TITLE: Going Up on the Mountain to Pray SCRIPTURE: Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)
Our Gospel lesson this morning is the story of Jesus' Transfiguration. Luke begins by telling us that Jesus and his three closest disciples –– Peter, James, and John –– went up on the mountain to pray.
Mountains are special places in the Bible. They are places where people encounter God. Moses encountered God on Mount Sinai. Elijah called down fire from heaven on Mount Carmel. Jesus revealed his glory to his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. It was on mountains that people experienced grand and wonderful things.
As I thought about that, I wondered what our modern-day equivalent might be. Where would we go to experience grand and wonderful things? Where would you go to experience something wonderful?
If I could, I might choose a ride on the shuttle –– not the shuttle that flies between New York and Washington, but the shuttle that takes our astronauts into space. I can't think of anything more exciting and wonderful than feeling the spaceship vibrating as the engines start –– being pressed hard into the seat as the ship accelerates –– and the wonder of weightlessness –– and the view of the world as a blue and white jewel set on black velvet.
I am not the first one to have that thought, of course. Several years ago Dennis Tito, a wealthy businessman, paid the Russians $20 million to give him a ride into space. I am saving my nickels, but it will probably take me awhile to put together $20 million.
But, to be honest, I feel a sense of wonder when I see a beautiful sunset –– or snow-capped mountains –– or even a great building. If I had the courage, I might be a steel-worker walking girders 50 stories above the ground –– or washing windows on a great skyscraper.
But to show his disciples grand and wonderful things, Jesus took them up on a mountain. That in itself would seem wonderful enough. The view from a mountain can be glorious.
But Jesus gave the mountain visit an added dimension. He took his disciples up there to pray. He wanted to give them something more than a spectacular view. He wanted to give them a glimpse of God. And he wanted to give them a glimpse of his glory. He wanted to let them know that he was something more than a great leader, like King David. He was like God –– was God –– is God.
So he took them up on a mountain to pray. "And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white" (v. 29). Moses and Elijah, the great men of Israel's past, came to visit. A cloud descended on the disciples, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him."
The disciples weren't really ready for that. They had expected Jesus to do some exciting but conventional things –– like forming an army to drive the Romans out of their land. This experience on the mountain was more like grabbing an electrical wire and getting a jolt. But it awakened them to the fact that Jesus was more than they had expected. They wouldn't fully grasp the meaning of Jesus until after the cross and resurrection, but this experience on the mountain began to prepare them –– planted a seed in their hearts that would grow and blossom in due time.
Have you ever had an experience like that? Some people have. I have heard people talk about conversion experiences almost as dramatic as the things that these disciples experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration –– people whose lives had been headed in the wrong direction for years, but who suddenly and without warning came face to face with God and had their lives turned around.
Some of you might remember Eldridge Cleaver. As a young man, Cleaver was involved in various kinds of crime. In 1957 at age 22, he was convicted of assault with intent to commit murder. He admitted to raping a number of women. He advocated violence as a way of redressing racial injustice. In 1968 he was involved in a shootout with Oakland police. He jumped bail and lived for a number of years in Algeria and Paris.
Then Cleaver had one of those dramatic conversion experiences that we hear about. He saw a vision. This is how he reported his vision in his book, Soul on Fire. He said:
I saw all my former heroes paraded before my eyes...
Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-tung, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels,
passing in review ––
each one appearing for a moment of time,
and then dropping out of sight, like fallen heroes.
Finally, at the end of the procession, in dazzling, shimmering light,
the image of Jesus Christ appeared.
As a result of that vision, Cleaver became a Christian –– turned on to Jesus as fervently as he had been turned on earlier to violence. His life was never the same again. In one moment, he was a man of violence. In the next moment, he was a man of peace.
I mention Cleaver's story because his dramatic vision of Christ was so unexpected –– so dramatic ––so life-changing –– and thus so like the experience of these three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration.
But not many of us have that kind of dramatic vision–– that kind of sudden conversion. Most of us either grew up in the church, learning of Christ from the very beginning, or we came by our faith more deliberately –– more slowly –– over a period of time. We are more likely to have come by our faith at our mother's knee than on a mountaintop. This story of the Transfiguration, then, probably seems a bit peculiar –– something that has little or nothing to do with our experience of faith.
But I thought it interesting that Jesus took these disciples up on that mountain to pray. They didn't go there for the exercise. They didn't go there for the view. They didn't go there to find a good place to build a house or a restaurant. They went there to pray. In other words, they went there for the expressed purpose of placing themselves in the presence of God.
They went to that mountain to talk to God, but perhaps even more importantly they went there to listen to God. Sometimes we approach prayer as if the burden of communication were ours –– as if we somehow had to find the right words to persuade God to do our will. But prayer is something far different. Prayer is not a magical incantation to persuade God to obey us. Prayer is a conversation with a loving God that helps to align us with God's will. We, after all, are not the ones with the perfect plan –– God is. God doesn't need to learn from us –– we need to learn from God. So I am convinced that the quiet moments in prayer –– the times when we invite God to guide us–– and then sit quietly communing with God –– listening to God –– are possibly our most important prayer times.
When these three disciples went up on that mountain to pray, they were "weighed down with sleep" (v. 32). That's common, isn't it! How often we begin our prayers –– and then wake up later realizing that we never finished. That's all right! What better place to fall asleep than in the loving arms of our Heavenly Father.
But these three disciples managed to stay awake, and were rewarded with a glimpse of Christ's glory. They had gone up on the mountain to pray –– to commune with God –– and God revealed himself to them in a way that they had not expected.
There is a lesson to be learned here. While it is possible for God to take the initiative to break into our lives, it is also possible for us to take the initiative to invite him into our lives. That is one of the purposes of prayer –– to invite God into our lives. These disciples went up on the mountain to pray –– to invite God into their lives.
I am reminded of a famous painting of Christ painted by Holman Hunt more than a century ago. It pictures Christ knocking at a closed door. When Hunt showed the painting to his friends, one of them saw that he had forgotten something. He said, "You put no handle on the door." Hunt replied, "We must open the door to Jesus. The handle is on the inside."
Whenever we think that God has somehow absented himself from our lives, we might take a moment to check the door –– to see if we have opened it to invite him in.
What I am proposing here is that we follow the example of these disciples –– that we go up on the mountain –– or into the quietness of our room –– or wherever we can be alone to commune with God –– and that we go there to pray –– that we go there to talk to God and to listen to God –– that we go there expecting a blessing –– and that we not be surprised when we receive on –– when God reveals himself to us in ways beyond anything that we ever expected.