THE MOUNTAIN TOP EXPERIENCE (Matthew 17:1-9)
There is nothing quite like the experience of being all alone on the summit of a high mountain. I remember my first experience of it. I was 15 and had lived all my life in a grimy English industrial town. Then in the Spring of 1960 I went on an Army cadets adventure training weekend in the rugged mountains of Snowdonia.
I can still remember the feeling of absolute awe as I stood on the highest peak in England and Wales, in the crystal-clear air, surrounded by silence, looking down on the rest of the world.
What is it about mountains that leave us so awe-struck? Perhaps it’s because we get a sense of our insignificance compared to creation. Perhaps it’s the silence. Or maybe it’s the clean, clear air. It’s probably a combination of all these and more. Whatever it is, there’s nothing quite like a mountain top experience.
For many, standing alone on top of a mountain is more than a physical experience; it’s a spiritual experience. In fact, we’ve come to use the term ‘mountain top experience’ to describe those times of special spiritual blessing that sometimes come to us; moments of new insight, increased spiritual awareness and heightened joy. They don’t come often, but when they do, we understand a little of how it must have been for Peter, James and John in today’s reading. 60 years later John wrote about it in his gospel: ‘We beheld his glory…full of grace and truth.’ He was speaking of how Jesus had taken the three of them up a high mountain and allowed them to witness what we now call, The Transfiguration. They were blessed with a glimpse of a world beyond any earthly experience.
So, what happened to Jesus up there on that mountain. Matthew’s gospel says, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” Mark says, “His clothesbecame dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Luke says, “His clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.”
Light is the word often used to describe the presence of God. When Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured like this it became clear to them, in a way that surpassed any insights they’d previously gained, that in him was the very presence of God. As the Apostle Paul was later to say: ‘For in Christ all the fullness of the Godhead lives in bodily form.’
But of all the staggering sights and sounds of that day the greatest was that they heard the voice of God. A cloud enveloped them all. It was the same way that God had manifested himself to the people of Israel when they were traveling through the desert, and when they dedicated Solomon’s temple. And then, out of the cloud, they heard a voice which they knew to be the voice of God. It simply said: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’
But did They? Well in one respect they didn’t. If you read the gospels carefully you’ll note that it was immediately before this that Jesus had tried to explain to the disciples that it was God’s will for the salvation of the world that he should be betrayed, be crucified, and then rise from the dead. But the disciples couldn’t and wouldn’t accept that. Then, here on that mountaintop, the gospels tell us that the two greatest figures from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, appeared, talking to him; and the thing they talked about was this very thing – his death and resurrection.
But even this, and the voice of God saying: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’failed to get them to change their minds, and they continued to fight against the whole idea right up to the time when they actually saw him risen from the dead.
Which eventually taught them, and ought to teach us that we have a remarkable capacity for shutting out messages that we don’t want to hear – even when they come from the mouth of God.
But having said that, that word to the disciples: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’is a word to us too. We live in a world full of clamouring voices competing for our attention. We are the victims of information overload. But when we face the biggest questions, who are we, why are we here, where are we going, God simply says: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’
When I think back on my life, I can recall several times that to me were mountain top experiences in the sense that I felt the presence of God in a special way. The most profound was one day in January 1962. I’d only been a committed Christian for a short while, but my newfound faith had become the greatest adventure of my life and I was hungry for more. I went to Manly that day with a friend, who, like me, hungered to know God better.
It was an overcast day and instead of surfing we decided to walk the beaches, finishing up at Fairy Bower at the south end of Manly beach. We climbed to the rocky outcrop and sat there looking at the glorious view, when something happened that I am totally incapable of describing.
Both of us, simultaneously, were overcome with a sense of a presence that filled us with something that I can only describe as the most sublime ecstasy. How long we remained in that state I can’t remember – time didn’t seem to matter. It was only later, as we rode back on the ferry, that we could talk about it and try to make sense of what had happened; but couldn’t; except to say that we’d felt the presence of God. It wasn’t just the beauty of the spot, because I’ve been back there hoping to feel it again, but have not experienced anything like what happened that day.
I believe it was one of those rare moments when God peels back the invisible curtain that separates our world of time and space from that spiritual dimension that is all around us, but which we, limited as we are by the bounds of our five senses, are unable to access, even though our innermost being tell us it’s there.
The older I get the more convinced I am that our greatest need and desire is to have our own spiritual mountain top experience. One of the great conundrums of modern society is that even though church attendance has fallen, interest in spirituality has risen. There is an enormous sense of spiritual emptiness in the western world. So how do we find it? We do it by creating our own mountain top where we can be still and listen. Somewhere, amidst the hurry and bustle of everyday life, we need to create space for silence; a time to be still and know God by listening to Jesus.
Gordon Cosby, an American minister whom I admire greatly, put it this way: ‘The one journey that ultimately matters is the journey into the place of stillness deep within one’s self. To reach that place is to be home; to fail to reach it is to be forever restless. At the place of central silence, one’s own life and spirit are united with the life and Spirit of God. There the fire of God’s presence is experienced. The soul is immersed in love. The divine birth happens. We hear at last the living word.’
For some people the mountain top is a quiet room at night, with the television and CD player turned off for half an hour and the lights turned down low. For others it’s a long silent walk along the beach in the early morning, or along the quiet streets at night. For some it’s a quiet half hour in a city park during the lunch break, or on the train to work when the other passengers are reading or sleeping, and the clacketty clack of the bogies induces a sense of quiet reflection. For me it’s a rocking chair where I sit in the sunshine each morning, with the sound of the surf in the background, and I read the Bible and reflect while I having my toast and coffee.
Whatever it is and wherever it is, we all need our quiet spot and uncluttered moment to simply be still and know God. A few moments carved out of our frenetic lifestyles to read a some verses of Scripture and reflect on them; a few moments for prayer, sharing our hearts and minds honestly with God; a few moments for silent meditation as we allow him to bring to our hearts and minds whatever it may be that he wants for us.
And then it may be that sometime, somewhere, we will have the additional blessing of one of those rare, yet precious moments, which we can say: ‘We beheld his glory…full of grace and truth.’
But there is one last thing that needs to be said. Peter asked Jesus if he should put up some shelters on the mountain. But that wasn’t required because their mountain top experience was only temporary. God doesn’t intend that we should spend our lives in there. Our place is back down on the plain where life goes on.
As they returned their first encounter was with a distraught father whose son was suicidal. Jesus delivered the boy from what was tormenting him. And this story teaches us that we are not meant to live our lives on the mountain top. Jesus always leads us back to where he calls us to be those who bring to others a bit of that light, joy and healing we got on the mountain.
17 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,”he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”