After the Mountaintop Experience

By Timothy E. Kimbrough

The mountaintop experience: surely somewhere in your life you have met the full meaning of this idiom. It may have been an event set in relationships, a time when your marriage, your relationship to your children, or a friendship never seemed more right, never seemed more intimate. You were communicating better than you ever had before. Your souls met like never before and your heart was strangely warmed. Such events can follow a family trip to the beach, a one-on-one trip to San Francisco, to the mountains, to anywhere out of the day-to-day routine. Such events might follow a marriage enrichment seminar, a counseling session, a retreat, or a Marriage Encounter weekend. They might follow a homecoming bonfire or the senior prom. Brief glimpses of heaven, some would say.

It’s the “brief” part that’s troublesome. “Can you tell me how a perfect love goes wrong?” as countless top ten popular songs of the day have lamented. Why is that when you come down off the mountain life seems to become so ordinary again? So plain? So boring and unimaginative? So routine? It’s almost as if we become captured by the mountaintop experience, at every turn attempting to recreate it, wondering if a lack of mountaintop intimacy might indicate a lack of substance in relationships. It is easy to get caught up in a frenzy where every breath is defined by how the mountaintop might be recaptured. We’ve all seen couples driven by the desire to keep their relationship “fresh.” Women’s and men’s magazines are chock full of sage advice on how to spice up one’s relationship. Food, sex, clothing, travel … whole industries have grown around these, providing aids to recreate the mountaintop experience.

And what about the spiritual mountaintop experience? Surely many of you can think of times in your life when you never seemed closer to God, a period when everything seemed to make sense. God was in his heaven, the angel chorus sang, and you not only knew your place in the great cosmic puzzle, but you knew you were loved and cherished by the One who made you. Such intimacy with God is often characterized by euphoria, joy, enthusiasm, and certainty. Many of you have known times like these in your lives. Many of you are seeking such times. They may follow an initial conversion experience to Christianity. They may follow a confession of sin. They may follow a Cursillo weekend or Ultreya reunion gathering. They may follow a parish weekend not unlike the one we had at this time last year. They may follow some inspired insight into a familiar passage of Scripture. They may follow a mystical encounter with the Holy Spirit. They may follow completion of some service task in sustaining the poor. Brief glimpses of heaven, some would say.

It’s the “brief” part that’s troublesome. With the rush of salvation and freedom still fresh in their minds from the Red Sea crossing and deliverance from the clutches of Pharaoh, the people of Israel already begin complaining (when food and water become scarce) to God, accusing God of having led them out into the desert to die. “If only we [could have] died in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” At least we could have died with our stomachs full. God reveals himself so wonderfully and terribly in the exodus from Egypt, and yet when the rush is over, ordinary time sets in, what you once knew is suddenly not enough. You need a greater rush, more manna, sweeter manna, more God, more euphoria, more miracles, more healings, more signs and wonders, more teaching — anything that could help recapture that glimpse of heaven you once held.

There is many a Christian held hostage by his/her mountaintop experience. It was an important defining moment in her spiritual life, but everything else has paled by comparison and she’s even begun to wonder if maybe the initial encounter wasn’t somehow conjured by slick magician, his assistant, and the rhythm of loneliness.

As Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain, we might be tempted to say that this is the mountaintop experience by which all others are to be defined. That would be a mistake. Our tradition is clear that Sinai is first among all mountains, and that the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai is first among all mountaintop experiences. It is here that we find the blueprint for today’s Transfiguration story.

The mountain itself, the cloud, the voice of God, Moses, these are all elements that the giving of Torah at Sinai and the Transfiguration at Mt. Tabor hold in common. And let’s not forget the special effects: a dazzling Moses who has seen the face of God and a dazzling Jesus who has been transfigured. The parallels are not there by accident (as the lectionary editors recognize in selecting the Exodus 24 passage). As Jesus walks up the mountain, suddenly Moses and Elijah appear, making sure that the connection with the Mosaic covenant and the giving of Torah is made (as if the mountain, the cloud, God’s voice, and the fire weren’t enough). Moses and Elijah arrive to pass the baton. Here Jesus is to run the last leg of the team relay race, the tag team plan of salvation for the world.

