Mountain Top Experiences

Delivered February 25, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: Those who listen to Jesus’ word are truly spiritual.

Sermon Text:
Luke 9:28-36
and Exodus 34:29-35

Now in preparation to hear the preaching of the word, you would please join me in reading the Old Testament lesson from Exodus, chapter 34, starting with verse 29 through verse 35. Hear the word of the Lord as it comes to us through Moses.

When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses his face was radiant and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him and he spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near him and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mt. Sinai. When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face, but whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his Holy Word.

Again let us ask God for His grace as we seek to understand. Lord, we know that apart from Your Spirit we can not understand, but Jesus told us that the Spirit would come and lead us into all truth and so we pray that our hearts will be open and that we will see more than words on paper, that indeed we would hear Your very word speaking to us. We ask it in Christ name. Amen.

Let us also read Luke 9.

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James up on a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfill at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him “Master it’s good for us to be here; Let us put up three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He did not know what he was saying. While he was speaking a cloud appeared and enveloped them and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud saying “this is my son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him.” When the voice had spoken they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and told no one at that time what they had seen.

A college student took a summer job at an industrial rope factory. The job was fairly simple. You had to feed strands of rope on one side of the machine and on the other, you feed strands of rope and on the other side came out huge ropes, the kind that can hold ships, huge ships to docks. This was his first day on the job, so the machinist next to him looked at him and said, “Hey kid, you have a rock in your back pocket?” And he said, “Excuse me.” He said, “Do you have a rock in your back pocket?” He had no idea what he was talking about and not wanting to look uninformed said, “Sure, yeah I do.” So he started his work, and he started to feed the rope through, simple enough. And when he got on the other side and grabbed what was coming out, as he held on to it, it grabbed him with such force that it literally threw him up in the air and caused him to crash down on to the ground. As he sat there and a few more feet of rope were lying in his lap, he understood the question My question to you is this. Do you have a rock in your back pocket? And by that I mean, Do you have something that grounds you when life throws a lot of weight your way? When things become difficult, do you have something to ground you, so that you don’t panic? This is now the third week that we are doing three services, and it feels a little bit like I am on the other side of that machine, to tell you the truth. And the grounding that I need is the same grounding that we all need when things become challenging. When we get blown off our feet, as it were.

In the gospel lesson today, Jesus is trying to help his three closest disciples get an idea of what that grounding is all about. Luke wrote this gospel to the first community that he was trying to help encourage, he was trying to help them get grounded in their difficulties in the first century. And today, I am trying to preach and teach what it takes to get us grounded when life becomes difficult. There is a reason that the Transfiguration narrative in the in the preselected readings of the church year, always comes before Lent. Because there is a pre-Lenten sense of, needing a grounding so that we can keep the disciplines, so that we can follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. Because apart from this grounding, we won’t be able to make it. I want to offer you another question and this comes from Augustine, Church Father of many hundreds of years ago. He said this and this will point you to a little preview of what that grounding is all about. He says, “Imagine that God said to you I will give you anything and everything you ask, almost genie like, pleasure, power, honor, wealth, freedom, even peace of mind and a good conscience; Nothing will be a sin. Nothing will be forbidden, and nothing will be impossible to you. You will never be bored, and you will never die. Only one condition, only one catch. You will never see my face.” You know when we hear the first part of that proposition, it sounds pretty good. Boy that sounds like a pretty good deal. But then when we consider the fact we might never see God’s face, that we might never behold the presence of Christ, then all of a sudden that good sounding offer doesn’t sound so good any more. And that points us to what the grounding, the anchor is all about. And we need to start with the Old Testament to understand this more fully. Because this text is about seeing God and knowing God as the solid rock during life’s difficulties.

