One of my favorite hikes last summer turned out to be a complete surprise.
While I was in Colorado on my sabbatical last year, I decided to tackle a hike that included not one but two 14,000-foot mountains in one day: Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford. The best way to hike these mountains was to hike Belford first, then hike across the saddle between the two mountains to Oxford, then retrace your steps back up to Belford and go out the way you came in. Now, you may know that if you hike above the treeline, you want to summit and get down below treeline by noon or 1:00 in the afternoon, so that you are safe before afternoon thunderstorms roll in.
So, to summit two peaks, I left early. Way early. I hiked the first hour or two in the dark on the way up Belford, and was rewarded by a beautiful sunrise all by myself on top of the peak. But I didn’t want to tarry long, so I took my pictures and headed onto Oxford. Again, I was the first one there that morning, and was rewarded by an absolutely amazing view. I took a few minutes to have a Cliff bar and rest a minute, but the hike back up to Belford was supposed to be a bear, so I again didn’t tarry long before I retraced my steps and re-crested Belford, finally able to sit and enjoy the moment. I ate a little more, took some more pictures, and called Kimberly since I had cellphone coverage, and checked out the map to see what all I was looking around me.
But I haven’t come to the complete surprise, yet. And, I’m not going to! At least not yet.
First, we have to talk about the mountains of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew, as well, is a story of mountains. The last several weeks, we have been with Jesus and the disciples in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s name it Mountain #1. On top of this unnamed mountain, Jesus gathers his followers beside him and teaches them what it means to really be his disciples. How to live the way that he wants them to live…how to live the way that is really the wisest, healthiest, way to live. Jesus as the Great Sage teaches them what real wisdom is all about. Meekness. Peace. Reconciliation. These are the ways of the Wise Master.
Fast forward a few chapters now to the next mountain. The mountain of the Transfiguration. Mountain #2. Again, the mountain is unnamed in Matthew. But again, it is a place of amazing blessing. Here, Jesus has brought three of his disciples. Peter, James, and John. And while they are there, they have this incredible experience. A cloud envelopes the mountain. There in the darkness of the cloud, Jesus becomes transfigured, bright as the sun, before their very eyes. Then, Moses and Elijah show up and start talking to Jesus.
Here is where the folks in the Two Way on Wednesday night started to ask questions. Ever a thoughtful bunch, a couple of them asked, “that’s all well and good for the three of these disciples, but what about the nine down below? What makes these three so special?” We began to posit some possibilities. What if these were the top leaders in the group? We hear about Peter and James and John a lot later in the leadership of the early Church…maybe Jesus is cultivating his leadership team.
Or, maybe it is the opposite. If you flip back a couple of verses, you will see that Peter has had a sketchy record when it comes to leadership. In the passage right before this one, Jesus has told the disciples that he is going to be killed, and Peter pulls him aside to straighten him out…give him a little lesson on what the Messiah is really about. And of course, Jesus delivers his famous line to Peter: “get behind me Satan!” And what about James and John? If you flip forward a few verses, you see that they—and especially their mother—are worried about who is going to be in charge in this Kingdom that Jesus was setting up. They and dear mother ask that they be the ones sitting at the right and left hand of Jesus in the coming kingdom. They want to put in a word for a Cabinet seat before the election is over. Of course, they miss the point of what true greatness looks like.
So, maybe, when Jesus brings Peter and James and John up the mountain, he isn’t bringing his top leadership team. Maybe instead of his best leaders, he is bringing his worst followers. Those who need a reminder about who is in charge. We wondered on Wednesday night, maybe this is a teaching moment for these three. Perhaps this is the remedial class for those who need to learn what it means to follow. Those who seemed to miss the lessons of the first mountain are the ones invited to learn again on top of the second.
So, what does this remedial lesson look like? Here we are, on top of the mount of Transfiguration. There is a cloud. And a glow-in-the-dark Jesus. And a couple of dead prophets, showing up to talk with Jesus.
Here is where Peter does what he does best…miss the point. Amazed by everything he has seen, he offers to build some tents for everyone. It is his assumption and his hope that this moment will not be a fleeting one, but they can settle in for a while. This moment is more than he could imagine and he wants to hang onto it for as long as he can. But this is the turning point in the narrative. This is the point where the remedial class gets their lesson. The text says that while Peter is making plans for this Campout in Glory, the Divine Voice interrupts him. The text literally says, “while he was speaking…” It feels like when you were a kid, and you were doing or saying something dumb, and you heard your mother’s voice interrupt from out of nowhere. “Matthew Brian Sturtevant…” Here, the Divine Parent interrupts with some Motherly advice, some Fatherly wisdom.
What is that wisdom? Look closer. Here is the Voice of Divine Wisdom emanating from the clouds. “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” Now, perhaps this sounds familiar. A few weeks ago, we read the passage from Matthew about the baptism of Jesus. In that passage, something almost identical happens: God speaks for all to hear and says, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” But again, it was the sharpness of the folks in the Two Way who noticed something. In chapter 3, in the baptism, that is the end of the sentence. “…with whom I am well pleased.” Full stop. But now, in chapter 19, look what important addition the Divine Parent makes: “Listen to him.” It is easy to miss, right. I mean, of course we are supposed to listen to him. But that is what the remedial class is missing. They see his power. They see the crowds. They are excited about the coming Kingdom. But what they aren’t doing is listening to his words. God is interrupting Peter’s good, with God’s Great. The remedial class needs to hear this word: listen to what my son says—meekness, peace, reconciliation—because these are the lessons that you will need for the rest of the story.
