Matthew 17:1-8; 2 Peter 1:16-21
When you are up on a mountaintop, you have a different perspective on the world. Especially on a clear day, your view stretches so much farther than it can when you are on the ground. It might seem silly, but for me, it does seem like I am closer to God when I am on a mountaintop. Maybe it is because there is really nothing between us at that point but sky and clouds. Maybe because the troubles and worries of every day life seem so far away. Maybe it is because of the quiet, the blowing of the wind, the sun on my back. I love to sit up at the top of a mountain and just soak it all in.
I am not alone though. Throughout the Scriptures, being on a mountain top is clearly connected with close encounters with God. Moses and friends went up the mountain to receive commandments from God for the people of Israel. The prophet Elijah went up the mountain to escape troubles down below and heard the still, small voice of God. Jesus went up the mountain to teach the people how to live, and fed the crowd with overflowing baskets of fish and bread. And Jesus takes three of the 12 disciples up the mountain at a pivotal time in his earthly ministry. (I find myself wondering how the other 9 felt about being left down on the ground!) According to Matthew, writing to his Jewish brothers and sisters, Jesus has been super busy healing, teaching, preaching. People are starting to wonder who this guy really is. Prior to the hike up the mountain, Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do you think I am?”, and, somewhat surprisingly, Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” He is using titles that carried a great depth of meaning for all who believed the words of Moses, recorded in Deuteronomy. The people have been expecting a prophet since Moses told their ancestors: “God will raise up a prophet like me from among your own people—you shall heed such a prophet.” The people have been expecting a Messiah, the anointed one of God who will come to save them from whatever forces were oppressing them throughout their history. Currently it was Rome. Now, at the top of this high mountain, Peter, James and John get a glimpse of Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God, the one God has chosen to bring salvation, the prophet like Moses.
The experience is enlightening, literally. Jesus’ face shines like the sun. Maybe a lot like Moses’ face shone so brightly after his mountaintop encounter with God. He had to cover his face with a veil so the people on the ground would not be afraid. On the mountaintop, Jesus is joined by Moses, the messenger of the Law of God, and Elijah, God’s prophet, both key players in the faith history of the people of Israel. I might be getting a little weirded out when the ghosts started showing their faces, and I have always wondered how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah without the benefit of cameras or nametags! Peter, James and John are not described as being afraid until the voice arrives. We have heard it before. It is the same voice heard at Jesus’ baptism. And it is the same message. Overcome by fear, the disciples end up on the ground, maybe with their heads covered for protection from this wild and strange happening in front of their eyes and ears. And then it is over. Jesus is helping them to their feet and telling them it is time to go back down the mountain. You know they had to be full of questions. You know their minds were having a hard time wrapping around this shared vision of Jesus standing with the Law and the Prophets, Jesus with the light of God shining through him, and then that voice! The voice which picked up the words of Moses– “you will listen to that prophet”.
They can’t stay on the mountaintop. None of us can. Perhaps our mountaintop experiences are given to us so that we can gain a different perspective on our on the ground life. A mountaintop experience can be transformative, creating a new focus or a new direction. Remember the famous speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr? Not the “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But the last speech of his life, made in front of a crowd in Memphis, Tennessee, as he encouraged the residents to continue their boycott, to stand up to the unfair treatment of sanitation workers in that city. At the end of the speech, he referred to the time early in his ministry of insisting on nonviolent change, he had been stabbed by a deranged woman and was told by the doctors that because of the location of the injury, if he had sneezed, he would have died. Then he shared a letter he had received at that time: “Dear Dr. King, I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
“And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.
I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze….
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
King’s mountaintop experience gave him a unique perspective of hope for the future that was not necessarily shared by those around him at that dangerous, risky moment in Memphis. To me it seems that he was encouraging his listeners in Memphis and all of his fellow workers in the fight for civil rights to keep working, to keep going, because he could see a new day down the road. He certainly did not stay on that mountaintop, soaking in his vision of God’s Promised Land. This modern day Moses had come down the mountain. He was not afraid, even knowing the threats which were out against him.
Think back over your own mountaintop experiences. Times in your life when you felt the closest to God, when you were able to see with a new perspective the issues impacting your life on the ground. You might have been like Peter, wanting to stay as long as possible on the mountain, suggesting to build three booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, a way to honor them and to mark the amazing connection with God that he, James and John had experienced. I like Eugene Peterson’s take on this– he describes the booths as shrines. You know, holy places which mark a holy event or the life of a holy person. His shrine idea may have been to use branches or rocks or both. He would not have had stone cutting equipment or mortar in his backpack that day, I am sure. But the building would take time.
Jesus knows there is no time for shrine building. There is work to be done on the ground. They must head down the mountain and rejoin the rest of the group, continuing on to reach his goal– arriving in Jerusalem. We can enjoy our mountaintop experiences, of course, but ultimately we must go down again and get to work. Like heading back down the 373 stairs from the top of the Mother Cabrini Shrine outside of Golden Colorado (image on the screen). This holy place–which is a lot more complicated than three booths!– memorializes the ministry of Frances Cabrini, an Italian-born nun who came to the US as a missionary to Italian immigrants in the late 1800’s. She is recognized for founding multiple schools, hospitals and orphanages from NY to Chicago to Denver. She had started an orphanage for girls in the Denver area and, in 1904, purchased a tract of land on Lookout Mountain to use as a summer camp/farm experience for the girls. After her death, this piece of property, the place where she always felt a little closer to heaven, was redesigned as a shrine for her. Like any shrine, this is a beautiful, quiet place where anyone can come, pray, and remember the work of Mother Cabrini. This particular shrine sits on a high mountain, giving views of Denver and views of teh Rocky Mountains to the west that you can never see on the ground. But atop the mountain, one must also remember the ongoing need for improved education, eradication of poverty, better recreational opportunities in the inner cities, freedom from drugs and violence. We have to head down the mountain. We have to keep the light shining. If we don’t, who will? Amen.