7 Pentecost C—3/3/19
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-43a
Pr. Scott Kramer
My team and I had just reached the summit of Mt. Rainier. It was just after sunrise and after two days and a night of hard climbing, we were thrilled to be at the very summit of the highest mountain in the Pacific Northwest. Seeing our enthusiasm, Dave, one of our climbing guides, said with a sly smile, “Well, you’re halfway there!”
He was right, of course! In that moment, we may have felt “on top of the world” but that same day we still had to return to Paradise, nine hours and 9000 vertical feet below us. Summiting that mountain meant nothing unless we were able to return safely to the parking lot below.
One day, Jesus and three of his disciples climbed to the top of a mountain. There they had what we might call a “mountaintop experience.” They had a vision in which two heroes of the Old Testament, Elijah and Moses, appeared with Jesus. In this vision, Jesus himself was physically transformed into something that must have appeared to be pure light.
If you’ve ever had a “mountaintop experience” of any kind you probably wanted to extend that experience for as long as possible. Peter was no different. Amazed and elated by what he was experiencing he says to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.If you build a shelter, or even if you pitch a tent, it signals your intention to stay awhile. Peter wanted to hang on to the mountaintop experience for as long as he could.
It’s human nature for us to want to sustain a good feeling or a good experience for as long as we can. But we also know it’s not humanly possible to extend such an experience forever. Eventually, we have to come down off the mountaintop. More to the point, the summit experience is incomplete unless we come back down.
Thousands of climbers have attempted the summit of Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world. Some of them have died trying. But did you know that most of the climbers who die on Mt. Everest had reached the summit? They died on the descent. The mountaintop experience is not complete until we come down to earth, to the base of the mountain.
Luke’s story of Jesus’ mountaintop experience continues the day following their descent:
37On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions.
What a difference from the mountaintop experience!
The boy in this story shows all the signs of what today we might call an epileptic seizure. But in pre-modern times, there was no explanation… except evil spirits, and no hope…except a miraculous healing.
Now, if someone were to ask us which we’d prefer–the mountaintop experience or the down-to-earth experience–I for one would say, “Give me the mountaintop!” Who among us wouldn’t?
And yet, the fact remains that mountaintop experiences in human life are rare, brief, and unsustainable. Sooner rather than later we come back down to earth.
So what value is there in the mountaintop? Is there more to it than just a box to check off, and say, “Been there, done that.” Is there more than just the fleeting “high” that we experience?
Yes! On the mountaintop we are given a different perspective. We can see farther, we can get a glimpse of something bigger—not only bigger than ourselves, but bigger than the mountain itself. The views from the summit of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Glacier Peak are stunning. They can’t be duplicated, even by flying overhead in a jet aircraft.
Likewise, in the spiritual life we catch a vision of something bigger than ourselves, and for followers of Jesus that something is unexpectedly very down-to-earth. It means returning to the everyday experience of human suffering, entering into that suffering as Jesus did with the young boy, and becoming that glimpse of hope for people who may never have had, nor ever will have, a mountaintop experience.
God has come down off the mountaintop…for us! God is alive and present and powerful among us. Christ ascended and descended the Mount of Transfiguration not as a supernatural spectacle for us to admire from a distance but as an example for us to learn from and follow.
Our Christian work is not on the mountaintop. It is down-to-earth and every day. If we are privileged to have a mountaintop experience, it is not for its own sake but as a glimpse of something far greater than ourselves, something that we are part of. Far below the mountain summit is where we live and work; it is there that we serve. And, it may be there and not the summit where we catch a glimpse of the living Christ. For example…
We had our weekly meeting with Tent City 3 folk this past week and I was shocked to learn that the recent snow and storms were a bigger hardship on the campers than we knew. Tents were weighed down by ice and snow. This is one reason there are fewer tents and the numbers of campers are down from 50 to 35.
Two of the TC3 campers greeted me before our Tuesday meeting. One of them looked at me intently, and asked, “So—are the rumors true?” And I replied, “What rumors?” He answered, “That your dad died.” The other said, “That’s when my life started going downhill, when my dad died.”
Here are two men whose shelter is a tent. Here are souls who may have had little in their lives, at least recently, that they could point to as a mountaintop experience. And yet, here they were, expressing compassion and concern for me.
When our hearts and minds are open, we may see that Christ has come down off the mountain and stands ready to minister to us in unexpected ways. Here I was, the pastor of a church who has a roof over his head each night, being ministered to by some who have no permanent roof over their heads.
In the care and the love that we experience, we recognize the example that we have been given for the sake of others. Christ has been transfigured from some supernatural spiritual being to one like us, one made of flesh and blood.
The mountaintop is where we want to be–or where we think we want to be. But the summit experience is fleeting, and has meaning only if it gives us the ability to see what we hadn’t seen before, to catch a vision beyond ourselves. Followers of Christ come down off the mountain to the same place he went: the uncomfortable place of human longing and suffering and need.
There, far below the summit—unexpectedly—the love of God…might just show up!