“The Mountain of God”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Peter did not want to leave the mountain. He had, he must have thought, reached the pinnacle of life: what could compare to seeing Jesus in the glory that was His before the world began? What could compare to seeing Moses and Elijah, long-gone from the face of the earth, talking with their Lord about His coming exodus from death to life (Luke 9:31)? What could compare to being in the cloud and hearing the voice of God speaking the same words as at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 17:5; 3:17)? Having had such an experience, who could blame Peter for wanting to make some tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and just stay up there? Or maybe Peter had no intention of staying up there himself. He doesn’t say anything about wanting to make a fourth tent for himself, or a fifth and a sixth for James and John. Though he makes it sound good by telling Jesus, “If You wish…,” what if Peter just wants to be able to visit Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in their little tents up on the mountain when it’s convenient for him? A nice, quiet mountainside retreat with Jesus, Moses the Law-giver, and Elijah the Prophet.
But just as he had a week before, Peter is thinking the things of men and not the things of God (16:23). Whether Peter wanted to stay up on the mountain so that he didn’t have to go back down to “real life” or whether he wanted to have Jesus, the Law, and the Prophets at his disposal, to consult on his timetable, doesn’t matter a whole lot. Neither has anything to do with what Jesus is doing. But either can be our temptation. Sometimes we catch glimpses of worship so moving that it might as well be taking place in the very courts of the New Jerusalem. We would like to hold on to that experience, that feeling, that moment forever. If only we could carry that around with us in our day-to-day lives. But the feeling never lasts. The gears of life grind it out of us. It fades like the face of a long-dead and distant relative. What you do six days a week simply will not let you hang on to what happened that one time or, even, what happens once a week. I’m not talking about what most people think when they hear the words “going to church.” I’m talking about when we see and hear hints of what the liturgy is really supposed to be, what the gathering of God’s people around His Word and Sacraments is really supposed to be, when the scales of sin and doubt and apathy fall from our eyes, and we see God revealing Himself in Jesus Christ. We hear God as He speaks to us, saying, “I forgive you.” When the Word of God actually breaks through our rock-hard hearts and touches a raw nerve that we had carefully kept covered for so long. When our throats are so constricted by the dust of our failures that the blood of Christ actually tastes like what it is, living water for our thirsty souls. If you have never felt such things, or if the memory is buried deep under years of your life, I pray that the Holy Spirit would peel back the layers of repetition and give you ears to hear the words as if for the first time.
But, even so, it is exactly such an experience that might tempt us to see the world out there, with jobs and families and bills, as something unworthy of our time because it is so much less “spiritual.” With such an idea, we might never want to leave this place, because that would mean finding ourselves again in the midst of the repetition of life, the stretches of boredom, the neverending-ness of it all (like a Northern Minnesota winter). You come back down from wherever it is, and you want everything to change to become more like the place where you’ve been. You’ve seen how good things can be and you want everyone else to know it as well. What a shock to find that people are generally content with the mundane reality of life; they don’t really seem to care about how things could be. And you become frustrated and cynical and you long to leave the place where God has put you and go back up the mountain to recapture the feeling. With every “mountain-top experience” there are valleys all around. Notice, though, that it is Jesus who leads Peter, James, and John back down the mountain. If anyone had a reason to stay on the mountain and avoid “real life,” it was Jesus. He knew that going back down the mountain meant the necessity of His suffering and death outside Jerusalem. But that mountain they called “the Skull” was where He had to be, for the sake of the whole world.
