February 11, 2024
A Mountaintop Experience
A few weeks ago, I mentioned in a sermon that I had entered seminary after a dramatic experience of calling into the ministry. I believe I may have told some of you the story of that experience, but I hope that those of you who have heard it will forgive me for telling it once again, because it bears repeating. Our gospel reading this morning is about a dramatic experience that occurred at the top of a mountain, and this is my own “mountaintop experience.”
It all occurred the better part of 50 years ago when I was a police officer in Aurora, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. I was out on patrol in my cruiser one night – it must have been about 3:00 in the morning. As I rounded a corner, it happened without warning. I heard (or felt) something like a voice. It wasn’t really a voice – I think the ancient Hebrews called it a “shadow of a voice” – it was simply a clear and certain knowledge as though someone were in the back seat of the patrol car whispering in my ear. I simply knew that something was going on at a junior high school in my area. And I was absolutely certain that this was some sort of Divine message. If that sounds strange to you, imagine how strange it made me feel. It made absolutely no sense whatsoever. But there was also no question in my mind. I simply switched on my red lights (back then, police cars had red lights, not blue lights), pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and headed for the junior high. When I got there, I started checking the building. As a got to the back of the school, I discovered a door that had been kicked in. I called for back-up, and waited. When the other officers arrived, we entered the building and started the search. Every room we went through had been trashed: things broken, waste baskets overturned, graffiti scribbled on the walls, chairs thrown around. But at one point, the vandalism seemed to stop right in the middle of a room. It appeared the vandals had been scared away. I concluded that they had seen my red lights through the windows as I approached and took off out the back, which would mean that they were there breaking things up at the time that I heard that “shadow of a voice.” Indeed, we found sets of tracks in the snow leading away from the back door and across the school yard. We followed them as far as we could, but finally lost them at the sidewalks and streets.
I don’t mind telling you that I was pretty shaken by all this. It made no sense. If I had, indeed, received a message from the almighty Lord of this universe, why in the world would that Majestic Power care about a couple of kids vandalizing a school building in the middle of the night? I went to a friend of mine on the force at shift change; he was one of those we referred to at the time as “Jesus freaks.” I figured if anyone could explain all this, maybe he could. I told him the whole story, and said, “I don’t understand any of this.” His answer was telling. He said, “You don’t understand now, but someday you will.”
Well, someday came about six months later. I was sitting in my living room in a deep reflective mood, trying to sort out my life. Suddenly, I heard – or felt – the same “shadow of a voice,” and I knew that I was supposed to enter the ministry. If you had asked me five minutes earlier to list all of the things I would never do as long as I lived, ministry would have been at the top of that list. But in that moment I knew. I made arrangements, left the force, and took off for seminary as soon as I was able.
I don’t know if that episode at the junior high school might have had to do with stopping something from happening that turned out to be more important than we’ll ever know, but I like to think that it served as a kind of litmus test for me. It was a way of letting me know that when I heard that shadow of a voice, I would know it could be trusted and was something to heed.
Nothing like that had ever happened to me up to that time, and nothing like it has happened since. But whenever I start to lose my way, whenever I get discouraged or doubtful, whenever I begin to fall into deadly routines or chronic weariness, I think back on that experience. I remember that it did, indeed, happen to me, and I once again see my life from the perspective of that high moment.
I think that’s what Mark is recording here in the ninth chapter of this gospel. It was a mystical experience at the top of a mountain in which they perceived Jesus to be transfigured before their very eyes. It’s the instant in which their hunches and beliefs and hopes about Jesus, and about his divine calling were confirmed. It’s the high moment to which the frightened and discouraged architects and builders of the early church could look back, and from which they could see their lives and efforts from a better perspective. And I believe that’s why they recorded it and left it to us, as a reminder to trust our “mountaintop experiences.”
