February 23, 2020
Has anyone here climbed a mountain? I haven’t, but my daughter Marissa has – together with Justin, her now husband, (they were dating at the time), and his dad and brother. They climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro when we were in Tanzania on a mission trip in 2010. Mountain climbing was not for me, so I stayed in a resort at the foot of the mountain while they had their 5-day mountain climbing adventure. But even from that vantage point, I got a sense of it and learned some things about mountain climbing.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the African continent, topping out at 19,341 feet. It is an interesting place. You go through five distinctly different ecosystems on the way up the mountain. The temperatures on the mountain vary widely between 70s plus during the day and below freezing at night. Plants have adapted to the wide temperature swings by curling in on themselves at night to withstand the freezing temperatures and opening up and blossoming during the day.
Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, you don’t need to use ropes or belays. It is more like a long hike up a really big hill. Marissa and her team did a lot to prepare for it – building up their endurance by going for long walks, practicing hiking up and down the hills of Stillwater. They bought all the right gear and arranged for local guides, called Sherpas, to accompany them on this journey. It took 9 Tanzanian Sherpas carrying all the food and gear to get 4 Americans up the mountain! If you’d like to hear more about their adventure, just ask me sometime and I’m happy to tell you all about it. For now, suffice it to say, nothing can really prepare you for a mountain-top experience.
Throughout Scripture the mountaintop is a place where human beings encounter God. The mountaintop is a place where God is especially present, and people can catch a glimpse of God’s glory. On the mountaintop, the view is clearer. You can see the big picture. There are fewer distractions. The cares of the world seem farther away. On the mountain, we get a better sense of who we are and whose we are. We get a better sense of our place in God’s big plan.
What have been your mountaintop experiences? Has there been a pivotal time in your life when you felt God’s presence guiding you and helping you through? How did those moments change your life?
Our gospel lesson for today tells of the ultimate mountaintop experience. It happened when Jesus brought three of his disciples with him up a mountain to pray. Amazing and miraculous things happened on that mountain. Moses and Elijah (who had lived centuries before) showed up on that mountain. Jesus’ appearance changed as his face and clothing glowed with the glory of God. Then a cloud surrounded them and from it came the voice of God identifying Jesus as his beloved Son, the chosen one, and telling them to listen to him.
Peter was so caught up in this experience that he didn’t want it to end. He suggested making little huts for Moses and Elijah and Jesus. He wanted to stay there. It felt so good to be in God’s presence.
This mountaintop encounter with God happened as Jesus was preparing to go to Jerusalem where he knew he would be crucified. This special time in God’s presence helped strengthen Jesus for what lie ahead. It also reminded the disciples of who Jesus was – not just another rabbi or prophet, but God’s own Son. In the time that followed, this experience of God’s powerful presence helped the disciples make it through the horror of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. It sustained them to be faithful in doing God’s work after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
An experience like that is something you never forget. The disciples dedicated their lives to telling the truth they had witnessed with Jesus. Years later, Peter wrote:
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. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.(2 Peter 1:16-18)
What a powerful experience of God’s presence!
Jesus had taken those disciples on that mountain to pray. So too, prayer is how we come into God’s presence today. Prayer is how we communicate with God. Prayer is an essential part of life as a Christian. Martin Luther once said, “To be a Christian without praying is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”[i] Prayer inspires and equips us to do God’s will.
In our gospel lesson, only three of the disciples went up the mountain with Jesus. The rest stayed behind. Prior to this, Jesus had given all of his disciples the ability to heal and cast out demons. While Jesus is on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, a man approaches Jesus’ other disciples asking them to heal his epileptic son. They are not able to do it. The first thing Jesus does after he gets down the mountain is to heal this boy.
He gets a bit testy when doing so. He says, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” (John 9:41). And then he heals the boy. A common interpretation of this healing is you can’t stay on the mountaintop forever – you need to come down and deal with the problems of life. And that is true. But it doesn’t explain Jesus’ little tirade
His disciples should have been able to do this healing. But they can’t heal on their own. They need to tap into God’s power. The way to do that is through prayer. Jesus knew he would soon be leaving them and these are the people he was depending on to do God’s work after his crucifixion. They needed to be strong in their faith to do that ministry. They needed to keep in close communication with God in prayer.
