The Mountain Man
Text: Luke 9:28-36
I recently heard a story, a true story, about a family that had a fire break out in their home. It seems that the fire had started in the basement. And when the family discovered it, the fire was still relatively small, but it was starting to spread. So at once they called for their local fire department to come. And within ten minutes or so, they could hear siren blaring as the fire truck pulled up to the house. Thank goodness, the family thought, help has arrived.
And soon the firemen entered the house, wearing their oxygen face masks and carrying axes. But when the family saw the firemen, they asked: "Where are your hoses? Where is the water?" And the firemen answered: "The truck that we brought didn't have any water in it." "Well then," the family asked, "Where are your fire extinguishers?" And the fire fighters replied: "We don't have any." So the family looked at the firemen in disbelief and asked: "Why, then, did you come?"
There is a lot of suffering and sadness in the world. That's not news to anyone here. But as Christians, God has given us the power to overcome and defeat whatever comes against us. Yet far too often we don't take what God offers to us. We end up being like those firemen, facing times of crisis unprepared.
That is what happened to several of Jesus' disciples. While Jesus took Peter and James and John with him up on to the mountain, the other nine disciples remained down below. And while they were waiting there, a father came to them and asked them to heal his son. The boy was suffering terribly, with something like epileptic seizures. But the disciples were unprepared to do anything for him, and they just sort of stared at each other with blank looks on their faces. They thought to themselves: "What can we do? Jesus always handles this kind of stuff. And right now he's up on the mountain. Why, maybe we could help someone who's a little bit sick. After all, isn't it - Feed a fever, and starve a cold - or is it the other way around? But these seizures and all, this is just out of our league." So the disciples ended up asking the father and son to wait for Jesus to return.
Meanwhile, up on the mountain, the other three disciples were unprepared for what was about to happen to them. Jesus had taken them up there to pray. But Peter and James and John fell asleep. And when they finally woke up, they saw something that was difficult to put into words. There was Jesus, but now he was transfigured, he was glowing with an unearthly brightness, with his face and his clothing shining with a brilliant whiteness. And there Jesus was talking with two men, who the disciples eventually recognized as Moses and Elijah, two of the great heroes of the faith, who had died hundreds and hundreds of years before. But there they were talking with Jesus.
So Peter spoke up and said: "Jesus, this is amazing. We never realized how much power and glory God had given to you. I'll tell you what. Why don't we stay here forever, because this is terrific." But then, all of a sudden, a cloud came down upon that mountain, and a voice spoke to the disciples, saying: "This is my Son. Listen to him." And when the cloud disappeared, only Jesus was standing there before them.
So Jesus and the disciples made their way back down the mountain. And when Peter and James and John saw the other disciples, they ran up to them and said: "You won't believe what happened up there. It was great. We didn't want it to end." But the other disciples told about what had been happening to them with that father and son, saying: "We couldn't wait for you to get back. You wouldn't believe the kind of problems that we have had to deal with. We just couldn't handle it."
And when the disciples looked for Jesus, they saw him talking with that father. And at once, Jesus commanded the demon to come out of the boy and he was made well. And the entire crowd that had gathered celebrated the greatness of God.
One thing that the transfiguration story tells us is that we can't stay on the mountain forever. When Peter saw the amazing things that were taking place there, he wanted to put up some tents, so that they could stay there for as long as possible. But finally, Jesus had to say that it was important for them to have gone up on the mountain, but the time had come for them to go back down, because there was some work that awaited them there.
Many people have had in their lives some kind of a mountaintop experience. A kind of spiritual happening that they just did not want to end. Sometimes these mountaintop experiences occur at church camp or on retreats. Or others have had these mountaintop experiences during an especially meaningful worship service. In any event, at these times of mountaintop experiences, people don't want them to end, because they provide such a feeling of closeness with God, and they make us forget all of the sadness that we face the rest of the time.
In a little while, we are going to sing the hymn "In The Garden." And the words of that song speak about how we deal with mountaintop experiences. The hymn is based on the events described in the Gospel of John, when Mary Magdalene meets the risen Christ as she walks through the garden that is next to the tomb where they had laid his body. The first two verses of the hymn have Mary Magdalene describing her mountaintop experience of discovering that Jesus is alive, and how she hopes that that feeling of joy that she has will never end. How she hopes that she can just spend the rest of her days in that garden holding on to her master and friend.
But then the real point of the hymn comes in the final verse, when Jesus tells her that she must go. Jesus tells Mary that it was important for her to be there and to see him, but now she had a job to do. And her job was to go to the others and to tell them the good news. When Jesus was put on the cross, all the disciples had run and hid, figuring that it was all over. So now it was Mary's job to go to them and announce that the Savior was alive. We want the mountaintop experiences like that to last. But Jesus tells us that the time comes when we need to go and share what we have received.
The transfiguration story does remind us that we cannot stay on the mountain forever. But at the same time, the transfiguration story tells us that at times we do need to go up there. For example, there were the nine disciples who Jesus left behind. There they were confronted with that epileptic child, and they were powerless to do anything for him. But as soon as Jesus returned from the mountain, he was able to heal the boy at once. Without going up on the mountain from time to time, the problems of this world would just defeat us.
Consider Moses. In this morning's reading from the Old Testament, we heard about Moses going up onto the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God. And of course, that was a life-changing experience for him, to come into such close contact with God. So when he came back down the mountain, we are told that his face glowed.
But what waited Moses down below? While he was up there in God's presence, the rest of the Hebrews were getting bored, so they made for themselves a golden calf to worship. God had delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt, and God had led them through the sea, but even so, the people were already prepared to give up on God. So there was Moses, coming down the mountain, having just been with God, and now he had to deal with a bunch of sinful people.
And that same kind of situation kept repeating itself over and over during the journey through the desert. Moses had one ornery bunch of people to be the leader of. They always found something to complain about: "We're hungry. We're thirsty. We're tired. Are we there yet?" And more than once, Moses was ready to give up on them. But the only thing that kept him going was that he was able to spend time with God each day. When evening approached and the Hebrews set up their tents for the night, Moses set up his tent apart from all the others. And each night, Moses' tent would glow, as God came down to talk with Moses and to strengthen him. Without those daily mountaintop experiences, Moses would just have been overwhelmed by all that faced him.
The transfiguration story does remind us that we can't stay on the mountain forever. But for most of us, that is not the problem. I rarely hear anyone say that they are spending too much time praying, or that they are spending too much time reading the Bible, or that they are spending too much time worshipping. Lingering on the mountain is not what the problem is for most of us.
Instead our problem is that we have practically forgotten where the mountain is. We are so busy dealing with real life every day, staring down at the mess that we so often have to deal with, that we forget to look up and see what God has for us. Because without those trips to the mountain, we are powerless.
In a short while we will be celebrating the sacrament of the Lord's supper. I would invite you to see that as one of the ways up the mountain. As you take the bread, be fed by God's love, so that you can go out and feed others with that same love. As you take the cup, be filled with God's forgiveness, so that you can go out and share that same forgiveness.. As you climb the mountain, even if it is just for a few moments, experience the wonder of God. The glorious and hope-filled wonder of God.