I forgot to post my sermon from Sunday. Better late than never.
When I was in high school, I was deeply involved with my local Young Life chapter. Every Wednesday, I would cram into somebody’s basement with a hundred or more other high schoolers to sing praises to God and hear a Bible lesson. Thursday nights, a small group of us spent the night at our Young Life leaders’ house so that we could wake up early on Friday morning for Bible study and monkey bread. The highlight of the year was, of course, summer camp. We’d pile into a fancy motor coach and make our way north to the Finger Lakes of upstate New York where we were guaranteed to have the best week of our lives. There, on Saranac Lake, we’d spend a week immersed in experiences designed to bring us closer to God. The music was top-notch, the food was delicious, and the Ski Nautique boats were perfect for water skiing and parasailing. There is no mountain top experience like hanging by a parachute, three hundred feet in the air, being pulled around one of the most beautiful lakes in New York by a high-powered ski boat, captained by a college student who loves Jesus.
Mountain top experiences are amazing. Of course, they are. That’s why they’re called mountain top experiences. They are the pinnacle of life experiences. We just heard the story of the first Christian mountain top experience in Mark’s version of the Transfiguration story. A brief look through Scripture shows us several others: God gave Noah the rainbow as a sign after the ark came to rest atop a mountain. Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. Elijah heard the still, small voice of God at the top of Mount Horeb. The mountain top is often a thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth is seemingly nonexistent, and the presence of God can be felt. It is natural for us to yearn for those profound experiences of God. When they happen, we should rejoice in them, just as Peter did when he recognized Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus. We should rejoice because they are amazing and few and far between. The mountain top is hard to come by. That’s why religious leaders often work hard to cultivate them for us. That the mountain top experience is pre-designed doesn’t mean it is disingenuous. It seems clear that even Jesus pre-planned this particular event. He took a select few of his most trusted disciples with him. They climbed a literal mountain. A spectacular event took place. That it was manufactured, doesn’t mean the mountain top experience of Peter, James, and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration or my week at Saranac Lake aren’t real, but it does go to show that the mountain top, while beneficial and worth pursuing, isn’t normal. Life isn’t lived atop a mountain, but in the ups and downs of daily life, and if life has taught me anything, it is that God is just as present in the valleys as the mountain tops.
Before I went to seminary, I was a part-time youth minister at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Like the EYC here, we were a small, but committed group. One summer, we joined with a large, international mission trip company, to spend a week in rural North Carolina rehabbing houses. I was so excited for that trip. Our partner company had slick resources, what appeared to be a decent theological foundation, and everything looked like it would be easy peasy lemon squeezy. Nothing could have been further from the truth. We were assigned to a house that needed significant soffit and fascia repair. My crew was me and five ninth graders. Our first job? Build two ladders. That’s right, we were given a bunch of two by fours and some nails to build the ladders we needed to reach the roof. Our second job? Climb up our homemade ladder with a Sawzall to cut out of the rotten fascia boards. Me. And five ninth graders. Each night, the evening program was filled with “scared straight” type stories meant to get our kids to believe in Jesus just so they wouldn’t go to hell. Our van broke down mid-week and my air mattress was flat each morning. We were about as deep in the valley as we could go, yet, on our last night there, my kids and I got to experience the love of God in a deeply moving way. I honestly don’t remember what the last night’s program was about, but I remember how our kids were able to see God amidst the hardship of the week. Despite the lack of resources and despite my grumpiness, we all knew in that moment that God loved us, and we were transformed forever in that knowing and being known.
My friend, Keith Talbert, pointed out to me that the lessons for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, while often used to highlight the mountain top, could just as easily teach us to look for God in the valleys. In a season specifically set aside to look for the “aha moments” of God in our lives, the lessons for this Sunday shine the bright light of God both on the mountain top, in the story of the Transfiguration, and deep in the valley, in the story of Elijah and Elisha from Second Kings. Elijah’s final journey begins at Gilgal. I’ll spare you most of the details, but it should be noted that there are several different Gilgals mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. A Gilgal is a circle of rocks, built as a monument to a major event, and we have no idea which Gilgal marked the start of their journey. It could be the Gilgal near the River Jordan, where the Israelites camped just before they crossed the Jordan and entered into the Promised Land, but that doesn’t make much sense given that the next stop is Bethel. More likely is one of the gilgals erected in the mountains north and west of Jerusalem. The story of Elijah and Elisha could, quite possibly begin on the mountain top, but like it was for Peter, James, and John, they couldn’t stay there.
As Elijah made his slow and steady march toward the Jordan River valley and his death, Elisha, heir to his prophetic voice, travelled with him in grief. They came down from Gilgal to Bethel, where a company of prophets tried to dissuade Elisha from continuing to journey into the valley. “You know that today the Lord will take your master away, right?” “Yes, I know, shut up about it.” From Bethel, Elijah and Elisha continued down to Jericho, where another company of prophets tried to keep Elisha from following his mentor into the depths. “You know that today the Lord will take your master away, right?” “Yes, I know, shut up about it.” From Jericho, God called Elijah to the Jordan River, and Elisha followed yet again. Finally, Elijah struck the river, the waters parted, and Elijah and Elisha found themselves standing in a dried-up riverbed. There, about as far from the mountain top as one can go, Elisha received a double portion of the Spirit that rested upon Elijah and the glory of Lord came as a chariot of fire and took Elijah up to heaven. At one of the lowest points on earth, during one of the lowest points of his life, Elisha experienced a profound encounter with the living God.
I don’t know about you, but after all that we’ve been through in the last eleven months, I find myself drawn to the story of Elisha and Elijah in a dried-out riverbed this morning. From where I’m standing, there seems to be a lot of opportunities to walk uphill from here. Even in the difficult times, however, we can rest assured that God is here. God is present and ready to pour out grace and love in abundance on the mountain tops, in the valleys, and everywhere in between. There are better days ahead, of this I am sure, but in the meantime, my prayer is that each of us will have the chance to experience the transfiguring love of God in the highs and lows of our everyday lives. Amen.