March 2, 2014

Mountain Climbing

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Passage: I Peter 1:16
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Bible Text: I Peter 1:16 | Preacher: Rev. Karl Burden | Series: 2014 Sermons

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.

I would like you to think for a moment this morning, about some event or moment in your life that has been a highlight; a crowning moment; something that you’ll never forget as long as you live.

It may be the day you met your future spouse; – perhaps it’s your wedding day. It could be the birth of your first child; – or maybe the day you moved into your first home where you would raise your family. – It could also be something as practical as the day you got a new job, one that you really loved doing.

We all have special moments that are imprinted in our minds in such a way that they’re never forgotten. They can be from any period in your life, – your childhood, – your 20’s or – maybe it’s something as recent as last year. But the one thing they all have in common – is that they capture moments that were so meaningful that you treasure them in your heart for ever. They’re events that have changed your life; – perhaps initiating a new phase of awareness or accomplishment.

Parenthood can be something like that. / Everyone who has ever been a parent knows that the birth of your first child changes you; – changes you to the core of your being. Because suddenly you realize you’re responsible for this tiny, very vulnerable little bundle of life. And as you hold that child in your arms, you’re filled with joy, but perhaps also with a little fear and trembling, as you wonder:

“Am I up to this challenge?

Will I make a mess of it, or will I be a good parent?”

Becoming a parent involves pride and excitement, even a sense of awe; but also worry and anxiety.
In our text this morning, the Apostle Peter looks back on just such a event in his life; – one that filled him with a mixture excitement and exhilarating – but also with fear and trembling, because he knew that what he was witnessing was going to have a profound effect upon the rest of his life.

We often call such events – ‘mountain top experiences’. For Peter that’s exactly what it was, because the event occurred at the top of a mountain; that’s where he was with Jesus and two other disciples.

Many years later, (some where around AD68) – Peter sat down to write a letter to some new Christians who were struggling with their faith. In it, Peter recalled the events of that day, some 30 or 40 years ago. He’d been just a young, inexperienced disciple at the time, following in the footsteps of his Master. He was recalling the events of that day, because he wanted to help some of the new Christians resist the temptation to follow after, what he calls, ‘false teachers’. Teachers who were trying to rewrite the central message of the Gospel; distorting what Jesus had taught.

This group of teachers were known as Gnostics. They were called Gnostics because they believed that salvation comes, not through the Grace of God as Jesus had taught, but through knowledge. In their world-view, all the world was essentially evil. Although it was created by God, they claimed that God had left the world to its own devises, and as such it had fallen under the influence of evil powers. It was the kind of message which we might be tempted to accept today, because all around us we can see the forces of evil.

The Gnostics also taught that human beings were composed of body, soul and spirit. And since the body and soul are part of this earthly world, they considered them essentially evil. The Gnostics believed that the spirit within most human beings was ignorant and asleep. They preached that in order to be saved, that spirit had to be awakened by the accumulation of knowledge.

For those of you who have read N.T. Wrights book ‘Simply Christian’ (which we used in our Fall study project), you’ll recognize the Gnostic view of the world as that which Wright called ‘Option Two’.

The fundamental problem with ‘Option Two’ and the teachings of the Gnostics, is that it completely distorts Christ’s message; in fact, it contradicts it, for Jesus taught that we are saved, not through our own efforts, (and certainly not merely by gaining knowledge), but rather by the Grace of God. (Mark 10:26-7)

In countering the teaching of the Gnostics, Peter first establishes his authority to teach the truth, telling his readers that he was an eye-witness to the One who is the source of all truth, namely Jesus Christ. And so he tells them about the moment when it became crystal clear to all three disciples, that Jesus was the Son of God.

It had happened on the day that Jesus took him along with two others (James and John) up onto a mountain for prayer and meditation. What happened there is what N.T. Wright describes in Option 3, as a moment when God’s realm intersects with our earthly realm.

An indication of how important this event was is seen in the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke all recorded it in detail in their Gospel. We read Matthew’s account this morning. Matthew tells us that while Peter, James, and John were on that mountain, (which quite possibly was Mt. Hermon), suddenly Jesus was transfigured before them. This transformation was such that His face began to shine like the sun, and His clothes became white as light. And then, (to use Matthew’s words) “behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him.” (Matt. 17:2-3)

Peter was so overwhelmed by what he was witnessing that he asked Jesus if he could build 3 tents (or tabernacles). He wanted to enshrine that place; to capture that moment in time, so as to never lose it. But that’s not something you can do with mountain top experiences. You can’t hang on to them, or box them up in order to keep them. It simply doesn’t work that way. No matter how wonderful your mountain top experience is, eventually you have to come back down to earth and return to your daily life.

No sooner had Peter made this rather foolish suggestion, than he heard a voice from the cloud saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to Him.’” The sound of that voice terrified the three disciples, and they fell on their faces, because they knew they were in the presence of almighty God.

EXPERIENCING GOD

Have you ever experienced something like that; a moment where you suddenly felt God near to you?
We sometimes we call such moments, ‘conversion experiences’. They’re times when God becomes very real to us, and we feel touched by His presence. We all need such experiences, especially if we want to develop a truly strong and lasting faith. But how we attain them varies dramatically from person to person.

