August 6, 2017, What Are We Doing Up Here? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000036
It was just two weeks ago that we got the call from Sam that Sharon was fighting for her life in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit in Burlington. When I came into the hospital from the parking garage I was met by Sam’s son, who guided me down corridors and up elevators and around corners and finally to where Sam, and Sharon’s son Barry, and Barry’s wife Annette were keeping vigil over Sharon. Most of you know what ICU rooms are like – sort of a perpetual twilight and a strange mix of hushed voices and nonstop activity and the continual humming and beeping and buzzing of all the big machines clustered around the hospital bed. And in that surreal atmosphere we gathered around Sharon and anointed her and together we prayed for her. We prayed the prayers for the end of life, the “last rites”, to bless Sharon and commend her into her Father’s keeping, if he chose to take her home that night. But we also prayed that God would be gracious to us and heal her, and let us have her a little longer. And in that strange and foreign place we could feel that God was among us. I would say that on that evening we had a mountaintop experience: a moment when we could feel the presence of God with us in our need.
There are a lot of different kinds of mountaintop experiences. We often think of mountaintop experiences as those times when we are on a retreat or in worship, maybe with a large group of people or maybe in a small, intimate gathering, when we feel a kind of excitement, a euphoria, and a strong sense of God’s presence with us. But I think even more often we experience the presence of God most clearly in our hard times, when we are afraid, or sad, or anxious, or in despair. Sometimes it is when our whole life seems to be caving in that we suddenly hear that still, small voice of God that assures us that we are not alone. Suddenly there is a little light breaking into our darkness, and we have hope. Those are also mountaintop experiences, because they are moments when we are lifted up out of our plain old natural lives for a moment, and God reveals himself supernaturally to us as he is. We might not even be able to describe our experience to anyone else in words, but in our hearts we know what we know. And that knowledge stays with us.
Today we read the two great mountaintop experiences of the Bible – the first, when God called Moses up onto Mount Sinai to give him all the instructions the Israelites were going to need to live as his holy nation – not only the Ten Commandments, but the whole legal system and all the health regulations and exact specifications for the construction of the Tabernacle, which would be their portable Temple during all their years in the wilderness.
And when Moses came down from being with God on the mountaintop, not only did he have all those instructions and commands, but he had been physically changed. In Genesis it says that Moses’ face was shining. Not shining metaphorically like we would say someone’s face is shining meaning they look really happy, and not shining in some way that can be explained naturally like a really bad sunburn. This was clearly supernatural, so that when he came down from the mountain, and the people saw him, they were afraid because they could see he had been with God.
The other great mountaintop experience in the Bible happened about two thousand years later, when Jesus took Peter and James and John up on a different mountaintop to pray – a sort of a leadership retreat. And Jesus began to change before their eyes. His face and his clothes became dazzling white. Luke literally says they flashed like lightning, and Mark, who heard the whole thing from Peter, said that Jesus’ clothes became whiter than anybody on earth could bleach something, which was his was of saying this was not something that could be explained in any earthly terms. It was something divine, not human. God himself was there, and they were terrified, not because God is bad and scary, but because the glory of God, even in small doses, is overwhelming.
Most of us will never have quite that dramatic an experience of God’s presence, but we do have times in our life when we feel the presence of God with us in a way that is beyond anything we can explain away in normal human terms. Maybe it’s a sense of great comfort or peace or joy in a time of sadness or despair. Or maybe it’s a sure and sudden sense of hope, not because the circumstances around you have changed but because you know that no matter what happens, you aren’t going to be alone. Or maybe it’s simply a sense of awe, as if for just a moment the curtains of heaven had been pulled open the slightest bit, and you catch a glimpse of the perfect goodness that is beyond human comprehension.
But if you have sometimes found that it’s hard to know what to do with these mountaintop experiences, you aren’t alone. Even Peter, who was a personal friend of Jesus himself, got so overwhelmed that he started babbling stupidly. “It’s a good thing we’re here, Lord” he said, “We can build three tents, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Because sometimes, when we have these experiences of the presence of God, what we want more than anything is to just stop right there and package that good feeling up so we can keep it forever. But that’s like seeing a beautiful rainbow and worrying so much about getting a good photograph of it so we can preserve it that we forget to really look at it and enjoy it right then, before it fades away. Sometimes instead of enjoying God’s presence we get wrapped up in trying to hold onto our experience. Even on that day of the Transfiguration the glory faded and they had to go back down the mountain and back into real life.
But while they were still on the mountain, and while Peter was babbling on about making tents, a cloud came down and surrounded them all, and God spoke to them out of the cloud. “This is my Son, my Chosen One,” God said. “Listen to him!” The first thing for us to do when we feel the presence of God with us is just to be quiet and listen – to “be still and know” him like it says in Psalm 46. Because the more we try to hold onto our experience, the more we try to be in control of it, the harder it is for us to receive what God is giving us in that moment.
There is a wonderful verse in the first chapter of second Corinthians where Paul writes: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Our mountaintop experiences are often at one and the same time the hardest and the most glorious moments of our lives. God makes himself known to us in our times of loss or fear or pain or loneliness or despair. And because he ministers to us in the times and places of our greatest need, those very things that we suffer become opportunities to minister to people who are facing the same kinds of obstacles in their lives. Our mountaintop experience might be knowing God’s presence after a painful divorce, or after the loss of a child, or in the midst of overcoming an addiction, or while we are battling cancer – but whatever our struggles have been, very often we find that God brings people into our lives who are suffering in the same way that we have suffered. And we find that because we have been comforted by God, we are able to be comforters ourselves. Because we have known his presence, we are able to make his presence known to them.
Because the thing about this gift of God’s presence is that, like all the gifts he gives us, he doesn’t give it to us purely for our own personal gratification. The gifts that God gives to each of us are for the good of others. And so, the vision of glory that was given to Peter and James and John on that day had a purpose, not just for them, but for the Church. They were being prepared to become founders and pillars of this brand new thing called the Church. And about thirty years later, Peter wrote about the day of his mountaintop experience when he was in prison in Rome, and he knew his death was not far off. At that time the Church was under attack by persecution from the outside and by false teaching from within. And in that dark time, Peter reminded them about the glory he saw that day on the mountain: “It wasn’t some kind of a clever fairy-tale,” he wrote, “We saw the glory of God with our own eyes. And we heard the voice of God with our own ears. Now, pay attention to the teaching we have for you like a lamp shining in a dark place.”
For thirty years or more, Peter had treasured in his heart the memory of his mountaintop experience – not because he held onto the feeling, but because he had listened and believed the truth of what had been revealed to him. And in the fulness of time, his experience became a light for the Church in a dark place.
We can’t hold onto the feelings of joy or comfort or hope that we experience when God reveals himself to us in our mountaintop moments. We always have to come back down the mountain again, and our feelings will always fade away. But like Moses’ shining face, we are changed by our encounter with God in some real way that even other people can see. And like Peter, our experience of God’s presence makes us able to be his presence to others in our own unique and very important ways, to comfort others with the comfort with which we have been comforted, or to bring light into their lives as light came into our lives in our own darkest time.