You see, God knows the rest of the story. God knows that Matthew is not a story of two mountains, but a story of three mountains. Before the end of chapter 28, the disciples will find themselves on a third mountain, this time with a Resurrected Jesus, who will commission them to make disciples, teaching them what they have learned. So what do they need to do to get ready for that third mountain? Listen. To. Him. Lest they find themselves proclaiming a Gospel of worldly greatness and empty glory. Here, the leaders of the early church get a lesson in true greatness. “Don’t settle for your good. Get ready for God’s great. Get ready for the commissioning of the third mountain, and the true power and glory and greatness that will follow!” There are three mountains in Matthew, and if we settle for the glory of number two, forgetting the work of number one, then we aren’t ready for number three. God interrupts Peter’s good, in order to prepare him for God’s great.
So, have you figured out the surprise in my story of the Colorado 14ers? A third mountain! Mount Missouri. Now, the mountain itself wasn’t a surprise, of course. I mean, I saw it right there the whole time I was climbing Belford. But what was a surprise was that I might be able to climb it. You see, there are people who climb all three of these mountains, because they are incredibly fit or incredibly fast…or they start incredibly early, like I happened to.
I was on my way back to Belford the second time, when I kept running into these hikers, these fast hikers, who saw me and asked if I was doing all three. Assumed I was doing all three. See, they had done it before and knew how amazing the view was from Missouri, and told me I had to do it. It was early enough, the clouds were clear enough, go for it.
So, by the time I got back to Belford, eating my Cliff bar, I had a choice. The same choice as Peter, right? I could sit and enjoy the view, put a tent around this experience, and preserve it as long as I could. Or I could go for the third mountain!
Of course, you know what I did. The sermon wouldn’t make much sense if I didn’t climb that third mountain. And it was hard, and I was watching the clouds the whole time, and I ran out of food and eventually out of water. But I never regretted it once. The views were incredible. I got to trudge through some snow in August, dance along the razor’s edge of the ridge along the top, and meet some amazing other hikers. It was absolutely worth it.
Now, of course, this is just a metaphor. I don’t think God was saying, “you have to climb the third mountain.” But you get the point of the metaphor, right? Sometimes God interrupts our good in order to show us Great. How often in your life have you worked to retain what you thought was good, only to have your mind blown by God’s great? A couple final stories to show you what I mean…
Back in the 1920’s and 30’s and 40’s, a lot of denominations and churches and congregation went through a theological crisis. Historians call it the Fundamentalist-modernist controversy. It had to do with Biblical interpretation, and specifically Genesis and creation. If you remember your history of the Scopes Monkey trial, this was a part of that history. Well, American Baptists were not immune, and several fundamentalists left the denomination at this point. Individuals and congregations and groups of churches. It was a time of grief and pain and struggle for a lot of American Baptists. And a lot found themselves “circling the wagons,” creating a tent around themselves to lick their wounds.
But a greater struggle was coming – Civil Rights. When the Civil Rights movement hit churches, there was earth-shattering schism in many congregations and denominations. How would they respond to integration? In communities, in schools, in churches? American Baptist historians have looked at this period and have suggested that because of the churches who had left, because they were smaller and more theologically united, American Baptists could form a more united front in supporting civil rights. While the churches who left were standing against integration and ending Jim Crow laws and civil rights, the American Baptists who stayed made a united and powerful stand for those things. And it allowed ABC pastors and churches to preach their conviction and help lead the country in new ways. Including one American Baptist pastor who led us all, Martin Luther King, Jr. Not every American Baptist voice shared Dr. King’s dream, but the majority did, and with shared strength, they stood for what they thought was right. Again, instead of harboring and protecting and tenting the good—a bigger denomination and more churches—they were able to reach for God’s great, and it defined their voice in one of the most important seasons of the church.
A second story. A few years after the heat of the Civil Rights movement, another traumatic event took place in our own congregation. Imagine with me the year 1977. You may know that last week, we buried Suzanne Gilbert, a saint of the church, and a sixty-plus year member. I quoted a piece that she wrote back in 1977 that was quoted in the history of First Baptist, Strength of Stone. In 1977, the church was in a rough place. They had just lost a beloved pastor, who had been there for over twenty years. They had literally been kicked out of their beloved building…they went to church one week and when they came back the next week it had been condemned. They were grieving. They were hurting. Some were angry. “You took my church away.” Suzanne admits that she was grieving, too, like so many others. There was a part of her who yearned for the goodness of that place and that time.
But then she and others were able to see the “great” that God had in mind. In building a new building way out on the edge of town, on Kasold, there came new opportunities. Suzanne was an incredible educator and she knew the struggle of many families to find good educational childcare for their young children. So, when this new church was built, Suzanne and others advocated for the creation of a preschool. Johnnie Appleseed Preschool was born. Here, on the spot of an old apple orchard, a new place for caring for and educating the children of our community. This new building was built to care for children; the design and layout of the space was constructed to be a welcoming and safe place for children to be educated and cared for. And as I said last week, I cannot tell you how many times over the last several years, when I told someone that I worked at First Baptist, they would exclaim, “Johnnie Appleseed…my children loved growing up in your church!” Suzanne wrote in that piece in 1977 how important it was for her to let go of her memories and embrace a new thing that God was doing. For her to let go of the good, in order to see God’s great.
How often does God interrupt us, trying to preserve and protect our “good,” when God has in store…Great!? How is God interrupting your plans today? How is God opening your eyes beyond your controlled, protected version of the “good” in order to show you “great?” Where is your third mountain, and are you ready to tackle the adventure with God at your side? Today, let us look with our eyes to the horizon to what God has in store. Let us together climb the mountain of God’s Great!