(Part I) Most of you know that back in the summer of 2010 I climbed to the summit of Mt. Rainier. Last year, as you also know, I reached the summit of Mt. Baker. In fact, of Washington State’s five volcanoes, I’ve been to the summit of four. On all these occasions the sky was blue, the weather was perfect, the views were spectacular. There’s a reason people use the phrase “mountain-top experience” to describe an emotional high.
But mountain climbers know there’s more to the story than that. Mountain climbers know that the mountain-top is a dangerous place; spend too much time there and you will die. Climbers reach the summit around sunrise, spend maybe a half hour there, and then quickly descend the mountain. Wait too long and the sun turns the snow from powder to slush and that makes for very dangerous conditions. Or, wait too long at the top and it will turn dark, cold and windy, unsuitable for life.
Jesus is the mountain guide in today’s story, and one day he leads his three closest friends to the summit. There they see him as they’d never seen him before. But in this vision they see not only Jesus transfigured. They see Moses, and Elijah, great figures from their past. Peter is so blown away by the experience he doesn’t want it to end. He says, Teacher, it’s good to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. And then, to cap it all off, they hear a voice from the cloud, This is my Son, the Beloved—listen to him!
There on the mountain-top were Moses and Elijah, figures from the past. But the voice from the cloud said, Pay attention to what God is up to now. This is my Son, the Beloved. He will lead you off the mountain, into the future. Listen to him!
The main purpose of the past is to remind us that God was faithful in the past. This gives us confidence that God is faithful in the present, and will be in the future. The Scriptures teach us that any vision of the past is practically useless…unless it points to the future.
People come to church for different reasons. For some, the church is a mountaintop. In a rapidly changing and often scary world folks find the church to be maybe the one place in their lives where they can escape. People whose lives feel out of control can feel like they have a little bit of control here. Like Peter, they are eager to stay on the mountaintop.
It wasn’t easy for the disciples to leave. Peter wanted to hang on to the past. We can understand that; all of us know the power of grief, regret and longing to keep us stuck in the past. But as I imagine that scene on the mountain-top I think I understand what finally drove them to follow Jesus.
Imagine reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier on a clear day and then spending your whole time at the summit staring at the ground. Or, imagine reaching the summit and sitting down to nurse your aches and pains, unaware of anything else. Imagine failing to take in the view. There is nothing in life like the view from a mountain-top. From the summit of Mt. Rainier I saw to the north Mt. Baker and Canada. To the east I saw Mt. Adams and eastern Washington. To the south I saw Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, and Oregon. And to the west I saw Puget Sound and the Olympic Range. From the mountain-top I saw possibilities I hadn’t imagined before.
Those who follow Christ off the mountain-top have seen a vision beyond themselves and beyond their own lifetime, to future generations. Today’s first reading shows what that looks like:
(Part II) This is the story of Elijah and Elisha. The great prophet Elijah is about to pass from this life to the next. But before Elijah leaves he realizes his work is not done. Elisha, the younger man, refuses to leave him, and badgers him to give him a blessing. Finally, the old man asks, Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you. Imagine that! Here is a man who chooses not to live in the past, who chooses not to rest on his laurels, but who asks the younger generation, “How can I support you?” “How can I help you?”
Elijah is not comfortable with what he hears. Elisha says, “Please give me a double share of your spirit.” In other words, “Help me to be twice as good, twice as successful, twice as faithful as you are.” And Elijah replies, “You have asked a hard thing.” But he doesn’t refuse. And he says, “Whatever God wants, may it be so.” Elijah gives his blessing.
The spirit of Elijah both in this story and in the Transfiguration story is never a spirit that gives glory to itself. Always, the spirit of Elijah gives glory to God by asking to its dying breath, “How can I serve?”
There was a time in this congregation’s history where neither the spirit of Elijah nor the spirit of Elisha was strong. The older generation showed little interest in the ideas and vision and gifts and leadership of the young. They lived on the mountaintop, clinging to the past. As they continued to live in the past the world passed them by. The church became less of a church and more of a museum.
But the younger generation failed, as well. Rather than demanding their rightful inheritance they gave up. When they most needed the persistence and patience and toughness and faith and courage of Elisha, they chose instead the easy path of walking away.
Things have changed a lot over the year! We are a congregation blessed with many Elishas: young, gifted, faithful, persistent, courageous, creative, energetic people who do not call attention to themselves but consistently ask, “What is God’s will?” and, “How can I serve?”
There are even a few Elijahs who have emerged. These men and women of God are eager for the vision and leadership of a new generation. You won’t hear them saying, Change anything you want after I die. They use the language of Elijah, which is, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” It’s a servant heart, in the spirit of Christ himself.
I have been to the mountain-top. I’ve have seen the future and what’s possible. My home congregation is the best example I know.
The view from the mountain-top is spectacular. As Peter said, “It is good to be here.” But staying too long on the mountain-top is deadly. As the voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” The question, always, is to what extent we listen to the Son. Will you stay on the mountain-top, living in the past, frantically building shelters, as Peter was tempted to do? Or, having seen a vision from the mountaintop, are you setting aside the past, following your Lord off the mountain into the real world? Maybe you’re Elijah, in a position to bless the new generation with your love, encouragement, and a willingness to practice one of the highest forms of love: giving away power. Or, are you Elisha, those who have received the precious gift of faith, to build God’s kingdom in the here and now–do you have the patience and persistence to persevere in the good work you’ve been given to build God’s kingdom for the future?
Most importantly, do you hear the voice that has called you beloved, and invites you to follow off the mountain-top God’s beloved Son?