Monday, February 27, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Rethinking Mountaintops

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, February 26, in Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

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Matthew 17:1-9

And after six days, Jesus took along Peter and James and John, his brother, and led them up onto a high mountain by themselves. And he was changed before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, and they were talking with him. And Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you want, then I will make three booths: one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” And while he was speaking, behold a bright cloud enveloped them, and behold a voice from the cloud said, “He is my son, the beloved one, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” And when the disciples heard they fell upon their faces, and they were very much afraid. And Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise and don’t be afraid.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus by himself.

And as they were going down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Don’t tell anyone the vision until the son of man from death might be raised.

Rethinking Mountaintops

Remember, oh, about a month ago; during worship, we remembered the baptism of Christ, and I told you every year, on the first Sunday after Epiphany, if you follow the lectionary, you focus on exactly the same thing. Well, on the last Sunday after Epiphany, you know, the one right before we enter Lent and start looking toward Easter, we do the same thing, only this time it’s with the transfiguration, that time Jesus went up to the top of the mountain and was changed right there in front of God and everybody and then started talking to Moses and Elijah, who actually looked pretty good, especially considering the fact that they’d both been dead for quite a while. But you know, it’s really kind of neat, the way this works out. I mean, the season of Epiphany starts with a voice from heaven saying, “He is my son, the beloved one, in whom I am well pleased” and ends with that same voice saying, “He is my son, the beloved one, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

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Anyway, each year this same story comes up from either Matthew, Mark or Luke, this year we’re in Matthew, and because of that, I’ve written a lot of sermons dealing with the Transfiguration. And you know, it’s interesting, looking over some of the old stuff I’ve preached, well, in the past I seem to have spent a lot of time warning people about what we call “mountaintop experiences.” Now, if you haven’t been around the church, you may not know what I’m talking about. Let me explain. A mountaintop experience is a time when, for whatever reason, you feel really, really close to God. Now a lot of times it happens when you’re at church camp or on a retreat, maybe even a mission trip of some kind, you know, a time when you’re away from your every day lives and almost surrounded by the presence of God. Of course, you don’t need to be in the middle of the woods to feel this special closeness. Man, you reach the mountaintop by going down into your basement if that’s a place where you can pray and meditate. And I’ll tell you, if you’ve had one, it can be an incredible, maybe even life-changing experience, one that you may never forget. Sort of like what Jesus and more particularly his disciples experienced in the passage we just read. Now that’s what I mean by a mountaintop experience.

And like I said, for years, I used this story to kind of warn people about this stuff, and I’ll tell you why. Not only did I believe mountaintops can tempt folks to try to escape or ignore the often harsh realities in the real world, I’ve also known some very dedicated believers who seem to spend their entire lives trying to recreate something they experienced at church camp when they were in high school. And I’ll tell you, if you spend your life looking backwards, it’s pretty hard to move forward. And so, when preaching the transfiguration, I’d generally remind the people that although being on a mountain may be nice and fun for a while, life is lived in the valley below. It’s sort of like cotton candy: it tastes good but you wouldn’t be very healthy if that’s all you had. In other words, I preached that all this stuff can make us so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly good. Now, in a nutshell, that was my view of the top.

But you know, in the last, oh, I’d say six months or so, I’ve been rethinking mountaintops in general, you know, the kind of experiences we’ve been talking about this morning, and in particular, what happened to those disciples at the transfiguration, and I’ll tell you why. I can’t see any reason why mountaintop experiences couldn’t do for us the same thing they did for Peter and James and John. I mean, I don’t see why they can’t refocus our attention and remind us of our savior and then return us to our world, refreshed, renewed and ready to do the things God has called us to do. And that’s why I’m rethinking mountaintops, but let me explain.

