I attended college in northeast Tennessee, at Milligan College, near Johnson City. Growing up in northern West Virginia, in the foothills of the Alleghany Mountains, I felt as though those hills were very confining. The valleys in my home area were very narrow, but in Tennessee, the mountains were further apart, with wide valleys and a much more open feel. I very much enjoyed many outdoor activities available, such as rappelling, hiking, and mountain climbing. Near the campus was Buffalo Mountain, shown in the picture below.
Buffalo Mountain was a fairly easy afternoon climb and my friends and I often enjoyed climbing to the top of the mountain. There was one particular spot at the top of the mountain that has an absolutely breathtaking view, especially when you walk out onto an overlook of rock that stuck out rather precariously. The rocky overlook was a fairly good-sized space and it is possible to walk right out to the edge and peer over and see the very long drop back down the mountain, although I tended to crawl out on my hands and knees, as I was a bit uneasy standing on the edge of that precipice.
There’s something euphoric, I think, about being on a literal mountaintop and surveying all the valleys that stretch out before you. Although it’s a lot of work to get to the mountaintop, there is a sense of peace as you gaze into the valley and know you are far removed from all the problems and stresses of life in the communities that fill the valley far below
This morning we are talking about Living Between the Mountaintop and the Valley. It seemed to be a good place to conclude one year and begin another. Let’s read the story of the Transfiguration, where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain and there is transfigured before them.
2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.
3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Allow me to share a few lessons from this passage –
We need our mountaintop experiences.
For me, church camp was always a mountaintop experience. I spent a good deal of my summers, beginning in elementary school through my early college years, going to church camp, and my experiences there were some of the most profound in my life. A week of church camp in the summer provided me with the strength to get through a year of school. Many times, in the middle of the school year, I would look back upon the time I spent at camp and find great encouragement from that time. Last summer, while working at camp, I was touched as I listened to some of the students talking with the camp caretaker. They were so impressed with the idea of living at the camp year round. You mean you live here? All the time? they asked. You are so lucky, getting to live here. We wish we could be here all the time! I can remember feeling the same way when I was a student, wishing I could stay at camp. At the time, I understood those experiences to be a source of strength and encouragement for me between summers, helping me to get through each school year, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand how they continue to be life-changing and life-shaping experiences for me.
For some people, their mountaintop experiences came in other ways. The context of the experience doesn’t matter as much as having the experience. I hope that worship can be a mountaintop experience for you. I understand that our experience of worship can vary quite a bit from week to week, and there are times when you might come for any number of weeks – or longer – and not get that sense of a mountaintop experience, but I hope it does come at some point.
We need those special encounters with God. We need those moments that lift us above the daily grind of life. We need those moments where heaven meets earth and the divine comes right into our lives. Those moments don’t come every day in my life. Sometimes, those really moving encounters are few and far between. Sometimes those encounters come totally out of the blue and other times they come because we place ourselves in a position where they can happen. But one of those encounters is enough to provide spiritual fuel for a long time.
Peter, James, and John would certainly have their share of powerful and profound experiences with Jesus, but this one was special, and as difficult as it was for them to understand the experience, it was one that touched them in a very deep and profound way.
We need people to share our journey.
I don’t know why Jesus seemed to favor Peter, James, and John, but he seemed to be closer to those three than the other disciples. The gospels mention other times when Jesus favored Peter, James, and John, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he took those three further into the garden with him than the others. If we attempted to list the names of the other disciples from memory we might have a difficult time of it as, outside of the list of their names, some of them are barely mentioned in the New Testament.
But Jesus was, I’m certain, very close to all twelve of the disciples, and his relationship with the twelve reminds us of the powerful need we have in life of being in relationship with other people. We are social creatures; we are not meant to live in solitude. And when we look around at the prevalence of social media and the powerful force it has become in the lives of so many it is but one more reminder of that need God places within us for relationships with other people.
Aren’t you grateful we do not walk through this life alone? Aren’t you grateful for the people that God has brought into your life? Can you imagine life without those people who celebrate with us in the difficult times but also walk with us through the valley, the people who will sit and weep with us, mourn with us, and love us when we feel as though we cannot continue?
Jesus surrounded himself with close friends because that is what we need in life. We need, in particular, people who will be encouragers for us. Think of Barnabas, in the book of Acts, whose name meant encourager. You might be surprised to learn that Barnabas was not his given name. His name, actually was Joseph (Acts 4:36) but he was known as Barnabas because that name meant Son of Encouragement. Imagine being known for all of history as an encourager – now there is a legacy! I could give you so many examples of people who have served as encouragers to me, but I’ll share just one this morning. In a previous congregation where I served, at the conclusion of one service, one of the members shook my hand and said, Dave, that was a really good message today. I really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. Thank you for sharing it today. My first impression, honestly, was to be disappointed, because we had a music program that day and I didn’t preach. I thought she must have slept through the service and didn’t notice there was no sermon that day! Upon reflection, however, I realized it was because her habit was to say something encouraging to me every week after worship. It was that she didn’t notice I hadn’t preached; she just did what she always did, which was to offer an encouraging word to me.
