When Down Is Really Forward
Many of the great events of the Bible have taken place on a mountain. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. Elijah called down fire from heaven on Mt. Carmel. The apostle Peter made his great confession of faith on a mountain. Jesus preached his most remembered sermon on the mount. And when our Lord returns He will stand triumphantly on the Mount of Olives.
Today's text tells us that the transfiguration also took place on a mountain. It says, "He took with Him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray." It doesn't surprise us that a man in public life seeks to get away from it all from time to time. President Ford likes to go to the mountains of Colorado. Roosevelt liked to go to "the Little White
House" near Pine Mountain, Georgia. And many of you have cabins tucked away on the side of a mountain somewhere. When you have a big decision to make, you like to go there and think things through in pence and quiet. Jesus was like that, too.
It is clear from the context our passage of Scripture is drawn from that Christ had a big decision to make when He and His discipline climbed the mountain. Christ had to decide whether to go to Jerusalem and die, or avoid the Holy City and live. He had to decide whether to give the people what they wanted or what they needed. He had to decide the future direction of His ministry. So He determined to get away from it all for a few days and talk things over with His heavenly Father.
As Christ retreated up the mountain slopes, He took with Him His best friends. Peter, James and John accompanied Him. Little did they know the importance of their venture. Little did they realize they were about to witness another great act of God on a mountain. And it is on the disciples and their behavior that I want you to focus your attention in this sermon.
First of all, the text tells us that the three disciples had a mountain top experience with Christ. The text says they were together on the mountain when Christ was transfigured. His face shone like the sun. His robe became a dazzling white. And there stood both Moses and Elijah talking with Christ. He received Heavenly advice on an earthly mountain. Moses the great law giver encouraged Christ. Elijah the mightiest prophet pointed Christ to Jerusalem. And in that blinding moment in history the greatest decision of our Lord's earthly ministry was made. Christ decided to go to Jerusalem and die on the cross for the sins of the world. He decided to fulfill the requirements of the law with one divine atoning sacrifice. He decided to comply with the prophets and their predictions of a Messiah who would suffer for the sins of the world. "I will go to Jerusalem and die," Christ firmly decided. And as Jesus made up his mind, the text tells us that a cloud overshadowed the mountain. And from the cloud God spoke, adding His endorsement to our Lord's decision. The voice spoke like fifty thunders, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him."
Now, all the while this was going on, the three disciples stood by watching. The text says they "were heavy with sleep but they kept awake." We are told that they were afraid, awestruck at such spiritual fireworks, but they were witnesses to this mountain top experience.
We would like to have been there on that mountain with Christ, wouldn't we? It is a human need, a human longing, to experience moments of divine visitation. Which of you would not want to be as Paul, blinded by God on the way to Damascus? Who among you would forfeit the opportunity to stand on Mt. Carmel with Elijah as he cries out, "If Baal be God then serve him. But if the Lord God be God then serve Him." Then there is Moses with Israel at the Red Sea. Would you like to have been there as the waters parted and God delivered his children from the sword of Pharaoh? Yes! We all desire mountain top experiences. It is a human need.
And God honors our desires. Doubting Thomas cried out, "I'll not believe unless I see the print of the nails." And Christ came to him and held out His hands, saying, "See, Thomas, take a close look. Believe!" Throughout history God has honored man's need to experience Him firsthand. John Presley was at a prayer meeting in London when he experienced God. Calvin was a young attorney in France. St Augustine was sitting in a garden. And God came to them! Many of you know what it is like to have your heart strangely warmed in a revival service. You know what it is like to read a book and suddenly be caught up in a brilliant flash of insight. You know what it is like to kneel and pray in agony when suddenly you feel overwhelmed by the presence of God.
Yes, we have all had mountaintop Christian experiences. At a retreat, on a walk in a forest, during an illness, in a church, we have all stood in awe at the presence of God. Like the apostles we have seen Christ. Lightning may not have flashed, celestial choirs may not have chorused or thunder rolled, but somehow life was transfigured before us, and we knew God was with us.
So, the disciples shared a mountaintop moment with Christ. How in the text we see how they reacted to it. The text tells us that it was Peter who first found his voice. "Peter said to Jesus, 'Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you, and one for Moses and one for Elijah." It was Peter's way of saying, "This is great. I like it up here! Man alive! Let's pitch our tents and stick around for a long, long time." Again, this is a typical human response. We all want to live high. We all want to set up residence on the mountaintops.
