Jesus and his disciples went up to the mountain. And while Jesus was praying, they noticed his face shining. And while it was shining they noticed that Jesus wasn’t alone. He was with Moses and Elijah. Or was he? Could it have been a mirage? It sure looked like Moses and Elijah, although one would have to wonder how they knew. It’s not like they had seen their picture. But the two were likely candidates, showing Jesus’ place among the brightest and the best. Both were known to hang out on mountains. Moses went to Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Elijah went to Mt. Horeb to hear God’s still small voice and vanquished the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.
Peter and the other disciples were transfixed by this picture. And they wanted to do whatever they could to preserve this mountaintop epiphany. Maybe they could get some answers from Moses and Elijah. Moses, why did you wander around for 40 years to get about 100 miles? Moses, how come you started letting people go at 80? Come to think of it, maybe that’s why it took so long to ge to the promised land. A 120-year-old doesn’t move as fast as a 40-year-old. Does Jesus or do we have to wait that long until we really know what to do?
Elijah, what was really at the heart of your dispute with Jezebel? Did you need to kill all 450 prophets of Baal? Wasn’t that a bit over the top? Do we need to be similarly violent with our enemies? How do you know the difference between that still small voice and silence? Is there not a fine line between religious zeal and madness? How do we navigate this before we leave in our chariots of fire?
I’m sure there were a lot of questions. Chief among them might well have been, am I really up for this? Is Jesus really the one or shall we wait for another? Can you put in a good word for me with the big G?
The glow was great and I am sure they wanted to preserve it. Making booths, tents, seemed like such a great idea. Can’t we just bask in the glow of your light for just a little while? Please?
We could really use some answers, or at least some assurance. Jesus speaks in parables and it’s driving us nuts. Moses, Elijah, can you help Jesus make it plain? Maybe get him to lighten up a bit while you’re at it.
I preached a sermon at some friends’ wedding many years ago. Ken and Kate and I hiked to the top of Mount Adams in Southern Washington and Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire. Kate’s parents have a retirement home on Mount Hood and climbing and hiking is a spiritual discipline and a bit of an addiction for them. I likened their marriage to a mountaintop experience. It’s a time of great joy and a time of great accomplishment. And yet, you cannot live your lives like you will always be on the mountaintops. It’s unrealistic to think that life is going to be one mountaintop to another mountaintop. First of all it’s way too much pressure, trying to make everything work out better and better each time. Second of all, it’s dangerous to be exposed on the mountain all of the time where there is little protection and there is no where else to go but down.
I told them that they needed to enjoy the mountaintops, but also embrace the valleys. There is as much beauty in a valley stream as there is on a snowy peak. It’s a different kind of beauty and you may need to look a little closer, but it’s there, demanding your attention. Love the mountaintops, but also make friends with the valleys, where we live most of our lives.
When we hiked to the summit of Mt. Adams, we parked our car about 6,000 vertical feet below the summit. We began our hike at 3am in order to make it to the summit before the summer sun made the snow into slush. When we got to about 10,000 feet, I got a serious headache. At first I thought it was caffeine deprivation instead of oxygen deprivation. Pride kept Ken and I trudging up to the summit arriving a good half hour after Kate and her mom. The pictures have me hanging on to the rest of the team. We stayed up there for maybe ten minutes, getting choice views of Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood. But as much as I enjoyed being up there, I couldn’t wait to glissade down the mountain (That’s a fancy word for sliding down the mountain on your butt using an ice axe for steering). It took me until I got down almost to the tree line a good 4,000 feet below the summit for me to feel better.
Life is not lived on mountains. Mountaintops are places to visit. But they are dangerous places. There are cliffs. There is often a lack of protective vegetation. Storms can come up and wipe you right off the place. Not only that, but from a high mountain, others look small and insignificant. On a mountain, you start thinking you can do no wrong. You start thinking that you are better than everyone else.
Sure enough, when they came down from the mountain, Peter, James and John wanted a choice seat at Jesus right hand in heaven, ruling from their own high perch. Jesus took street children in his hand and said that embracing the forgotten is the key to real salvation.
