A MOUNTAIN TOP EXPERIENCE
Dear Friends in Christ,
Have you ever been to the top of a mountain? Most of you have been to the top of Stone Mountain. How many of you hiked up there? How many rode the tram? Yes, I have walked, but more often rode the tram. It is an impressive view, particularly on a clear day in autumn. You can see the Atlanta skyline and the fall colors.
How many of you have been to the top of Brasstown Bald? It is the highest point in the state of Georgia. How many of you walked? The view from the observation tower is also quite impressive. You can see four states on a clear day. It too is particularly impressive when the leaves are turning. I have been to the top of a couple of mountains in the Rockies. Now that was really impressive. Yes, I climbed every inch of the way to the top of one mountain. To the south I could see the rolling plains of Montana. I turned 180 degrees to the north and saw some of the beautiful Canadian Rockies. When I turned east I could see a lake below called Iceberg Lake. The lake is always in the shadow of the mountain and doesn’t generally lose all its ice even during the summer. To the west I could see smaller mountains and the hotel from which I worked. It looked like a postage stamp.
You can climb a mountain and understand when someone says it is “mountaintop experience.” Many have been inspired from mountaintops to confess there must be a God who made such a beautiful place as this. Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Today by faith we climb the mountain with Jesus and three of his disciples and have “A Mountaintop Experience.” We remember it 1) then and there, but we have it 2) here and now. Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday before Lent. There is such a contrast between Jesus’ transfiguration and Lent. Transfiguration is so majestic as Jesus shows those who were there and those of us who are witnesses by faith and know who he is. We change the altar colors. Jesus shows himself to be the holy and pure God of heaven and earth. Wednesday the color will be purple to symbolize pain, suffering from the sins we committed and the need for mourning and repentance.
We are not exactly sure how many weeks it was from the mountain of Transfiguration to the time Jesus would enter Jerusalem for the final time, but that time was getting so much closer. But before the trip to Jerusalem, Jesus took Peter, James and John to a high mountain. Many guess it was Mount Hermon. We really don’t know for sure. Peter, James and John were with Jesus at three other special times: 1) When he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead; 2) on this occasion; 3) He took them further into the Garden of Gethsemane to be near him when he prayed.
Why this inner circle status? The Bible doesn’t answer that either. Peter had been and would continue to be a spokesman. He wrote about the transfiguration in an epistle he wrote. James was the first apostle who suffered a martyr’s death. John, the brother of James, was the longest living apostle and had the longest time to influence and lead the Christ’s Church. Take that for what it’s worth.
What exactly happened on the mountaintop? “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” The Gospel of Mark says, “There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Luke says, “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” It was bright! Light and brightness are associated with the presence of God.
Moses met God in a blazing and burning bush. The LORD led Israel through the wilderness in pillar of light. Here Jesus’ body was glorified. While he was indeed human, he was much more. Peter wrote about this in a letter he wrote to Christians to keep following Christ. “But we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” The people to whom Peter was writing needed to be reminded that Jesus was more than just a man; his divine radiance and majesty proved it. Isn’t it also interesting Jesus showed his majesty to the same disciples who would see him in Gethsemane when he was in that bloody sweat?
We will see the same Jesus appear to be helpless during Lent. He appeared to be so powerless. Satan loves to use that. “How can someone so helpless save you?” Go back to the mountain. Let that mountaintop experience remind you who he really is. When the apostle Paul says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich,” the Transfiguration and Gethsemane and Calvary make sense. There is the richness of Transfiguration and the poverty of Calvary. He is the perfect God who alone did what no person could do, pay for sin…everyone’s sin. As God and Man he paid the ransom price for all.
But there is more! As Jesus’ face and clothes dazzled as a great light, “there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” There was Jesus, and there was Peter, James and John. And then whoa! Moses and Elijah showed up! Both had been taken from this earth in most unusual ways. They had been taken hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years before to heaven. Peter, James and John were given a preview of heaven.