Now if you go back to Exodus, chapter 34, I need to point out the context. And excuse the brief overview, but it’s important to understand this as we focus on the Old Testament text for a minute. Anybody who has seen the Ten Commandments remembers the scene about the golden calf. God, through Moses, led the people of Israel. They came to a good place. Moses went up to the mountain to talk with God. While Moses was on the mountain talking with God, the people make their own God. And one of the first things we see is that humans have a problem with finding True North. We go off center fairly easily. The hymn writer said, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone the leave the God I love, Take my heart O Lord and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.” And all the time while Moses is talking to God, the people are partying. You know the story of, the golden calf. Aaron, Moses’ brother, even gets in on the act. And it’s big trouble. Moses comes down off of the mountain, he throws down the Ten Commandments, they split in two, and God does some disciplining. In chapter 33, God says to Moses, “Moses I am going to reaffirm the covenant, I am going to send you into the Promised Land, I am going to clear out the people before you, and I want you to come and talk to me about that.” And so in verse 33, there’s this tent of meeting and every day Moses went there, a cloud came down and Moses talked to God, and the people stood at their tents, and prayed to God while Moses was talking to Him. And there are some beautiful passages, beautiful verses in 33, we don’t have time really to look at them, other than to say that after God and Moses talked about going into the land again, Moses asked a question of God, he said “God, would you let me see your glory?” “I want to see your glory.” And at the end of 33, the Lord says “I will cause my goodness to pass in front of you,” and he puts Moses in the cleft of the rock, and he covers Moses with his hand and he says, “but you can not see my face, for no one can see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “Here I will put you in the rock,” and he comes along and at the end of chapter 33, it’s affirmed again, “I will remove my hand, you will see my back, but my face must not be seen.” Then comes verse 34. Moses goes back up to Mt. Sinai and he spends forty days there talking with God and the Lord gives a lot of commandments and a lot of instructions for the people and Moses is there, not eating or drinking for forty days and he comes down from the mountain and that’s where we come to the passage that Pastor Jerry read for you. He came down and his face was radiant, he didn’t even know that his face was shining. And as a result the people are afraid. They back away from him and they say, “Moses is radioactive.” And even Aaron, who is his brother, is afraid as well. And now I want you to see something very carefully in verse 32. After he calms everybody down, Moses calls all the Israelites near him and he gives them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mt. Sinai. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I was radioactive like that, in a good way, and my face was shining, I might tend to focus on the experience, more than on giving the commandments. In fact, I might come up to Aaron and say, “Oh Aaron I noticed you need a little light for your reading.” And just shine right next to him. But that’s not what Moses does. Moses downplays the experience; in fact the text goes on to say that he puts a veil over his face. Why? I think in the context of the first people who read this it was important that Moses would never be confused as a divine figure, that nobody would start worshipping Moses. And so he puts a veil over his face to keep things clear, and the experience is downplayed and the word of God becomes paramount. Now there’s the rock for the back pocket of life. Now later, Paul interprets what happened very differently and we’ll look at that, but my first point is this: If we’re ever going to make it through the difficulties of life, and you may be struggling today, you may come here today and be struggling in a major way, and nobody knows about it, I mean it may be your marriage, it may be your kids, it may be your health, whatever it is, the first word today is that the scriptures, the Word is paramount and we have to stay in the Word of God in order to manage life’s difficulties. No one can make this life apart from God’s Word, and if we ignore God’s Word I guarantee you, you will feel like the guy holding that rope. Even with the word, it can feel like that sometimes. But now I am leading up to something more. It’s not just about being students of the Bible, and that’s where we come into our New Testament text today. And I wanted to make sure we understood the Old Testament text in context because the New Testament text becomes much more clear when we understand all the Old Testament images. Now I want you to listen again as I briefly go through these verses.

