Picture this. The year was 2000…15 years ago. I had just finished my first year at the College of Wooster in Ohio, and I was preparing for my first summer job as a Camp Counselor at Camp Jewell YMCA in the New England rolling hills of the Adirondack Mountains in Colebrook, Connecticut.
It was only just a few months previous I was discussing with an older friend of mine about summer options during college, and I had no idea where my life was heading. Maybe politics? Maybe military? She told me about her experiences as a camp counselor, and how she thought I would love it. Shortly after that I met with the camp director, applied for the job, and was accepted—I was on my way! Who would have thought such a simple conversation would have life-time implications?
Now here’s the thing: I didn’t really know what to expect that summer. Yes, I enjoyed the outdoors, but that was actually going to be my first summer camp experience EVER, and I was going the counselor. What was I getting myself into? After a 9 hour drive that involved me sleeping in my 1995 Plymouth Neon in a hotel parking lot (of course I didn’t have enough money for a hotel room), I arrived at Camp Jewell.
What an amazing place it was! The staff spent the first week exploring the camp, and basically living as campers. We swam in the natural lake, climbed the rock wall, hiked through the foothills, played games, sang songs, ate delicious food, camped amongst the stars…and this was BEFORE camp even officially started!
The rest of the summer would only get better with each and every day. In the quick summer weeks that passed, I would make close friends from around the world, work with children (some of whom I still keep in contact with to this day), and most importantly learn to truly love and respect the outdoors and the summer camp experience. Needless to say, I was hooked.
I had to leave a few days early that summer from camp to get back to college for some early programming. On my final day, at the final meal, there was an announcement that I was leaving, and all of the campers and staff together said goodbye—I cried like a baby (and I tear up to this day thinking about this moment). I didn’t want to leave Camp Jewell. I didn’t want to leave my new friends. I didn’t want to leave the summer. As I finally did leave that place and headed back to college, I said to myself if there is any way that I can continue to work like that, where I can have as much fun as I did AND get paid for it (not much, of course), then I wanted that to be my career. Who would have thought that fifteen years later I would still be working with young people.
Something happened to me during the summer of 2000 that changed the trajectory of my life forever, all because of a simple conversation with a friend. My eyes were opened to new possibilities, new ideas, new dreams of what my life can hold in the years ahead. I was a changed individual, and it happened at summer camp.
I’m willing to guess that many of us here today have had similar experiences; times when we felt alive, when we saw things in a new and different way. A movie that comes to mind is ‘The Matrix’ with Keanu Reeves as Neo, who’s mind and eyes were opened to experience reality in an entirely new way. While one does not need to literally climb a mountain, many people might call these moments ‘mountaintop experiences’; times when we feel closer to God; closer to the Divine.
The problem, however, is twofold. First, we don’t have these mountaintop experiences too often, if ever. For the most part, our lives are tough; and while many of us would say that we are happy or content with our lives, most days are filled with challenges, conflict, and routine, and not these mountaintop experiences.
The second issue with these mountaintop experiences is somewhat of an inherently human issue: when we have such wonderful experiences, we don’t want them to end—ever. We don’t deal with such change very well. We all have been there before. We dread the end of that wonderful beach vacation. Students dread the end of the summer break. Parents dread the abrupt end of that blissful, despite it being short, sleep. There is something that is within us that says, ‘Hold on!’ as we grasp for those last few moments of serenity before we are jarred back to reality of daily living.
Today’s scripture texts tell the stories of such mountaintop experiences. They tell the stories of experiencing the glory of God, our eyes being opened, and they tell the stories of our struggle to let such moments go.
Mountains played a very important role in the ancient world—they still do today. For many faith traditions including indigenous and ancient religions such as that of the Greeks and Romans, Native Americans, Aborigines, African tribes, and even Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, mountains were physically and spiritually closer to the Heavens; closer to God.
The prophet Moses would encounter God several times on the mountain as he helped lead the Israelites out of bondage and into the Promised Land. The story in Exodus tells us how Moses returned to the people with the light of God shining on his face after his mountaintop encounter.
The prophet Elijah would later encounter the same God on the mountain in the story of First Kings, yet God would appear this time in the silence. Both of these prophets would be set apart by God to lead the people in faithfulness as they usher in the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth.
It was no coincidence then in the Gospel according to Mark when Jesus led his disciples up to the top of the mountain that something truly awe-some was going to happen.
Verse 2 begins the account:
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
In a most amazing way, the author of this Gospel goes from describing Jesus as a very human figure in the previous chapters, to being transfigured to visualize God’s presence within him. Jesus is not only a prophet, but he is THE chosen one (to reference the Matrix again) who both Moses and Elijah were paving the way for. God’s voice will thunder from a cloud later to confirm this notion.
Peter’s response is once again a natural experience that we all have experienced at some point in our mountaintop experiences: he wants to stay; he wants to capture the moment. Verse 5 reads:
5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
And just like that, in what seems like a moment, it is over:
8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
I simply could only imagine what they were thinking on the way down from the mountain after that experience. Verse 9 reads:
9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
And just like that, the disciples are jarred back to the reality of what is to come in the days ahead. This Jesus, who is the Son of God, will also suffer, die, and ultimately be raised to sit with God in eternity.
How does someone get past that? How does someone have such an eye-opening, life-altering experience, only to be summoned back to life as they once knew—back to reality—as completely different as it really is now?
How does each of us move on in our lives after such amazing experiences, when all we really want to do is to go back and stay in that moment forever? And even if we do go back to ‘normal life,’ we return as different people.
This is the Good News today: while it may be so tempting to want to stay on top of that mountain, God calls us to new and exciting days ahead, now as a forever changed new people—eyes open. There is a reason we are there in those moments! We are not on the mountain as bystanders, as passive observers. No, we have been called, just as Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus, to be witnesses to what God is doing on this earth here today! We are witnesses. And if we are witnesses, then we have the opportunity to testify to what God has done.
We are being called to come down from the mountaintop, and share what we have seen with those around us. And when we do, we join in the great cloud of witnesses testifying to the Good News in Christ.
In the words of one of the most prophetic voices of the 20th Century, Dr. Martin Luther King said:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
We may not know what will happen once we get down from the mountain. Elisha didn’t quite know what was going to happen after Elijah was taken in that chariot of fire. Paul didn’t quite know what was going to happen next in his ministry. The disciples didn’t quite know what was going to happen when they got down from the mountain.
We may not know what will happen next, but we do know what we have seen, what we have heard, what we have experienced in the grace offered us in Jesus Christ—our eyes are open. And friends, while we may not know quite what to make of it, there are others whose lives will be changed simply by our telling of the mountaintop experience. While we may not know quite what to do next, God is already at work within you, so that others may come to see and to know.
Our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord! Thanks be to God.