Mountaintop Experiences

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As usual our most recent Sunday 10 AM service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community — as well as guests.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scriptures

Mark 9:2-10

Six 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. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then 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.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As 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. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

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A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.


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Full Text of Sermon

I never grew up around mountains. Houston pretty much sits right at sea level and stays that way throughout.

But I did go to university in the hill country of Texas, at UT Austin, and I remember one of the first times I found myself up above the city, ears popping from the elevation, out of breath from the hike, but then that moment, when you look down at the twinkling lights and buildings you know are big but sure don’t look that way from where you’re standing, it’s incredible.

I remember seeing the tops of the furry, green trees and the sparkle of the waters on Lake Austin as the sun hit it from above. And just taking it all in.

We were standing on Mount Bonnell, often described as the highest point in Austin at 780 feet above sea level.

For those who grew up around real mountains, 780 feet is more like a hill than a mountain. For comparison, Calvary, here at Fillmore & Jackson, sits at about 370 feet above sea level. The Twin Peaks, the highest point in San Francisco are at about 925 feet above sea level, and Mount Whitney, the tallest point in the Sierra Nevadas, sits at over 14,000 ft.

The topography of Israel Palestine where Jesus lived and ministered, was a lot more like San Francisco than Houston. I know because I get that same winded, out of breath feeling here as I did there when we visited back in 2012. Jerusalem is actually more mountainous than the Bay Area.

And today’s story takes place on top of a mountain.

None of the gospels actually say exactly which one, but tradition says it was Mount Tabor which stands at 1,886 feet, or others say it was Mount Hermon at 9232 feet.

The exact location and elevation, though, don’t really matter.

Jesus, as you know, was an itinerant preacher, who walked from one place to another. (I can only imagine how in shape he was.)

All that walking up and downhill is tough. But as with many things that are hard, there is great beauty and reward in it, too.

Exactly which mountain or how high they actually were aren’t crucial to the story arc. But the fact that they were up on a mountaintop is.

There’s nothing quite like the view from above.

It gives you a new and different perspective, helps you to see the “big picture.”

It allows you to place yourself in the great majesty of creation, both what God has created and what humans have made.

It can make you feel small and large all at once. Insignificant, yet fearfully and wonderfully made.

It even smells and feels different up there.

Being on the mountaintop can be a transformative experience.

It certainly was for Jesus and these three disciples…

Transfiguration Sunday is one of those weird church days that isn’t a holiday, but it is a holy day, notable enough to be marked on the church calendar.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ transfiguration comes right in the middle of the story.

It’s like if his gospel were a mountain, we’ve walked all the way up one side and hit the peak. We can see what’s already happened behind us, and if we look carefully, perhaps we can even see what’s to come. The view from here is like no other.

And it is here, in this place, on top of the mountain that the full glory of Jesus is revealed. It is a miraculous and mysterious event.

And it would’ve reminded these Jewish disciples of other mountaintop experiences from their collective history where God is revealed in new and dazzling ways upon the mountain:

of Moses and his encounter with God on Mount Sinai
and the giving of the ten commandments,
of Elijah and his encounter with God in the silence on Mount Horeb.
In much of Israelite history, God is found on the mountaintop.
And apparently, both Moses and Elijah can now be found there, too.

So no wonder, Peter wants to just set up camp and stay on the mountain. They’ve got Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. They could spend days, weeks, months, maybe even a lifetime just talking and learning with these three.

“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” he says, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Scripture tells us he says this because he is afraid. But is he afraid of the dazzling Jesus? Is he afraid of Moses and Elijah appearing out of nowhere? Or is he afraid to let this moment go and return to reality?

The Bible doesn’t tell us why he is afraid, but we do know, he just wants to stay up on that mountaintop.

Have you ever had moments like that? Moments where you wish nothing would change? Moments where God is palpable and near? Moments where all seems right with the world, and you just don’t want to leave?

Every once in a while, life affords us just such moments.

For me, one such moment happened the summer after my sophomore year in college. I spent that summer in Uganda, in a small town called Kasana, living and working at an orphanage and primary school.

I was there with seven other young adults through a church program, and for two and a half months, I got to know the children, to farm with them, to cook and eat with them. I helped create learning tools and administer reading tests for the school. We had long and meaningful conversations about God and provided a village-wide Vacation Bible School that was fun and life-giving.

Every evening as the sun set through the baobab trees, we would join the children in their small family groups for their evening devotions. We would sing songs accompanied just by a hand drum, some would dance, all of us would laugh. And all seemed right with the world.

Of course there were many things that weren’t right, even among us in those sacred moments.

These children, while loved, lived in poverty; many of them had lost their parents or had parents who couldn’t care for them, and most of these children lived with HIV/AIDS.

