The mountaintops are meant to prepare you for the valley
They were about to have an awesome experience. Which was meant to get them ready for what was coming next. Because what was coming next was a valley. Which is also the pattern for your life, mine as well, what our great experiences are meant to do for us, too. Get us ready for the valley that is coming up.
The four of them were in decent shape. Good enough shape to climb a mountain. Peter, maybe middle aged, James, John, and Jesus, who was 33 years old. They climbed this “high mountain” our text says. And then a little bit of heaven happened. Jesus was suddenly transfigured before them.
It says that his clothes became “dazzling white.” At a pastors pre-Lent study conference I was recently at, one of our retired professors, Prof. Deutschlander, was teaching, and he made an interesting observation of this detail. Mark’s gospel was written first probably to Christians living in Rome. Everyone in Rome knew who tried to have the whitest togas in the city. It was the politicians. They worked very hard at this. Used tons of bleach. Because a white toga was their way of saying, “I’m honest; I’m truthful; I’m pure and innocent.” They had their servants bleach their togas to make them as white as possible every day. And what interesting detail does Mark tell us about Jesus’ clothes? “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.”
Moses and Elijah suddenly are there, because this is a little corner of heaven that has opened up. Moses, the only person God ever buried; and Elijah, one of the only two men who never tasted death, he went straight from this life into heaven by way of tornado. And Peter, who our text says, “did not know what to say, they were so frightened,” nevertheless is never at a loss for words, “It is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.”
And why not? Who wouldn’t want to stay in that kind of place, a place that felt like laughter and music and joy, a place that felt like the exhilaration of skydiving rolled into the pleasure of a perfectly cooked steak dinner paired with the perfect wine rolled into the feeling of seeing the Grand Canyon for the very first time rolled into the rolled into the joy of the Minnesota Miracle (if you are a Vikings fan) or if you are a Packers fan, that Hail Mary pass against the Giants, or the one against the Lions. “It is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” Who can blame him for making such a terrible suggestion?
And it was a terrible suggestion. A terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad suggestion. If Jesus says “yes” to Peter and they stay there, then there will be no payment for sins, no “It is finished,” no empty tomb, no victory over death. And Peter, James, and John will be damned, sinners that they were, damned along with the rest of us sinners. Keep that in mind when you pray your own prayers—as good as they sound to you, you might want to always say, “But, your will be done.” And mean it, as he answers your prayers HIS way, in HIS time.
Because being on this mountain top was not only exhilarating, it was terrifying. Our text says, Peter was frightened. Because when you come face-to-face with holiness, you suddenly come face-to-face with a frightening reality—that you have no excuse for your sins. God gives us everything we need to overcome any sin—his pure Word, his Holy Spirit, enough food. And still we sin? What’s your excuse? And so Peter was frightened. Because the only thing God hates worse than a sinner, is a sinner with lame excuses. But I suspect that’s the kind that Satan and the demons especially find it easy to torture.
That’s what made Peter’s suggestion so terrible. Because lame sinners need Jesus to come down that mountain and die on the cross and pay for our sin that we might face a God who has a friendly, forgiving face instead of an angry, beet-red face.
And this is also why you can’t have every day be a good day, a “mountain top day.”
Now, you do get good days, don’t you. God sees to it. You’ve had some good days, right. May today is one of them. You’ve had some great days, too, haven’t you. You’ve probably even had a handful of awesome days. And if you have a little bit of mileage on you, you’ve had your Moments, capital “m,” a half a dozen or so Moments, isn’t that true. God makes sure of it. He makes sure of it because if we didn’t get such things, we would end being gloomy Gus’s. And our Lord did not call us to be gloomy Gus’s. To take up our cross daily and follow him, yes—but with a full heart and with a willing spirit.
But if we only had good days, we’d get cocky. If all we had were good days, the feeling would come that church and daily devotions aren’t the most important thing. That I don’t need to take what Christ says in his Word totally seriously. You get too many good days and this thought will drift into your mind, “I got this; I can handle life; God is important, of course; but I don’t NEED him and his Word; it’s not like I NEED to rearrange my schedule just so I be at those Lenten services.” Too many good days in a row and we will end up being in that crowd of people to whom Jesus will say with disgust on the LD, “Get away from me. I never knew you.”
And so along with the good days, we also need the valleys. Just like the disciples. They had to come back down to the valley. To some pretty tough days ahead. This is necessary. And we can be grateful. Grateful for the complicated, anxiety-producing days, for the unfair, heartbreaking days, for the boring, slogging days. If we didn’t have those, we’d soon get cocky. And destroy our own faith. And lose everything.
To prevent that from happening, our Lord gives us the valleys. But there is one thing you must, must, must remember when you are in the valley, in those complicated, unfair, anxiety-producing, boring, slogging days–one thing you must remember is this—another mountain top is coming. You must remember this. Our Lord does not leave you in the valley. It won’t stay this way. Another mountain top is coming.
For the disciples, it was even better than the transfiguration. Because the next mountaintop would bring the death of death itself. For the next mountaintop was Easter Sunday. As Jesus said to them, “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
This is you must remember when you are in the valley—it will not stay this way. Another mountain top is coming. Probably not as quickly as you would like. Almost never as quickly as you would like. Which is why our Father doesn’t have a list of dozen things for us to do in the meantime, just one. Keep listening and learning his Word. “This is my Son whom I love. Listen to him!”
Our Lord will see to it that your next “mountain top” will get delivered right to your door, better than even FedEx can do. And one day, that mountain top that he will deliver to your door will be the greatest one of all— the one that includes angels and music and seeing him with your own eyes, yours and not another’s. It will look like death. But it will be heaven for each of us who believes and is baptized, for God promised you heaven at your baptism. And he doesn’t lie.
But until then, it’s mountain tops, and then valleys, and then—and this is the part you must remember– mountain tops again. This our Lord will do. So hold on. And, as the voice from the cloud said, keep listening to the Word. “This is my Son whom I love. Listen to him!” Amen.