February 19, 2023

  “Mountaintop Moments”

(Matthew 17: 1-9)

2 Peter 1:16-21
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.  So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.  First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Matthew 17:1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.  As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

     Mountain top moments are those special experiences we encounter that enrich the quality of our lives.  In the secular world, these moments can be created by events that occur outside of the ordinary flow of our daily living.  They may be earned rewards that celebrate many hours of our sweat-equity, like receiving a prestigious merit award (Pulitzer or Nobel Peace Prize) or winning a skill-based contest (Olympic Medal).  They may also simply be wonderful once in a lifetime experiences, like viewing the Grand Canyon or visiting extended family in another country.  Finally, they can be unexpected life altering experiences like a life-saving surgery, or discovering that a long-lost family member as left a large fortune to you.  The one common element of mountaintop moments in our lives is that they are experiences with positive ultimate outcomes that somehow affirm us, fill us with joy, and perhaps even create sense of gratitude.  They become a part of our permanent memory, and if they are significant enough to us, we may often recall them throughout our lifetime.

      In the realm of our spiritual and faith-life, we may also experience mountaintop moments.  As in the secular world, these experiences can be anticipated, or they may take us by surprise.  For example, I anticipate that I will be ordained at Annual Conference this June after years of study and planning.  I equally expect that this will be a major positive event within my faith journey that I will re-imagine and experience over and over again for some time to come.  I was surprised in the moment, and deeply moved to a place of humility and gratitude, when I received my unique and personal call to ministry.  I did not see that one coming, and needless to say, it was a mountaintop moment that has led me to a life-altering faith journey.  Spiritual Mountaintops, like secular ones, when they are significant, are recalled and relived throughout the course of our lives.

     Our lesson today from the Gospel of Matthew shares with us both a literal and a deeply spiritual mountaintop moment that the Disciples Peter, James and John experienced with Jesus.  Jesus led them up a high mountain so that they would be apart from the world and alone with him.  There, three amazing and unexpected events took place before the Disciples’ very eyes.  Jesus was transfigured into his glory before them.  The scriptures tell us that his face shone like the sun, and is clothing became a dazzling white.  Mark’s Gospel shares that Jesus’ clothes were whiter than any launderer on earth could whiten them.  Suddenly there appeared with Jesus Moses and Elijah, and Jesus spoke with them.  Then, a cloud came and overshadowed them.  Out of the cloud the voice of God could be heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  What an exhilarating and yet terrifying experience for the Disciples to behold.  The scriptures reveal that the Disciples fell to the ground in fear and awe at what they had just experienced.  Before their eyes, they witnessed the true and radiant image of their Lord and Master, Jesus.  They also saw Moses and Elijah appear and speak with Jesus.  Then, in a cloud, the voice of God was heard to further confirm for them that Jesus was the promised Messiah and Son of Almighty God.  “Listen to him,” the voice admonished them.  Now that is a truly remarkable mountaintop moment, a deeply moving spiritual experience to bolster the faith of those who were chosen to receive it.  Jesus ordered Peter, James and John to tell no one about this special experience until after his resurrection from the dead.

     I do not know about you folks, but I often ponder and reflect upon the stories and story lines found within the text of the Holy Scriptures.  For example, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain occurs in Chapter 17 of St. Matthew’s Gospel.   Just four chapters later, in Chapter 21, Jesus and his Disciples arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate their final Passover together, and to set in motion the events that would complete God’s Plan of Salvation through his suffering, death, and resurrection.   It was not years or even months that separated Peter, James and John from their mountaintop moment of witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration.  It was just a matter of days, at most a few weeks, before they arrived in Jerusalem.  Since it is, in fact the case that Peter, James and John were merely a few weeks at most from their mountaintop experience, how could Peter have denied even knowing Jesus when he was asked while he was waiting and watching outside in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas, after Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane?  How could such a powerful and transformational life experience as witnessing Jesus in his full majesty and glory, and then hearing the voice of God affirming him as the Messiah and Son of God, slip away and be so quickly cast aside in a denial of even knowing Jesus?

     There is an explanation for this most provocative question.  It cuts right to the heart of the need for God’s Plan of Salvation.  It is not an excuse, but a cause for our understanding; and it is perhaps best described as the “human condition.”   We are at heart, brothers and sisters, weak in our human flesh.  Although we often have the best of intentions, we are also often equally weak in the follow through.  Sometimes, the world and its ways and values enter into our equation.  Especially if the mountaintop event seems larger than life to us, over time we can tend to put it into the world’s perspective, into the world’s logic so that we can bring it down to a size we can better manage.  Was that double rainbow really God’s answer to my prayer, or merely a welcome coincidence?  Sometimes, our own inner systems betray us.  Our bodies are wired to react to situations where we perceive danger or potential personal harm with an adrenaline rush that equips us with “fight or flight” reflexes.  In this case, Peter responded with a “flight” from danger reflexive response when asked if he knew Jesus.  “I do not know the man!” he shouted in a very human fear response.  It was one “valley” moment (we sometimes experience those too) in his life that Peter would come to deeply regret.

     Lest we judge Peter too quickly and harshly, let us take a step back to reflect on our own human condition.  I suspect that we do not need to look too deeply at ourselves to find our own moments of what the Apostle Paul referred to as “the weakness of the flesh.”   Paul wrote to the Roman Church, a church he deeply desired to visit and with whom he shared his best theological thinking, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”  These words pretty well sum up our human inclination to sin.  We intend to do what is right and good, and then the world throws us some sort of curveball, and off we are doing something we never thought we would.  It can be hard to remember, let alone live out, even our most compelling mountaintop moments amid the chaos of our real-life “fight or flight” experiences.   Yet, Paul show us the way when he says, “Who shall rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Yes church, it is our Lord, Christ Jesus, who comes to our rescue.  When we believe that God sent Jesus to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, save us from our sin and human weakness, we receive the grace of forgiveness and eternal life, and, the power of the Holy Spirit to dwell within us as our Comforter, Teacher, Guardian, and the One who convicts us of our sinful and selfish ways.  This is speaking the truth in Christ to us, as we have recently discussed, so that we may grow and mature through the work of the Spirit in a through us. Through the Spirit’s power working in us, we can do infinitely and abundantly more than we can ever ask or even imagine.  We can remember and relive our mountaintop moments throughout our life’s journey.

     Wednesday begins a new season for us-the Season of Lent.  Lent is a time when we study more intensely the ministry and mission of our Lord Jesus when he lived among us.  We hold our own lives up to his example, and we discover our places of weakness and sin.  We then repent of our sinful and self-serving ways, and we seek and trust the Holy Spirit to protect us from the world’s evil, and to guide us in each aspect of our everyday living.  It is called growing in personal holiness, growing into him who is our head, and the cornerstone of our firm spiritual foundation, Jesus Christ our Lord.   Let us not shrink from the work of the Holy Spirit within us.  It is the Spirit who will help us to both recall and relive the Mountaintop Moments of our spiritual lives.  Amen.