Climbing Mountains, Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9

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Being a lifelong Midwesterner I have always been in awe of mountains.  As a runner and biker, my friends in San Francisco laugh when I tell them “I am running hills.”  “You don’t what a hill is,” they say.  I have always found myself drawn to stories about mountain climbers and their desire to make their way to the summit.

One mountaineer wrote about his experience this way:

“I truly believe that there is no greater metaphor for life than climbing mountains. The mountains have a way of stripping the mind down to its basic senses and forcing us to live in the moment.  In order to do this we must respect everything around us and maintain balance.

If you guys truly value your lives, then you must live them to the fullest. We have planned this trip for quite some time and have known from the beginning that it would be dangerous. To turn back now is useless. To turn back in the face of a fierce storm or worsening conditions is obvious. We must expect the worst and hope for the best. If we do not summit because we make the decision to turn back, then we will have learned yet another lesson. If we do not summit because we did not try, then we will learn nothing.

I hope we all realize that if we believe mountaineering is about getting to the top of mountains, then we are treading a path of foolery. Mountaineering is about everything BUT getting to the top. It is about teamwork, courage, fortitude, good decision making, determination, etc. Getting to the top is merely the culmination of effort and circumstance.”

This morning in our Gospel reading we hear another mountain climbing story.

In Biblical times when people heard that someone was going up to the mountain to pray, they understood that the person was trying to get physically closer to God.   They knew about mountain stories, because their ancestors had told them about what happened to Moses on another mountain.  They knew that profoundly mystical things happened on mountain tops and so when they heard the Jesus was heading up a mountain to pray, to become closer to God, they knew something significant was going to happen, and indeed it did.

Jesus took Peter and James and John with him and went up on a mountain to get away, to claim some quiet time: while they were there, a miraculous thing happened. They are awakened and discover that Jesus is being lifted into the air and he is glowing in a dazzling white.  The light was so bright that it hurt their eyes. A combination of fear and awe overwhelmed them. They fall backwards wondering what to do. And then they see in the light Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus. Peter, always the outspoken one, made an attempt to respond to all of this by suggesting that they could build three booths there on the mountain as symbolic dwelling places. But instead of getting a response to this impromptu idea, they heard a loud voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” And when the three disciples looked up, the light was gone and only Jesus was standing there. This was the ultimate mountain top experience.

Sometimes on our faith journey, we are given moments when our response to God is “amazement.”  Amazement, awe and wonder – Anne Lamott says when these moments happen our prayer response is “wow!”

“What can we say beyond Wow, in the presence of glorious art, in music so magnificent that it can’t have originated solely on this side of things? Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for new breath.” Help, Thanks, Wow!: The Three Essential Prayers.

“Wow”  to the miracle of new-born baby.  “Wow,” to the sunrise. “Wow” to the generosity of strangers. I have a good friend who texted me the other day while she was waiting to for her 13-year-old to have an MRI.  He was getting concussions too easily and the doctor was wondering why.  As she sat in the waiting room, she wrote, “you know those little moments when life seems amazing, we need to really cherish them!”  Far too often wow moments are overlooked.

The artist Rapheal was commissioned to paint this ultimate mountain top moment.

The painting on the screen was his last painting before he died at the age of the 37, and was finished by one of his students.

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At the top of the painting is Christ, seemingly floating in the air, revealed as Son of God, with Moses and Elijah floating beside him, clutching respectively the tablets of the commandments and the book of the Old Law. The shining cloud behind them is both taken from the gospel text and a conventional depiction of the divine presence. This is what we think of when we think about the transfiguration.  This sort of out-of-body, ethereal experience that if you weren’t there you might think, “hmm, maybe the altitude was getting to them.” –  When God reveals himself in glory it’s hard to fully articulate the experience unless you witness it for yourself.

Raphael’s painting would have been pretty remarkable if he would have painted this part of the story, but the artist doesn’t stop there. The artist paints what happens next in the Gospel. The lower half of the painting is dark and chaotic.

In the next chapter, after Jesus is transfigured they come down off the mountain and are surrounded by chaos.

There is a boy who has been overtaken by demons and the disciples are trying to figure out how to help him.  In the painting, A chorus of disciples’ pointing hands sets up a strong movement from lower left over to the boy on the right and from him up to Christ, in whom hope for the boy’s healing will be found. The movement starts with a disciple, taken to be Andrew, poring over a large book, which I take to be the Book of Law, echoing that held by Elijah above.