Peter recognizes the importance of the moment, or at least thinks he does. But he is so overwhelmed by the event and his own confidence in the fullness of God’s revelation that he wants to honor/mark the mountain with booths and tents — one for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. It would be like saying, “Ooh, this is great. Let’s have Trophies Are Us design three matching plaques of recognition. One for you, Jesus, and one for each of the other two guys. Whatdaya say?” Enter God, take charge kind of guy that he is, recognizing that Peter is not benefitting fully from the mountaintop experience. God intervenes and refocuses the event on Jesus. “This is my Beloved Son, my Chosen, listen to him.”

This is the big time! No retro-Sinai for Jesus! The last leg of the relay race will be his alone to finish. At Sinai, anyone who touched the mountain was to be killed. At Tabor, Peter, James, and John are freely asked to accompany the prophet up the mountain. At Sinai, God’s voice delivers the Ten Commandments and other words for covenant living. At Tabor, God’s voice urges the disciples to listen to Jesus. At Sinai, God’s people receive Torah, the gift of life, order, and the promise of faithfulness. At Tabor, God gives us Jesus, the gift of life, blessing, and the promise of wholeness. God gives us Jesus as the new Torah!

However big this event may be, however important the baton handoff may be, whatever commitment and faith Peter, James, and John brought to the mountain, afterward not only does the glory of the experience fade, but in the rush to preserve it the appropriation of the experience is misguided. Next time we see James and John, they’re asking Jesus to rain down fire from heaven to consume the occupants of an inhospitable Samaritan village. Next time we see Peter, he’s still confused about whether Jesus is telling parables for his benefit or for those other folk who don’t understand just yet.

There was such blessing to be had on the mountaintop, and it was missed. In Peter’s enthusiasm to preserve this moment forever, he misses the blessing. He misses the face of Jesus. It gets lost in the plaques, monuments, and speeches he would offer for posterity’s sake.

You and I must learn with Peter, James, and John as they turn to Jerusalem with Jesus, in their movement toward the events of Holy Week. You and I must learn that any attempt to carve the mountaintop experience in stone, any attempt to make Tabor into Sinai, any attempt to force-fit Jesus into prefab molds that allow mass production, will fail.

The Torah we hear, the Torah we hold, the Torah we live, is Jesus, a person to whom we must listen. Jesus is our common denominator. The service you render to the poor, the Bible study in which you participate, the small group you attend, the rush of joy you experience in conversion, even the comfort, challenge, blessing, and forgiveness you receive at the altar rail each Sunday as the sacrament is placed in your hands, they are rays from the lamp that 2 Peter refers to, “the lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and morning star rises in your hearts.” We must give ourselves to these ordinary practices that will sustain us in the light of Christ until the day of his coming.

Life at the foot of the mountain, after the mountaintop experience, has no place for spiritual smugness. No matter how much we think we understand, our understanding is never complete. Life at the foot of the mountain, after the mountaintop experience, has no place for spiritual apathy. Though our understanding of the mystery may be incomplete, we must never lose the wonder first known in the shimmering face of Jesus. Life at the foot of the mountain, after the mountaintop experience, has no place for spiritual despair. Sinai and Tabor cannot be recreated. [There is no virtual reality to place you without trial in the midst of the cloud]. To long for Sinai, to long for Mt. Tabor, is to be held hostage by the memory.

Paul writes in his first letter to the Church at Corinth, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” In Jesus, our living Torah, our lamp shining in a dark place, we are given the strength to meet each day. The mountain that was is not there simply to climb again. No, instead the mystery and fullness of life simply begin there. The last leg of the race has yet to be run. Be patient. Look into the face of Jesus and listen to what he has to say.

The Very Rev. Timothy Kimbrough is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tenn.

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