Sunday’s sermon: Crazy Mountain Journeys


Texts used – Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9

  • There’s something magical and mystical, spiritual and stunning about mountains. It’s their grandeur – the way their peaks sometimes reach so high they are obscured by clouds, the way their sheer size and magnitude dwarf anything and everything about being a human, the way they embody beauty and life and danger and isolation all in one breathtaking moment.
    • First time I remember seeing the mountains – visiting Aunt Karen when I was 10 (Kalispell, MT on the edge of Glacier National Park)
      • Cabin up in the mountains – “rustic” to say the least!
      • Walking through the forest → no big deal … we have forests back home
      • But then: Mountain meadow!
      • Now, I could attribute my feelings of awe and reverence to growing up in the Midwest – this place of flat plains and rolling hills at best. The things we call “mountains” around here don’t even reach “foothill” status in places where there are real mountains! But I think it’s more than just that. Because my aunt grew up in New York spending her summers in the Adirondacks … and she’s still blown away by the beauty of the Rockies out her front door every morning. My cousin’s spent her whole life in Montana, and she has a deep, powerful, spiritual connection to those mountains in a way that lets her see them new every time she goes for a hike. Like I said, no matter where you grew up or how many times you’ve seen them, there’s just something magical and mystical, spiritual and stunning about mountains.
        • John Muir (naturalist and conservationist, founding member of Sierra Club, inspired Pres. Teddy Roosevelt to establish first national monuments and congress to establish first national park): “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
    • Mountains have captivated the attention of artists for thousands and thousands of years
      • Poems
        • New – “Let My Soul Flee” by Connie Marcum Wong[1]
        • mountain-poem
        • Paintings
        • Photography
        • Songs
        • And so on. Be honest … does anyone else see Julie Andrews in their head? Twirling ‘round and ‘round with her arms outstretched and singing, “The hills are a live with the sound of music?” You know what, though? That’s the thing about mountains – the magic, the mystery, the pull that they have. When you’re near them, whether you’re standing at the base of the foothills or somewhere higher up among the ridges and peaks, mountains can feel alive.
          • Ever-changing as the earth shifts and changes
          • Makes them a challenge
          • Makes them unpredictable – both dangerous and exciting
          • For people who climb mountains – whether they’re attempting to summit Everest or hiking the Rockies – this is one of those things that keeps them coming back: the changes, the challenge, and the sense of exhilaration that comes from that experience.
  • “Mountaintop experiences” in terms of faith: those highest-of-high moments when something about our faith has us overjoyed and enthusiastic
    • Feeling of harmony and connection and encouragement and strength, feeling that you have been in God’s presence → These are the moments that bolster us and empower us to continue putting one foot in front of the other. These are the moments that sustain us in the difficult times, the dry times, the low times, the dark times.
    • Today’s Scripture readings = mountaintop experiences, both literally and figuratively → But from the outside looking in, they’re not the mountaintop experiences we might expect.
  • OT reading = Moses and Joshua heading up Mt. Sinai to be with God
    • CONTEXT:
      • After Moses has brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and they’ve escaped Pharaoh’s army by parting the Red Sea and some pretty rough experiences in the wilderness (scarce food, scarce water, lots of whining/complaining Israelites)
      • Before the incident with the golden calf à Israelites decide to make a false idol to worship because they feel too far removed from God
        • Want something tangible
        • Want something visible
    • Actually, it’s today’s Scripture reading that leads to the Israelites feeling like they needed the golden calf in the first place. – text: Moses had said to the elders, “What for us here until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur will be here with you.” … Then Moses went up the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. … To the Israelites, the Lord’s glorious presence looked like a blazing fire on top of the mountain. Moses entered the cloud and went up the mountain. Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.[2] → Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet with God and ended up staying there for 40 days and 40 nights. He didn’t tell the Israelites exactly when he would be back, and from the ground, it looked like Moses had walked right into an apocalypse – clouds and fire! – and he just stayed there! For more than a month, Moses stayed on top of that mountain.
      • Caused the Israelites to worry and be afraid because Moses was their connection to God → his sudden and extended absence led them to seek out another god experience
    • “Mountaintop experience” for Moses = incredible
      • Receives 10 commandments from God on the stone tablets
      • Receives all sorts of other instructions about how the tabernacle is to be constructed, how offerings are supposed to be made, how the priests are supposed to present themselves, how Sabbath is to be observed, etc. – 7 long chapters in Ex = God’s instructions to Moses up on that mountain)
      • “Mountain experience” for those left waiting on the ground = fear, anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness → thought that Moses had abandoned them
        • Needed another leader → choose Aaron in Moses’ absence
        • Needed another god → create the golden calf
  • And the people of Israel were not alone in their “outside-looking-in” mountaintop experience. → NT reading
    • Today’s story = often called “The Transfiguration” (hence Transfiguration Sunday) because Jesus is transfigured by God
      • Transfigured in appearance: shining face and shining clothes
