March 8, 2020 – “Prone to Wander: Stay on the Mountain” by Rev. Cody Sandahl

Sermon begins at the 2:01 mark after the music

Lay Reader = Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

4What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. 13For the promise that he would inherit  the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law  but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16For this reason it depends on faith, in  order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his  descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who  share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us,

17as it is written, “I have made  you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he  believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things  that do not exist.

Introduction

We are continuing our Lent series looking at the ways we are prone to wander away from God, and how Jesus points us back in the right direction. Last week we  heard the three things that actually tempted Jesus, and how he decided to trust God’s plan through those temptations. This week we are following Jesus and three of the disciples as they go up to a high mountain. If you have ever heard of the phrase, “mountaintop experience,” this was the first one.

Matthew 17:1-9

17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is  good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here,  one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a  bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This  is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain,  Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of  Man has been raised from the dead.”

Mountaintop Experience

I finally made it up to the mountains to ski, and you know I love to ski. But one of my favorite moments of skiing at Loveland comes early in the day. I take the Chet’s Dream high speed lift up one side of the mountain, ski down to lift number four, keep going past the first drop-off point all the way to the top. When you get off that lift, you’re not quite at the top ridge, but you’re pretty close. You’re inside this kind of bowl area near the top of the mountain, and when you turn around you are greeted by this snow-covered vista of the mountain and the broader valley.

Early in the day, there aren’t many people there, so it’s like this hallowed, holy moment for me. It’s a reminder that God is good. That this world God created contains epic beauty. And, as an added bonus, at that moment at the top of lift number four, I am as far away from anyone who wants to ask me to do something as I can be. It’s beautiful on several levels!

But you know, it’s not quite as awe-inspiring as the first time I went up that lift. The very first time I had that mountaintop experience, I just stood there for several minutes taking it all in. It felt like the space between heaven and earth was thinner than normal at that place at that time. It’s still good, but it’s not quite as good as it was the first time.

So I have a plan to recapture the magic of that first experience at the top of lift number four. I went back and found a weather report for that specific day and time. So I know it was 23 degrees. I know the wind was mild that day – only 10-15 miles per hour. That’s pretty good for Loveland. I know there wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day. I know that the mountain had received 12 inches of snow the week before I arrived, but no snow on that specific day.

So here’s my plan. I’m going to watch the weather report, and if I ever see 23 degrees with 10-15 mile per hour winds on a cloud-free day where the mountain has had 12 inches of snow in the last seven days, I’m going up there! Because surely if I get everything just right, I’ll feel exactly the same way I felt that first time up lift number four. Right?

If you’re thinking that story was a lot of setup for very little payoff, you might be correct. But I believe we are actually prone to doing that in our lives. When we notice that the magic seems to be missing, we are prone to long for and prone to try to recreate that magic moment.

I was on an airplane recently, which allows me to see movies I would never see otherwise. I was watching JoJo Rabbit, and the boy, JoJo, asks his mom what love feels like. And she said, “Love feels…like butterflies in your stomach.” And that can definitely be true – I bet many people here have felt those butterflies in your stomach when you first started courting your spouse. But I also bet most of us no longer feel those same butterflies when that person walks through the door today.

I always warn my premarital couples that love feels differently at different phases of life. Those butterflies are partially because of some chemicals that your brain is kicking out, and scientists have studied those chemicals and we know that your brain doesn’t keep kicking them out forever. You should expect for love to feel differently at different phases of life. There’s nothing wrong with your relationship if it doesn’t feel like it used to. Chasing that original feeling would just keep you wandering from one relationship to another whenever your brain decides to stop kicking out those butterfly chemicals. Those butterflies in your stomach are like a mountaintop experience. They’re fantastic! But if you keep chasing that feeling, if you keep trying to stay on the mountaintop, you’re bound to keep searching forever.

When we experience something great, when we feel something amazing, when we reach the mountaintop, we are prone to want to stay there so it never ends. Just keep the good times rolling. Just keep everything amazing and great and fabulous forever and ever amen! But we see in our text today that those experiences and those feelings don’t last forever. And we see in our text today that we aren’t meant to keep chasing the mountaintop experiences. Jesus has something else in mind.

Fleeting

The scene in our text today is absolutely mind-boggling. Can you even imagine what it would be like to see Moses, Elijah, and the glorious, transfigured Jesus standing in front of you? That’s unfathomable! But Peter is a man of action, even when he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do. So basically, he blurts out, “Hey Jesus! This is awesome! Can I build some tents so we can stay here forever?”

