As you all know, Marc and Peyton and I go out to Park City, Utah, every year to go skiing. Well, really, Peyton and Marc go to go skiing. I go more for the scenery; the skiing part is just the price I have to pay to get to spend time on the tops of some really high mountains. Park City is located on the Wasatch Range. The mountains we ski on have an elevation of around 10,000 feet at their summits.
Every time I have the chance to get to the top of one of the mountains, I am floored by the vast beauty that spreads out in front of and below me. When I’m standing on one of those summits, it’s clear why people since the beginning of time have sought out mountain tops in order to feel closer to God. The magnitude of Creation, the sense that you’re seeing the world as God must see it, the feeling that if God is above us, then you’ve closed the gap by a couple of miles—it’s an experience that never gets old.
Even Jesus felt the draw of the mountains. The gospels often describe him going up a mountain, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of the disciples, sometimes to pray, sometimes to teach. And why not? Even though he was God, he was also human. Surely, he felt that same awe at the vistas spread out before him, that same closeness to and reverence for God—his own Father.
So, Peter and James and John couldn’t have been too surprised when Jesus called them to his side and headed up the mountain to pray. They were used to it. But, maybe they had a sense that he especially needed a time apart, considering the conversations he had been having with them over the past week or so. They probably felt a pretty deep need for some quiet prayer time themselves.
In the verses just before our passage, Jesus had asked his disciples who other people thought he was, and then asked the disciples who they thought he was. Peter had correctly answered that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus told the disciples to keep this news to themselves and then warned them of the strange and frightening things that would soon happen to him: “that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Then, as if those words weren’t hard enough to absorb, Jesus gathered together all the people who were following him and said even more frightening things. It wasn’t just the Messiah who must die, but his followers would have to be willing to do the same—to pick up their cross, just as their leader would. He told them that the only way they could save their lives was to lose them. These were difficult things to hear then. They’re difficult things to hear now.
So, I imagine that Peter and James and John may have welcomed some quiet time with Jesus—maybe to talk with him about these things he had been saying, maybe just a time to absorb all they had been seeing and hearing. Maybe they were feeling drained and exhausted and needed a time of peaceful retreat. Luke tells us that, there on the top of the mountain, they were weighed down with sleep, although they hadn’t quite drifted off.
That’s when their anticipated quiet retreat changed into an extraordinary event. While Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and so did the appearance of his clothes, which became a dazzling white—a white that no earthly fabric ever had, a white that only heavenly beings were ever seen in. Then, the disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Peter, always ready to take action without the benefit of thinking things through first, was ready to build dwellings for them, but even as he was talking, a cloud came and overshadowed the disciples, causing them to become terrified.
In the midst of the cloud, the terrified disciples heard a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” And then, just like that, the cloud lifted, Jesus was there alone and, bearing a memory they wouldn’t tell anyone about for a long time, the disciples headed back down the mountain with Jesus, where a great crowd was waiting for him.
We often talk about mountaintop experiences. There are lots of them in the Bible. Noah must have had one when he ended up on Mount Ararat. God spoke to Abraham on the mountain where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac. Moses had several of them, one of which left his face shining so brightly that he had to cover it up.
When we think of mountaintop experiences, we usually think of them in positive terms. We remember how suddenly we seemed to have a better understanding of the world and our place in it. We remember how we felt a sense of being in control of our lives. We remember how we felt closer to God and more able to hear God’s voice. We remember how we saw Jesus more clearly, not because he changed but because the way we see him changed, and how that change excited us and moved us to want to do something for him. In those ways, our experiences are much like the disciples’.
But, we forget the rest of the disciples’ experience. Our mountaintop experiences are ones of joy and triumph and praise, not confusing clouds that surrounded us, not terror, not a commanding voice speaking to us, and certainly not the journey back down the mountain.
Jesus was clear that his glory was inseparably linked to his suffering and death. Celebrating the glory of a mountaintop experience without accepting the rest is kind of like celebrating Easter without accepting the confusion, pain, and sadness of the cross. A mountaintop experience that reveals Jesus more clearly also has to upset our status quo, and upsetting the status quo is often confusing and sometimes downright terrifying.
The disciples saw Jesus in a new way—a way that showed them more clearly who he was. Peter was ready to spring into action. But in the next moment, he and the others were enveloped in a cloud. Have you ever suddenly been enveloped in a cloud? Maybe you were driving and suddenly hit a dense patch of fog. All the landmarks disappear. The road you’ve driven a million times becomes strange. You feel a disconcerting sense of disorientation.
Once, Peyton, Marc, and I were hiking on another mountain in Oregon. We had just reached the top and were on the way back down when a mist began to swirl around us. Within moments, the mountain was shrouded in a thick cloud. Although we had just walked up the trail, nothing looked familiar anymore. Were we on the right path? Was that fallen log there when we came up? What did we do at this fork? We had been to the mountaintop, but all of a sudden we were left feeling confused and disoriented.
That can happen—and maybe it should happen—when we have mountaintop experiences with Jesus. If we see Jesus differently, we have to see the world differently. And that may be confusing. We may have to rethink what we thought we knew. We may have to reconsider the paths we’ve taken. That kind of disruption can be difficult. It can even be terrifying if our new understanding of Jesus challenges all the assumptions we brought with us up the mountain.
But, in the midst of that confusing fog, God has a word for us. We are to listen to Jesus. When we can’t see what is around us or before us—when we’re not sure if the next step will take us right over the edge of a cliff—we are to listen to and trust Jesus. Our confusion can restrain us from leaping into Peter-like action, activity that is well-intentioned but won’t further God’s mission. Our mountain-top experiences need to be tempered by a time of listening for God’s voice and then listening to Jesus.
Then, as the cloud begins to disperse, we need to head back down the mountain. Stories about mountaintop experiences usually leave this part out. Standing on a mountain peak, awed by the beauty around us, moved by a feeling of God’s nearness, we’d like to build a dwelling place for ourselves and just stay there. But, as the old saying goes, “What goes up, must come down.” And, the follower of Jesus who goes up the mountain with him must come down with him, too.
We have to come down with him because there are crowds waiting for him. There are hungry and thirsty people, waiting to be filled—with food for their bodies and the good news of Jesus’ love for their spirits. There are sick people—sick in body, mind, and soul—and there are people imprisoned in jail cells, in addictions, in damaging relationships—and they are all waiting for someone to come to them with the news of healing and freedom. There are crowds of people who are strangers to us—different from us in some way—waiting to be welcomed into this country, into this community, into this church. Jesus didn’t expect the crowds to come up the mountain to him. He went down the mountain to them, and we are to go with him.
Oswald Chambers wrote about this in his classic devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest. Chambers wrote: “The true test of our spiritual life is in exhibiting the power to descend from the mountain. If we only have the power to go up, something is wrong. It is a wonderful thing to be on the mountain with God, but a person only gets there so that he [or she] may later go down and lift up the . . . people in the valley. We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions in life—those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life, and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength.”
Ministry doesn’t happen on 10,000-foot mountain peaks. It happens at sea level. Spending time with Jesus on the mountaintop is wonderful and inspiring, but coming down with Jesus takes courage, strength, endurance, and trust.
In a few moments, we will gather at Jesus’ table, with all who have faithfully lived and died. We will gather at his table, which is open to all people. We will gather at Jesus’ table, and he will give us what we need to sustain us in our sea-level work. Jesus invites us to go up the mountain with him, but after we go up, we then have to come down to do the work of ministry with the crowds who are waiting to meet him. May we be blessed in our journeys both up and down, in our experiences on the mountaintop and our ministry in the valley. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young