March 6, 2011

A mountain top experience

Passage: Matt. 17:1

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led  them up a high mountain, by themselves.

Many years ago in my student days, I spent a summer working in Banff, Alberta.  Coming as I did from Ontario, I’d never experienced real mountains before.  I’ll never forget my first sight of those magnificent peaks.  I was sitting in the dome car of a CPR train approaching Banff as the mountains came into view.  The sight of them filled me with awe.

That summer, although I was engaged in heavy physical work, first at the Banff Springs Hotel and later at the School of Fine Arts, I spent all my spare time hiking in those mountains.
I hiked to the top of a good many of them in and around Banff;  all the ones tourists climb.   But there was one mountain to which I felt drawn.   Mt. Rundle wasn’t  on the agenda of the tourists, because it offered challenges and risks that most hikers weren’t willing to take.  To climb this mountain, you had to first register at the ranger’s office, so that in the event that you didn’t return home on time, searchers would know where to start looking for you.

It took me many weeks to get up the courage, but finally, (in company with 5 friends), we set off on the long journey climb.  All we had in our knapsacks was a lunch and a few oranges to quench our thirst.
The ascent began on a narrow trail that petered out by the time we reached the tree line.  From there, the way ahead was a long sloping rock face, covered with loose shale, making it very difficult to gain a firm foothold.  But that didn’t stop us; after all we were young and foolish.  On we went.

It took us more than 5 hours of hard slugging, with one near tragedy as a member of our group began sliding down the slope, but finally we reached the top.  As we stood there on the ridge, with a sheer drop of nearly a mile on the other side, we were thrilled with a sense of accomplishment and wonder as we looked out on the world below us.   To the  east, we could see all the way to the prairie, nearly a hundred miles away.  From this vantage point, the other peaks which from the valley had seemed so high, were now dwarfed below us.   The view was breathtaking.  It was like standing on top of the world.

The mountains of the Holy Land are not nearly so spectacular as Mt. Rundle, yet at the top of two of them events occurred events which changed our world.  The first involved Moses, who was summoned by God to the summit of Mt. Sinai.  The second, nearly 1,500 years later, was when Jesus led three of His disciples to the top of Mt. Hermon.   Both mountain top experiences record intimate moments in the presence of God;  although the two are vastly different in both content and meaning.

Moses was summoned to the mountain top in order to receive instructions from God that would shape the life of the People of Israel, teaching them how to live godly lives.  We know those instructions today as the 10 commandments.

But when Jesus climbed to top of Mt. Hermon, it wasn’t to receive instructions from God, but rather to demonstrate to His disciples, that He had received God’s stamp of approval; that Jesus truly was the Son of God.

Both experiences however, were transforming.  In Moses’ case, the Bible tells us that:  “the skin on his face shone, because he had been talking with God.”  (Exodus 24:29)  In other words, His face shone, not because of who he was; but because of who he was with.  His face reflected the glory of God.  However when Jesus was transformed on Mt. Hermon,  “His face shone like the sun”, (Matt. 17:2) because of who He was, not who He was with!  The difference between these two events is enormous.

This morning, we’re going to take a closer look at this latter mountain top experience, in order to discover what it can teach us.

We’ll begin first,  by looking at the timing of this event.

The Transfiguration is one of the very few incidents within the life and ministry of Jesus, that is tied chronologically to another event.    The Gospel writers are very precise about this.  They tells us that the Transfiguration occurred 6 days after Peter had answered Jesus’ question, - “Who do you say that I am?”

You’ll remember that Jesus had begun that conversation with His disciples, by asking:-  “Who do people say that I am?”  To which several disciples replied: – well, “some say You are John the Baptist; but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.  But then Jesus asked a more pointed question:  But “who do you say that I am?”

Jesus knew what lay in the future for Him.  He was well aware of the forces of evil that were mounting against Him, and that they eventually would arrest, torture and kill Him.   And so He knew that the faith of His disciples was going to be severely challenged; challenged like never before.  Jesus wanted to do everything He could to prepare His disciples for that crisis.
It had been Peter who demonstrated the strongest faith that day; for he replied (without hesitation) – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus blessed him for this strong support, saying that upon him, – Peter, ‘the rock’, He was going to build His church.

However, it’s one thing to verbally pledge allegiance, and quite another to follow that pledge with action.   And unfortunately, human beings are often weak when it comes to putting faith into action.  Jesus knew that the strong commitment which Peter had voiced, wasn’t going to be enough to get him through the events of the coming days.

Peter’s weakness showed itself almost immediately by the way he responded when Jesus told them that He was going to Jerusalem, and that while there He’d endure a great deal of suffering, and then be killed.

It was a message none of the disciples could understand or accept.  Hearing these words, Peter cried out:- “God forbid it, Lord!   This must never happen to You.”  But Jesus looked squarely into the eyes of His, much loved disciple, and rebuked him, saying:  “Get thee behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me.”  (Matt.16:21-23)

Those were harsh words for someone who only moments earlier had won the praise of Jesus.  But what Peter thought the role of the Messiah should be, was diametrically opposed to Christ’s mission.  In fact, none of the disciples were prepared to accept that their Master, their Lord & Saviour, who would one day be martyred.   It was contrary to everything their Jewish traditions had taught them.

