Have you ever had a mountaintop experience? A time when you suddenly saw things clearly? A time when you felt God’s presence? A time when you felt connected to everything?
Some of the people who attended the women’s retreat a couple of weeks ago describe it as a mountaintop experience. The place we stayed in Dillard was more big hill than mountain, but our time together helped many of us to see things more clearly, to feel God’s presence, and to feel more connected to everything, especially to each other.
The thing about mountaintop experiences is that—unless you’re a hermit who lives in a cave on top of the mountain—there’s life before the trip up the mountain and life after. The mountaintop experience—as great as it is—only gains meaning when you look at it in the context of the rest of your life, with what comes before and after….
The same is true about the mountaintop experience we’ll hear about in a minute. We’ve come to call the story the Transfiguration —there will be visions and bright lights and a booming voice from heaven. Oh, it will be a grand scene! But the thing that will give it meaning will be setting it in context, looking at what comes before and after it.
The story begins with Jesus giving his disciples “power and authority over all demons” then sending 2“them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” They return brimming with stories of 310“all they had done.” When Jesus takes the disciples aside for a time of reflection, the crowds find them. Jesus welcomes them and begins teaching. After a while, the people become hungry. The disciples miraculously feed them with two fish and five loaves of bread.
Good news shared, people healed, crowds miraculously fed. Amazing things happen before the disciples scale the mountain! And the good news doesn’t stop there.
After feeding the 5,000, Jesus asks the disciples 18“Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19They answer, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” 20He says to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “The Messiah of God.” 21Ding! Ding! Ding! Right answer! Yet another amazing thing happens before the mountaintop experience: one of the disciples gets something right.
Now, you’d think Jesus would applaud Peter’s insight, his grasp of a deep spiritual truth. But no. He “sternly orders them not to tell anyone.” Then Jesus says22, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Wow. They had been having such fun! Healing and feeding people, figuring out deep, spiritual truths….but this death stuff? That’s no fun. But, as we’ll see in coming weeks, Jesus’ suffering, rejection, and, yes, death, is part of real life down below the mountain.
It’s in the context of all these things—both the good things and the hard realities–that today’s mountaintop experience happens. I think we’re ready to hear it now. Matthew/Chip?
“28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
We could parse this passage. We could look at why Jesus appeared with Moses and Elijah, why it happened at this point in Luke’s story. We could talk about the significance of the light and of the repetition of the words spoken to Jesus at his baptism “This is my son, my chosen…” The thing about mountaintop experiences, though, is you kind of have to be there to completely “get” them. Ask anyone who went on the retreat a couple of weeks ago.
Suffice it to say– whatever happened on that mountain, it was a holy moment, a time when Peter, James, and John saw things more clearly, felt closer to God and to everything else. The moment was so holy, in fact, they wanted to build a shrine and stay there. (A similar sentiment echoed through the halls of the chalet in Dillard: “Let’s do this every year!”)
But as with all retreats, it had to end some time. At some point, you have to come down from the mountain.
Even so, how different their lives must have looked after their mountaintop experience! The disciples must have been floating! They must have been even more capable of sharing good news and healing people than they had been before going to the mountain!
You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But you’d be wrong. The disciples and Jesus come down from the mountain and immediately are accosted by a man whose son is seized by a demon. The man tells Jesus, “3740I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
Are you kidding me? They’d been given “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases” and some of them had just had a mountaintop experience! Didn’t matter. The disciples could not cast out the demon from this man’s son.
It’s not clear to whom Jesus directs his next words—to the man, to the crowd, or to the disciples—but I’m guessing they were meant for the disciples. 41 “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” 42Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, heals the boy, and gives him back to his father. Before the mountaintop experience, the disciples had had no trouble casting out demons. Now? Jesus has to do it himself.
“43While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing,” and rightly they should have been, Jesus says this to his disciples: 44“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” No celebration of the healing he’d just performed…just another reference to his betrayal. Not to worry, though. “T45hey did not understand this saying.”