We all have them. Not everyone’s is quite so dramatic as mine, I acknowledge. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have had such an hour of grace. But every one of us has high moments in life – times when the heavy veil of uncertainty is lifted, and the way seems clear. Many of you have had times of discovery, when you realize that Christ is inviting you to take up the journey and you have said, “yes.” For some of you, it may have happened on a retreat, or at summer camp, or in the midst of a service of worship. And who among us has not seen a sunset, or heard a piece of music, or encountered a written word that seems to leap into our experience like an intruder, and inexplicably open up a new way of seeing, a sense of hope and possibility? If we could pause for a moment right now, I’m sure everyone here could fix in your mind some treasured memory of such a lofty moment.
There are, most certainly, many valleys and dark places in life, but each and every one of you knows, and can recall, times on the mountain of transfiguration, instances of high vision and transforming power.
It happened to John Bunyan. Bunyan was a devout Baptist minister whose life was full of many dark and dreadful valleys. He was born in England in November, 1628, the son of a tinker. He was an apprentice tinker and a soldier in the Parliamentary army. Around 1648 he experienced a religious conversion and became a separatist from the Church of England, eventually becoming one of the leaders of a congregation in Bedford. Bunyan became a popular preacher, speaking to large crowds. But in 1660, it was declared illegal to conduct worship services or preach except within the confines of the Church of England. Bunyan was not the kind of man to be pushed around by the state. So, he continued to preach from street corners. He was summarily arrested and sent to Bedford county jail for twelve years.
While in prison he began to write religious tracts and pamphlets and an autobiographical work, “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners .” In this book, he tells us of his titanic struggles of the soul, and his many mountaintop experiences.
Bunyan considered himself to be greatest among all the sinners, and totally unworthy of salvation. But there were moments of grace. Such as the time he was playing a game called “cat,” and after hitting the ball he dropped his club, feeling the presence and voice of Christ calling him to pursue faithfulness, or the time he was in a shop and felt what seemed like a powerful wind that he experienced as the presence of the Spirit, or the time he was lying in bed next to his wife who was in the throes of some terrible pains, and he prayed that if her pains stopped he would know that God heard the “most secret thoughts of the heart,” and it happened immediately. These and other experiences had a profound impact on him.
Upon his release from prison, he returned to preaching on the street corner. In 1675 Bunyan was imprisoned again, and during that time he wrote a book called, “The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, a prose allegory of the pilgrimage of a soul in search of salvation.” Ten editions of Pilgrim’s Progress were printed during Bunyan’s lifetime. It eventually became the most widely read book in English except for the Bible.
One telling passage in Pilgrim’s Progress is the moment of questioning, when Christian is almost convinced by Atheist that there is no such thing as the Celestial City which they seek. But Christian’s companion, Hope, recalls the shepherd taking them up the hill called “Clear” where they had caught a glimpse of the city at a distance. He says to Christian, “What! no Mount Zion? Did we not see, from the Delectable Mountains the gate of the city?”
In that moment, one can almost feel the years of loneliness in Bunyan’s jail cell, the anguish of his times of spiritual torment, and the doubts that haunted him in his dreariest days. And you can hear his triumphant recollection of his own mountaintop experiences: “Did we not see it with our own eyes?”
My message to you today is this: trust your high moments. Cherish and nurture those times of clear vision, those peaks of human experience in which transience becomes transcendence, and the divine is revealed. When you are living in a time of darkness, remember the light. When you are enduring the winter of despair, remember the springtime of hope. When you are suffering the consequences of irresponsible human arrogance and folly in the marketplace and the halls of government, remember the vision that has been set before us – the vision of a people under God fulfilling a dream of liberty and justice for all people.
And, like those early Christians who recalled the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, take hold of those high moments of clear vision and trust them. Let your heart and your feet be guided by the dependable vision that you have touched on a starry night in the back yard, in a circle of loving friends, or other times of holiness. Remember Bunyan’s words of Hope: “Did we not see, from the . . . Mountains the gate of the city?”