This clash between what the disciples expected, and what was actually going to happened, marked a pivotal turning point in Jesus’ ministry.  And for that reason, 6 days later, Jesus led His three closest disciples (Peter, James & John) up into that mountain.

The Gospels don’t identify the mountain, saying only that it was a high mountain, but  tradition tells us it was Mt. Hermon.  And so it was there, during a time of  prayer, that Jesus’ appearance was dramatically altered.  The Gospels tell us that His face began to shine like the sun, and His clothes became dazzling white, and then the disciples became aware that Jesus was talking with two distinguished personalities whom they identified as, Moses and Elijah.   It’s Luke who tells us that the subject of this conversation was Jesus’ impending death.

But whatever it was that the disciples saw and heard that day, Peter’s response was a typically human one;  He wanted to freeze the moment in time; because it was so momentous.
Perhaps you’ve had an experience like that.  It may have been during a very stimulating conference, or an exciting week at summer camp; some place where you’ve developed very close friendships and had a wonderful experience which left you on an emotional high.   If you have, you know how difficult it is when that experience comes to and end.  You simply don’t want to leave it.  You wanted to hang on that emotional high.

Well, that’s how Peter felt.  That’s why he wanted to build 3 tabernacles or sanctuaries, in order to contain that holy experience.

However, he had no sooner made this request, than they heard the voice of God, saying:  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;  listen to Him.”   Then just as quickly as it had begun, the vision ended, and they were once again alone with Jesus.  But the disciples were so overcome by fear and awe, that they fell to the ground.

Now I’d like you to try for a moment, to put yourselves into the shoes of those disciples.  If you’d been there and had such an awesome experience, how would you have responded?   You’d have wanted to tell everybody about it, wouldn’t you!  You’d have written it on your blog; and texted as many friends as you could reach.  You’d have been so filled with excitement that you wouldn’t have been able to contain it.

That certainly is how disciples felt.    Well imagine then their response when Jesus said:-  “tell no one about this vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Tell no one!!  How could that be?  Why wouldn’t Jesus want everyone to know it?

There’s no question but that Jesus Himself received strength and reassurance from this experience.  But that’s not why He exposed His disciples to it.  The primary reason He brought His 3 closest disciples up to see this wondrous event, was to strengthen their faith.

You see, if the disciples weren’t absolutely sure who Jesus, before they had to face the dark days that lay ahead, they’d never be able to cope with it.  So it was crucial that His strongest disciples should know, that beyond the darkness and tragedy of Jesus’ suffering and death, there was going to be a bright outcome.   They needed to understand that Jesus was fully supported and guided by God; and that He was doing God’s will.

Of course, we know that in spite of this wondrous experience, they were still going to have great difficulty getting through this crisis.   And there would be moments when they’d show weakness and fear, and fail to support their Lord.

But the transfiguration experience was for them; and them alone.  Yes, there would come a day when they could share what they’d seen and heard with other believers, - but not now.  For now the experience was for them alone, to solidify their faith, and give them strength.

For now it was time to return to reality; to go down off the mountain, and get back to their daily routines, and carry on with their mission.

So, what does this transfiguration experience have to do with us today?

Well, we can be raised within a Christian family; be baptized, attend Sunday School all during our younger years, and attend worship services as adults.  We can know the theological language of our faith; and even go through the motions of committing our lives to Christ as our Lord and Saviour.  But until we actually encounter the living Christ, in a moment of intense revelation, where we truly sense His nearness and His touch upon our life; and come to realize beyond a shadow of doubt - He is alive and with us today; - until such a day, our faith is purely academic; - mere words.

In order for our faith to be truly effective, we all need a mountain top experience; an experience where we come face to face with the reality that Jesus is in fact the Christ, our Saviour; the One through whom our salvation is assured.  He’s not just a character from Bible; a person who lived long ago.  He is alive and with us now.

But how do we attain this mountain top experience?  Well for some, it comes easier.  I’ve known people who had such an experience when they were very young.  But for others, it involves a life time of practicing their faith, until one day it happens; that eye opening experience when they know that Christ is with them.

I believe the best way to climb your mountain, is through a faithful practice of daily prayer and Bible study.  You need to become so familiar with the stories told by those who knew Him personally, that you begin to see through their eyes the wonder and glory of this man Jesus; and to experience the intensity of His love and healing power.  And whether it happens suddenly, or gradually, a day will come when you too, through the eyes of faith, will see Jesus transformed.

For those unfamiliar with daily meditation, may I suggest you begin with the Upper Room devotional guide; for it provides not only guided Bible reading but also the testimony of modern day Christians from all around the world, who speak about their faith; and their relationship with Christ.

I can assure you; that if you make the effort, and engage in daily meditation, your life will be transformed, very much as the lives of the disciples were transformed on that day of Transfiguration, so long ago.