Okay. So, they’d once been filled with power and authority to cast out demons, they’d been to the mountaintop, and now they couldn’t heal anybody or understand anything. Most people in those circumstances would be doing some serious soul searching, asking Jesus what was wrong with them, how they could get back on the spiritual path. But these people? Listen.
“46An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest.” And not only were they fighting about who was the greatest, but then 4749John says, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 Can you believe that? He who hadn’t been able to cast out a single demon just a few verses before is ragging on someone who can?
Usually, with mountaintop experiences, you think of things getting better AFTER the spiritual high. For these disciples, though, it seems like things were better BEFORE the trip up the mountain. Before the mountaintop they were more humble, they listened better, they had more power to do good. What happened?
Maybe what happened is that they forgot to look at their mountaintop experience in context of the rest of their lives. Their trip up the mountain happened in the midst of real life…in the midst of suffering, on the way to confrontations with authorities, on the way to death. The disciples, it seems, hadn’t made the connection between their mountaintop experience and the real life that was happening down below. In fact, Luke tells us that “They kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”
Have you had a mountaintop experience? Has there been a moment in time when things suddenly became clear and you felt God’s presence and felt connected to everything? Do you long to return to that place and build a shrine there? Or are you working to integrate the experience into your real life down below, real life with all its strains and stresses and suffering?
I asked the people who attended the retreat to share their thoughts about what it’s been like coming down from the mountain. I want to share two responses with you. They describe well the connection between mountaintop experiences and real life down below.
One person said: “I initially thought I was going to the retreat for myself; but I realized that my purpose was to learn how I should help others–particularly my grieving sister. Being among these wonderful women from various backgrounds, sharing our stories of happiness and sorrow, life and death, strengths and weaknesses, gave me a new perspective on how to respond to others’ needs.”
Another person said this: “I went to the retreat because I thought the topic was about balance. I thought it would be about finding balance in your life in general – I thought I would learn better ways to prioritize, find “me time” and maybe figure out a way not to feel so guilty about the things I do outside my home…like work. I didn’t learn any of those things.
“What I did learn on the mountaintop was that there is an amazing and wonderful presence of God in everyone [who] was there. I hadn’t seen that before in those same women that I saw every week in church – not because it wasn’t there, but because I wasn’t looking. I learned things about those incredible women that allowed me to see beyond what I see in the fellowship hall each week. I was able to connect their experiences with their character traits and it allowed me to understand them better. I learned that sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and ask the questions that can mend a friendship, open your heart and mind to someone who may not look like someone you would typically connect with and make sure that people know the positive things you think about them– it could change their life in some small way. I learned that it’s never too late to make things right and I learned that you can learn more than you would have ever thought from someone whose name you didn’t even know the day before.
“The retreat changed me because I truly look at people differently. I remember daily that we are all on a journey and while I have no idea what every person I encounter has gone through, they too have the presence of God and if I acknowledge their journey… and look for the God in everyone, it makes me a kinder, more accepting person. And after that…. The rest of all that balance stuff I thought I was going to learn about really makes no difference at all.” (Angel)
Have you had a mountaintop experience? What difference is that experience making to your real life below? What difference might it make?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013
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The Mission of the Twelve
9Then Jesus* called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases,2and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.3He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.4Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there.5Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’6They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.<!– 7 –>
7 Now Herod the ruler* heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead,8by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen.9Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tried to see him.<!– 10 –>
Feeding the Five Thousand
10 On their return the apostles told Jesus* all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida.11When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.
12 The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.’13But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.’14For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’15They did so and made them all sit down.16And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.17And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.<!– 18 –>
Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
18 Once when Jesus* was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’19They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’20He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah* of God.’<!– 21 –>
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone,22saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
23 Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.25What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?26Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.27But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’<!– 28 –>
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus* took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake,* they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,* one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said.34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen;* listen to him!’36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.<!– 37 –>
Jesus Heals a Boy with a Demon
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he* shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’41Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
Jesus Again Foretells His Death
While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples,44‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’45But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.<!– 46 –>
46 An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest.47But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side,48and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’<!– 49 –>
49 John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’50But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’
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A Samaritan Village Refuses to Receive Jesus
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.