Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
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On The Mountain With God

Mark 9:2-10

 This may sound strange, but maybe one of the things that has attracted me to the God of the Bible is my love of the mountains.  I’ve loved the mountains for most of my life now.  Some of my fondest memories are of days spent in the mountains, most often with my brother Michael.  

 Our first foray into climbing mountains came when we were in our late teens and we climbed Mt. Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont.  Two days later, we went next door to New Hampshire to climb the highest mountain in the Northeast, Mt. Washington.  That was an awesome adventure.  If anyone from out West tries to tell you that we don’t have any real mountains in the East, tell them to go climb Mt. Washington.  We did it on July 14th, the middle of summer, and we got hit with a snowstorm and 70 mile per hour winds.  You can drive to the top of Mt. Washington, but you can’t really experience a mountain until you climb it.  There’s the adventure and the challenge.  And you appreciate the view from the top so much more if you have to work for it!

 We’ve climbed several others over the years: Mt. Katahdin, the highest in Maine a few years later, then went up into Quebec and climbed in the Chic-Chocs Mountains, which are just about as far off the beaten track as you can get.  We went to Newfoundland and did a four day trek through the Gros Morne mountains, which was my favorite trip of all time.  And when my brother lived in Montana for a few years, I went to visit him there and we climbed a few peaks.  Sharon went with us, and we actually got her up 3000 feet on Sentinel Mountain.  Though I doubt we’ll ever get her to do it again!

 Maybe my love of the mountains helps me to appreciate the significant mountain top encounters with God in the Bible even more.  There are several of them.  Moses met God on Mt. Sinai.  So did Elijah several centuries later.  And in the New Testament, we have the Mount of Transfiguration where three of the disciples encountered God on the mountain, but this time in the person of Jesus Christ.  Let’s have a look at it:

 First of all, let’s talk about the setting.  This is just after Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi.  Caesarea Philippi was a remote place, north of the Sea of Galilee.  There he asked them, “Who do you say I am?”  And Peter famously responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  But then Jesus revealed that his purpose as the

Messiah was to die on the cross.  The disciples did not take that well.  Peter just as famously told Jesus he was “off his rocker.”  And Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan, you have the things of man in mind, not the things of God.”  

 After that difficult experience, Jesus decided that his disciples needed something to reassure them about God’s plan.  Six days later, he took them up onto the mountain.  Six days recalls that in the book of Exodus, Moses was on the mountain for six days before he saw the glory of God.  This is just one of the many “points of contact” between Mt. Sinai and the Transfiguration.

 Jesus only took three of the disciples with him.  Again, this is a point of contact with Mt. Sinai, where three men, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, are named as companions of Moses when he went up to meet God.  These three were Jesus’ “inner circle,” his closest and most trusted companions.  And several times, Jesus shared experiences with them but not with the rest of his disciples.  They alone were with him in the Garden of Gethsemane.  They alone saw him raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead.  Eventually, they would be told to share this experience with others, but not yet.

 They went up on a high mountain by themselves.  Tradition says it was Mt. Tabor.  But this is probably one of those times when tradition is wrong.  Mt. Tabor is not high.  Nor would they be alone there.  The Romans had a fortress on top of Mt. Tabor.  And it was also in the wrong place. Caesarea Philippi was north of the Sea of Galilee, and Mt. Tabor was a distance away, southwest of the Sea of Galilee.  

 More likely, they went to Mt. Hermon, which was very close to Caesarea Philippi.  Mt. Hermon is the highest mountain in the Promised Land, over 9000 feet high.  And they would certainly be alone there, since it was covered with snow most of the year.

 There Jesus was transfigured before them.  The transfiguration was the temporary stripping away of Jesus’ humanity so that the perfect fullness of his divinity and his glory could be seen and experienced.  

 Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus in his glorified state and were talking with him.  These two, of course, were two of the most significant figures of the Old Testament.  Moses represented the Law, and Elijah represented the prophets, the enforcers of the Law.  

 As I noted earlier, these two also shared the common distinction of being men who encountered God on top of Mt. Sinai.  According to tradition, they also shared something else in common.  We are told that Elijah did not die but was taken directly by God into heaven.  Many Jews also believed a tradition that Moses also did not die but was taken directly by God.  And some Jews also believed that both of them would return before the coming of Messiah.

 An interesting question:  What were they talking about?  We have no way of knowing, but some people suggest that maybe Jesus was revealing God’s plan to them.  Others suggest that maybe Moses and Elijah were encouraging Jesus in light of the coming trials.  Who knows?

 And then there’s Peter.  “Lord it’s good for us to be here.  Let’s stay!”  Peter didn’t want this experience to end.  And we can’t blame him.  When we’re on the mountain with God, we don’t want it to end either!  We want to stay in that moment where we are intimately and powerfully aware of the presence of God with us.

 Have you been on the mountain with God?  Have you had experiences in your life where you were powerfully aware of God’s presence?  

 The one that stands out to me is from when I was about 17 years old, and I went on a youth retreat to Jumonville, one of our United Methodist camps, which, appropriately enough, is built on a mountaintop, along Chestnut Ridge in Fayette County.  Saturday evening, we concluded with a worship service up at the great cross on top of the mountain.  It was a perfectly clear night, and we sang beneath the stars.  The next morning, we went down to the Green Cathedral, which is an outdoor chapel set among a number of ponds in a forest clearing.  We stood in a circle to sing and take communion together.  The sun was shining and big, fat, fluffy snowflakes fell.  You couldn’t help but feel God present in that whole experience.

 I didn’t want it to end.  I didn’t want to go back to school.  I didn’t want to return to the ordinariness of life, but I had to.  

 Is God only present on the mountain?  No.  God is no less present in the ordinariness of life, though we may not be as aware of his presence.  The disciples did not leave the presence of God when they left the Mountain of Transfiguration.  The same Jesus who was transfigured before them went with them as they left.  And there was work to be done.  Mark’s Gospel tells us that immediately after coming down off

the mountain, Jesus healed a child afflicted by demons.  We can’t stay on the mountain.  A sinful and hurting world needs us.

 We need those times on the mountain to give us the strength and perseverance to get through the difficult times we face in the world.  We need the mountain to give us the resolve to keep going in the day to day.  And I believe that we should seek out those times on the mountain.  Seek the opportunities to step away from the world and encounter God.  We can do that at a summer camp program.  Come canoeing with me in Algonquin this summer; I can pretty much guarantee you that you’ll encounter God in powerful ways there.  We can seek God on a retreat.  We can seek a mountain top experience with God at a special worship service, and sometimes, even in regular worship service.  

 These times on the mountain encourage us to keep going in our faith, and we need that.  Jesus knew that these three disciples with whom he was the closest needed this time to encourage them after the difficult lessons of Caesarea Philippi and before the greater difficulty of the cross.  

 While they were there on the mountain, the cloud of God’s glory, the Shekinah that covered Mt. Sinai and filled the Temple in the Old Testament, that cloud descended on the mountain.  And from the cloud, God spoke, “This is my Son.  Listen to him.”  As if to say, “Let go of all your doubts and trust.”  

 And then it was all over.  No more cloud.  No more shining glory.  No more Moses or Elijah.  The experience was real, but it was over.  But what it taught them could stay with them and strengthen them in the days to come.

 As they descended, Jesus told them not to reveal this till after he had risen from the dead.  It was not to be kept a secret forever, just for a short time until the proper season.

 And I think that tells us one last thing to know about mountain top experiences with God:  They are not to be kept to ourselves.  If you have powerfully experienced God on the mountain, tell others about it that they may benefit too.

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