically about the struggles against perceptions. He talked about dreams. But this speech was not his “I have a dream” speech. This speech talked about the realities of 1968, not about the hopes and dreams of a better future. And in this particular speech, Dr. King makes reference to how we—as Christians—sometimes get caught up in our own mountaintop experiences. In his speech, Dr. King quoted a phrase from an old spiritual. He said:
“It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all its symbolism.”
With that quotation, Dr. King is referring to the promised rewards in God’s heavenly kingdom. But he goes on to say:
“But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”
What Dr. King was echoing was what Jesus intended when he led Peter, James, and John down off that mountain top. Jesus was telling his disciples—not through words, but through actions—that staying on that mountaintop might seem like a good idea in the short term, but it isn’t going to accomplish anything in God’s world. Listen to how Dr. King finished his speech. I wish I could preach the way he did, but listen with your hearts and your minds to these incredible words. Dr. King said:
“. . . 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.”
The next morning, as he stood outside his hotel room, a shot rang out, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was dead; killed by an assassin’s bullet.
Dr. King’s words say more about the Transfiguration experience—and say it far more eloquently—than I can ever hope to do. In our lives we climb that mountain with Jesus many times. We experience the near presence of God in our lives, time and time again. Sometimes we miss the moment because there are too many distractions in our lives. But other times, the moment—that encounter with God—strikes us full force, and we are never again the same. That experience takes hold of our lives and we are forever changed.
But God wants us to do something with that experience. He wants us to hold onto the experience, but He wants us to come down from the mountaintop and use the experience. God wants us to come back to the nitty-gritty, day-to-day aspect of our lives and use the mountaintop experience to help others . . . because that’s where you’ll find the real glory of God.
It would have been easy for Jesus to say, “Yeah, sure; let’s stay up here on the mountain top; you guys build those three shelters and we’ll just stay up here near to God.” But therein lies the problem. You can’t contain God inside any shelter . . . or tabernacle . . . or Temple . . . or Cathedral . . . or Church. You can’t find the real glory of God there—only the reflection of that glory. Think about the beauty of any religious structure—from the simplest little chapel to the grandest Cathedral. We call them the house of God, but does God exist only inside the four walls of those structures? NO! God won’t be contained or constrained within the walls of any human-made structure. God isn’t even contained inside of God’s own creation.
We build our churches, our Temples, our Cathedrals to the glory of God, but God is not contained simply within the walls of those structures. God is in here and God is out there . . . among God’s people. The true glory of God is found wherever there is a need for us to practice our faith; wherever there is a need to help a neighbor; wherever there is a need to speak a word of comfort. And God wants us out there where the need exists. That’s the message of today’s Gospel. God comes to us in our lives, and sometimes God comes to us in those incredible mountain-top experiences. But God wants us to use those experiences to spread his Word; to spread the Good News—both in words and in actions.
Jesus came down from the mountain top so that he could lead us on an exodon, an exodus, to our salvation. And here’s the Good News—we are saved; we have received that salvation—not because of anything we have done, but rather it is entirely because of what Jesus did when he spread his arms for us on that cross. So, be thankful for that wonderful gift and use it to provide for others.
Each time we worship together, it is a mountain-top experience, but we can’t stay here, my friends. To paraphrase Dr. King, “We have been to the mountain top, and we have seen the promised land,” and we have nothing to fear. So now, we have to come down from the mountain top, so that we might tell others what we’ve seen. That’s God’s message to us. That’s what God meant when he said, “This is my beloved son; listen to him.” And what is Jesus saying to us? He’s telling us to spread the Good News both in what we say and in what we do. The glory of God was on that mountaintop, but it also has to be in our hearts. There’s an old Gospel hymn with the words, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Those words should guide us in everything we do and say.
We have to follow the example Jesus set when he guided his disciples down from that mountain. Jesus will lead; we will follow. But we also have an obligation to tell others what we saw and what we experienced on top of that mountain. We have an obligation to tell the Good News and to practice that Good News.
Let us pray.
May the love of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus; who takes us to the mountaintop and then sends us down to do his work in his world. Amen
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible
Copyright 2010 Daniel W. Brettell. Used by permission.