The work we do in God’s name also depends on prayer. It is fueled by prayer. As we hear Jesus’ frustration with “this faithless generation” it rings down the centuries to us. For us to do the work Jesus is calling us to do today, we, too, need to be in close communication with God. We need to be faithful in our prayer lives.
I can’t promise you that when you pray you will experience all the special effects of Moses and Elijah, or other heroes of the faith showing up. I can’t promise you will hear God speaking aloud. And I can’t promise you will be able to heal anybody. But I can promise that if you make yourself available to God in prayer, God will come to you. God will speak in ways you can recognize. God will give you what you need to believe in him. God will guide your path. God will equip you to do what he wants you to do. You will feel God’s love in powerful ways. And who knows, your face may shine a bit more brightly!
As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, it is a great time to focus on our prayer lives. It is the perfect opportunity to set aside time to enter into God’s holy presence, to pray our prayers to God and to listen for his answers.
Ted Loder has written a number of books on prayer. One of the things he said is, “I believe that life itself is a prayer, and the prayers we say shape the lives we live just as the lives we live shape the prayers we say.” How true! Prayer shapes us. It is when we give our full attention to God in prayer that God is able to work in our lives to empower us to do what he wants us to do.
Today, on Transfiguration Sunday, we consider how Jesus is changed in his encounter with God on that mountain, and how his disciples are changed as well. Any time we enter into God’s presence, it changes us – for the better. We are transformed as we pray. We are transformed as we spend time with God. God uses those times with us in prayer to help us become the people he has created us to be. It is in prayer that God reveals his will to us, and opens our hearts, minds and souls to living in his will. It is in prayer that God equips us to do the ministry he calls us to do as his disciples here today.
So, this Lenten season, I encourage you to regularly carve out time for prayer. It will change your life!
Some of us find it meaningful to give something up for Lent. As you think about the possibility of what you might want to give up for Lent, I encourage you to think about giving up whatever distracts you from God.
Maybe it is time spent on the computer – on social media, or video games, or surfing the internet. Might giving up some of that computer time create more time for your relationship with God?
Maybe it is a bad habit – eating in ways that are unhealthy, drinking too much, smoking or other addictions. Might giving up that bad habit, clear an obstacle to being with God as God wants you to be?
Maybe there is a need for forgiveness – of someone who has hurt you, or of yourself for something that is weighing on your conscience. Might giving up that resentment or bitterness or shame open your heart to let God’s love fill your life?
Lent is a time for spiritual growth and renewal. As we spend time with God in prayer, and as we attend to our relationship with God, God works in our lives to cleanse us, renew us, and transform us. As you prepare for Lent, let this be a season of giving priority to time with God, and deepening your relationship with God. As you do so, know that God is with you helping you each step along the way. So be gracious with yourself, as God is gracious with you.
In closing, I’d like to pray a prayer that is written by Ted Loder in his book Guerrillas of Grace. It speaks to the good intentions we have regarding our prayer lives, and to the real challenges we face. It invites God to meet us where we are at and work with us there.
Holy One, there is something I wanted to tell you, but there have been errands to run, bills to pay, arrangements to make, meetings to attend, friends to entertain, washing to do… and I forget what it is I wanted to say to you, and mostly I forget what I’m about or why. O God, don’t forget me, please, for the sake of Jesus Christ.
O Father in Heaven, perhaps you’ve already heard what I wanted to tell you. What I wanted to ask is, forgive me, heal me, increase my courage, please. Renew in me a little of love and faith, and a sense of confidence, and a vision of what it might mean to live as though you were real, and I mattered, and everyone was sister and brother.
What I wanted to ask in my blundering way is don’t give up on me, don’t become too sad about me, but laugh with me, and try again with me, and I will with you, too. Amen![ii]
May this Lenten season be
a time of growing in God’s love and grace. Amen!
[ii] “Holy One,” Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, (Philadelphia: Innisfree, 1984) pp. 60-62.