Sermon: Coming Down From the Mountain on Transfiguration Sunday

Transfiguration by Alexandr Ivanov
This was a sermon given at Epiphany Church in Peoria, Illinois (www.epiphanypeoria.org), Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday before Lent. The readings were:
2 Kings 2.1-12
Psalm 50.1-6
2 Corinthians 4.3-6
Mark 9.2-9
Sometimes coming down from the mountain leads to the wilderness.

Sometimes Lent is our wilderness…

And sometime when we go out into the wilderness it ends up becoming our mountaintop.

I want you to think back to the most powerful spiritual experiences of your life. What were the circumstances? Where did they happen? Who were you with? How long ago did they happen? And perhaps most importantly, are you in any way striving to get back to those moments in your present life? If so, have you ever contemplated if "getting back" to them is even possible?

This message is about “mountaintop” spiritual experiences, how they form us, and the difficulty in learning how to live in the time after the mountaintop experience. The intent is to look back and reflect as a way of discerning how to live in the present. I want to tell you about my own mountaintop experience and then I want to tell you about having to come down from the mountain and what life was like after the mountain. My hope is you will see yourself reflected in my own journey.

Our Gospel reading from Mark, as well as the Old Testament reading from Second Kings recount profoundly moving spiritual experiences for the disciples Peter, James, and John, as well as the prophet-in-training and soon to be Head Prophet Elisha. Today is known as Transfiguration Sunday and it is the day Jesus calls us up the mountain with him. Jesus trusts us enough to call US, just us. He wants us to go UP and draw NEAR with him, for at the top there will be a great revelation. To Peter, James, and John the heavens were opened up and the glory of the Lord was revealed. 

This is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, before we change our posture as fellow disciples and we enter into Lent. And so this is the last epiphany we are given of Christ before our season of drawing back, giving up the things we think we need, and clinging to Christ as we look toward the cross.

If you are keeping track, up to this point in the season of Epiphany we have been led to a number of revelations showing Jesus as the Christ and Savior of the world:

—The wise men coming to worship Jesus, presenting him their gifts.
—The baptism of Jesus, the descending of the Holy Spirit, and the proclamation from God the Father of Jesus as his Son.
—The wedding at Cana with Jesus’ first miracle.
—Jesus’ authoritative teaching in the synagogue and his casting out of a demon tormenting a man.
—Finally, there is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, as well as others who were healed and had demons cast out.

These are this year’s “epiphanies,” those moments when a glimpse of the fullness of who Jesus is was made manifest to us. Today, on Transfiguration Sunday, we have one of the biggest manifestations of all, one approved by no less than Moses and Elijah, the lawgiver and the prophet who themselves were exposed to God’s glory and were empowered to do great works by him. Reviewing the passage, it says:

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.
And later the voice of God the Father again spoke: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

Here, God very literally gives the disciples a “mountaintop experience,” one so core-rattling they hardly know how to respond. In recent sermons we've been challenged about people seeing Jesus in us and people being drawn to Jesus through our lives, that people are actually “amazed” when they are around us, as individuals and as a community. I want to argue that people start seeing Jesus in us and are drawn to the power of God through our lives when we’ve had a mountaintop experience, when we’ve gone off, spent time with Jesus, and have come back to tell people about it, with our countenance changed.

Growing up, I went to a mountaintop experience church. We were Pentecostal or Charismatic. My youth was filled with numerous powerful times of prayer and worship. Long times of prayer were emphasized, where we would walk and pace back and forth for an hour, interceding before God about various people and situations, and praying in the Spirit as we felt led. We prayed in tongues, as a “personal prayer language,” and we often prayed for healing and deliverance from sin. In worship or at youth group we would often had extended times of worshipping God in song. We would sing in the Spirit and dwell in God’s presence. People would come forward to the “altar” at the front and kneel down. Often there were prayer ministers who could pray for your needs, lay hands on you, and seek God on your behalf. These times of prayer and worship profoundly shaped who I am. They were my “mountaintop” and my youth was filled with them.

