Page last updated



Mountain Top Experiences

by Frank Schaefer

based on Matthew 17:1-9

I'd like to begin with a story about a young man who came to the door of a monastery with a big, fat duck in his arms. His uncle, who happened to be one of the monks, answered the knock. "Here uncle Bartholomew, is a gift for you and the other monks." Well, uncle Bartholomew took and plucked, stuffed, basted and baked that duck and the monks lived high on the bird that night. Several days later, another knock came on the monastery door. "Hello, I am a friend of the nephew who brought you the big, fat duck. I'm a bit down on my luck, and I wonder if I might impose on you for a bite to eat and a place to sleep for the night?" "Of course, my son, you are most welcome." And that night, he joined the monks for warm duck soup. A few days later, another knock on the door. "Hi, I'm a friend of the friend of the friend of the nephew who brought the duck. Could I impose on you for a bit of hospitality?" He too was welcomed. That night at dinner he was given a steaming hot bowl of...water. He tasted it, looked up puzzled, and asked: "What is this?" "Well, this is the soup of the soup of the soup of the duck that my nephew brought."

When I asked my kids what they thought the moral of the story was, they all agreed that the first guy--the nephew--should have gotten the monks a cow. Somebody else suggested that we should never go to the house of a friend of a friend of a friend. OK.

Another moral to the story is that a second-hand, or third- or fourth-hand faith ends up being pretty watered down. Living on the faith of the faith of the faith of our parents, grandparents, or our Sunday school teachers can be pretty bland. The truth is, we have to own our faith. We have to experience the love of God ourselves in order to believe. And usually faith comes to us like an eye-opener, it often comes out of an encounter with the living God.

That's kind of what it was like when Peter, James and John went up to the mountain-top with Jesus. Shortly after they arrived, they see Jesus for the first time for what he is. For a moment they were given the eyes of pure faith. Suddenly, they understand who Jesus really is--God of true God, Light of true Light. They understand that he was the fulfillment of the law as represented by the person of Moses. And they saw that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy as represented by the greatest prophet of Israel, Elija. It was a joyous and glorious moment.

Boy, the mountain top is a beautiful place to be! I've had the privilege to enjoy the view from several mountain-tops in the German and Swiss Alps. Once you're up there, after hours of strenuous climbing and thin air, you will be rewarded with the most exhilarating moment of your life. You really feel close to God up there. And then there is that incredible view. On a nice day you can see as far as the eye can see (pretty far). It's majestic, it's glorious. And you can't help but feeling that you're on top of the world (which you actually are when you're up there--what I mean to say is that all the world's problems seem to shrink to nothingness at that moment).

Ordinary words are not enough to describe this experience. That's why you hear the most bizare things when people report about their mountain top experience. Our scripture passage, for instance, says that Jesus' face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. I heard that one of the NASA astronauts had such a spiritual mountain-top experience (and I don’t remember his name) when he saw planet Earth while standing on the moon--so actually it was a moon-top experience. He saw that the earth had no national or geographical lines drawn on it, and heard a voice telling him to go back and spread the word that we are all brothers and sisters and that we must stop killing and hurting each other. He began telling that experience during his debriefing and they sent him to a psychiatrist. Mountain top experiences are difficult to share. As they say, "You had to be there."

Most of us gathered here this morning probably had a spiritual mountain-top experience of some sort. A moment, or several moments when you began to see with the eyes of faith, when suddenly all you had heard about God in Sunday school, in church, or from your grandparents or parents suddenly made perfect sense to you. The moment when you knew in your heart for the first time that God was real and that God really cares for you? Many of us this morning could get up and give a report on a mountain-top experience you had, and I'm sure we would hear some pretty amazing stories.

Is it any wonder that Peter wanted this moment to last forever? I don't blame him. It says in Verse 4: "Peter blurted out, " Lord it's wonderful that we can be here! Hey, I got an idea, lets build three cabins, and stay here forever!" But soon he realized that eventually, we will have to get back down from the mountain top, we'll have to go back into the valleys of our every-day life. And those valleys can be very low and dark and scary at times.

Psalm 23 reminds us that sometimes we will have to "walk through the valley of the shadow of death." And that's why we need to cherish those mountain-top experiences. We need to share them with others, we need to be reminded of them. Sometimes you just have to remember why you're doing what you're doing. Sometimes life can be so frustrating and discouraging. That's when you can fall back on your mountain-top experiences. And you remember how God singled you out, called you to do what you are doing, and that he promised he would see you through--no matter what. Don't let anybody take anything away from your mountain-top experience.

Stick with that original version of your mountain-top experience--the way you have experienced God. Don't start to rationalize it, no matter how unbelievable it may sound to some. It is part of your sacred story and it will be a tremendous source of comfort and strength to you when you have to face the dark valley. Amen.