Mountaintop Experiences

This morning’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Mark 9:2-10.

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Steve Urkel's unrequited first crush on Laura Winslow made him famous.

Who remembers their first real crush?  C’mon, who doesn’t?  It’s one of the most unforgettable rites of passage in life.  It happened to me in the seventh grade.  Her name was Brooke.  She was funny, pretty, and everything else that a thirteen year old guy could want.  Above all else, what I liked best about Brooke was that she was so very kind.  Those of us who have ever worked with middle schoolers know how rare that is.

It was about that time when the rest of our friends at school were beginning to pair off with one another.  We were goofing off as usual and I joked that we should get together too.  I believe her exact words were, “Yuck, no!”  And we all had a good laugh.  But then… something happened.  It occurred to me that it might not be the worst idea in the world.  In fact, I kind of liked the sound of it.

And that’s when I was initiated into a whole world of “strange new feelings.”  I’m sure you all remember the symptoms: your heart is pounding, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t think, and you can’t even breathe.  It seems like they should have some kind of medication for that.  The mental topography of your world gets turned upside down.  Before, all you thought about was: “Where is my locker?  Where will I sit at lunch?  What route should I take to my next class?”  After, all you can think about is: “Where is her locker?  Where is she sitting at lunch?  What route is she taking to her next class?”  It’s a good thing the police can’t read your mind when you have a crush, because I’m sure we’d all be arrested for stalking.

My first crush hit me like a ton of bricks.  Even though we had been friends since we were little, I looked at this person and it was like I was seeing her for the very first time.  I saw my friend in a whole new light.

This morning, we’re celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration.  We’re remembering a significant moment when some of Jesus’ friends looked up and saw him in a whole new light for the first time.

The story began about a week earlier, when Jesus was traveling through a village called Bethsaida.  On his way through town, Jesus met a blind person.  Everybody knows what happens next: Jesus instantly heals the person, everybody cheers, and a party ensues.  Right?  Wrong.   What happens next is the only time in the four gospels that Jesus doesn’t instantly heal someone.  He has to do it twice.  After the first time, Jesus asks, “Can you see anything?”  The person says, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”  There was some improvement, but things still looked blurry.  So Jesus had to go back and try again.  After the second attempt, the person was able to see.

Immediately after this two-part healing, Jesus and his disciples were traveling along the road between Bethsaida and the next town.  Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples tossed around some of the more popular theories, most of them involving reincarnations of prophets from Jewish history.  Then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?”  And Peter, in a moment of insight, declared, “You are the Messiah (the divinely appointed ruler who would liberate Israel from foreign oppression).”  And then, I suppose, the Sunday school teacher must have given Peter a gold star for his theologically perfect answer.

But alas, the glorious thrill of success was short-lived.  In the very next breath, Jesus started explaining that, while Peter was right about the Messiah part, he was wrong about the definition of the word Messiah.  The anointed leader would be a suffering servant, not a conquering king.  I guess the Sunday school teacher had to take that gold star back.

Peter went from spot-on to dead wrong in a matter of minutes.  Like the blind person in Bethsaida, Peter’s eyes were very slowly being opened.  He wasn’t the person he used to be, but he wasn’t yet the person he would become.  He was still somewhere in the middle.  After chewing Peter out for his right-yet-wrong answer, Jesus promised, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”  Did you get that?  Jesus said, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see.”  Peter is learning how to see things in a new way.

Fast forward one week.  The very next scene in Mark’s gospel is the passage we read from this morning: the story of the Transfiguration.  Peter, along with James and John, follow Jesus up a mountain on a spiritual retreat.  While they are praying and meditating, they started seeing Jesus in a new way.  The text says that Jesus was “transfigured before them.”  Now, the New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek word for “transfigure” is “metemorphothe,” which is where we get the scientific term metamorphosis.  Metamorphosis, you may remember, is what we call the process whereby a tadpole becomes a frog or a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  For Peter, seeing Jesus in this new light was like watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon and spread its beautiful, colorful wings.  It was a like a thirteen year old boy seeing his childhood playmate become his first crush.  Everything is the same, yet everything is different.  The text says that Jesus’ “clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

And then, things get really weird.  They notice that there are two other figures standing near Jesus and talking to him: Moses and Elijah.  They were the two of the most prominent prophets in the Jewish religion.  Their appearance meant that Jesus must be important enough to be in the same club as them.  Even though something new and unique was about to happen through Jesus, it would stand in continuity with the heroes who had come before him.  This would have been very important to a Jew in the first century.

In Peter’s mind, an event this big deserved some kind of commemoration.  He said, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  That’s understandable, isn’t it?  When we have those big moments in life, there’s always a part of us that wishes we could just stay there forever.  I can’t blame Peter for feeling that way, but once again, he is only just beginning to see.

While Peter is getting ready to build a memorial on the site of this event, a thick fog rolls in and obscures everything from view.  Interesting, isn’t it?  This passage is all about learning how to see in a new light, yet right in the middle of it, all this glorious seeing suddenly stops.  And somewhere in the fog, a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  The mysterious voice in the dark fog said, “Listen!”  Don’t build a memorial.  Don’t stay here with your mountaintop experience.  Just listen.

When the experience was over, Peter and the others walked back down the mountain in a kind of stunned silence.  This whole mountaintop experience had left them with a lot more questions than answers.  Like the blind person in Bethsaida, Peter was still learning how to see.  Unlike the blind person in Bethsaida, things were becoming less clear, not more clear.  Peter just wasn’t quite sure about what to make of it all.

A lot of people have had “mountaintop experiences” of one kind or another.  For some folks, they are sudden, dramatic, and profoundly religious in nature: they feel like they’ve been “born again” or “filled with the Holy Spirit.”  For others, the spiritual awakening happens gradually over time.  These folks come to recognize a growing sense of peace or serenity in their lives that wasn’t there before.  Others find it in their vocation: maybe a job that you were just “meant to do,” or a cause that you deeply believe in.  Some experience it the accomplishment of particular tasks: that perfect moment as you sand the last rough edge off a table you’ve just built, the sight of compiled and sorted data on a computer screen, or the last note of a difficult piece of music that you’ve been rehearsing for weeks.  Maybe for you it comes with the feel and smell of a hot cup of coffee on your back porch in the morning or the sight of the sun slipping slowly over the horizon as your fishing line rests in the water.  All of these mountaintop experiences are sacred, whether we realize it or not.  They are beautiful moments of deep clarity and awareness.  They are a gift.  They open us up to a whole new world that we never thought possible.

But they never last long enough.  Sometimes it seems like a split-second or less and then they’re gone.  Like Peter, we wish we could just build a dwelling and stay in that moment forever.  But that’s just not how it works.  The fog of real life rolls in and we have to walk back down the mountain to where we came from.  But even though the moment can’t last forever, maybe there is some part of it that we can take with us into the rest of our lives.  Maybe we’ll be able to sense that mysterious voice of love calling to us from within the fog and saying, “Listen!”  “Pay attention!”  “This is important!”

If we can heed that advice, if we are truly listening, we’ll find that all of our moments are just as profound as those mountaintop experiences.  Just like the poet William Blake said, you’ll be able “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”

We are not alone.  All of life is sacred.  Life itself is meaningful.  Our various kinds of mountaintop experiences can help us to see that truth more clearly, if only we would stop trying to memorialize them and build our dwellings in them, if we would instead listen with the ears of our hearts to what they will teach us, and trust that the light is always shining, even if we can’t quite see it all the time.

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