As a bit of an aside, I had a rare youth group experience that was completely caught up in trendy Christian youth culture but at the same time was also pretty solid. I know many people come out of their youth groups with a lot of criticisms: their youth pastors and leaders were shallow and too worried about their image, they focused too heavily on shaming us about sin, or they manipulated them and their peers into spiritual ecstatics. But growing up my church was a mixture of it all. I had a cutting edge youth pastor. He was the coolest of the cool. He dressed with the latest trends, he was physically fit, and he even partially dyed his hair blond. Heck, my youth pastor not only led our worship band, he was actually the lead singer in his own Christian rock band. For a few years our youth group exploded. We got to be so big we had to rent a banquet facility and a huge sound system every week to keep up with the momentum of 300, 400, and sometimes 500 kids coming every week. Our youth group got to be so big some people labeled us a cult that was brainwashing kids. 

There were times when I felt our pastor was too caught up in the flashy side of being a well known semi-public figure, and I would have truly been concerned were he not so solid. You see, the other side of the coin in all of this was that he was incredibly sincere in everything he did. He loved kids and wanted them to know God. He may have been a flashy worship leader, but he was passionate about inspiring people to pour their hearts out to God. On top of all this, he was an excellent teacher and preacher. He knew the Bible, gave us a great foundation of the basics, and was always educating himself and reading more about what was going on in the Church world. And even though he placed a lot of emphasis on renouncing sin, his approach was about pursuing holiness and not about guilting us. To our pastor, turning from sin was about living life in its fullness as an offering to God, and not about legalistic rule-following.  In other words, I couldn’t write off his shallow flashiness because it was mixed all this other good stuff. And it was all that good stuff that very powerfully changed my life.

What I am trying to explain to you is my youth was a mountaintop experience. It was an incubator season of life where I was discipled into studying the Bible, learning how to pray, and worshipping God with every part of my life. It was also the time where I began to feel the call to do full time ministry, leading people in music, teaching, and pastoring people. For me, it all started there on the mountaintop of my youth. It was filled with numerous Wednesday nights, mission trips, youth conferences, youth camps, prayers nights, True Love Waits Weekends, lock-ins, and hanging out with friends and mentors. It wasn’t all perfect of course. There was certainly a fair share of bad experiences and pain, but reflecting on that is for another time. My aim in all of this is to point out how necessary these experiences are. We need long stretches of drawing close to God and other people as a way of shaping us and building up our spiritual strength, because eventually God is going to call you to come back down the mountain. We can’t stay up there forever.

Up on the mountain, when Jesus was transfigured, Peter, in his stupefied bewilderment said to Jesus “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” When you are immersed in your mountaintop experience, the temptation is to always want to stay there, to capture it and preserve it. What we end up doing is minimizing it, taking a snapshot of it and putting it on our fridge or mantelpiece. Instead of living in the present and seeking God now, we live through the snapshot, through the past that we have frozen. Jesus calls us back down the mountain for there is work to be done. The mountaintop is necessary to be sure, but we were never meant to stay up there forever. To do so would be selfish and ironically self-limiting. We are called to come back down and bear witness to the Son of Man who has risen from the dead.

So far I have made it seem like my youth was one long mountaintop experience of spiritual euphoria, but now I want to tell you about my experience of coming down from the mountain. Throughout my youth and young adulthood I frequently came down from the mountain. In fact, a big emphasis was put on evangelization and serving others in my church. I spent my entire time in high school wanting to be a Sold Out On Fire Christian. I wanted my friends to know Jesus. I wanted them to see Jesus in my life and hear Jesus with the words I spoke. But I must say this: coming down from the mountain has in many ways been a tiring and disappointing experience. I tried to be a good evangelist, but I was never that successful. 

