Mountain Top Experiences
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Mountain Top Experiences. When everything seems right in the world: just the right people are around you, you feel content and joyful, and you just don't want the moment to end; it's like the happy ending of a movie, except in real life. Moments like that make wish you could freeze time or capture the moment in a bottle and relive it over and over.
In our Gospel reading, the disciples were having one of those Mountain Top experiences. The Transfiguration of Jesus was one of those events you never want to end. Jesus was transformed from His normal human appearance to shine like the sun and dazzled Peter, James, and John with His brilliance. They could still recognize that it was Jesus, but they saw Him in a way that they had never seen Him before; they actually could see that Jesus is not only a Man, but also God. The transfigured Jesus is presented in all His glory, the glory He possesses as the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
Peter didn't want the Transfiguration to end. He'd been following Jesus for quite some time now, and finally, Jesus was making a good showing of who He is, the Son of God. So Peter said, "Lord, it is good for us that we are here. If you want, I'll make tents for you and Moses and Elijah to stay in," which would prolong their glorious mountain-top experience indefinitely.
When we have mountain-top experiences placed into our lives by the Lord, we should enjoy them and thank Him for them, but we shouldn't get stuck on them, fixated on them, as if our life should only be about seeking mountain top experiences. Every day and moment is a gift from the Lord to us, and Jesus is always pulling us forward into more and better things that He has in store for us. As Psalm 118[:24] says, "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!" In His Word, the Lord gives us cause for rejoicing every day of our lives, so we should never get fixated on the experiences of our past or obsess about the search for momentary pleasures.
Peter fell into that trap. He wanted to hold on to that mountain-top experience, but God the Father didn't want Peter to get stuck in the moment. God had other plans for Peter, James, John, and Jesus on that day; He had more and better things to reveal to them. Even as Peter was saying, "'Tis good Lord to be here," a bright cloud came over all of them, and "a voice from the cloud said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.' When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified."
What do you think God's glory is like? How do you imagine it? If He were to make an appearance right now, what would you expect? Do you think His entrance would be loud, bright, overwhelming, awe-inspiring? Would His presence and voice shake the earth to its very foundations? And if God is like that, do you really want to meet Him—the Almighty, the King of Creation, who placed the stars in the heavens, controls the rain clouds and oceans, and formed mountains to tower majestically over the world? Do you really want to encounter such a God?
The voice of God on the Mount of Transfiguration was enough to scare Peter, James, and John to death. Even as Peter was trying to hang on to the glory of Jesus transformed before their eyes, God the Father reminds Peter that he wasn't ready to experience the glory of God's presence.
What happens to sinners when they come in contact with God's glory and hear His voice directly? In the Bible God's unveiled presence often strikes terror into the hearts of men. Think of Adam and Eve after the first sin, hiding from God in the Garden of Eden. Think of Mt. Sinai, with the glory cloud and the devouring fire upon it, which was God's presence as Moses received the Law, terrifying Moses and the people. After Moses came down from the mountain, his skin glowed from being in direct contact with the Lord, and even that reflection of God's glory terrified the people of Israel. Think of Isaiah's vision in the Temple, when he thought he would be struck dead since he was a sinner in the hands of a holy God. Or recall when Jesus caused a miraculous catch of fish and Peter fell on his knees before Jesus and said, "Depart from me, O Lord; for I am a sinful man." (Luke 5)
The glory of God is too much for us to bear, since in its light we are exposed for what we are: condemned sinners who are unworthy of the glory of God. As St. Paul put it, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The light of God's glory shines into the deepest, darkest parts of our hearts and exposes us for what we are. When a sinner enters the unveiled presence of God, there is no hiding from His judgment. The book of Hebrews says that the Lord sees "the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Hebrews 4:12-13).We would be ashamed and humiliated if we were stripped naked and exposed in public. And if we fear being caught naked in public, nude before the eyes of the world, then should we not even more so fear having our sinful hearts exposed to God, who judges the living and the dead? You don't want other people to know the dirtiest, cruelest thoughts you have ever had, so you hide them deep within, and make sure not to tell anyone; but God knows them, and we must give an account to Him for all our sins. Jesus said, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).
That is the kind of fear Peter, James, and John experienced on that mountain, when God's glory overshadowed them and He spoke. In just an instant they went from a Mountain Top experience with Jesus to a deep fear of God the Father.
But again, the Lord had better plans for Peter, James, and John. Just as God didn't want them to get stuck in the glorious experience of Jesus' Transfiguration, neither did God want them to die of fright, or get stuck in fear because of His overwhelming presence. As they were on the ground, face down, frightened to death, "Jesus came and touched them, saying, 'Rise, and have no fear.' And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, 'Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.' "
Jesus comes to them and makes everything right. His touch and words brought about a state of peace for the disciples. The words of Jesus do what they say. The fear in the hearts of Peter, James, and John was driven out, and they took comfort in the presence of the man Jesus, the same old Jesus they knew so well. In view of the terror they had just experienced, they must have had another Mountain Top experience. They had that profound sense of gratitude you get when the Lord rescues you from a dangerous or difficult situation, and He gives you a fresh start.
