The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 2/3/08
Text: Matthew 17:1-9
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

A true "mountaintop experience" if there ever was one for Peter, James, and John. A life-changing experience, I suspect. The two are often intertwined.

Recent weeks have reminded us of a more contemporary mountaintop experience as the world last month noted the death of Sir Edmund Hillary at age 88. An obscure New Zealand beekeeper before 1953, but suddenly world-famous after May 19th of that year as the first, as far as anyone knows, along with his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay, to conquer the world's highest peak, Mount Everest, the first people ever to literally be on top of the world.

For years, Hillary let people think that his guide was the first to actually set foot on the summit. Not true, as it turns out - Hillary was the first. Perhaps people thought that way because of the first photograph ever taken at the peak. It is a picture of Tenzing Norgay. Hillary explained: "Tenzing had never operated a camera before in his entire life. I didn't think the top of Mount Everest was the place to teach him." Regardless, with what by today's standards was primitive equipment in incredibly difficult conditions, this was a remarkable achievement and was certainly deserving of the world-wide acclaim it received.

As you Bible scholars know, mountains have a most prominent place in the biblical narrative. There was the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, Abraham and the almost-sacrifice of Isaac on Mt. Moriah, the dramatic contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal up on Mt. Carmel; we read of Mt. Zion, the Mount of Olives, the Sermon on the Mount, to name a few. Now, this morning we encounter one more. Jesus had gone up on a mountain to pray. He took Peter and James and John along with him. While they are there, Transfiguration. The appearance of Jesus changes. He literally glows - bright, dazzling white, glorious! And all of a sudden, two other people appear out of nowhere: Moses and Elijah, representative of all their past religious tradition, the Law and the prophets.

Peter babbles something about building three little dwellings, three shrines. One for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus in whom the Law and the prophets come together. A voice interrupts from heaven: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" Scares those men half to death. Then, suddenly, it is over. And they come back down with instructions from Jesus to keep quiet about it all, for a while at least.

Back down the mountain. This mountaintop experience is like many others - inspirational, exciting, thrilling even. But it ends the way that mountaintop experiences should end. They do not remain there up on the mountain, as Peter suggests. They come back down. There is work to do.

That is the way with mountaintop experiences. Yes, we need to be inspired once in a while. Or maybe even twice in a while. But the occasional religious "high" is not what our faith is really about. Christian discipleship is lived out, not up on the mountain, but back down in the valley where the people are. Where the hurt is. Where the need is. There is work to do.

Oddly enough, that incredible mountaintop experience to which we referred before, the conquest of Mount Everest, ends in a way very similar to the story of the Transfiguration. After Ed Hillary had climbed Everest, he became an overnight celebrity. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He became a spokesperson for Sears-Roebuck. His name appeared on sleeping bags, tents, and boot laces. His name became a household word. And he could have lived in his little shrine of success for the rest of his life. But No! He went back to Nepal, back to those people, the Sherpas, whom he had grown to know and appreciate and respect and love. He used his fame to make a difference in their lives.

In a speech a few years ago, Sir Edmund recounted how an elderly Sherpa from Khumjung village, the hometown of most of the Sherpas on his Everest ascent, had come to him a few years after that expedition and said, "Our children lack education. They are not prepared for the future. What we need more than anything is a school in Khumjung."

So Hillary established the Himalayan Trust, and in 1961 a three-room schoolhouse was built in Khumjung with funds raised by the mountaineer. But that was only the beginning. At his funeral it was noted that there are now 6,500 students in 63 schools because of him. In addition there are two hospitals, a dozen health clinics, a million trees planted, safe drinking water systems, bridges and miles of new trails, all a direct result of Hillary's work. (1)

Edmund Hillary's search for adventure did not end with Everest. He made the first motorized overland trip to the South Pole, led a jet boat expedition from "sea to sky" up India's Ganges River and joined an expedition to the North Pole. But his true passion would become his humanitarian work which continued to the end of his life. In a conversation with David Breashears, a film maker, fellow climber and good friend, he said, "David, getting to the top is important, but getting back to the bottom is what really matters." (2) Ed Hillary had his mountaintop experience, and it moved him to a life of service.

A mountaintop experience comes when something happens to us that is inspirational or exciting or thrilling or moving, or all of the above. We need mountaintop experiences to recharge our spiritual batteries. And the view from the top is magnificent. But we were never intended to stay up there.

Peter never built his little shrines, Moses and Elijah went back to glory. And Jesus? Jesus went back to the place where the people were. Jesus went back to the valley to preach, to teach, to heal, and eventually, to go to the cross. Another mountain. Mt. Calvary.

By the way, Jesus' instruction to his friends on the way back down about keeping quiet about their experience until after the resurrection has apparently been taken to heart by generations of subsequent followers in ways that the Lord never imagined. Modern day disciples, especially those of us in the mainline church, do keep quiet about our faith. Exceedingly. No need. The instruction was to wait until after the resurrection - that has happened. We can open up now.

Yes, we need mountaintop experiences once in a while. Or maybe twice in a while. They do us good. But remember, faithful Christian discipleship is lived, not up on the mountain, but back down in the valley, when we use our lives for Jesus' sake and the sake of those for whom he died.

Come to the Table now. It is sustenance for the journey.


1. Ray Lilley, "New Zealand Says Farewell to Hillary," AP, 1/22/08

2. "A Humanitarian at 30,000 Feet,"

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