Sunday, August 2, 2009

Peaks and Valleys - Mark 9:2-9

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

A few years ago, a reporter for Christian Century was doing a story on some of the great churches around the country. While walking through the foyer of a church in Atlanta, he came across a golden phone on the wall. Above the phone was this sign: “Direct line to God - $10,000 per call.” As he visited other churches, he saw the same thing, always the same sort of phone, with the same sort of sign. He saw it in New York, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, and Chicago. Finally, the reporter ended up in Boone, North Carolina. He saw the same sort of phone, but the price per call was listed as 35 cents. Puzzled, he asked the Associate Pastor of the church why the call was so cheap. The young pastor explained that in Boone, that’s a local call.

Mountaintops have a long history of being special places of meeting with God. Throughout the Old Testament, God appears in particular ways on mountains by names like Sinai, Carmel, Horeb, Tabor, and Nebo. Jerusalem, the holy city, was itself built on a mountain.

Our text for this morning is another one of these mountaintop passages. This is a story that literally takes us into the nearer presence of God, and that’s exactly where I hope we will all be drawn this morning. May we pray.

Let’s take a closer look at this account, and I think you’ll agree with me that it’s just a little bit strange. Jesus and his inner circle – Peter, James, and John – take a trek up the mountain. More than likely, it was Mount Herman – the summit of which rises to about 9400 feet above sea level – a formidable height in any part of the world. When they get to the top of the mountain, Jesus begins to glow. This glowing is technically called The Transfiguration. We might also use words like Transformation, or, as the Greek does, metamorphosis. Literally, Jesus’ form was changed.

Along with Jesus appear two heroes from Israel’s history – Moses on one side and Elijah on the other. A side note here – I sometimes wonder how Peter, James and John recognized Moses and Elijah. Were there pictures of these great figures in every synagogue in Galilee? Or, perhaps they had their names printed across their shoulders like football players.

Peter, perhaps confused or bewildered, offers to build three shelters up on top of the mountain – one for Jesus, one for Elijah, and one for Moses. I want you to remember this odd little piece of the story, as it will have important significance a little bit later. Before Peter gets an answer, the voice of the Father booms in. Jesus calms them, everyone disappears, and on their way back down the mountain, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone what they’ve just seen.

The oddness of this story
Are you finding anything strange about the story yet? First, let’s talk about this glowing thing that Jesus was doing. At first, we think we’ve never seen anything like it, but in reality, we’ve seen it lots of times. Think of the face of a bride on her wedding day. With the weddings I do, I am standing at the front of the church, right at the head of the center aisle, and get to be one of the first people to see the bride’s face when those doors are opened at the back of the sanctuary. On her wedding day, a bride glows.

Or, I think of the day in 1986 when my younger brother was born. We all went to the hospital that evening, and my grandmother got to hold him. She sat in the rocking chair in the corner of the room, and the corner of the room literally glowed.

Or, when I was serving communion at the church where I served during seminary, and my parents were down for a visit. This was the first time I would serve communion to my parents. My dad is a pastor, and as they came forward to kneel at the rail, and I went to break off a piece of the body of Christ for my dad, my mind flashed back to another communion service when I was around five years old. In my memory, I was kneeling at the rail and my dad was about to serve communion to me, and from the lighting in the sanctuary, it had to be sunrise service on Easter Sunday. In my memory, which was happening in the split second before I handed the bread to my dad, as my dad handed the bread to me, the stained glass behind him glowed, and I heard a voice and sensed a presence that said, “This is what I want you to do.”

Or, think about what happened last Sunday in this place. Those of you who weren’t here missed something big. We had a healing service, and you could literally feel the presence of God in this place, and it was thick. 2/3 of the congregation responded and came forward to receive anointing and prayer for healing. I wish that you could have all had the view I had. I wish you could have seen all of your faces as you came down to the front of this church. Some of you were crying, some of you were rejoicing, but I saw something in each face that came forward. You all glowed. I looked at each of you, and I saw the glory of God reflected back. As your pastor, I hope you know how fulfilling it is for me to see the glory of God reflected in each of you.

God’s glory is all around. We have all had brushes with it, seen ever the faintest glimpse of its fullness and splendor. Imagine, then, how much brighter the full glory of God glows, brighter than these sideways glances you and I have seen. The fullness of God’s glory would be all-consuming, it burns with an unmatched intensity, and would be devastatingly frightening. Yet, it is something we would want to hang onto forever.

Peter – prolonging the mountaintop
We come back to Peter – remember I asked you to hang onto Peter for a little later? Well, here he is. As Jesus is consumed in the full brightness of God’s glory, Peter offers to build three dwellings. Was Peter simply confused? Maybe Peter didn’t know what to say? Some would say Peter didn’t even know what he was saying.

But I think Peter knew exactly what he was saying. Peter realized that he was an eyewitness to the wonderful, awesome work of God. Peter wanted to make the moment last. I think his inner-monologue went something like this: “If I make some shelters, then I can prolong this moment. Maybe I can control how long this thing will last.” Peter’s offer to build those three shelters was an attempt to stay up on the mountaintop forever.

Clearly, Peter had never read Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? If he had, he would know that life keeps changing. He would know that if you try to live as if time has stood still, then time will just pass you by. He would know that the sooner you let go of old, tired, and outdated ways of doing things, the sooner you can enjoy the wonderful new things that are constantly coming our way.