In verse 28, “eight days after Jesus said these things,” now what did he say? If you look in the context just prior to the text in verses 23 to 27, Jesus has a series of words to the disciples about following him to Jerusalem, following him to the cross. “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. Whoever would save his life would lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What good is it if you gain the whole world and you lose your very soul. Anybody who is ashamed of me, I’ll be ashamed of you” he says, “in glory of eternity.” And then it says that after Jesus said these things, he takes the three up to the mountain, a little alarm, a little theological alarm clock should be going off now, it was probably for Luke’s readers, Jesus takes three people up to a mountain to pray. Ding, ding, ding. Boy that sounds a little bit like Moses going up to Mt. Sinai. In verse 29, the appearance of his face, as he was praying, changed and his clothes became like a dazzling bolt of lightning. Ding, ding, ding, ding, Moses, Moses’ face changed and shone when he was up on the mountain. And look who comes and has a conversation with Jesus, Moses and Elijah and now Moses is not talking to God, per say, I mean he is, he’s talking to Jesus. Moses is talking to God, Moses talking to Jesus, I wonder what that’s all about. Then in verse 31, it says what are they talking about? They appear in glorious splendor; they are talking with Jesus, they spoke about his departure. You know the Greek word for departure is Exodus. They spoke about Jesus, not just going out of this world, but through his death and his resurrection, parting as it were the Red Sea. So that all who trust in him would be able to walk through unharmed to the other side. They are talking about his departure. They are talking about the cross. Now at this point, and this is an awful, terrible time to take a nap, and to get sleepy, but that’s what happens. Peter and his companions become very sleepy, I thought why that? Maybe because it sounds a little bit better than not being directly disobedient. They just kind of fell asleep. They just took a nap. They just weren’t that alert to really what the center of life Jesus was trying to focus them in on was all about. And so Peter wakes up and as usual he starts talking and he says “Boy this is great!” because he doesn’t hear the part about the cross, he only hears the part about the glory. I think we make that mistake too, sometimes. And he says “Isn’t it great that we are here? Let’s just build three booths, kind of like the booth of the Feast of Tabernacles where people were sheltered for a while, and I think what Peter was thinking was, okay this could be like a new Mt. Sinai, and people could come up to this mountain and have this great experience and on and on and on. And verse 33 makes it very clear he doesn’t know what he is saying. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. He is focused on the experience. And then in verse 34, while he was speaking a cloud appeared and developed them. Ding, ding, ding, where did God speak to Moses? In the cloud that came over the tent of meeting. In the cloud that was up on the mountain. God’s revelation came to Moses in the cloud. And while Peter is babbling this cloud comes and that’s where God’s revelation comes again. They are terrified, they are frightened. We don’t know why they were frightened, maybe they were frightened that they would be consumed. Maybe they were frightened because Jesus would be taken away from them, we’re not sure why they were frightened. But what really matters is that in verse 35 and 36, a voice came out of the cloud and here’s what the voice said: “This is my son, whom I have chosen. My chosen one to fulfill my purpose to bring everybody who will believe in to the Promised Land, into the kingdom of heaven. Listen to him.” And again if you look at that in the original language what it really emphasizes in the way it is constructed is, “don’t just listen to him, obey him, follow him, trust him.” And then we see the other part of the same coin. It’s the word, but it’s the word that brings us to Jesus so that we will keep following him. Not that we will become Bible scholars, although that’s not bad, but so that we will follow him because he is the center, he is the ground. The genuine expression of a centered life is to listen to Christ and his word and to follow him. Verse 36 makes the exclamation point when all the bells and whistles stop, and there was Jesus alone. Jesus alone, the hope of glory. And the text closes with “they didn’t understand.” And isn’t that true that most of our mountain top experiences when they happen we really don’t understand what’s going on and we need that time of reflection to look back. They did not understand and that’s very clear from the post context. And again, looking at the end of chapter 9, it’s amazing the disciples, after this incredible experience still did not get it. There’s a story about coming down off the mountain and they can’t cast the demon out of the boy, and Jesus is saying “Oh brother, why do I have to be with you guys?” At the end of chapter 9, verse 45 he tells again of his going to Jerusalem, they don’t get it. And then in verse 46 there is an argument about which one of them is the greatest. And then in verse 49, “Master we saw somebody driving out demons in your name, and we think we ought to stop them.” He says “Don’t stop them.” And then as they are going to Jerusalem, the Samaritans don’t want them to come through their town and the disciples say, “Should we breathe fire down on them, Lord?” And in chapter 10 it says, “After this the Lord appointed seventy others.” And I am thinking to myself that I would look for seventy others too. But you know what? Even though they didn’t get it, they kept following him. They kept following him. Thirty times in the New Testament Jesus says, “Follow me.” One time he says, “Be born again.” Thirty times he says, “Follow me.” You see. We have to follow him through the word, focusing on him. You know the best mountain top experiences happen? They are the ones when you are following Jesus and they just happen. Because the text that we read from the New Testament today says, “And Jesus took Peter, John and James up to the mountain.” So what we need to be careful of is not seeking experiences, per say, I think of all kinds of times that this has happened in ministry. People go away on a trip, on a mission trip, on some sort of retreat, and they have this wonderful mountain top experience. And lot’s of times they don’t want to go, but they have this wonderful experience and then not too long after they say, “Oh, I want to recapture the experience.” And they do it again and it doesn’t happen the same way. Because God is saying that it’s not in the experience, it’s in me that you have to focus. When you try to repeat those mountain top experiences they fall flat. And so let’s look in closing at 2nd Corinthians 3, and then one other verse. In 2nd Corinthians 3, Paul takes the Old Testament references we have been talking about and starts doing a little interpretation of his own. In 2nd Corinthians, chapter 3, verse 13 he’s talking about focusing on Christ as the center point of life. 2nd Corinthians, 3:13 says, “We are not like Moses who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.” And in verse 18, when Paul says, “And we who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory are being transformed into his likeness with an ever increasing glory which comes from the Lord who is the spirit.” That’s what God wants. God wants us to come with unveiled face. Henry Nouwen said it this way, “Lord I come and sit here and I feel like I haven’t done anything right, I feel like maybe you’re even against me somehow, I am going to ignore all that and just simply come and sit and behold your face.”