Hear this, if you want to survive, you need to come off the mountain. There is often no water on the mountain. There is no protection on the mountain. There is little meaningful life on the summit. Life is lived in the valleys.
The key to achievement is not the gold medal and the ascension of the platform. It’s what happens on the slope of the mountain, when the crowds have gone away and we need to deal wit life and all of its absurdities and complexities. That’s where character is refined.
The key is to keep the sense of vision and clarity that we experience on that mountain—not the arrogant kind, but the epiphany, the light as we near the sun and the stars. What we need is to experience that afterglow.
So how do we do that? How do we experience that afterglow? For some of us it’s just remembering the glow.
I invite you to take a moment or two and think about the times when you were really clear. Think about those times when you felt God’s presence. Think about those mountaintop experiences. Think about that gold-medal performance you took part in. What was it about that experience? Who was there? What decisions did you make? How did the experience affect other people? Nothing we do is ever done in a vacuum. Who helped you up the mountain? Who was your sherpa carrying your load? How long did the experience last? Did you glow a bit? I know we’re Minnesotans and we don’t like to call attention to ourselves. When you do something that really makes a positive difference in someone else’s life, you are not doing it alone. You are exercising your God-aspect. And not only you glow, but the people around you glow too.
When we attend a wedding that seems so right, we see that glow in the couple. And that glow can’t help but be translated into and onto others.
We need to find ways to keep that glow alive, even in the valleys of life. That’s when it really gets important and life giving.
Sisters and brothers, Christianity is all about the afterglow. It’s about remembering the inspiring stories of Jesus’ triumph over evil, intolerance, violence and injustice. It’s remembering that story—that light, that hope. But it’s more than simply remembering. It’s also about seeing your life similarly illumined. Because of Jesus’ story, we dare to step off the mountain and into the valley of challenge, the valley of doubt, the valley of inconsistency. We step in to the valley still glowing with the light from the mountain and we work alongside God and God’s people to transform the valleys of despair in to the valleys of hope. We work to transform the valleys of ignorance to the valleys teeming with life and abundance. We work to transform the valleys of me-first to the verdant valleys of communities where all are treated fairly and none are made into outcasts.
And we can do that because we have experienced the light. We have been to the mountaintop. And we still glow a bit. It’s the afterglow that gives us inspiration to keep on keeping on. I still feel as though I am in the afterglow from the light we experienced with our sister church in Nicaragua. The light on their faces is a constant reminder to me to keep focused on what is truly important for my life. I still feel in the afterglow of the church retreat this past weekend. It was not only the opportunity to go cross country skiing on a sunny February afternoon when the snow balanced and glistened on the pine trees. It was also the glow of the intensive intergenerational Bible study we did—engaging the scriptures and each other in ways we had not done before.
Now, some of us need a booster from time to time. It’s easy for us to lose heart. It’s been too long since we have experienced the light. Like Tinkerbelle, our light is on life-support and runs the risk of running out. So we come to church seeking that afterglow. Or we go to a ball game to get that high that we need. Some of us retreat into drugs or alcohol to get that high. But will it last you into the valleys?
Hear this. The only thing that will last in to the valley is relationship—relationship with one another, relationship with God, relationship with a power greater than ourselves that can restore us to sanity. Eventually all of us come off the mountain and end up in the valley. The question is, do we end up there with an afterglow? That’s what God wants.
When the Apostle Paul says love is patient and kind and doesn’t demand its own way, he is giving a prescription for living in the valley, living in an afterglow.
As we move from the season of Epiphany to the season of Lent, we’ll need an afterglow. Epiphany focuses on light. Lent will focus on the ways that lead to death, remembering our challenges and our commitments to be children of the light.
My friends, the light of God glows in each of us. Our responsibility is to keep that light shining. Keep it glowing. Take care of that little park. Surround yourselves with people who will nurture the afterglow of God in you. For it is that power, that light which creates, redeems and sustains us all.
We are here to be reflections of God. Afterglow is the story of Jesus igniting life giving fire someplace else. When that happens, we have moved the mountain to the valley and we live into Isaiah’s prophecy that the valleys are lifted up and the mountains are made low so everyone can experience their full potential.
It’s all about the afterglow. Nurture the spark today and every day.