We leave the mountaintop and enter the valley because that is where so much of life is lived and that is where so many people live.
We all have that one place where we could just camp out forever. I’m going to assume that for many of us that place is the beach. Am I right? I have to admit that I have a bit of a difficult time with those who go to the beach in the midst of winter. Here we are, suffering in the frigid temperatures of this week, and what do those people at the beach do – they post pictures of themselves soaking up the sun on the beach! And what do I do? I delete them from my list of Facebook friends so I don’t have to see those pictures!
My mother-in-law lived on the beach at Tybee Island, Georgia for 18 years, and we loved to visit there. The beach is one of the few places in the world where I can be content just sitting. I look out at the water and think, I could sit here forever. Now she lives on a lake in northeast Georgia, and though I really miss the beach I love the lake as well. The lake has over 900 miles of shoreline winding through the hills of northeast Georgia and islands dot the lake. Some of them are smaller than this room but others can cover a couple of acres. I love to go out on the lake and pull up to one of the islands and sit on the little beaches that surround them. It’s incredibly peaceful. It’s quiet, there are no phones ringing and no to-do lists. There is only peace and quiet. There was one particular island that I loved to visit. I would pull the jet ski up to the little, rocky beach at the small island and sit quietly, waiting for the eagle who nested in a tree on that island. On the occasions when I was privileged to watch that majestic creature swoop into its nest I was very much moved by the beauty of God’s creation, and of the peace and solitude of that place. There were many times when I sat there and thought I could stay here forever.
But, sadly, the mountaintop is not where most people live. Most people live much of their lives in the harshness of the valley, where dysfunction and disease and conflict and loss and fear and violence and so many other problems overwhelm life. As wonderful as it would be to stay on the mountaintop, we must enter the valleys because that is where people live. On a fortunate few occasions we get to visit the mountaintop and have that beautiful mountaintop experience, but that is not where we get to stay long. Some people never make it to the mountaintop. Some people spend all of their lives struggling to be free from the valley of poverty, of disease, of violence, of loneliness, of depression and despair, of fear and so many other struggles that fill that valley.
Peter, bless him, has an interesting reaction to being on the mountaintop. He turns to Jesus and says Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter’s words were accurate but the sentiment behind them was a bit off. It was indeed good for them to be there and to experience such a momentous occasion. What a wonderful experience they shared; who wouldn’t want to stay there?
But Peter’s desire to build some shelters and stay on the mountaintop was the wrong sentiment. It was the wrong sentiment for this reason – after the transfiguration Jesus leads Peter, James, and John back down the mountain, back to reality, where there is chaos, confusion, and frustration. Basically, back to every day life. When you read ahead to the next story, you find the other disciples surrounded by a crowd and a man whose son who needed to be healed. It was a chaotic situation and a reminder of why we prefer to be on the mountaintop and out of the valley. I’m sure Peter, James, and John were thinking at that moment, can we go back up to the mountaintop and get away from all of this? Isn’t that a reaction we often have to the chaos and suffering and struggles of the world? Lord, excuse me, but I think I’ll go to my safe place, to my favorite place, that will insulate me from all this craziness in the world. But here is an important truth for us to remember – any encounter with God that does not lead us down from our mountains, that does not lead us out of our buildings, and does not lead us out into the needs of the world around us is probably not a real encounter with God.
A mountaintop experience – a true mountaintop experience – is one that compels us down from the mountaintop and into the valley, because that is where God can always be found – in the valley. Isn’t that what the psalmist tells us in the 23rd psalm? Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. There is no valley too deep for God. There is no valley out of God’s reach. There is no valley where God is not present.
Kayla Mueller is a name with which you might not be familiar. She had been a captive of ISIS and was killed in 2014 as a result of a raid on the compound where she was held captive. At the time of her death very few people knew she was a captive, as her kidnapping had not been made public. Not long before here death she wrote a letter to her family, which the family made public after her loss. Here is some of what she had to say
I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else … + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another.
Isn’t that an amazing testimony of courage and faith? Her words, in a very powerful way, echo those of Paul, who also wrote of his faith while in prison, and who also wrote of being able to see the good in each situation. I hope that if I were ever in a situation that challenged my faith that I could hold to it as strongly as Kayla. For Kayla, the mountaintop came to the valley. Even though she found herself, literally, in the valley of the shadow of death she shows no fear, as she knew God was with her. Down from the mountaintop he came, and entered into the valley with her.
Some of you may be blessed to be on the mountaintop at this point in your life. Some of you may be in the valley, where life is difficult. Know that God is not far away on the mountaintop, but is in the valley with you.