When I was a teenager, I spent four months in Banff, Alberta living amidst some of the most spectacular mountains in the Rockies. Many nights, after spending a hard day working (first at the Banff Springs hotel, then later at the Banff School of Fine Arts), my friends and I would hike up mountains; just for fun of it.

One of our favourite mountains was Sulphur mountain, right behind the Banff Springs Hotel. At 7,4oo ft, it’s not one of the highest in the area, but it’s high enough that when you get to the top, you get a splendid view of the surrounding landscape. Because we were young and in good physical shape, we’d climb that mountain in about 20 minutes or so. Along the way we’d pass tourists, who might be taking an hour and a half to reach the top. But eventually they’d get there too. Other tourists elected to get to the top of Sulphur by gondola. They’d get to the summit in just a few minutes. But no matter how long it took, in the end everyone would experience the same spectacular view.

Religious experiences are something like that. A few lucky ones get there almost instantly. They have a dramatic conversion experience. The Apostle Paul was one of those. His experience, left him blinded and confused. It was several days before he regained his sight, and the full impact of the experience sunk in. But that was a life-changing event which radically altered his life. Even his name was changed. From Saul, the persecutor of Christians, he became Paul the Apostle for Christ.

However, not everyone is fortunate enough to have Paul’s experience. For most of us the faith journey is a much slower process; often more like a roller coaster ride than a steady climb.

There are often problems with mountain top experiences. Sometimes they lead to disillusionment, because when they come down off their mountain and get back to their ordinary life, they feel let down.

Here’s how one person describes life after his conversion experience. “I was so excited last summer when I got saved. I thought it had solved all my problems. Boy was I ever wrong! Now that the excitement has worn off, I’m a mess. There are so many areas of my life out of whack. I’m such a lousy Christian, and I’m afraid I’ll never get straightened out.”

This is what can happen if your special faith experience comes to you too easily. It may leave you disillusioned.
Several years ago, my wife and I climbed Mt. Washington. At only 6, 288 feet, it’s not the tallest of peaks. But it is a tough climb. I’ll always remember the sign posted at the bottom of the trail. It read, “Danger! Check weather conditions before climbing. People have died on this mountain.”

But it was a sunny day, so we passed by that sign and started up. Although I’d climbed many higher mountains, some exceeding 10,000 feet, this was the toughest climb I’d every experienced. All the way up, we were literally scrambling over boulders, one after another. It took us more than three hours to reach the summit.
When we go there, our legs were burning. We could barely walk to the mountain top restaurant to sit down to recover. Upon entering the restaurant, we found it filled with tourists, none of whom we’d seen on the way up. They’d got there by car, driving up the back side of the mountain.

I’m sure many of those tourists enjoyed the view; but I doubt that any of them will have the memory that Grace and I have. You see by the time we’d struggled back down, we’d spent an entire day on Mt. Washington. We were so exhausted; we could barely move; and it took several days before our legs fully recovered. But we were thrilled by our accomplishment.

That’s how it is with mountain top faith experiences. If they come too easily; very likely the experience won’t last. But if you’ve had to struggle to get there, and put some effort into achieving it, then you’ll be rewarded by a wonderful, transforming experience, that will never be forgotten.

Life is a faith journey; a journey very much like mountain climbing. In that journey, many people spend all their time, aimlessly wandering around the base of the mountain, search for a path that leads upward. These are the people who try one method after another, (meditation, new age, self improvement), you name it, but they never latch onto the one true way to climb to real truth.

Others you’ll find plodding along the lower slopes. These are the ones who’ve climbed a little ways, but have encountered a crevice blocking their way. Something has discouraged them, and stopped them from making progress. Many of these are people who consider themselves Christian, but who rarely attend church, and certainly don’t put any effort into building or practicing their faith.

As you move higher up the mountain you find those who have put some effort into their journey. They are the ones who attend worship occasionally. They may even participate in some of the programmes of the congregation, but they don’t spend much time studying their faith. All they really know is what they hear on Sunday mornings. Whether these people will ever get to the top of the mountain of faith or not, is still very uncertain; some will, some won’t.

Closer to the top of the mountain are those who are well connected with their Christian community. Not only do they attend regularly, but they participate in many of the missions of the church. They also read their Bibles daily and spend a good deal of time in prayer. These are the ones who are developing a personal relationship with Christ; and who routinely draw upon the strength of His Spirit to guide them day by day.

I wonder, where are you on that mountain? Are you still struggling on the lower slopes, or are you making good progress up the steep path that leads to the summit?

Peter, James and John had spent many months listening to Jesus, watching Him heal the sick and raise the dead; but it wasn’t until they stood there with Him at the top of that mountain, and heard the voice from the cloud, that they truly understood that Jesus was the Son of God; and that through Him they could find salvation.

Friends, if you were setting out to climb Mt. Everest; how would you plan for it? Wouldn’t you get yourself into excellent physical condition; and then spend time testing your skills on other mountains. And wouldn’t you ensure that you had reliable equipment, and a good guide? Why then, shouldn’t we prepare to climb the mountain of faith, in the same thing; by strengthening ourselves spiritually; by worshipping regularly; studying the source book of our faith daily so as to equip us for the journey; by participating in the work of Christ in the world; and by following in the steps of our guide, Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord.

My prayer for each of you is that one day, you will reach the summit in your faith journey, and experience Christ as your personal Saviour and Lord.