Coming Down From Our Mountains
Rev. Michael Woods
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
The perfect vacation – Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – Some modern demons – MLK’s mountaintop
– Down in the Valley.
If you were to ask me to describe the perfect vacation spot, I would probably tell you it’s somewhere on a mountain. When I think of the mountains, I think of a peaceful place … far away from traffic jams, business meetings … a place where the real world isn’t constantly pressing in on you, demanding your undivided attention to solve one crisis or another. There have been a few times Myong and I have taken a vacation in the mountains somewhere, stayed in a cabin or a lodge. I usually bring a lot of books with me, expecting to have a lot of down time and do a lot of reading. But I’ve found I don’t really get a lot of reading done … I spend a lot of the time just gazing out into the distance, looking at the valley below, watching birds fly by … just enjoying the quiet and the rare opportunity to let my mind be still.
Somehow, someway, mountains have a way of doing that to people. When we lived in Atlanta, we would regularly go to Stone Mountain, just fifteen or twenty minutes outside of the city, and we would hike to the top. And on a clear day, and when the smog was at a minimum, you could look from the top of the mountain and see the whole metro Atlanta area all at once … and everything seemed all calm and serene, but you knew that down below you – well, it was a madhouse as big cities can be. But standing there on top of the mountain, your whole perspective about that changed … none of those worries seemed to matter any more … it was like you were “above it all” both figuratively and literally.
If you’ve watched as many movies as I’ve watched in my lifetime, and I’ve watched a whole slew of movies, you know that in any movie set in the city of Los Angeles there’s this one famous shot taken from the San Bernardino Mountains that shows the whole Greater Los Angeles metropolitan area at once, usually at night time. From that vantage point, what you see is this huge city of about 18 million people seems to be nestled quietly in this little valley below the mountains. You see the lights of people’s houses, of the downtown business district, of Beverly Hills, of Rodeo Drive and the Santa Monica Freeway spread out before you – and it all seems so peaceful.
And this scene can be kind of surreal because you know up close the city isn’t like that at all. Up close, you know it’s noisy and polluted … people are blowing their horns at each other on the freeway. Up close, you remember this is the same city of the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed the failure to convict the police officers involved. Up close, you see crime and gang violence … you see drug addiction and young women being exploited for prostitution. Up close you see that Los Angeles is a mirror for the problems that every city faces, whether big or small … including Atlanta, including Columbus, including Reynoldsburg.
But up there on the mountain, you feel like you’re just a little bit closer to God … you feel like you’ve been lifted above the mess we human beings have made of this world. No wonder, in so many religions throughout this world, mountains seem to be a special place where divine inspiration can happen. All the great prophets of every major religion seem to have had mountaintop experiences of one sort or another: Muhammad, Zarathustra. A group of American Indians, the Lakota, believe the Black Hills of South Dakota to be a sacred place where all the people of the world were born. Throughout history and all across the world, mountains are sacred places, where if you are daring enough, physically and spiritually, you can climb a little ways up, transcend this plane of existence, come a little closer to God – even see God face-to-face – and become a little better than you are.
Moses is one such religious leader who has a mountaintop experience. Whenever he wants to be close to God, he just goes up on a mountain. It’s on Mt. Sinai that he meets God, converses with the Almighty and receives the tablets of the Ten Commandments. And he’s completely changed by the experience. The scripture says when he came down from the mountain, his face shone brightly, and the people were afraid of him … they didn’t want to come anywhere near him. They could tell something had happened to him up there and they were unsettled by it.
It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus takes his disciples up on a mountain. Given the history of mountains and their importance in Jewish culture, I can imagine the disciples can feel a little excitement, a little anticipation – they surely must expect something important is about to happen. And even though Jesus has kept them up all night praying, and they were “weighed down with sleep,” they manage to keep themselves awake, and their expectations are not disappointed. They see Jesus go through this startling transformation: his face begins to glow, and his clothes become a dazzling white – and by “dazzling,” the word that Luke uses in the Gospel suggests that the color white Jesus’ clothes had turned into at this point could produce a sense of ecstasy in you to look at it.
And then, things just start to get better and better! Moses and Elijah appear and they talk to Jesus! The disciples are amazed! Jesus has hooked up with two of the greatest prophets of Jewish history – Moses who represents the founding of the nation of Israel, who led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and guided them through the wilderness for 40 years; and Elijah who is the prophet of the End Times, the prophet who, according to the Book of Malachi, will one day turn the people’s hearts back to the covenant with God. Jesus obviously has some good connections!
So, Peter suggests building a kind of monument to the event – three dwellings, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, but also (and this is not coincidentally) one each for Peter, James and John to tend to individually. It’s clear Peter and his two fellow disciples don’t want to go back down the mountain. They want to linger … they want this glorious moment to last forever – or at least as long as possible. They want to be up where they can be a little closer to holiness and never have to worry about all the bothers of the world below.
And who can blame them? Jesus has already said what lies ahead for them when they head back down. In the preceding verses found just before this passage in Luke, Jesus tells his disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed….” (v.22). Wow! Who wants to go back to all that?
And what Jesus said just six verses earlier is just the half of it! As we read later on in today’s passage, we come to find out that the world they walk back into is a world haunted by demons. The one that possess the young boy is said to cause him to shriek, send him into convulsions and make him foam at the mouth. The spirit seems to seize him at unexpected moments, and no matter how hard they have tried, the disciples were unable to cast the demon out.
Now, in our scientific age we might explain this event very differently than Luke does here. This young man’s condition seems to be similar to what we know as epilepsy and we have various ways of treating that today. But I believe we still live in a world that is haunted by demons that are no less real than the way Luke thinks of them in this text. We prayed this morning, concerning some of those demons of this world: prejudice, fear, a disregard for truth, poverty, and our society’s glorification of the false idol of redemptive violence. Some might say, No, these are just ideas, concepts – not evil spirits. But these ideas can possess our whole mind … make us do things not in our best interest … estrange us from the people who love us … and drive us to a place where we are far away from God. That sounds like what a demon does to me.
If you have been to the mountaintop and you’ve seen a better way … if you’ve come face-to-face with God and stayed even a short time in a realm where the evil of this world cannot touch you, it can’t even come close … why would you agree to leave, and return to dwell in the valley of demons?
In the last sermon he preached the night before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of having been to the mountaintop … and of what he saw there and the glorious future that waits for all God’s children there. But what he didn’t say in that sermon but we understand, is that he came down from mountain. He came down from the mountain and went to Montgomery … and to Selma, and to Birmingham … and to Atlanta, and finally to Memphis. Thank God, he came down from the Mountain!
Because, it’s here in the valley where you come up-close and face-to-face with the sins of this world … its injustices, its fear mongering, its self-contradictions. It’s here in this demon-haunted valley that God’s ministry of redeeming this world in all its falleness really takes place … and it is here that God calls us to be the disciples of Christ, to follow in his footsteps, to bring the message of the good news of the gospel, to let people know that the love of God can save us – is the only thing that can save us … and there’s nothing we have to do to earn it … it’s a free gift.
And in spreading that message, we join Christ in his work in driving out the demons that haunt this world … we bring comfort to those who are suffering, healing to those who are wounded. We bring a little bit of the mountaintop back down with us, when we do that … we share the vision of what we saw and let people know of the miraculous things we have come to know about.
Come down from the mountain, but bring a little bit of it with you.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.