Bart Starr, former quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, said that he once had a mountaintop experience in a football game. He once had a near perfect game. It seemed he could do no wrong. He completed nearly every pass. He tossed six balls for touchdowns. His team beat their highly favored opponents for a playoff bid. Starr says he can still remember every detail of the game. The roar of the crowd, the charisma of the band music, the blink of the scoreboard---he can vividly recall it all. After the game, Starr said he tried to savor every moment of the day. He talked with the reporters at length. We showered a little longer than usual, and finally left the locker room last. Still not wanting to lose: the day, he stepped back into the stadium. It was empty. The crowd had all gone home. The bands were silent. Twisted programs and empty popcorn boxes littered the stands. The quarterback said he realized that he couldn't go back in time. There was just no victory for him there. If he was still to experience the victory at all, he'd have to carry it with him. Bart Starr's experience is ours and Peter's as well. Games do not last forever. Mountaintop experiences are short-lived. You cannot make them last. You cannot refuse to leave. Human lives are like airplanes; what goes up must come down. You cannot fly high over the clouds and in the dazzling sunlight forever. You must land. You must return to the earth again.
Americans today are like St. Peter when he wanted to pitch his tent and stay on the mountain. We are caught in the grip of nostalgia. We want to live in yesterday, "Remember the good old days? Harry Truman was a real President! They don't make cars like they used to. A dollar was a dollar then and men knew hard, honest work)!" We are more like television's Archie Bunker than we know! For he too is a victim of nostalgia, he comes on the air singing of the glorious past...
"Boy! The way Glenn Miller played. Songs that made the hit parade. Guys like me, we had it made. Those were the days. Didn't need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight. Those were the days. And you knew where you were then. Girls were girls and men were men. Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again! People seemed to be content. Fifty dollars paid the rent. Freaks were in the circus tent. Those were the days! Hair was short and skirts were long. Kate Smith really sold a song. I don't know just what went wrong. Those were the days!"
But you cannot live in the past! The glories of yesterday are like the manna in the wilderness. If you try to save it until tomorrow and eat it then, it will be wormy. Yesterday's blessings will not suffice for the day. They are past. You can savor them in your memory, but you cannot relive them. You must live in the present. Life must go on!
So, the apostles had a mountaintop experience. And they wanted to pitch their tents and stay, to live in the fading glory of some past event. But Jesus had orders for the present and the future. He had come to the mountains to make a decision, not a getaway. And now He must come down the mountain and go to Jerusalem and die for the sins of the world.
What if Jesus had taken Peter's counsel and stayed on the mountaintop? We would have missed the triumphal entry. He would never have instituted the Last Supper, prayed in Gethsemane, stood before Pilate or shouldered the cross. He would have missed the greatest mountain of all, Mount Calvary! And what will you miss if you try and live in the fading glow of some past transfigured moment? What will you miss if you camp out on the past mountain top experiences you've witnessed? There are those in the church who won't face the present. They want to eat yesterday's manna today, but it is wormy. They want to live in the glow of yesterday's miracles so they sit counting their spiritual goose pimples and monitoring their spiritual pulses. But this is 1976! It is not 1942. It is not 1956 or 1965. It is 1976!
And today, just as the text says, we must accompany Jesus as he comes back down the slopes. The text says that the crowd was waiting for Jesus when He returned to level ground. A distraught father ran up to Him and begged Him to heal his epileptic son. Life sure changed gears quickly. The transfiguration one day, this valley of human need the next! The Bible tells us that Christ healed the small boy. He must have smiled that slow, knowing smile of His as He layed hands on the lad. His disciples were being taught a great lesson. They would realize that life could not be all rainbows and mountaintops. There would be valleys, jails, sickbeds, and long, dusty journeys as well.
And Christ turns to you and me today as He lays hands on the epileptic lad's head. He smiles His slow, knowing smile and in His eyes is pleading; "Come down the mountain. Come away from the past. Join me in the valley! Sure you can have the triumphs, but not without the temptations. Sure you can have the resurrection, but not without Calvary and the tomb. Oh, ye of little faith, slow of heart and mind, how often I have taught you, but you would not! Oh, ye of small vision, always wanting the pleasure without the pain."
People of God! Come to the mountaintop and pray with Jesus. He has promised, "If you seek me and you seek me with all your heart, you shall surely find me" (Jer 29:13) Yes, come to the mountaintop and experience God! He is the God of the mountain---Sinai, Carmel, the Mount of Olives. He is the God of the greatest mountain of all, Mount Calvary. Jesus left the glory of the transfiguration for the shame and suffering of the cross. And he did it for you and me. Come to this mountain and see! Believe! But He is also the God of the valley. And He wants you to join Him as He comes off the mountain into every valley of human need.
God is giving His church directions in this text today. He is telling us that down is forward. It might sound strange, but there is a time when down is really forward. When is this true? Down is forward when you put your hand in Christ's and accompany Him from the glories of the past to the valley of the present and future. It is forward when you carry your victories with you into the present day. Down is forward when transfigured witnesses trek down mountain slopes into broken homes, routine jobs, to sick beds, disappointments, gardens of Gethsemane and Mount Calvary. Down is forward to blood, sweat and tears. Your blood. Your sweat. Your tears. Yes, down is forward. And it leads to Easter Sunday and the Resurrection.
Will you come down the mountain with Jesus? Will you go into the valleys with Him?