A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., March 6, 2011.
Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
I’m guessing most of us have had at least one episode in our lives we’d call a “mountaintop experience”. And I’m guessing we’d have a mountaintop experience at church if we took the time to listen to each other describe our mountaintop experiences.
It so happens that I know of somebody that’s had a mountaintop experience just this past week. That “somebody” is my wife, Joani, and I’ve asked Joani to briefly describe her mountaintop experience with us today.
I’m glad Joani could share today because I really needed a fresh illustration of a mountaintop experience for this sermon! But seriously— I’m glad to have an excuse for Joani to describe the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in her life.
Now, even though Joani’s “Listen to Your Life” conference in Atlanta took place in the suburbs rather than on top of nearby Stone Mountain (which is where, by the way, I proposed to Joani), she still refers to the conference as a “mountaintop experience”. That’s because “mountaintop experience” is a figure of speech that comes right out of Holy Scripture.
If the bible is any guide, there’s no better place to meet the divine than on or around a mountain. At least, that pattern held true for the likes of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.
Remember, Moses first met God at the burning bush on Mt. Horeb, which is described in the bible as “the mountain of God.” Later, Moses will climb Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. After hearing those commandments, Moses came back down the mountain and reported to the Israelites all that God had said to him. The Israelites were deeply moved by what Moses reported, and promised to obey all that they had heard.
In Exodus 24 God summoned Moses and a company of others to come back to the mountain. Moses and company obeyed, hiking to the foot of the mountain where an astonishing thing happened: they saw the God of Israel, and they lived to talk about it! This unmediated view of the living God happened once, and only once in the Old Testament. And it happened at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
Then, only Moses and his associate, Joshua moved further up the mountain. Finally, it’s just Moses moving to the top of Mt. Sinai. For six days Moses lingered in the cloud of God at the top of the mountain. Then, for another forty days he remained in the fiery cloud of God’s presence, receiving still more revelation from God.
The prophet Elijah had his share of mountaintop moments as well. Remember, it was on top of Mt. Carmel that Elijah staged his mesmerizing victory over 450 prophets of Baal when God breathed down fire from heaven at Elijah’s request. Then later, on the top of Mt. Horeb, Elijah stood in the mouth of a cave and heard God speak not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the sounds of silence.
And then there was Jesus. Granted, Jesus did some of his best work on and around water, but he was a mountain man, too. The first time we see Jesus on a high mountain is in Matthew 4 when he is being tempted by the Devil. Jesus does not fall to temptation but whips the Devil soundly on the mountain, and the Evil One slinks away, biding his time until he can harass Jesus again. After surviving his 40 day and night fast, Jesus climbs down one mountain only to go up another, where he delivers the greatest sermon of all time, the “Sermon on the Mount.”
Then in Matthew 17, Jesus is once again climbing a mountain—tradition says it’s Mt. Tabor—this time with his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John. Six days earlier Jesus had asked his disciples the question of the hour “Who do you say that I am?” WhenPeter answered, “You are the Messiah, Son of the living God,” Jesus was ecstatic, and on the spot named Peter the future head of the church.
But the ecstasy was short-lived because when Jesus predicted his suffering and death on a cross, Peter reacted so negatively to this unexpected news that Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me….” Jesus recognized the voice of the Evil One again, this time speaking through Peter, and he told him to back off.
For six days Peter and the other 11 disciples have their heads spinning by the prediciton that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, would die on a cross. Now suddenly, Jesus invites Peter, James, and John for an evening hike up Mt. Tabor. And minds that were already spinning are now completely blown.
Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with (Jesus).
A review of both the Old and New Testaments makes it clear as day—when it comes to entering sacred space where you can meet God and/or Jesus face to face, there’s no substitute for a mountaintop. Maybe that’s why to this day so many Christian retreat centers are on top of or around mountains.
Now, as we review Exodus 24 and Matthew 17, I want us to notice certain traits of mountaintop experiences. One trait that gets very little press is that mountain top experiences often involve waiting.
One of the principles of listening to God speak through scripture is that you should notice what causes you to resist as well as resonate. And I find myself squirming when I read that Moses spent six days engulfed in the clouds on the top of Mt. Sinai. Frankly, I can’t imagine being stuck in a dense mountain fog for six days with absolutely nothing to do but look at the fog! And the thought of spending an additional 40 days in the fog listening for the voice of God doesn’t excite me either. That’s almost seven weeks of sitting around in the fog!
On the Mountain of Transfiguration it looks like things happen in a hurry. As soon as Jesus and company reach the summit, he undergoes the mysterious process of transfiguration. But don’t forget that six days prior, the disciples spent their own time in a theological fog, utterly confused about the proposed suffering and death of Jesus. That had to be a long six days. And don’t forget that Jesus didn’t make a move until he had spent his own forty days and night on top of a mountain, and thirty years plying his trade as a carpenter before that.
Did you notice that Joani is in a waiting period after her time on the mountain? She’s still not sure what’s she supposed to do with what she’s learning, and now she’s in her own personal waiting period trusting God to clarify her next move.
