Luke 9: 28-43
Before the Scripture:
Every year, the Sunday before Lent, we read an account (there are three of them) of how Jesus, Peter, James and John, go up on a mountain and the disciples are privileged to see Jesus in all his divine glory - shining like the sun. God speaks to them there and confirms that Jesus is indeed his beloved Messiah. It is an awesome text and I’m always glad to read it as we head into Lent. Lent tends to be a trying season in the church. All that focus on our own sin and Jesus’ suffering for our sakes . . . it’s hard stuff, and we need the assurance of this vision in order to be able to handle it.
This year, it is Luke’s turn to tell us about it. But in Luke’s Gospel, the account of the transfiguration - Jesus’ glory - is inextricably linked with the next story - a healing that takes place when Jesus comes down the mountain. The stories are linked by references to majesty, by naming “the only son” in both stories, by the bruising and wounding that refer to both Jesus’ prediction of his passion, as well as to the tortured boy brought to Jesus for healing. Clearly, for Luke, what happened on the mountain was important and beautiful. But it is also incomplete without what happens when Jesus and his disciples come down the mountain.
Getting down the mountain - for Luke - this is something to contemplate:
There is something very special that happens in the downhill. If you’ve had your TV on this week, you’ve seen glimpses of the Winter Olympics and the incredible feats of some of the athletes who find themselves most vivid, most alive, more engaged as they throw themselves down the side of a mountain. (This is from the trailer of a movie about downhill skiing:) “Downhill is the extreme of extremes of winter sports Where simply hanging on melds with the ability to control the situation. 100% in control of being 100% out of control. “where calm serenity and sheer terror coexist” If you look at downhill, and the essence of downhill it is about being so stoked to be living on that ragged edge, being right on that threshhold where you can be paralyzed, be dead, or you can be a champion. It’s not a comfortable place. It’s not a safe place. But for an elite few, it is the only place worth being. Picabo Street says, you hear your boot bindings click and click. And with that second click, it’s on.
It’s the same for a following Jesus Christ. The safe and good place to be - the place where the disciples would like to stay - is at the top of the mountain with Jesus. There, Peter wanted to make three dwellings, so they could all stay up there and enjoy the view. Mountaintop Christian experiences - work camps, church camps, even a really great Sunday morning, where the music is just right and the sermon makes sense and the spirit of the Lord moves during the prayers so that you can just feel it - just FEEL it - Those great experiences are gifts of grace. And God! I know how we would like to preserve them. I’ve wanted that as much as anyone. My dear mother will tell you, if you ask her, so please don’t, how awful it was for her when she had to come get me at church camp as a child. Was I glad to be going home? Heavens no! I cried the entire two hours home. I love the mountain top!!!
But time after time, Jesus leads us down the mountain. Successfully navigating the downhill journey and arriving, faith intact, wits about us, in the world of need is as challenging as a slalom course on an ice covered mountain.
Gravity pulls us - Jesus leads us - but to negotiate that passage takes courage and strength and faith and . . . if we are really giving it our best effort . . . we don’t get down the mountain unscathed.
(this is from an article on Yahoo Sports, Feb. 13, called “Skiers fear and know, accidents happen” )
Four years after the Turin Olympics, Picabo Street can still paint a striking picture of a half-broken Lindsey Vonn. Street can remember sitting in a Turin hospital, looking into tearful eyes struggling through fear and doubt. Cruel momentum had stolen Vonn’s body up in a blazing turn during a training run, then mercilessly skipped her like a stone across a frozen mountain. Her back and hips were badly bruised, dwarfed only by a battered psyche.
With the Olympics just two days away, Street arrived to be Vonn’s anchor at that moment, and came armed with two gifts. In her hands, she carried a plate overflowing with Italian pasta. And on her lips, she offered the anthem of an entire Olympic ski culture:
Everyone crashes once. Champions dare to do it again.
“I remember her lying there,” Street says now, “and it was all so vivid and really crossroad-ish. You just knew it was time to get into hashing out the dangerous stuff. I told her, ‘You’re going to crash. It’s part of it. In order to win at that level, you have to ski right on the edge of crashing. And in order to know that you are skiing on the edge of out of control, you have to go past the line every now and again.’ ”
Christian discipleship crashes rarely result in broken bones, torn up ligaments, or even concussions. It’s not that kind of physical risk, trying to take your spiritual experience of the wonder of Christ out into the world.
Our mistakes might be more like overzealousness for a project or mission that gets us out ahead of ourselves and causes us to fail. Or another Christian mistake might be not looking out for each other, so that we collide with one another, causing pain and a spill rather than encouraging each other on. Maybe, if we are getting downhill too fast, we might say the wrong thing to the wrong person - maybe tell someone about our love for Jesus before they are ready to hear. And we get a little bit embarrassed. Or alot embarrassed, I don’t know. Some of us are more easily embarrassed than others. We might give too much and have a couple of tight months, till we get our budget back in balance. Or have to ask somebody else for help.
My point is that discipleship downhill does have some hazards, if we put ourselves out there and really give it all we’ve got. Everyone who does it eventually falls.
But that is no reason not to try. Inching down the mountain, testing our footing every inch of the way, creeping down, taking only as much as we are sure we can control. Making certain that a full STOP is within our power.
Where’s the faith in that? Where’s the trust in God? And where’s the fun is that? What beauty is there in that? Is that really how we want to live our lives? Always totally safe, always totally in control, slow and hesitant and dull for ourselves and others? NO! If we’re going to participate in downhill discipleship, let’s strap on our boots and do it! Let’s not linger up on the mountain, trying to nail down a cloud of glory. Let’s follow Jesus downhill, to meet the crowds of needy people, to hear the worried parents, to touch the lives of poor afflicted children - to rebuke those unclean spirits, and heal lives and reunite parents and their children.
That’s what Jesus did. He came right down the mountain, into a world of hurt. He descended right into the midst of faithless people and gave his very life that they might have the faith to follow. He’s still doing that. He’s still making it possible for us to become the disciples he calls us to be. Come on! he says. Come downhill with me!
So hey, let’s fasten those bindings - click click. OK? It’s on. Disciples - let’s take on the downhill.
It’s not a comfortable place. It’s not a safe place. But for an elite few, it is the only place worth being.