My wife Ellen, shares a sweet story about an account with her grandfather. Her grandfather died when he was 67 years old. He had Parkinson’s disease and he contracted it at age 30. He was a very accomplished musician, and it ended his career. He didn’t say much, but he was a sweet man. If you could imagine a bald Santa Claus, that’s what he looked like. And Ellen would practice her piano once a week at Mrs. Ditzenberger’s which was three blocks from her grandparents’ house. And every Tuesday afternoon after her piano lesson she would walk, and her grandfather, Mario DeFazio was his name, sat at the living room window and he looked out and kept looking and looking and he was waiting to see Ellen come around the corner. And as soon as he spotted her, he called to his wife, “Minnie, put the steak on, Ellen’s coming, put the steak on!” And I thought about that story that she has told me a couple of times and I thought boy what an analogy. I almost feel like that’s the way God is with us. “Oh, they’re coming. They are coming. They want to be with me. Gabriel put the steak on, we’re going to feed them.” Oh taste and see that the Lord is good. His words are like honey to my mouth and that’s what God wants for the center of life, so that no matter what happens you will never, ever get knocked off center for very long.

There’s one more verse, and this is the beauty of what’s happening and where I started with Augustine’s question, that the real gold, the real center of life is simply a progression that will end in eternity and here’s the way, we will let the Apostle John, from 1st John, 3:2, have the last word. Here it is: “Dear friends, now we are children of God and what we ill be has not yet been made known, but we know when he appears, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.” Let us pray.

Gracious Lord, this is what we need. This is what we long for. A life that is centered on You, not so that we can simply navel gaze, not so that we can seek experiences, but so that we can follow You on the road to Jerusalem. Follow You in a life of service, follow You in a life of giving to others as you have given to us. Lord as we continue in our worship; help us to look squarely at your face. We pray it in Jesus name. Amen.