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First, like I said, I’m coming to believe that going to the top of the mountain can really refocus our attention, in other words, it can help us put our lives and our work and our values in the proper perspective, in a more Godly perspective. And in my book, boy is that necessary now a days, because from where I stand, there’s an awful lot of over-stressed people running around. And that shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise. Man, we’ve got stress coming from work and family and take it from me, the church. We’re pressured by responsibilities and expectations that seem mighty high right when time and help are in short supply, and I’m not just talking about Maggie’s Birthday slash sleep-over a couple of day ago. I mean give me a break, I think there are times when we all feel over scheduled and underfunded, overloaded and understaffed, overwhelmed and underappreciated. And even though it may not send us screaming into the night, it sure wear’s on us, doesn’t it? And I’ll tell you, when we’re right in the middle of this mess, that’s when we need to look to the mountaintop, in other words, seek out those quiet and simple moments with God. And although we may find them in the middle of the woods or swinging a hammer on a Habitat for Humanity project, we can also feel God’s presence when we simply slow down, get quiet and start listening for that still small voice. And you know, it’s amazing, when we do, I’m convinced the stress is going to ease, and we’ll be able to appreciate the gifts that we have, whether it’s the job that sometimes drives us crazy but also pays the bills or the child that sometimes we may swear is going to put us in an early grace but who has also filling our lives with joy and beauty and hope or the God that we sometimes push aside and try to ignore, but who has never stopped loving us. You see, mountaintops can help us refocus on what’s really significant and for me that’s the first reason they’re important.

Image result for transfigurationAnd second, I’m telling you, they can also remind us of the one we call savior, and of course I’m talking about Jesus Christ. I mean, it’s when we’re on the mountaintop, when we’re closest to God, it’s then we can share the experience of those disciples. For example, when we’re quiet, in prayer or meditation, that we can get a glimpse of his glory, a glory that shone from his face at transfiguration and that we can see when we remember the life he lived and the love he showed. But not only that, I think we can also know his importance, because not only is he still above every other lawgiver and prophet in human history, I’m telling you, that voice from the cloud still speaks, it speaks right to us, it still interrupt what we’re saying and tells us to listen to him, to listen to the beloved son of God, to listen to what he taught and preached, lessons and sermons we can find right here in the Bible, if we take the time to look and follow. Man, we can be reminded of the glory and the importance, but again, that’s not all. We can also feel his care. You know, it’s amazing, in the passage we read, when those disciples were down on their faces, trembling with fear, Jesus went to them, and he “...touched them and said, ‘Arise and don’t be afraid.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus by himself.” And brothers and sisters, the same is can be true for us. Regardless of what we face, Jesus still comes and he still touches and he still comforts. And you know, if this is something you’ve never experienced, maybe it’s time to seek out that mountaintop, because it’s up there that we’re reminded of just how great our savior is. And for me, that’s the second reason they’re important.

And finally, in a very real way, since it can help us refocus and then remind us of the one we serve, the mountaintop actually prepares us to return to the real world, and I’m talking about returning to lives that are crammed full of stress. You know, in one aspect, my view hasn’t changed at all: we just can’t live on the top of the mountain all the time. And Jesus must have known that, because at the end of the passage we read, Matthew wrote, “And as they were going down from the mountain...” No, coming down is just a part of living. But you as we follow Jesus down, well, I don’t think we’ll be the same people who went up. I mean, no matter how crazy things get in our lives, and let’s face it, they can get pretty crazy, I don’t think we’re not going to forget what’s really important. In other words, we’ll come back with a renewed appreciation of both the gifts and the giver. And I also don’t think we’ll be able to push aside the glory and the importance and the care of the savior who’s love we may have never fully appreciated before. And then, having been refocused and reminded, we just might be different people, ready to not only face the junk that comes up in each and every life, but able to help others cope and maybe even find their own path to the top of the mountain. And that’s the third reason they’re important, at least to me.

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And you know, it’s interesting. I don’t think I would have said that, even a few years ago. Because, looking back, I was so concerned that people would either want to stay up there becoming, like I said earlier, “so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good” or if they had to come down, spend the rest of their lives trying to recreate the experience, which, I think, would lead to the same result. And so I was kind of down on the whole thing. But you know, recently I’ve been rethinking mountaintops and am coming to the conclusion that since they can really help us refocus of attention, they can remind of the one we follow and they can then return us to the world refreshed and renewed, well, maybe mountaintops can help us become a little more heavenly, leading to a lot more earthly good.

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