The Barrel
Transfiguration Sunday
February 25, 2000
Mountaintops
Luke 9:28-37

The Rev. John H. Pavelko

 

 THE SPIRITUAL REALM

C. S. Lewis writes a delightful children's story centered on the adventures of four children. Peter, Susan, Edmond, and Lucy were brothers and sisters growing up in London when the war began. They were just like of any other children. They loved to read stories about adventures and play imaginary games; about knights fighting dragons and making daring rescues; about kings and queens who entertained royalty; and about worlds of magical powers and mysterious beings. They were just make believe games, just times to pretend, until one day they stepped into the enchanted world of Narnia. 
With the bombing of London, the children's parents sent them to live with a Professor in the country. The Professor was a very old man with shaggy white hair, which grew over most of his face as well as on his head making him look rather odd. When they first met, Lucy was a little afraid of him and Edmund had to conceal his laughter by blowing his nose. But they immediately liked him and he allowed them to roam freely about his house.

One rainy day they decided to explore the house. After searching several of the rooms filled with books and pictures and even a suit of armor, Lucy found herself alone in a large room that only had one piece of furniture-a wardrobe. Lucy entered the wardrobe and got in among the coats. She discovered that there was a second set of coats hanging behind the first one. She took a step further, and then another and then another. With each step, she expected to find the wood at the back of the wardrobe, but to her surprise, she could not feel it. As she was wondering just how enormous this wardrobe might be, she noticed that instead of coats brushing her face, there were the branches of fir trees, and instead of moth balls crunching underneath her feet there was snow, and instead of standing in the back of a wardrobe, she was standing in a forest underneath a lamplight.

Before her adventure was over Lucy would have tea with Mr. Tumnus, the faun, (You all know what a faun is? A faun has the legs of a goat, but the upper body of a man.) She would hear about a world of Nymphs and Dryads, talking beavers and Dwarfs; a world ruled by a white witch who had placed a spell upon the land, so that it was always winter but never Christmas.

After the tea party, Lucy found her way back to the wardrobe and returned to her world. She was so excited that she quickly searched for her brothers and sisters to tell them the news. At first Peter, Susan and Edmund thought that she was merely pretending, simply telling them a story about an imaginary land of make believe, but she insisted. She claimed it was a real world with real creatures that talked. Edmund made fun of her. The two older ones were concerned that the stress of being separated from her mother and father may have become too much for their little sister. When she continued to insist that her story was true, Peter and Susan decided to talk with the Professor.

The kindly old man listened patiently to Peter report all the details of Susan's story. He shared with the Professor his concern for his little sister. She had never insisted upon the authenticity of a make believe story. After Peter concluded his account, he waited for the Professor to offer his advice. To Peter's surprise the Professor first words were, "So how do you know, that your sister's story is not true?"

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, is more than a children's story. It is a beautiful allegory of the existence to the spiritual world-the realm we rarely encounter with our limited obsession on the physical world. Yet, the spiritual world exists just beyond space and time. Every once in a while, a door opens and we are allowed to catch a glimpse of the heavenly glories. It happened one day for three of Jesus disciples.

Peter, James, and John were like the four children of C.S. Lewis' story. They were also just like any other person. They lived a rather normal existence. Little out of the ordinary ever happened in their lives. They understood the physical or material world. They could see it, hear it, and grab it. They may have wondered what Moses saw when he stood on the mountain and God gave him the Ten Commandments. They may have thought about what Isaiah and Jeremiah saw and heard the day God spoke to them. But they themselves had never had an encounter with the spiritual world. That world lay beyond their grasp, beyond their comprehension, beyond their experience.

We are people who can understand and appreciate the struggles of the first disciples. Seldom are we allowed to get a glimpse of that spiritual world. It remains a mystery to us. The material world is our reality. But it is possible, every once in a while, for a wardrobe door to opened allowing us to enter into the spiritual realm and enjoy a mountain top experience. 

 THE IMPORTANCE OF AVAILABILITY

Luke tells us that today's story takes place about a week after Jesus held his mid-term exam with his disciples. The exam had only two questions. The first question allowed the disciples to pad their test scores. It did not have a right or wrong answer-who do the people say that I am? Just by telling Jesus what they had heard others say, they received a set of points but the last question was not as easy-who do you say that I am? That question is still a very perplexing question. Not many people are able to give as correct an answer as Peter. "You are the Christ, the son of the living God" With that response Jesus knew that Peter and the other disciples, were now ready delve into the deeper mysterious of the faith, so he headed for the mountains. 

We do not know the exact mountain he chose. Some scholars have suggested that it was Mount Hermon. That mountain is located in SW Lebanon, about ____ from Beirut. It stands at 9000 ft above sea level and has three peaks. It was considered by many to be a sacred mountain. However, the importance is not in the place, but in the people that Jesus took with him to the mountain. He took with him the men that were most available, Peter, James, and John.

Mountain top experiences do not just happen. Sometimes that is very fortunate. I would not want a mystical experience while driving a car. Imagine how you would feel to see Jesus, Moses and Elijah sitting in your back seat. Mountain top experiences usually occur when we are willing to step aside from the busyness of life, from the activities, from the appointments, from the responsibilities. They occur when we are willing to make ourselves available to God. I wonder how often we fail to see the spiritual world or have mountain top experiences, simple because we are so unavailable. We are so immersed in the physical world. Our schedules are so saturated with activities that we simple do not have enough time to allow God to reveal to us his glory. Seldom do we set aside time and simple walk away from the hurriedness of life. 

