2/10/2013 sermon: On the mountaintop

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36, 37-43a
Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Listen to this sermon (audio only)

On the mountaintop

On the night before he was assassinated, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached his now-very-famous “I’ve been to the mountain” speech. This speech is considered by many to have been one of the ten best orations of all time. At the very end of this speech Dr. King referred to threats that he had received against his life. Then he said this:

… I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked OVER. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I wonder how many of you have seen Dr. King give that speech, either the original on April 3, 1968, or on the Internet in our own time. His face was shining, glowing with the “glory of the coming of the Lord.”

In Dr. King’s thought-world, on the mountaintop is where we meet God. On the mountaintop is where we get a glimpse of what will be, both what will be in this world, and what will be in the next. This is the “glory of the coming of the Lord,” to which Dr. King refers, this changed reality that God brings to pass.

Of course, Dr. King did not dream up the on the mountaintop thought-world on his own. As a student of the Bible and a minister of God’s Word, Dr. King knew that, throughout history, on the mountaintop is where people who are God’s change-agents get transformed. On the mountaintop is where we can see God, the God who inspires all positive change, all good, all justice. On the mountaintop is where we meet God, and where we learn what God would have us do to bring God’s Kingdom into reality in our community and in our world.

Dr. King knew that Moses had met God on Mount Sinai, as we read in today’s Old Testament lesson. Dr. King also knew that in Deuteronomy chapter 34 Moses climbed another mountain, Mount Nebo, where God showed him the Land that God had promised to give God’s people. Dr. King knew that, over and over, Moses had gotten to do what is very rare in the Bible: Moses had gotten to see God. And that experience changed Moses. Our lesson today says that Moses came down Mount Sinai with his face shining, hugging the Ten Commandments that God had given Moses for the people.

This was Moses’ second trip down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. The first time Moses brought the Law to the people, what he had found at the bottom of the mountain had been a real mess. What he had found at the bottom of the mountain had been a golden calf that his people had made and were worshiping instead of worshiping God. Moses had thrown a fit, had broken the tablets that contained the Ten Commandments, and he therefore had had to go back up that mountain and get another set from God.

Did you notice that the people didn’t go up the mountain? Earlier in Exodus we learn that God had appointed 70 elders to go with Moses; they were afraid and they stayed at the bottom of the mountain.

Our gospel lesson today tells us that JESUS went up on the mountaintop. But unlike Moses, Jesus didn’t go alone. Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him, the inner circle of the apostles (the vestry wardens, so to speak, Jesus’ Re-Visioning leaders). I don’t know what you think happened to Jesus on that mountain, but I think that Jesus met God there, saw God there. This is because Jesus’ face changed, just like Moses’ face had changed.

Somehow Moses and Elijah were there WITH Jesus. We don’t know how this could be, can’t explain this rationally. But the three of them were discussing Jesus’ “departure.” The Greek word here means “exodus.” So Jesus and Moses and Elijah were discussing how Jesus would accomplish a new exodus. Up until Jesus actually accomplished his “exodus” in Jerusalem, the exodus from Egypt had been God’s biggest saving act in human history. And now Jesus was on the mountain with God, and with those others, learning about God’s plan for how Jesus would bring a whole new reality into existence.

So what happened to Peter, James, and John on the mountain? Did they see God’s face? Our lesson suggests “no, they didn’t.” But they did see the “glory of the Lord” on Jesus’ face, and they even heard God’s voice, the voice that told them in very clear terms that Jesus was God’s son, and that they should listen to him.

Just in case we missed Luke’s point in telling us about Jesus’ mountaintop experience—that Jesus is God’s ultimate change-agent—Luke tells us what happened when Jesus and the gang came down from the mountain. They found a great human mess at the bottom of the hill: a seriously ill child, followers of Jesus unable to heal the boy, and the boy’s very upset father. Jesus threw a fit (like Moses had), healed them all, and then he healed EVERYTHING with his new exodus.

Now for those of you who have not yet been on the mountaintop, I need to tell you that for US, there usually is no physical mountain-climbing involved. Today, on the mountaintop is a metaphor for what happens when we spent time alone with God, as Moses and Jesus did on their respective actual mountaintops. For us, the mountaintop is where we get transformed. And this transformation shows on our person, especially in our face, which shines with God’s light.

The painter Raphael painted our gospel lesson by the way. His painting is shown on the front of today’s bulletin. What I really like about this painting is that Raphael includes the whole scene: Jesus on the mountaintop, the glory of the Lord shining round about Jesus, the cowering apostles on the top of the mountain, and the broken world down below. Notice that the hill isn’t very high; God is very near us, even when we are in the midst of the mess we often make of our lives. And in the middle of that broken world, in the chaos of the crowd, in Raphael’s painting there are two figures pointing up to Jesus.

This is a reminder to me, that no matter how broken our world seems, how insurmountable our situation can sometimes seem, the answer is always up there on that very low mountain, with God. What brokenness requires is mustering our courage, climbing that mountain, spending time alone with God, and allowing ourselves to be transformed by God. God always shows us the way, and makes our faces shine in the process.

My prayer for this Church of the Resurrection for our Re-Visioning year is that you each spend so much time alone with God that your faces shine with God’s glory. I know that when you come down from that mountain you will still see the mess that we have to face right here in our very midst. But I’m not worried about that. You see:

We, as a people, will get to our Promised Land. I’m not worried about anything. I just pray that our eyes will have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, and that God will make us his change-agents.

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