“Pits and Peaks” Exodus 24:12-18 & Matthew 17:1-9 26 February 2017
So far this afternoon we’ve seen a lot of pictures of mountains. Have you climbed a high mountain, like, maybe Mt. Merapi in Sumatra, Mt. Merbabu in Java, Mt. Kelam in Kalimantan, Jade Mountain in Taiwan, Yangming Mountain in Taipei or Longevity Mountain in Kaohsiung?
We didn’t have any pictures of pits, but the world has a lot of those, too. Between Jordan and Israel is the lowest point on the surface of the earth. We call it the Dead Sea. It’s surface is 430 meters BELOW sea level, and it’s bottom is another 304 meters lower than that! In Northwest China there’s a place called the Turpan Depression, which includes a dry lake surface 154 meters below sea level. In Djibouti on the horn of Africa there’s Lake Assal, 155 meters below sea level. Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, is noted as the lowest point in North America, (86 m) below sea level.
The surface of this earth has its highs and lows. The surfaces of our lives have their highs and lows, and the course of our lives as spiritual people runs through highs and lows. We read Mountaintop Experiences from the Bible today.
I We read Mountaintop Experiences from both the OT and NT
From the Old Testament we read about Moses, who went to a mountaintop with his helper, Joshua. (Somewhere along the line, mention of Joshua dropped out.) Moses stayed on that mountain for more than 40 days in the presence of the Lord. At the end of the verses we read, he was still up there.
In the New Testament we read about Jesus, who went up a mountain with three friends. In that story, the friends saw Jesus glorified, “..his face was shining like the sun and his clothes were dazzling white.” They also saw Moses (representing the Old Testament Law) and Elijah (Representing the prophetic promise) talking with Jesus. And, as at Jesus’ baptism, there was a voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus to be “my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased.” In the middle of all this glory, the disciples first response was quite natural They hit the ground! Later, when they looked up, it was all gone. “they … saw no one there but Jesus”. For those guys, though, this experience was Wonderful!.
Great successes in life, things like falling in love, and spiritual experiences of deep communion with God are often compared to “mountaintop experiences.” As a teenager I went away to “church camp” a couple of times for a week during the summer. Where I grew up there were mountains not far away, and the “camps” were located there. The week was designed to stir the teenagers to greater spiritual heights. It worked on me! On the last evening before we would go home there would be a meeting to get us even more excited about God. Things were really running high.
The two stories we read today are placed in the church year at the end of the season called Epiphany, during which we consider God’s self revelation in the metaphors of glory and light. They come just before the season of Lent, during which we will consider human sin. This week we’ll move from the mountaintops. Next week we’ll move into the valley, then spend 6 weeks walking with Jesus on his way to the cross.
II Off the mountaintop
In the Exodus, the story of Moses, God and the mountain goes on. While up there he received from God a couple of stone “tablets” which God had personally sliced out and on which God had personally engraved the Law. But when Moses came down he found the people whom he had left behind, under the spiritual care of his brother and the elders, worshipping a golden calf! He was shining with the glory of having been with God, and immediately met great disappointment. In anger he threw down the stone tablets (made by God and written on by God).His people had shown that eheyt were not worthy of having God’s law.
Things work out, eventually, and a few chapters later, there’s another story in which God tells him to “Make His Own” pair of stone tablets and to being them to God on the mountain (a heavy load to bear). On this second set of stones, MOSES wrote the law. Quite a comedown from the first time. BUT, having been in the presence of the Lord, when he came down the second time, his face was shining because he had been speaking with God.
The New Testament story doesn’t have one big comedown, but three small ones. 1) In the middle of it, one disciple suggested abandoning everyone’s mission and just staying up there with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He basically said, “Let the rest of the world go to hell. We’ve got what we need.” 2) Then there’s that bit of all 3 friends being overwhelmed by what they’ve been experiencing and responding in worship and awe, only to have most of it taken away “they saw no one there but Jesus”. And 3) as they came down the mountain, Jesus told them to keep it all a secret, “tell no one about this vision you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from death.”