A famous Swiss psychologist once said, "Busyness is not of the devil, it is the devil." When our lives our filled with activity, we develop a limited focus. We forget about the world that is beyond our senses, the world of the Spirit. The Kingdom of God becomes just another religious cliché that we say on Sunday morning or maybe during our bedtime prayers. It is not apart of our earthly reality. That world lies just beyond this realm of space and time.

We need to be more disciplined to make ourselves available to God, to take time to journey to the mountain; time when we retreat from our responsibilities and duties; time to take a break from our schedule; time to set aside the activities of life and to focus and the splendor and wonder of God. Retreats are not luxuries. They are necessities to a vibrant faith.

 BY GRACE NOT WORKS

After they arrived on the summit of the mountain, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed and the disciples slept. They may have been tired from a long day of climbing. They may have even been exhausted by the rigorous demands of the ministry. Luke does not try to conceal the misdeeds of the disciples. He is the only author to record their morning nap but he is not trying to embarrass them; rather he is presenting their human frailty to strength our resolve to faith and commitment. The disciples were not chosen because they were more righteous than other men or women. Their lives were filled with inconsistence and weakness, yet God still appeared before them.

When God wants to bring us into a deeper awareness of his presence, he does so because of his grace not our works. Mystical experiences are never earned. They are not gold medals for spiritual athletes. The disciples were so humbled by their experience. They refused to talk about it for quite sometime. They understood that they had not earned the special privilege that had been granted to them. The response of the three disciples is consistent with the words of our Lord to several people after he healed them. He told them not to tell anyone. I do not think that he was using negative psychology. I think that he understood our tendency to brag about our spiritual experiences.

As we move deeper into the spiritual life, we must remember that our experiences and our growth are not merit badges to be worn for show, but opportunities to understand the nature of God himself. Our experiences in prayer are opportunities that come by grace and grace alone not because of works lest anyone should boast.

 THE EXALTATION OF JESUS CHRIST

After his Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared before Jesus and talked to him about his pending death in Jerusalem. Seeing the three men and filled with awe, Peter attempts to capture the Kodak moment by announcing his building plans. Robert Schuller would have been proud of the fisherman. Building is a very natural human response but it diverts attention away from the spiritual world and unto the physical. Bricks must be put into place. Bills must be paid. The color of the new carpet must be discussed into the late hours of the evening. After a few late night meetings with these topics on the agenda, we like Peter loss sight of the significance of the vision.

When he offered to build three tabernacles Peter lost sight of the significance of our Lord. Jesus was not just a prophet. Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah. Peter had just made that confession eight days prior but in the excitement of that mountain moment, he had forgotten what he had previously said.

By offering to build three tabernacles, Peter had also lost sight of our Lord's calling. The Son of God did not come to dwell in the safety and security of the mountaintop. Peter once again had to be reminded that the life of the Messiah included humiliation, shame, and a Cross.

Luke provides us with two important criteria for judging the authenticity of a mystical experiences, first does it exalt Jesus and Jesus alone? Secondly, does it prepare a person to walk a path of sacrifice and suffering? God does not provide visions and dreams to disperse the boredom of life? Heavenly ecstasies are not dispensed merely for personal enjoyment. When God pulls back the veil and allows us a glimpse into the heavenly glories he does so to call us to a life of sacrifice and service. 

 THE MOUNTAIN LEADS TO THE VALLEY

After spending the night on the mountain, Jesus brings the disciples back down into the valley. There is a longing in all of us to stay on the mountain, to avoid the problems and struggles of the valley. Peter enjoyed the summit so much that he wanted to build three tabernacles. He wanted to preserve the moment. He wanted to escape from the struggle of ministry and the problems of the valley.
Noel Paul Stookey wrote a song in the 70's shortly after the group, Peter, Paul, and Mary temporarily disbanded. I have often wondered if the song was partly autobiographical for Paul. The song is entitled John Henry Bosworth. It is a story of a man who in 1968 decided to escape the turmoil of America. You may remember that year. Riots swept through nearly every major city in our country. The protests against the war in Vietnam were become more strident. There was a growing so unrest. So, John Henry Bosworth sold everything he had and bought a farm in the country. Life on the farm was wonderful. He enjoyed his family, the land, and his God. But John Henry Bosworth soon discovered that he could not escape the suffering world. In 1984, the nation collapses in war and chaos. In panic, people flee the city seeking refuge in the country. This time John Henry Bosworth does not run, he does not defend his property or his rights to property. Instead, the lyrics to the song go:
Open the doors he cried
Let the brothers and sisters inside
I got everything to give and nothing left to hide.
John Henry Bosworth made the discovery that a person cannot escape from the problems of life. He cannot hide from the pain. Once we encounter the brilliant presence of the living God we are called to share, not build a memorial. Paul concludes the song with this message:
And I was wondering if you had been to the mountain,
     to look at the valley below.
Did you see all the roads leading down to the valley,
     did you know which way they all go.
Oh, the mountain streams run pure and clean 
     and I wish to my soul that I could always be there.
But there's a reason, for living way down in the valley
     that only the mountain knows.
We not called to live on the mountains but in the valleys of life, where people hurt, where prayers are not answered, where people doubt and people suffer, the place where we do not see many visions.

Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy were not allowed to live in Narnia forever. Peter, James, and John had to walk down the mountain and return to a hurting world. Mountain top experiences last only for brief moments. They are wonderful, exhilarating moments that invigorate our faith but we are called to serve. We are sent out to heal. We are to live in the valley but may we always remember whom we saw on the mountain.
 

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