I have this distinct memory from high school, one of many, of me sitting in the hallway outside our band and choir rooms (which was also right where my locker was) after some rehearsal with a friend of mine. I was in choir and musicals and madrigal singers with her. She was a decently good friend, a girl I liked a lot, though never in a romantic way. Instead she had the kind of good-natured and goof personality I got along well with. I wanted her to like me and to see me as “normal”, even though I was a Christian. Well, as always I was attempting to take advantage of our time waiting around to go home to talk to her about God and Jesus and coming to church. She was kind to me, for the most part, but also entirely perplexed. I think I might have convinced her to come to youth group a couple of times, but that was about it. I had another friend, a girl, who was closer to her than I was, and did a better, and perhaps less creepy, job at inviting her to church. But I’m sure all my non-religious friend could think was “Why is this guy trying so hard to convince me of what he believes? Why doesn’t he just relax a little?”

You see, she thought all I was trying to do was force my beliefs on her and drag her to church and to get her to stop having fun, because, you know, fun = sin, and since sin has to stop, fun has to stop with it. I can totally understand why she would have seen me that way. And even though I’m sure my approach could have been a lot different, she was nonetheless wrong. It wasn’t about just getting her to church, or convincing her of what I believed. Instead, I wanted her to come up the mountain with me. I wanted her to come close and meet the living God, to know Jesus in all his radiance and love and power. But she didn’t want the mountain and she didn’t want what could be found at the top of it. I had come down from the mountain and was trying to tell her and others about it, but I kept finding it was nearly impossible to convince my friends of the reality to be found up there.

All of which is to say, a large part of my time after coming down from the mountain has been filled with disappointment. I have found that I am perhaps not the best evangelist, and I have found there are too many strings attached to the idea of going to church and finding God through religion for many people in our culture. Long term ministry work, or life in the valleys and plains below the mountain, is tough and disillusioning. But still the mountain calls…

I hope though that you see a significant problem with all my stories today: I keep talking about the mountaintop in my past. But is there a mountain to ascend in the present?

We are about ready to enter the season of Lent, where we are asked to consider giving up something we care about, something we have an appetite for, something that takes up our time, or something we feel we need. As we walk into this season together I would like us to consider two things:

1). Can we approach Lent like a mountaintop experience? Can we see it as being drawn out of the world to go be with Jesus in a secluded place where the glory of God will be revealed to us? Can we see this season as an abiding back, as a sabbath rest, where afterward we’ll return from seclusion (that is, come down from the mountain) and work from our rest, allowing God to bear fruit in our lives?
2.) Whether we are in Lent or not, can we always approach Sundays as a mountaintop experience, as a time of drawing close to God together, and having his presence revealed and made known to us, and then going back down the mountain to live the rest of the week knowing we have just been dwelling in the fullness of the glory of God?

So often we look to our past experiences as the model to what our mountaintops should be. As formative as they may have been, those experiences are in the past. God is calling us to himself today, in this season. The time has come to journey up the mountain with him.

One of my biggest frustrations about Lent is the focus on giving things up. I get frustrated at myself more than anything. I come up with my list of what to fast: Facebook, TV, certain foods or lots of foods, whatever it may be. But then, as I enter the fast and start giving those things up, they soon become all I can think about. I spend all my time thinking about how I can’t have those things and how the only way I can stop thinking of those things is for me to give up and get those things back. I say to myself: once I eat or log on to Facebook, then I won’t be tormented anymore. It’s a vicious, maddening, and stifling cycle.

I want Lent to be simpler than this. And I want Lent to have a better aim or end goal. Rather than focusing on the “giving up”, I instead want it to be about turning to Jesus, about looking to Jesus for everything, that he is all I need. To me, here is what Lent should be: It is about learning how to dwell on the mountain with God, so that we can then take the mountaintop down with us to the rest of the world. We don’t fast to deprive ourselves. We fast so we can truly see God and allow the world to see God through us.

So as we enter Lent may we pray for those who do not know Christ like my friend from high school, that they would come to him, and may we pray that we ourselves would know Christ in fullness, as the reading today said, from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. —2 Corinthians 4.3-6

It pains me to think these verses apply to my friend who did not come up the mountain with me. I do not want them to be true, but I know that they are. The Good News of Jesus is veiled to her. But the prayer persists: may the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ shine in her heart, in all of our hearts. May we know the living God, and may the world know him too.

As we enter into Lent, let this be our prayer....

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