      • Also transfigured in his ministry → From this point on – after Jesus comes down that mountain with Peter, James, and John – his ministry moves from one of healing and teaching to one focused on Jerusalem and Golgotha and the cross, a journey that will be just as baffling and unsettling and frightening for his disciples as Moses’ journey was for the people of Israel.
    • I must admit that I’ve always found this one of the strangest stories in the Bible. Jesus and his closest disciples go up on this mountain, Jesus is transformed into this shining being, and then suddenly Moses and Elijah show up to have a quick chat with the Son of God. Peter, being thoroughly perplexed but also feeling like he has to do something, offers to building a couple of shrines – “one for you [Jesus], one for Moses, and one Elijah”[3] – because what else are you supposed to do in a situation like that?! Then God’s voice comes booming out of the cloud declaring again what was said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!”[4] And the disciples, so overwhelmed by the magnitude of this experience, fall to the ground in awe. (Because really … who wouldn’t?!) And Jesus (being Jesus) leans over them and says, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”[5] And when they get up, Moses and Elijah are gone and it’s time to head back down the mountain … expect that on the way down to join all their companions, Jesus says, “Hey, by the way, don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”[6] Yup … just a typical day in the lives of the disciples? Not so much.
      • Weird story, right?!
      • Again, mountaintop experience for one person (Jesus) = vastly different than experience of those observing it (disciples)
  • Therein lies both the blessing and the curse in mountaintop experiences: they’re exceedingly personal. They are a moment between you and God. Period. No spectators or peanut galleries allowed. So sometimes, to the people around us – no matter how close those people are to us – our euphoric mountaintop experiences are going to look like crazy mountain journeys. → reality that speaks to the importance of how we share our faith with others, how we tell our story
    • Importance of something that’s become a pretty scary word in mainline Christian tradition: EVANGELISM (*gasp*)
      • Word that’s picked up a lot of negative baggage over the decades → For many people, the term “evangelism” has come to mean “a belligerent and one-sided attempt to convert others to our way of seeing things, an activity that necessarily implies that those who do not believe as we do are therefore lost or in error.”[7]
      • BUT “gospel” in Gr. (whenever it shows up in the NT) = euangelion = literally “good news” → evangelism: sharing the good news of our faith, sharing our story, sharing the power and encouragement and meaningfulness of our mountaintop experiences with others
    • Peter = perfect e.g. of this – one of the other assigned lectionary readings for today: 2 Pet 1:16-21 → Peter sharing his experience, his faith story, the Good News (i.e. – Peter evangelizing)
      • 2 Pet: We didn’t repeat crafty myths when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary, we witnessed his majesty with our own eyes. He received honor and glory from God the Father when a voice came to him from the magnificent glory, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. In addition, we have a most reliable prophetic word, and you would do well to pay attention to it, just as you would to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.[8]
  • You see, here’s the thing about mountaintop experiences: Whether they’re our experiences or experiences that others have shared with us, they’re not meant to last forever. Just like Moses and Jesus, Peter and James and John, we cannot build dwellings and hunker down and live only in those moments of utter bliss. Because that’s not real life. Sometimes real life is the climb to that mountaintop – a journey full of anticipation and hard work, expectations and keeping that ultimate goal in view. And sometimes real life is coming down from that mountaintop – trekking a path we cannot clearly see down out of the clouds into the valleys below, places of darkness and uncertainty. But that is the journey that lies ahead of us.
    • Sarah Trone Garriott (ELCA YCW from MN serving in IA): We can’t stay here: on the mountain, apart from the world, in the bright and removed peace of our sanctuaries. Jesus is leading us onward, down into the valley, straight into death…and through.
    • Friends, it’s no coincidence that Transfiguration Sunday is always the Sunday before Lent begins. In his later testimony, when he’s speaking of that time on the mountain, Peter says, “We have a most reliable prophetic word, and you would do well to pay attention to it, just as you would to a lamp shining in dark places, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” The part of the journey that lies ahead of us – the journey through Lent to the darkness of Good Friday – is a journey down off the mountaintop and into the valley. We know that there is light on the other side – the light of resurrection and hope and new life – but first, we must face the darkness. Transfiguration Sunday is that brilliant flash of light before the darkness falls. It is Peter’s “lamp shining in dark places.” It is that mountaintop experience that we need – that exhilaration and joy and connectedness in the presence of God – that will sustain us as we journey into Lent together.
    • Words from hymn we’re about to sing: “God of day and God of darkness, now we stand before the night; as the shadows stretch and deepen, come and make our darkness bright. All creation still is groaning for the dawning of your might, when the Sun of peace and justice fills the earth with radiant light.”[9]

[1] Connie Marcum Wong. “Let My Soul Flee,” found at Posted 2014, accessed Feb. 23, 2017.

[2] Ex 24:14, 15, 17-18.

[3] Mt 17:4.

[4] Mt 17:5.

[5] Mt 17:7.

[6] Mt 17:9 (emphasis added).

[7] Brian Stone. “Reclaiming the ‘E’ Word” in Old Testament Gateway, accessed via PDF at, Feb. 26, 2017.

[8] 2 Pet 1:16-18.

[9] Marty Haugen. “God of Day and God of Darkness,” verse 1. © 1994 GIA Publications, Inc.

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