A few summers ago, I was fortunate to spend some time hiking in the Swiss Alps. The last day we were there was one of those perfect, crystal-clear days that only comes along every once in awhile. I sat on the top of the Stanserhorn, and felt like I was on top of the world. To the North, you could look into the black forest in Germany. At the base of the mountain, the residents of Lucerne went about their normal day, and to the South, the high Alps of Northern Italy appeared to scrape the sky. I wish I could explain to you just how beautiful it was, just how commanding the view was. I would have been happy to stay up on that mountain forever.

But the next day, I was on a train to Zurich, and then caught a flight out. Why? Because as beautiful, and moving, and spiritual as that experience was, we were not intended to stay on the mountaintop.

In our text, Jesus and his disciples come down off the mountain and immediately head into a village at its base, and encounter a boy possessed by demons. They could have chosen to stay up on that mountain, but there was still work to be done down in the valley – down in the real places of the real lives of real people. It was great to encounter God’s glory on that mountain, but down in the dark valleys were people who needed God’s light.

When you think about it, though, it’s not all that different from what you and I sometimes try to do. For us, the mountaintop could be likened to spiritual experiences we’ve had. I think every church and every person can point back in their history to a time when they were on the mountaintop. That’s often the heyday so fondly remembered. People begin to say, “If only we could re-create the environment we had back then, then we’d be back on top.” We can spend so much time living in our treasured, mountaintop memories that we’re unable to move forward.

The view keeps changing
One of the things I loved about living in Boone was driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I love those places where you stop and can see that famous “layered view,” where the mountain ridges seem to unfold infinitely in front of you off into the distance. What strikes me about so many of these places is that the view is never exactly the same. Sometimes it is sunny. Sometimes foggy. Sometimes only the highest peaks are poking up through the clouds. You can look from the same spot in the same direction, and the view will never be the same any two times you look at it. Every time you look, you see something different.

That’s how it is when we reach those mountaintops with God. God will never be revealed in exactly the same way each time. God does not invite us back to the mountaintops to simply reveal what we already know about God, for there is always much more for us to know about God, and countless ways for us to connect with God, and wonderful ways to continue to be filled with God.

Friends, I’ve been to the mountaintop! I know you have too. It’s a wonderful place, where our relationship with God is nurtured, where God’s presence surrounds us, where we have no choice but to bask in the radiance of God’s glory. But, I’ve also been through the valley. I’ve been through the darkness, where fear and uncertainty surround and we wonder where God has gone off to.

I’d like to quote one of the most profound theologians of our time: Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam. "All the rusted signs we ignore throughout our lives, choosing the shiny ones instead." We routinely miss the signs of God's love and presence in the ordinary things of our lives.

Oh friends – God is not only on the mountaintop, where it’s easy to see God’s glory, where God’s presence surrounds us. God is in the valley, too.

God is not only found in those highs, but in the depths of the valleys and the mundane plains. There are new places God wishes to lead us through – sometimes through valleys and plains – but it requires coming down from those high places and trusting in the God who was revealed there.

When we meet God upon the mountain, the point is not to find some way to stay on the mountain. The point is that the mountain is a place of clarity – where we know God and know ourselves to be cherished by God, where we receive a clear vision of what God wants us to, and where we can get a good view of the terrain in front of us. Then, as we move from the mountaintop to the darkness of the valley, and the ordinariness of living in the plains, what we experienced on the mountain goes with us.

I like the way Scottish theologian Henry Drummond puts it. He says, “It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We don’t tarry there. The streams begin in the uplands, but these streams descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.”

You may recall another mountain in the Old Testament. When the people of Israel had just left Egypt, they gathered on a mountain overlooking the promised land. Twelve spies brought reports back on what they saw. Ten of the spies said “the land is difficult, it is full of giants, it is rugged, and it will be difficult for us to take. Let’s go back to Egypt.” But two of the spies said, “Yes, there are some challenges in our way, but God has promised to deliver this land to us. Therefore, let’s trust God to be God and move forward.”

If you remember the story, the “Back to Egypt” group won out, and the people wandered around for another forty years before coming into the land.

I think every church has a “Back to Egypt” committee in it that prevents the church from moving forward to a place God might be calling it to go. There is a group that always wants to retreat to what it is familiar and comfortable, even if they know it’s not good for them.

Let’s not be the group who shrugs our shoulders and says, “Let’s go back to Egypt. Let’s go back to the same old mountain time and time again, because we’re too afraid to go somewhere new.”

Friends, God is moving. God is doing new things. God is constantly sending fresh wind and fire on his people. We don’t have to live in yesterday’s anointing, because God is pouring a new blessing out yet again today. Our experiences on the mountaintops of life bring us glimpses of God’s glory, and I am so thankful for those experiences. I am thankful for those moments of clarity when I am assured of the presence of God.

But friends, I also realize this: there are a still many more mountains out there for us to climb, many more places where we will ascend and glimpse the glory of God, many more places where God’s Spirit will be poured into us yet again, just as full and just as fresh as it was the first time.

And so, we come and celebrate together one of those mountaintops – our Lord’s table. This is a place where our relationship with God is nourished, where we are invited into the very real presence of the risen and living Christ. We celebrate, because the one who we remember at this table is very much alive. We celebrate, not merely so we can have a pleasant memory or a nostalgic feeling about some time when we knew and experienced the love of God, but so that we can be literally filled with that love once again. We celebrate, not merely to symbolize Christ’s presence or his grace, but because Jesus promised that he would fill us to overflowing with a great big helping of grace every time we break this bread and take this cup. We celebrate, because Christ has met us at this table so many times. We celebrate, in the sure and certain hope that Christ will meet us here yet again.

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