February 23, 2020: “The Mountaintop Experience”

Epiphany Transfiguration, Series A,  2020

Exodus 24:12–18

2 Peter 1:16–21

Matthew 17:1–9

Pastor Mark Opgrand

“A Mountaintop Experience”

We don’t know how many years had passed after Peter went up the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and then referred to it in his second letter.  

Unlike gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who heard about the experience second hand,  Peter’s was an eyewitness account.  

Let me share again what Peter said… using the New Living Translation:

Peter writes (1:16ff): 

16 For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes 17 when he received honor and glory from God the Father. 

The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”

 18 We ourselves heard that voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain.

 19 Because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets.  (2 Pet. 1:16-19 NLT)

It certainly… was … an experience not to be forgotten. 

Anyone who has ever visited the Holy Land and travelled up the Mount of Transfiguration has also not forgotten that experience.

That was a particularly vivid time for me when I toured there twenty years ago.

Whenever I think of the Transfiguration, (translating the Greek metamorpheo.. (from which metamorphosis comes), I always come back to an observation about these scriptures:

Even though the Bible has 66 books and a lot of words, the stories that were handed down were not edited by a novelist.  

Many Bible stories, especially in the New Testament, are mostly short and to the point; …. with not a lot of description. 

Like when we read…in Matthew here … “Six days later,”  [that is,…. (I’m adding this) … Six days after Peter had confessed that Jesus is the Messiah]

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  

And he was transfigured before them,”

Quickly the story moves from “They were there”… and now “they are here.” 

This is no Lord of the Rings. If it were, there would be great detail in describing the journey.

A novelist like Tolkien would be very descriptive  of the landscape and what the disciples experienced along the way, 

…what they saw,

…how they felt

… what all happened to them … on their way up that mountain where Jesus was transfigured. (changed)

But both gospel writer Matthew and letter writer… Peter are quite short in their descriptions.  

So if we are to be … embraced… and touched by the power and glory… of this story, we usually have to do a little imagining. 

It helps, a little…. of course, to actually see the mountain firsthand.

Mt. Tabor is in northern Israel, about six miles east of Nazareth and about ten miles west of Tiberius and the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a very large lake).

This whole area is extremely beautiful, very green and fertile, with lots of fruits and vegetables growing wherever land can be cultivated. 

In the middle of what looks like a large valley … is the mountain.   

It’s a big, graceful sweeping round mound about 1,700 feet high.  

Its distinctive look means that you can’t miss it.

There are rocks on Mt. Tabor, but also thick pine forests.   To walk to the top, would be quite a hike. 

The mountain itself … isn’t that mysterious. 

There are no unique rock formations or mystical skyline or sharp peaks or mysterious caves.   

It does offer a great view, and you can see a great distance … through the pine trees that grow on top.  

According to Matthew, no sooner did Jesus and these three get to the top when everything became immediately bright

… the face of Jesus, his clothes…. 

And suddenly …  along with Jesus appeared two of Israel’s greatest leaders, Moses and Elijah. 

A novelist/ editor would probably explain how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah, but clearly they knew. 

And like with other holy ground experiences, they believed this place should be hallowed by making three dwellings for worship.

Then … came the bright cloud… (now we don’t see many of these or any of these days.) 

The clouds we usually see roll in are dark storm clouds.  

But here … it was bright, and from within they heard the voice… “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Twenty years ago, when our tour group of pastors were on the top of Mount Tabor, we had some free time. 

A few of us wandered off a bit, away from the big church that was eventually built to commemorate all this, away into the forest.   

More than the beautiful church, this was the place that touched us most.

Being there …. it was natural …  to imagine Jesus and these three disciples travelling to this very spot… (or a spot just like this)

To get further into imagining the story, however, is to imagine fear. 

It is easy enough to imagine the hike… but then this…. it was unlike anything they had ever seen … a complete surprise.  

Even Peter’s confession that “You are the messiah” six days earlier prepared none of them for this glimpse …  into God’s glory

Nothing prepared them for this experience of God who made the heavens and the earth and all things in it   …. revealing himself to them 

… through this cloud 

… and through his voice

… and through his transfigured son.

Standing in a spot that might have been the spot…. I could barely imagine it myself.  

But I sensed that if I could fully imagine it, I would certainly be on my knees in fear. 

No wonder the Bible talks about “the fear of the Lord.”

It is one thing to hope for something… even something good.  It is another thing to behold God…  face to face.

When that happens, even in a small but powerful degree … that is referred to as a “mountaintop experience.”

This is where that phrase comes from … here on this mountain… as well as Moses’ mountaintop experience on Mt. Sinai.  

That is where Moses came face to face with the glory of God who gave him the Ten Commandments.

Nowadays…. the words “mountaintop experience” have been used to describe any great unforgettable experience … whether it connects with faith or not.

Maybe that’s why the term “God moments” are also used to describe faith-based mountaintop experiences.

When we look at this story in the context of the disciples’ time with Jesus, (according to Matthew) we see it happened just about midway in the full narrative. 

It likely served as a real foretaste of the glory to come … and encouragement when times ahead were tough.

A novelist editing this … might have later added: 

“During the dark times ahead… the disciples remembered what they had seen and heard on that mountain and it gave them great hope and encouragement….”

One person who had this kind of experience … was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  

One of his most famous speeches drew heavily on his own mountaintop experience of faith.

This is where he said… “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. 

But it doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. 

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. 

I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. 

And I’ve looked over. 

And I’ve seen the promised land. 

I may not get there with you. 

But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. 

And I’m happy, tonight. 

I’m not worried about anything. 

I’m not fearing any man. 

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

This was the final speech King gave,   – the day before he was assassinated.

It remains a powerful witness… and encouragement  … in the face of a terrible tragedy.

I believe the disciples were given their mountaintop experience because God knew they needed it.

They needed that glimpse of God’s glory to underscore that all this was real.

Jesus the Christ… was real. 

God was has a plan)

Furthermore…. I believe we need an experience like this … as well…if not to this degree … at least … to some degree.

Sometimes they take the form of sweeping revivals … like during the Great Awakening in colonial America.

Sometimes   it’s as God uniquely encounters certain individuals … and calls them into witness and service.

Regularly it takes place whenever people participate in study, worship, and  prayer…or just come together to serve in Jesus name…. 

These moments happen… when  people experience clarity in their believing

–as faith-based friendships form 

–as people of faith lean on each other

…and  support each other….

… and minister with and to each other.

There are many ways deeply meaningful …experiences…  happens.

In our church … over the past 25 years, people in our church family … have regularly participated in the via de Cristo weekend retreats.

 This is where the love of God has been keenly expressed and experienced … as people have drawn closer to God.

We pray that’s happening right now for Pastor Jonathan and the other participants. 

Last week we had a representative from Agape-Kure Beach Camping ministries visit us.

Camp Agape, along with Lutheridge and Lutherock have always been places where special God moments happen for both young people … and adults. 

We need the God moments … we need the mountaintop experiences … and we thank God… for however and whenever… they come. 

They may not be dazzling moments… as with Peter, James, and John … but …  by God’s grace…they may be…  dazzling enough…

or… quiet enough (maybe that way, too).

It’s not always loud and bright.

But may they happen… for each of us… so that we can be encouraged and have hope… in our journeys.

I pray for each one of you

… that in God’s own way… 

… and in God’s own time

you will have these transfiguring God moments….  

If you have already been blessed with them… Thanks be to God…

If they are yet to be, may they be so, in Jesus name may they be so. Amen.

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