I find it fascinating that the exact moment Peter decided to try to grasp this experience, this emotion forever, that was the moment when the vision ended. When he moved from enjoying the experience to trying to possess and control the experience, it all ended.

I spent several years teaching middle school and high school students about the faith, and I still vividly remember the best lesson I ever gave. I decided to try a different approach that Sunday. We were going through a book of the Bible one chapter at a time. To start off our first week, I studied the book overall and the first chapter in particular. I created a handout that listed some interesting observations, some ideas for reflection, and some ways the text could apply to our lives today. I told the story of how that book of the Bible came to be – as vividly as possible. And using that handout, I tried to get the students to ask questions aloud. It was a more like a rabbinical dialogue than a lesson.

And it was fabulous! The students were engaged – even the ones who were normally trying to sneak a few text messages in while I was speaking. After youth group, I felt like I had finally discovered my style. I had hit a home run. The youth group leaders reported that their small group breakout discussions were the best they had ever had.

So I tried to keep the good times rolling. I prepared just as deeply for the second chapter of the book as I had for the first. I created the same kind of handout. I had the same group of kids – maybe even a few more the next week. I used the same style of rabbinical dialogue. And this week the students responded with…silence! Crickets! Nothing! It totally bombed! It was a mountaintop experience one week, but when I tried to replicate it the next week it was terrible!

Like Peter, I knew that first week, that mountaintop experience, that was good. Like Peter, I wanted it to last forever. Like Peter, I wanted every week to be a transfiguration, a revelation of God’s glory. But that glorious feeling was fleeting. It was great, but then it was gone.

And that’s when I started to learn what Jesus taught Peter, James, and John in our text today. Jesus touched them, told them to “get up and do not be afraid.” And then they walked down the mountain, and Jesus told them not to tell anyone else about it for now.

We aren’t meant to live our lives up on the mountain. The mountaintop experience isn’t a gauge of our faith, and the lack of a mountaintop experience isn’t a reflection of our lack of faith. Jesus didn’t even want them to talk about this experience until his resurrection. Also remember that nine of the twelve disciples of Jesus didn’t experience this particular mountaintop.

Maybe you’ve had a mountaintop experience. Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe you’ve seen the glory of the Lord. Maybe you haven’t. If you have, it’s not because you had more faith than someone else. If you haven’t, it’s not because you had less faith than someone else. And if you had a mountaintop experience and then it faded away, it’s not because you did anything wrong.

It’s because we aren’t meant to live our lives on the mountaintop, chasing that fleeting feeling. Jesus takes them off the mountain and back onto the plain. Jesus led them off the mountain, and took them back to the city. Jesus led them off the mountain where they were with the Son of God, the Lawgiver Moses, and the Prophet Elijah, and he led them back to their everyday relationships.

Faithfulness is about the everyday, not chasing the once-in-a-lifetime forever. When we experience something wonderful, we are prone to seek that feeling, to chase that experience, to worship that moment instead of Jesus.

I’m harping on this so much because I’ve seen people’s lives go off the rails when they fail to grasp this. I’ve seen people wander after those butterflies in their stomach, even though it made them wander away from their spouses and their children.

I’ve seen people wander toward any substance or any relationship that makes them forget about their pain for a while. But the pain is still there the next morning, and whatever made you forget your pain comes with its own new pain as well.

I’ve seen people wander from church to church to church trying to capture the magic worship moment. Usually that really means they never develop rooted relationships that would nourish them far more than a magical worship service for one hour on Sunday morning.

I’ve seen people wander from job to job to job trying to find the perfect environment, even though the grass wasn’t really greener on the other side the last five times they tried to switch.

Paul says in Philippians 4, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

In other words, we can celebrate the mountaintop experience if it happens. We can survive the valley of the shadow of death if it happens. Faithfulness is when we remain grounded in Christ whether we are up or down, whether we are on top of the world or feeling six feet under.

Summary

What have you been chasing? Where have you been looking for greener grass on the other side of the fence? Is it really greener? More importantly, is Jesus standing over there or right next to you already?

We are prone to wander away from Jesus and instead worship that great feeling, that mountaintop experience, those butterflies in your stomach. But all of those things are fleeting. Jesus is lasting.

What have you been chasing? Is Jesus really over there, or already standing next to you? Amen.