When teenagers go to church camp and get stirred up about God through the week, on the last morning before it’s time to go home, they’re told that the “mountaintop” experience might not continue back at home. Hearing that advice, many vow to maintain the mountaintop’s zeal and excitement. I remember that speech. I was so literal-minded that I didn’t understand they were talking about the “Spiritual high”, not the elevation above the plain.
Peaks, and pits. Life is full of them: 1) the mountaintops and salt lakes of geography; 2) the Mt. Sinai and Golden Calf pairs of Bible history; 3) the ecstasy and agony of young love; and 4) the hopes and disappointments of national life. All of these have their peaks and their pits.
III 2-2-8 and Taiwan’s history
The geographical “pits” of the earth often get names associated with death and sadness. Today we’ve mentioned The Dead Sea, the Turfan Depression, Death Valley and Badwater Basin. These are NOT places we’d ever want to stay.
We reside here in Taiwan, a nation with its own twisted history of peaks and pits. It was a poor backwater ignored by China (which only cared about as far as Peng-hu until the 17th century, when this land was discovered to be valuable). Then the entire place was a county of a larger province in China for decades until it was elevated to the status of a Province of Imperial China. Then it was given away after China lost a war with Japan.
Some local people saw this transfer of power as a chance to rule their own place, but the Japanese put a violent end to that kind of thought. During the Second World War, as things turned against the colonial rulers, some local people hoped that reunion with China would see them getting the chance to take over the places in the colony that Japanese had held. They would be the ones running the local province of China that had been a Japanese colony for 50 years. BUT when the officials from China arrived to take the very top spots they put their friends from China into all the places that the Japanese had left open upon departure. Local people were again disappointed.
The Chinese Compatriots and their friends who arrived starting in August of 1945 were the ones that their president, Chiang Kai-shek, could spare. He was busy fighting a civil war with the Communists at the time. His government needed resources. As bad as things had been bad prior to 1945, they got worse for Taiwan, as the rice and other food was shipped to China. Then local men were drafted into the army to fight in China (something that the Japanese hadn’t done.)
The hoped-for mountaintop was switched out for the pits of misrule and massacre, which is what Taiwan marks on Tuesday with the 2-2-8 holiday. For 40 years afterward, people were not allowed even to talk about it. It was treated as if it had never happened. You can look at the old newspapers from 1947 and you won’t find anything about it… until 1987, when Taiwan began again to open up politically.
In the past 30 years of gradually increasing freedom, Taiwan has climbed out of the pits, and last year scored as the freest nation in East Asia. On a world score, Taiwan scored better at being free than even the United States (Taiwan got 91 points, the USA got 89). Freedom House, the American organization that gives these ratings, has been doing so since 1941, and has a good record of being believable. Oh, by the way, China got a score of 15, which was one point LOWER than it had in 2016.
This week we remember the low point of Taiwan’s history, the events surrounding February 28 of 1947 We also celebrate a climb to the particular mountaintop on which we now dwell.
In life, we need to pay attention to both the peaks and the pits.
We don’t WANT to stay in the pits and we don’t GET to stay on the mountains. Sometimes they are close together. 1)Death Valley, the lowest place in North America, is only 136 kilometers from Mt Whitney, which is the highest point in the United States outside of Alaska. 2)Moses was up on that mountain with God, but the people at the base were with the golden calf. 3)Jesus and his disciples were STILL ON THE MOUNTAIN when his friends began to get things wrong and experience disappointment. 4) The hopes of Taiwan’s people were dashed again and again throughout history until the 30 year climb to freedom began in 1987.
Staying on top just doesn’t happen! What we can TRY to do, however, is to hold onto some of what we receive when on the top, to help us through the difficult times that are sure to come. a)The glow on Moses’ face likely was a comfort to him when the people he was trying to lead betrayed him over and over again. b)The disciples who went up that mountain with Jesus were told NOT to speak of what they had seen there, “until they had seen the Son of Man raised from Death.” But they they could share the story with others who hadn’t been there, and THAT’S how it got to us, through the writers of Matthew, Mark & Luke. And That’s also how it ended up in I Peter 1 as well. c) In our own lives, when we’re on the peaks, scavenge up whatever we can find there, cherish it, and hold onto it. Because when it’s time for pits, our own or someone else’s, we can find resources for giving a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on, or the support that is needed on the long, sometimes slow, climb back out.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN