King of Peace Episcopal Church
February 25, 2001
The Mountaintop Experience
Our Gospel reading this morning is about a mountaintop
experience. As someone who has done more than my fair share of hiking, I know a thing or
two about mountaintop experiences. I have climbed mountains to take in the incredible
views. Stopping to look back at where I have been and ahead to where I am going from a
lofty vantage point. My favorite time to be on top of a big mountain is sunrise and
Victoria and I have hiked in the dark on many mornings to make it to a peak before dawn. I
remember one special morning like that, probably the best morning of my life. Victoria and
I climbed Maines Mount Katahdin at dawn to complete our 2,100 plus mile hike of the
Appalachian Trail. We groped our way up the steep mountain face in the dark, opting to
make our way by stars rather than to use a flashlight. When the sun crested the horizon,
we were more than a mile above sea level, on the highest peak in the area by far. All
around us, the thousands of lakes dotting the western Maine countryside glimmered red and
orange, reflecting the glow of the sunrise. We were bathed in the soft golden glow of the
sun as we looked back south toward Georgia where I hike began six months earlier and ahead
to a new life after the Trail. That sunrise on Katahdin was an amazing mountaintop
experiencethe sort of morning that you can take with you for the rest of your life.
We had completed our goal of hiking from Georgia to Maine and there was a sense that we
could now do anything we set our minds and bodies to do.
Mountaintop experiences are supposed to by like that. A
mountaintop experience is an epiphany, a sudden understanding of the way things work. A
mountaintop experience is an aha moment when something falls into place, and
it doesnt take a mountaintop to have one. Mountaintop experience is a figure of
speech. Like a few weeks ago, when we had the Gospel reading about Jesus baptism.
Though it took place in the Jordan River Valley, Jesus baptism was a sort of
mountaintop experience. As Jesus was praying, he felt led to be baptized. As Jesus came up
out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove and rested on him. A voice came from
the sky to say, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. God
confirmed that Jesus, his Son was right where he was supposed to be, doing exactly what he
was supposed to be doing. Thats an experience you can take with you.
But, of course, mountaintop experiences are called mountaintop
experiences, because a mountaintop is a great place to get away from everyone. From a
mountaintop you can easily see where you have been and where you are going, the perfect
setup for an epiphany. Moses had this sort of experience on Mount Sinai. After God had led
the children of Israel out of Egypt, they traveled to Mount Sinai. Moses climbed the
mountain and the glory of God covered the mountain. The Book of Exodus tells us that a
cloud settled on Mount Sinai and to the people below it looked like a devouring fire was
on the mountain (Exodus 24: 15-18). When Moses, the great lawgiver, came down from the
mountain carrying the stone tablets from God, his face shown so brightly with Gods
presence that Moses scared the people. Moses appearance scared them so much that they
asked Moses to cover his face with a veil (Exodus 34: 29-35).
The great prophet Elijah also had a mountaintop experience.
Elijah had told the people all that God had given him to say and they didnt like it
one bit. Elijah was running for his life when he high tailed it for the wilderness and
climbed Mount Horeb. There on Mount Horeb, Elijah stayed in a cave. God spoke to him and
told him to go out on the mountain before the Lord for the Lord was about to pass by. We
are told in First Kings that, There was a great wind, so strong that it was
splitting mountains and breaking rocks into pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not
in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and
after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, the
sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went
out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then the Lord spoke to Elijah and told
him all that he should do. Elijah met with God in the silence of the mountaintop and the
experience carried Elijah through the difficult task of being Gods prophet.
Now we come to Jesus. Jesus, Peter, James, and John climbed a
high mountain to pray. From the mountaintop, they could see both literally and
figuratively where they had been and where they where going. Where they had just been is
hinted at in the start of our reading. We are told that it was eight days later that this
mountaintop experience took place. Jesus asked his disciples, Who do you say that I
am? and Peter responded, The Messiah of God. Jesus then warned them to
tell this to no one. He went on to say that he, must undergo great suffering, and be
rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be
Now, Jesus and three disciples are on a mountaintop in prayer.
Jesus face changes and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear to talk
with him. They too appear in glory and talk to Jesus about Jesus own Exodus. Thats
the Greek word that our reading today translates as departure. Moses and
Elijah remind Jesus and us of Israels past. God acted in history through Moses to
bring the children of Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus. Moses was the great lawgiver. For
Jews, Moses represented the Torah, the teaching of the first five books of the Bible. On
the other side of Jesus is Elijah, the great Prophet of Israel. Elijah represented the
prophets who called Israel back into relationship with God again and again. The Jews of
Jesus day referred to their scripture as The Law and The Prophets. And there on the
mountaintop, Jesus met with the Law and the Prophets in person.
Moses and Elijah appeared to talk with Jesus about his own
Exodus, which was to take place in Jerusalem. This is the part where we get to look ahead
at where Jesus is going. We can see what Peter, James and John could not yet see.
Jerusalem is where Jesus would suffer, die, and be resurrected. And just as we are
reminded of where Jesus is headed, Peter tries to bring it all to a grinding halt by
settling in to stay on the Mount of Transfiguration for a good long time. Peter says,
Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one
for Moses, and one for Elijah. There was Peter trying to capture the moment and make
it last. Peter also made the mistake of thinking that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were
equals. For though Jesus was like Moses and Elijah in some ways, Jesus was much more than
Moses and Elijah. To bring this point home, a cloud overshadowed the mountain, just as it
had when Moses met with God on Sinai long before. The voice boomed out from the cloud,
reminding us of the voice at Jesus baptism. God said, This is my Son, my
Chosen; listen to him! Gods voice confirms that Jesus words eight days
earlier had been right on target. Gods Son, Gods Chosen would soon be making
his own Exodus and that was perfectly according to Gods will.
When the voice had spoken from the cloud, Peter, James, John
realized that Jesus was now alone. Jesus who had come to complete all that was predicted
by the Law and the Prophets was all done with looking back. Now was the time to look ahead
toward the teaching and ministry remaining before his death, resurrection, and ascension.
Jesus transfiguration was far removed from the usual mountaintop experience where
everything seems to come together. Jesus experience on the Mount of Transfiguration
revealed that glory lay on the other side of suffering.
The next time Jesus has a mountaintop experience, the mountain
is Calvary and the mountaintop experience is that Gods Messiah, his chosen one is
put to death. Instead of having Moses on one side and Elijah on the other, Jesus is
crucified between two thieves. Below the cross, someone mocking Jesus cries out, He
saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one! But
they had missed the point. The Messiah would suffer, die, and be resurrected before he
came into his glory. The Law and the Prophets had told that it would happen this way. The
prophet Isaiah described a suffering servant. He wrote, Here is my servant, whom I
uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring
forth justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1). Isaiah described the Messiah in a way
that no one could see as the role for the Messiah until Jesus fulfilled it. More than 800
years before Jesus death Isaiah wrote,
By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could
have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the
transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with
the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life
an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him
the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find
satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many
righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and
was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession
for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:8-12).
So the signs had been there for centuries. For those who really listened to the Law
and the Prophets, they could see that God would so identify with the humans he created
that he would come and live as one of us. And, living as God among us would result in his
death. Jesus tried to warn his followers of what was coming, but they just didnt
want to hear or understand. What about us? Can we hear and understand what it means to say
that Gods Chosen One had to suffer and die?
This is the part of the sermon where I always try to sort out
what the scripture has to do with us here and now. Well, I dont have an answer to
that. Not yet. Like Peter, James, and John, we need to follow for a while and listen to
Jesus before we will be ready to get back to Calvary. Thats the idea anyway. You see
this is the week of the church year known as The Last Sunday after Epiphany. Now we head
into the season of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. During Lent we are
called upon to examine our own lives, to determine where our own priorities lie. This
Tuesday, we will celebrate Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, a time for one last party
before Lent. Then on Wednesday, we will have the traditional imposition of ashes. On
everyone who comes forward, I will mark the sign of the cross in ashes and say, You
are dust and to dust you shall return, as we too remember that death is a part of
our lives, just as it was for Jesus. Our glory too awaits on the other side of suffering
and death. Through Lent, we carry this last Epiphany with us. The Gospel today challenges
us to consider what it means for the Chosen One to be a Suffering Servant. But we are not
yet at the foot of the cross. First, we are to follow along these forty days of Lent and
listen to Jesus. During the season of Lent we take time to look back over our lives to see
where we have been and we look ahead to where we are going. So that on Easter we are
prepared to meet our once crucified now risen Lord again as if for the first time.