Personally, I find waiting very hard to do. Waiting feels like a waste of my time. Recently, when I was complaining to a friend about waiting for God to do something, this spiritually wise person noted that God almost never hurries. For that reason, even people who follow God to the mountaintop will likely find themselves waiting patiently and praying for God’s guidance for their next move.
Notice, too, that mountaintops offer a perfect setting for life-changing transformation. Moses was not left unchanged by his time with God. You will recall that Moses had to return to Mt. Sinai still a third time because he shattered the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments upon hearing that the Israelites had manufactured and worshiped a golden calf in his absence. Upon returning from the top of Mt. Sinai a third time to get a new copy of the commandments we read in Exodus 34 that Moses face was shining so brightly with the spirit of God that he had to veil his face when he was around people.
Jesus’ transformation—called a “transfiguration”—was even more dramatic. Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Appropriately enough, both Moses and Elijah, the greatest lawgiver and the greatest prophet, show up to talk with Jesus. And appropriately enough, a bright cloud overshadows them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” As great as Moses and Elijah were, Jesus was and is greater still. Yes, he would soon be nailed to a cross. But make no mistake— Jesus was the unrivalled son of God.
Peter, James, and John were transformed by the transfigured Christ. At first they were deathly afraid of what they had seen—who wouldn’t be!? But then Jesus touched them and told them to get up and not be afraid. And that moment made such an impression on Peter that years later he would refer to it in one of his New Testament letters as proof positive that that he didn’t make up the gospel, but was an eyewitness to the very power and majesty of Jesus that changed his life forever.
For this reason, friends, it’s only fair to tell you that mountaintops can be dangerous places. Any place be it mountaintop, retreat center, or worship service, that can change you inside out should be considered dangerous. Of course, except for Jesus, even people who undergo mountaintop transformations remain flawed. Moses still had flaws that would prevent him from entering the Promised Land. And eventually Peter would deny the very one who changed his life.
Even so, flaws and all, God sends us from our mountaintops into the valleys below. If you’ll notice, neither Moses nor Jesus retired on top of a mountain. Peter was hoping Jesus would settle in on the summit. That’s why he wanted to build dwellings or booths on top of Mt. Tabor. But our mountaintop moments are not designed by God just to give us warm fuzzies at high altitudes—they are designed to go fill us with the Spirit of God that we have the courage and strength to do the work of the kingdom in the valley.
Keep reading Matthew 17 and you’ll see that during their descent from the mountain the disciples have a frightening encounter with a demon from hell. Apart from Jesus they fail miserably in dealing with the demon. But Jesus saves the day, and then sends his disciples on deeper into the valley, urging them to have the kind of faith that can move mountains, because they were just on one.
These days we’ve been talking about the sacred rhythms of spiritual formation. Here’s another rhythm to add to the list—coming up the mountain to be with God; then going down the mountain to serve God’s people.
There is so much to be done here in the valley. But as Jesus might say, “We can’t work effectively for God in the valley until we have been transformed spiritually with God on the mountain. Whoever has ears, let them hear”
LISTEN TO MY LIFE
LISTEN TO YOUR LIFE
SEE IT FOR THE FATHOMLESS MYSTERY THAT IT IS.
IN THE BOREDOM AND PAIN OF IT NO LESS THAN IN THE EXCITEMENT
AND GLADNESS: TOUCH, TASTE, SMELL YOUR WAY TO THE HOLY
AND HIDDEN HEART OF IT,
BECAUSE IN THE LAST ANALYSIS, ALL MOMENTS
ARE KEY MOMENTS AND ALL OF LIFE ITSELF IS GRACE
This past week I attended a two day conference in Atlanta for facilitators of a program called Listen to Your Life. It involves a series of visual maps which are designed to help us sort through the chapters of our life story and rediscover clues about those places in our life where God has been, and is continuing to work.
David Benner says, “Our challenge is to unmask the divine in the natural and name the presence of God in our lives.” The second part of Listen to Your Life is just as important and that is developing the gift of listening to each others’ stories. One of the authors of the book, Sharon Swing says, “Listening is the art of creating space so God can do His work in the heart of another.”
This time in Atlanta was a follow-up to similar work I did in Dallas two years ago. My time in Dallas was informative and meaningful and challenging, but I would not say it was a mountaintop experience. I would classify Atlanta as a mountaintop experience. What was the difference? In Atlanta, as we met and talked and worshipped, I had a strong sense of energy and enthusiasm and knew clearly that God was saying to me, “The time is right and you are ready to begin this work of listening.” Whereas before, Listen to My Life sounded really interested and well-done, this time it felt truly life giving. God met me in Atlanta and it seemed to me that He was saying, “Let’s do this together.”
As for how this takes shape in the coming future, I don’t really know and I am okay with that because I am very confident that my job is to be willing and available and He will open and close doors. Dan Allender has written, “God has crafted our character and gives us a role that will reveal something about Him that no-one else’s story can reveal in quite the same way.” I am excited to see How God can lead us to discover our unique stories and then become Holy Listeners for each other.