Again, there is that question, “Why Moses and Elijah? Why not David and Abraham? The one thing we do know is that Moses and Elijah were towering figures in the Old Testament. They looked forward to Messiah’s entry into history. Moses was the leader, the lawgiver, the intercessor. Elijah was the bold prophet of God to God’s people when they needed one.
What did Jesus and Elijah and Moses talk about. While Matthew doesn’t tell us, Luke does. They talked about “Jesus’ departure.” They talked about his mission and purpose - to die and rise again. They were talking about God’s plan to save and what needed to be done.
There was even more. There was the voice of God - “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Up to this point Peter was very much enjoying himself. You couldn’t beat being with the glorious Jesus, some of the bigwigs of the Old Testament. He wanted to prolong the experience. “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Can you blame Peter? This was a preview of heaven.
But then they heard the booming voice of God the Father. “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” That frightened the begeebers out of the disciples, just like it did when the people of Israel were when they heard the voice of God at Sinai. They said to Moses, ““Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” That’s what happens when unholy people face our holy God. Unholy people are reminded of personal sinfulness and that makes unholy people afraid. That’s the reason why God will change our evil bodies and make them like unto Jesus’ glorious body. That has to be so we can stand before the Lord.
Let’s look more closely at the Father’s proclamation about Jesus. “This is my Son whom I love.” Here we see the different persons of the Trinity. The Father loves the Son. We can see the Son loves the Father. He pleases the Father. The Father proclaims, “Listen to him.” Listen to what he preaches. He has awesome words and doesn’t want us to be afraid. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” You don’t have to be afraid. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest. We don’t have to be afraid. That was the mountaintop experience then and there.
Wow! Peter, James and John really had an experience, didn’t they? Are you jealous? They were in the right place at the right time, weren’t they? Is there a part of you that wonders why can’t I have something like that? Why doesn’t the Lord come to our sanctuary in a blaze of glory like that and walk down the middle aisle. If you did Lord, it would be a whole lot easier to believe! Maybe my skeptical neighbor would come. Pastor Zahn’s top of the head is the only thing that shines here.
Yet let’s give this some careful thought. Peter, James and John were in the presence of the glorious God, the Father and the Son. The Lord promises that to everyone. He is omnipresent. Psalm 139 – “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” For those who gather to worship like we are this morning, he promises, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Remember what happened at Mount Sinai, when he did come blazing in his glory. The Bible says, “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” If God were here in his blazing majesty and sat in the back, you would finally sit in the front.
But we do hear his voice. He came to Elijah - remember the story - not in the earthquake, not in the wind or the fire but the gentle whisper of his voice. He talks to you – in the Bible. Listen to him. Listen to his teaching and promises…but listen. That’s spectacular, isn’t it? A mountaintop experience!
Think what happens at this altar or at another altar at a baptismal fount. God showered his grace on you when water was applied in his name. There was remission of sins, the robes of Christ’s righteousness, the promise of the Holy Spirit, salvation and adoption into his family. Wow! Huh? God gave us quite the experience, didn’t he?
Or this morning…bread and wine but so much more. The promise of God, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” It is not just wine and bread. We are participating in the body and blood of Christ - the body and blood of Christ that paid your debt and won forgiveness of sins and is imparts to each partaker that very gift. We depart in peace because we can do so. We are forgiven. The bread and the wine don’t guarantee it, but the body and blood of Jesus does.
There is no question that Peter, James and John experienced something very special on that mountain, but you do too in this house of God. Each time we hear his word and receive or are reminded of the sacrament and the promises that remain, that is a mountaintop experience. What we receive here is pretty spectacular and so necessary for the sinners that we are.
Final thought! Peter wanted to hang around the top of the mountain. He wanted to prolong the experience. But Jesus knew he had to come down to finish what needed to be done to bring forgiveness of sins to the world. There was Jerusalem and the Judgment Hall. There was Calvary and the grave. We must leave this place too – to tell the world what Jesus did, so others too can have a mountaintop experience of knowing about the forgiveness of sins he won for all.