It might be the second temptation that is stronger for us, though. That is, the temptation to keep Jesus, along with the Law and the Prophets, where they are safe; or, rather, where we are safe from them. If we go out those doors and from 9:15 am/12:15 pm to 8:15/11:00 am next Sunday we don’t think about Jesus and what He might mean for our lives, if we don’t open a Bible or pray, it’s fairly easy to live our lives without much thought at all about the Jesus we’ve left in the tent we call Trinity/St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Doesn’t what goes on here seem sort of irrelevant as you prepare your taxes? Doesn’t it seem sort of irrelevant as you vote in the primary on Tuesday? Doesn’t it seem sort of irrelevant as you discipline your child or kiss your husband or drive down Highway 2? But the only thing that proves is that we’ve believed the lie that what goes on here is merely “spiritual” (which often means “not real”). Out there, that’s the “real” world, and never the two shall meet. But we’ve drawn the picture exactly backwards. We think that what we do in here is just a part, just a detail, of the bigger picture of our lives, which, in turn, is part of a bigger picture that we call “the world.” But that is simply not the truth. Our lives are small parts of the world with its six billion people and its transnational companies, but what goes on here is not a small part of that. No, what goes on here is much bigger; what happens here encompasses all of that.
What goes on here is bigger than Fisher/Euclid, bigger than Minnesota, bigger than the United States, bigger than presidential elections, bigger than the economy, bigger than wars and rumors of war, bigger than all creation. What is going on here? Here God pulls together the thousands of years that have come before us and however many years might be in the future; He pulls together our lives and the lives of all people, living and dead, and He brings it all together in a single historical point: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And He doesn’t leave us here to wonder and imagine what it might have been like; He brings us and our histories into His story. If what we Christians say is true, that God is eternal and this creation is not, then the eternal God becoming a time-bound Man is the defining moment in this whole crazy, amazing thing. And if it is that Jesus whom we come to hear and worship, then there is-there can be-absolutely nothing that is more important, more pressing, more significant for you and for me. Imagine it! That you or I could even consider not being here where He comes near to us; where, like those three disciples on the mountain, we see Jesus for who He is; where this God-Man actually speaks to us! It seems absurd that the Father would actually have to say, “Listen to Him” (Matthew 16:5). Then again, knowing myself, it’s probably not so absurd. But notice, again, that Jesus does not stay in a little tent up on the mountain. He goes with the disciples and at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, from the top of another mountain, He promises to be with them always (28:20). We do not leave Jesus behind when we leave His House. It is He in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
In both temptations, then, we have the same divide between the spiritual world and the real world, and we misunderstand the importance of both. What happens here, what God does, is not a spiritual thing that makes physical and temporal things unimportant; nor is what God does only the so-called spiritual part of the so-called real world. Both temptations distort the true picture. The true picture is this: what we call the spiritual does not make the world out there less important; God’s divine service to us makes things out there more important. God’s divine service gives everything out there a terrible significance that is almost too much to bear. It gives us eyes to see every person out there as an object of God’s saving work, since God has created every person in His own image. Through our work out there, God is serving and loving and giving to the people for whom Christ died. What goes on out there is second only to what God does in here. And one day the world in which the Church finds herself will somehow, mysteriously, be transformed by Christ into His Kingdom and the new creation will make the Church unnecessary. The other side of this true picture is that God’s divine service is not just a part of some bigger story. In truth, the whole story of everything is God’s story of salvation, which He continues to write every time the Church gathers around her Lord to be renewed and forgiven by Him. Here we are, on every seventh day, and we, like Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Exodus 24, see God and He does not lay His hand on us in condemnation. We come here, covered in the blood of the New Testament, we see God, we eat and drink, and, in His mercy, we do not die because of our sin.
You come here, after six days of working and parenting, learning and playing, sleeping and waking, and your Lord meets you, week after week, month after month, year after year. He, whom the angels worship and by whom the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled, comes, for now, in hidden glory. He speaks tenderly to you who, knowing the sorry state of your own self, fall down before Him in repentant fear. He touches you with His healing hand and says, “Rise; do not be afraid. Look and see me only; I am your Lord, crucified, dead, and alive again to make your life part of my life. One day the whole creation will be the mountain of God and you will shine like the sun in my righteousness (Matthew 13:43). Until then, return to my House often so that I can feed you my word and my body and my blood for forgiveness, life, and salvation, and for the strengthening of your hope and faith.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.