Peter, James, and John then were able to calm down and process God the Father's words from above: "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him." Now they get the point of this whole event. Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God. He is God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God. But He is also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, and that is how we are to have access to Him and His Father. We are not to look for God in mystical mountain top experiences, or try to seek God's glorious unveiled presence; we are to find God in the man Jesus Christ.
We sinners often think we would prefer to have God come to us in power and glory, but we should be thankful instead that Jesus meets us where we're at. We don't have to climb the ladder to heaven, through philosophy, or mystical religion, or by pleasing God with good works; no, God comes down to us, dwells with us, and presents Himself to us in the gentle voice of Jesus, "Rise, don't be afraid. I am with you." And notice that Jesus does not speak while He appears in all His transfigured glory; He doesn't want us to get stuck with notions of finding glory here on earth. In fact, Jesus immediately tells the disciples not to tell anyone else about this event until He is raised from the dead. And that takes us again to the heart of the matter: that Jesus Christ is the crucified One, and on the crucified Christ is where our eyes should be fixed. He tells His disciples that the cross is where He is headed. He was not bound for glory, at least not the glory of power and might that the world expects from God.
This must have disappointed Peter since he had wanted to stay at the glory moment. He thought visible glory was the way Jesus should manifest Himself to the world, not the cross. The Transfiguration is in Matthew 17, but if you jump back a chapter to Matthew 16 you see Peter's consistent desire for a glorious Christ, not a suffering one. Finally, at the Transfiguration, it seemed that Peter's wishes were coming true, with Jesus presented in all His glory. But then, the command from the Father, "Listen to Him," and what does Jesus go and tell them? That He will suffer and die. No glory in that. Again, Peter's hopes were snuffed out.
But Jesus would not let Peter get stuck. Jesus Christ is Lord, and He does His work of saving us in His own way, on another mountain top, Mount Calvary, on the cross, naked and shamed, suffering and dying for Peter's sins and ours. That excruciating Mountain Top experience for Jesus is our salvation, since there Jesus Christ was crucified in our place. In fact, it is precisely on the cross that Jesus shows His glory as the Son of God. I know, that doesn't fit into your usual way of thinking about the glory of God, but just listen to what John's Gospel says:
On the night Jesus was betrayed, "He lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said, 'Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him' " (John 17:1-2).
How does Jesus glorify His Father? How does Jesus show His authority over all sinful flesh? How does Jesus give eternal life to His people? He does all this in His death, when the Father glorifies His Son, and shows Him to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Redeemer, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man who gave His life as a ransom for many. And in dying, Jesus glorifies His Father, by showing that God loved the world in this way: by sending His only-begotten, so that all who believe in Him will not perish but will have eternal life.
Christ was glorified on the cross for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins. All of you who have been baptized have been baptized into Christ's death for your sins; your sins have been washed away; you are forgiven. And the Father did not let the Son remain in the tomb, but as Jesus had predicted, He would rise on the third day for our justification, so all of us who are baptized into Him are clothed with His own righteousness and therefore surely will participate in the resurrection from the dead and enjoy a permanent Mountain Top experience in heaven.
But how can you be sure that all of this is true? What if you have doubts about this message? Do you long for a sign, like the Transfiguration, to make your faith in Jesus more sure? Are you looking for a glorious miracle or revelation of God to confirm your faith?
Peter helps us out here. In our Epistle reading, which St. Peter wrote some 30 years after witnessing the Transfiguration, he says, "We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,' we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain."
So, for one thing, we have Peter's eyewitness testimony about the Transfiguration to confirm the glory of Jesus as God's Son. But then Peter says the most remarkable thing:
"And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."
What Peter is saying is that since we have God's Word in the Bible, we have something even more sure than getting to see the Transfiguration in person. Why is this Word so sure? Because, Peter says, the Scriptures were not produced by the will of sinful humans, but God has spoken to us in His Word. The men who wrote the words down were carried along by the Holy Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit of Christ, "who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets."
When they were on the mount of Transfiguration, God the Father said to the disciples, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him." He was speaking to us as well, for we are disciples of Christ through Baptism and faith. How do we listen to Jesus? We listen to His Word in the Holy Scriptures, which He says are filled with the Holy Spirit and life. We listen to His Word preached and taught in the Church, which He promises to be effective in producing faith in our hearts. We listen to His Words in and about the Sacraments.
And what does Jesus say there? Jesus says, "Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved." In your Baptism God says to you, "You are My beloved child." And He doesn't go back on His Word. Even more, this morning, we hear Christ's gracious invitation, "Take, eat, this is My body which is given for you; take, drink, this is My blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." When you hear those words of Christ, in the words of institution and the words of distribution, you are hearing those words from Jesus, who still meets us where we're at. He knows that we cannot bear God's unveiled presence, His glory, but the Son of God veils His true body and blood under the bread and the wine so that we can receive His forgiveness and righteousness at this altar. And friends, as long as we dwell here on earth, we should enjoy the Word and Sacraments as experiences that confirm that one day soon we will come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, for a final and permanent mountain top experience in the resurrection of the righteous on the Last Day. Even so Lord Jesus come quickly! In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.