But, I tell you, for those moments when we would gather and sing, all seemed well with the world, and God seemed oh so present.

While I was there, it became clear to me that there were things in my life, once I went back, that would need to change. I was in a relationship that wasn’t really working (this was before Mike); I was attending a church that wasn’t really a good fit, and I just knew, my life would need to change because I had been changed by my time in Uganda.

And the more I realized that, the more I wanted to just stay on this mountaintop. Why leave? Everything seemed to make sense here. Everything seemed perfect, ideal.

I could feel God’s presence around every corner, with every sunrise and sunset, with every smile on the face of a beautiful, glowing child.

It was tempting to set up a dwelling place in Uganda and make it my home, to choose to never go back.

But today’s story shows us that that is not what Jesus does, and 99% of the time, it’s not what we are called to do either.

Every mountaintop experience is eventually followed by a walk down the mountain, back into the valleys and realities of life.

We don’t usually want to do it. And, quite frankly, it can be hard.

But, the thing is, we don’t go back down the mountain alone. We follow Jesus the Christ who leads the way down the mountain.

As David Lose says, “Down. Down into the mundane nature of everyday life. Down into the nitty-gritty details of misunderstanding, squabbling, disbelieving disciples. Down into the religious and political quarrels of the day. Down into the jealousies and rivals both petty and gigantic that color our relationships. Down into the poverty and pain that are part and parcel of our life in this world. Down. Jesus came down.”

And I would add, Jesus came down knowing what awaited him. Knowing that betrayal, pain, and death are found when he goes down.

Jesus, knowing all this, walks down the mountain any way.

But that is the very heart of the gospel. The story of a God who came down to be with us. The story of a God who knew, no matter how many mountaintop experiences we may have, we could never truly reach God, and so God comes down.

So, it’s not about our going up at all, but about Jesus coming down, all the way down into our brokenness, fear, disappointment, and loss.

And, of course, it only gets more so, for this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. We hope you’ll come worship again that evening at 7:00pm, because that begins our Lenten journey with Christ down the mountain to Jerusalem.

And throughout Lent, we see unfold before us, this one who holds all the glory of God travel to the cross, and there embraces all that is hard, difficult, and even despicable in life in order to wrest life from death itself, so that we might live in hope knowing that wherever we may go, Christ has already been and that where Christ is now, we will one day be.

Jesus walks down the mountain. Should we not follow?

Each Sunday, we climb up this hill on Fillmore Avenue, and hopefully have some kind of mountaintop experience. Hopefully God is revealed in some new way to us, we are enlightened or changed. We see and experience the light of God in our lives, dazzling and surreal. Somehow God breaks through and touches us, changes us, challenges us.

And it may be tempting to stay here. To make a dwelling place for you and two hundred of your closest Calvary friends, and keep these moments to ourselves, to keep what God has given you, what God has allowed you to experience to yourself.

But Jesus has already gone ahead of us, walking down that mountain. Down into the valley of the shadow of death. Down into the reality of poverty and pain. Down to where betrayal, abandonment, and death await him.

But resurrection and new life are there, too.

Frederick Buechner in Whistling in the Dark, speaks of the Transfiguration this way: “…it was the holiness of [Jesus] shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it that they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing” (Whistling in the Dark, Harper San Francisco, 1988, p. 108).

When we walk down the mountain, we find that sometimes these mountaintop experiences, those incredible moments of transfiguration are actually also found in our common, every day, ordinary lives, too. We just have to be open enough to experience them.

So even if we make our way off the mountaintop, even if we walk down, we don’t walk away from God or from the glory of God. No, in fact it goes before us into the everyday mundane events of the world.

William Martin wrote a poem called Make the Ordinary Come Alive. And it says this:

Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable, but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show them how to cry when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.

What is transfiguration but the ordinary coming alive so that it might become extraordinary?

Friends, let us walk out these doors, or even turn to the person sitting next to you in your pew, and see the glory of God reflected in the ordinary.

There is a world full of people who are hungry and homeless, broken and hurting, people who need to experience God’s love and light, and it is right within reach. It is before us, within us, walking among us. So come. Let us go together and share this light.

Jesus walks down the mountain. Should we not follow?

As our musicians set up, I wanted to share a little about this song that is our musical reflection. It’s called, “Walk Down This Mountain” by a Christian artist named Bebo Norman. And I am so grateful for the musical talents of Kristin Clayton, John Kendall Bailey, Dave Scott, and the San Francisco Academy String Quartet for making this happen, creating the extraordinary from what was nothing. As you listen to this song, play special attention to the lyrics. The words of the chorus say this:

So walk down this mountain with your heart held high;
Follow in the footsteps of your maker.
With this love that’s gone before you and these people at your side
If you offer up your broken cup, you will taste the meaning of this life.

Thanks be to God, Amen.


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