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The book in itself offers no hope.

Amidst all the chaos there is one figure draws our attention; he or she is pointing decisively up the mountain to the transfigured Jesus.

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He points to the One who will come back down the mountain to bring healing…not only for this boy, but for the world God so loved. ”

Jesus doesn’t stay up on the mountain, and he doesn’t want his disciples to stay up there and commemorate the experience either.  No booths – No statues. No memorial wall.  That’s not the point he says.  The point is the glory of God is with you on the mountain and off of the mountain.  At the top of the mountain Jesus says, do not be afraid.  It’s a verse in the Bible that is written over 375 times. Do not be afraid.

When will we obey this commandment?  Jesus came to be  with us in the scary stuff.  He came to be with us in the dark places of our life and bring healing and wholeness to your brokenness.

Today in the liturgical calendar is Transfiguration Sunday – not a Sunday Halmark has done much with.  But nevertheless it’s the Sunday that transitions between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. On Transfiguration Sunday we focus on the glory of God and it’s really beautiful and amazing and all about the Wow factor, but in four days we move to Ash Wednesday.  A day we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return. A day we are reminded of our fragility and our brokenness.   A day we remember that we are saved only by the one who came down off the mountain to heal us.

“If we  were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” (Anne Lamott)

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There is a  story of a mountain climber who, desperate to conquer the Aconcagua, initiated his climb after years of preparation. But he wanted the glory to himself, therefore, he went up alone. He started climbing and it was becoming later, and later. He did not prepare for camping, but decided to keep on going.

Soon it got dark. Night fell with heaviness at a very high altitude. Visibility was zero. Everything was black. There was no moon, and the stars were covered by clouds.

As he was climbing a ridge at about 100 meters from the top, he slipped and fell. Falling rapidly he could only see blotches of darkness that passed. He felt a terrible sensation of being sucked in by gravity. He kept falling… and in those anguishing moments good and bad memories passed through his mind. He thought certainly he would die.

But then he felt a jolt that almost tore him in half. Yes! Like any good mountain climber he had staked himself with a long rope tied to his waist. In those moments of stillness, suspended in the air he had no other choice but to shout: “HELP ME GOD. HELP ME!”

All of a sudden he heard a deep voice from heaven… “What do you want me to do?”

“SAVE ME.”

“Do you REALLY think that I can save you?”

“OF COURSE, MY GOD.”

“Then cut the rope that is holding you up.”

There was another moment of silence and stillness. The man just held tighter to the rope. The rescue team says that the next day they found a frozen mountain climber hanging strongly to a rope…
TWO FEET OFF THE GROUND.

We all have our mountains to climb and we all face chaos and fear.  And none of may ever see firsthand as did Peter, James, and John, the glory of God fully revealed in Jesus Christ. That transfiguration experience stands alone. It is incomparable. But that’s all-right. That’s as it should be. You and I have our own mountain, our own story, our own moment when God turns that which is unbearably painful into something meaningful; when God turns the joyful into something absolutely miraculous; when God transfigures the ordinary into an unmistakable revelation of God’s great love for us.

Sometimes  our prayers are nothing short of wow and sometimes they are help and sometimes they are thank you. Thank God, Jesus comes down off the mountain and meets us in our insanity and heals our brokenness. Thank God, God takes us on journeys that gives us moments where we see the glory of God revealed to us so that we may know he love.  Thank God,  God is with us when we are overwhelmed by his presence and when we are overwhelmed by life.

The miracle today is not that Jesus rose in the air and became dazzling white and we are reminded of his holiness.

The miracle today is that he comes to the earth, into the chaos of our lives and  provides healing.

Whatever mountain you are climbing today, look for moments to be amazed and say wow.  In your moments of fear, pray help me. And in your moments of healing pray thank you.

Dear Friends, know this – whatever mountain you are climbing today – whatever challenges you face –whatever it is you are looking for cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, or building of something material.  Whatever you are looking for can only be discovered by a spiritual journey. A journey that is arduous and humble and joyful.  Hear Jesus’ words to you today, “get up and do not be afraid.” Amen.

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