Did you hear the story about the little boy who was riding his wagon on a sidewalk? Suddenly, one of the wheels fell off. The little boy jumped out of the wagon and said, "I'll be damned!" A minister happened to be walking by, and he said, "Son, you ought not use words like that! That's a bad word. When something happens, just say, 'Praise the Lord,' and everything will be all right." So the little boy grumbled and put the wheel back on the wagon and started on down the sidewalk.
About 10 yards farther, the wheel fell off again. The little boy said, "Praise the Lord!" Suddenly, the wheel jumped up off the ground and put itself right back on the wagon. The minister saw it all and exclaimed, "I'll be damned."
We are a lot like that minister. We believe completely in God's miraculous, glorious power; we just don't expect it to happen to us. What we know in our hearts is that we need God. We need his power. We need his awesome presence. Everyone of us can look down the road of our lives and can see some crisis awaiting us- perhaps it's a family crisis, or maybe it's a crisis in your job, or with your health, or with a loved one.
We can all see the crisis and even though we know God loves us we also know that in order to stand up to the moment and face what's coming, we need to connect again with the power and presence of God.
Many years ago our Lord Jesus had exactly that kind of moment. He went up high on a mountain. He knew that he was in the last weeks of his life. He could look out from the mountain toward Jerusalem and see the crisis that awaited him. He knew that in Jerusalem he would experience betrayal and denial. He would be arrested. He would be put on trial. A crown of thorns would be thrust on his head to pierce his brow, and nails would be driven into his hands. He knew all of that, and he knew God loved him. But now in these moments on the mountain, he needed to connect again with the Father in heaven.
Jesus needed what we call a mountain-top experience.
I believe we all need mountain-top experiences. We need them to connect with God. I know I've had them.
Years ago, I was working on my doctoral degree and had completed four years of academic work. I had spent a year and a half writing a dissertation, and the time came for me to defend the dissertation. The oral exam would take two days, and I knew I needed an added measure of strength from God to face that moment. To prepare, I went up to the mountains of North Carolina. I stayed in a beautiful home high on a ridge. I was there alone for seven days and nights. During that time, I did not see another human being. I was alone with nature. I enjoyed the view of the mountainside, the valley below. Wild flowers were everywhere, and a gentle breeze stirred the trees. Above me was nothing but the stars at night and the blue sky of day. It was a marvelous time of meditation and prayer and connecting again with God. Strengthened by his presence, I went back to face the exam.
We all need these marvelous mountain-top moments, and they don't have to happen on a mountain top. Many of you love the sea, and you can have the same kind of moment by the ocean. I know many of you have. You've gone out early in the morning in the gray light of dawn, and you've stood on the sand and watched the sun rise up out of the sea, and you could almost hear the voice of God thundering in the waves. They can happen in a hospital room. I certainly experienced that mountain-top moment in the early hours of a particular morning as I saw God come and bring peace to a man's soul as he walked him across the divide between life and life eternal. Sometimes it comes to us in worship. When we Lutherans sing the great hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," we can feel the power of God fill us in that moment. Sometimes when the choir sings a glorious anthem, or when we come to Holy Communion and receive the bread and wine or when we hear God's Word proclaimed with power, we sense the presence of God in a special and awesome way.
When I was a little boy living in Salisbury, North Carolina, our house was located on a point high on a hill. We had a large covered front porch. As a boy I would go out on that porch and survey the whole neighborhood. In the summer time when the storms came, the lightning would flash across the sky, the wind would blow, and thunder would rumble in the heavens. It scared me. I would hide in the house and look out the living room window. But my dad would go right out on the porch at the height of the storm, and I would watch him through the window. I could see the wind tearing at his clothes; I could see the spray of the rain in his face. I could look into his eyes, and I could see there a remarkable peace and calm. It was like somehow he needed to be there in the middle of the power and the presence of God in the fury of the storm. Every now and then I would go over and crack the door open and peer out. Dad would motion for me to come. I would run as fast as I could across the porch and throw my arms around his legs. Standing there with Dad with my arms around his legs, I could brave the storm. There I could be bold and courageous in the howling fury. I always knew that I had courage because I was sheltered by my Dad's strength and presence. I have remembered that scene all of my life, and in my lifetime I have been in many storms. I've felt the wind and the rain in my face, and when the storms come, I always rush across the porch of my doubts and my fears and throw my arms around the legs of God.
Many years later when my dad was 83 years old, he died. I remember that when the funeral was over, I walked away from the grave site and felt painfully disconnected. I felt disconnected from my dad; I felt disconnected from myself and from God. It was an uneasy feeling, and it stayed with me for weeks. I had climbed the high mountain of grief, and I did not know how to get off of it. One night I went home and went to bed early. I was lying on the bed with my back to the door of the bedroom when, suddenly, I felt the bed depress as if someone had sat down. The feeling is unmistakable. I knew no one else was in the house. It startled me, and I was suddenly alert. After a moment, I felt the bed move again as if the person had stood up. It was so palpable for me that I turned over quickly to see who it was. As I looked toward the door, I could see a figure going out of the room. The moment was so real to me that I said out loud, "Dad, is that you?" I stood up and walked to the door and looked down the hall. And, of course, there was no one there. But it was a remarkable moment. It was one of those mountain-top moments for me in which God had come to connect.
People who know me will tell you that I'm probably the most practical, down-to-earth, non-mystical person you will ever meet. But I tell you this story because it was real to me.
What did it mean?
I don't know, but I do know this, that from that day on, I felt connected again to my dad. I felt at peace about him. I felt connected again with myself and with God.
So I believe that if we will go to the mountain top, wherever that is for each of us, God will come and touch us. That is what happened to Christ our Lord. He went high up on the mountain, and there he was transfigured. He stood in a radiant light. Moses and Elijah came to speak to him. Peter, James, and John saw it all.
Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, it's good that we're here. Shall we build three booths so that we can commemorate the moment?" The idea was let's build some monuments. Let's build tents. Let's stay here.
Suddenly a cloud overshadowed them and the voice of God said,
"This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him."
The three disciples fell down on the ground and were afraid. Jesus touched them and said, "Don't be afraid. Come, it's time for us to go." And he led them down the mountain side. At the bottom of the mountain, a crowd was waiting and a man came to Jesus and said, "My son is ill. Will you help him?" Jesus healed the man's son.
I want you to hear the dynamics of what happened. The mountain top is wonderful, and we need it. But we don't dwell there. We don't stay there. We don't build tents and camp out on the mountain top. We connect with God and then by the power of the Spirit, we come down into the valley because we live life in the valley. So come down and connect with the world. Connect with the people around you. You have received a blessing from God, and now it is time to return to the world to share that blessing with others.
We are asked, dear friends, to use all of our creative imagination to find ways to share God's blessings, to connect with the world and the people around us.
Natalie Goldberg is a famous writer. She tells of a time that she went to New York where her grandmother, who's 94 years old, was critically ill and facing the last days of her life. Natalie said, "I went into her room and said to her, 'Granny, it's me, it's me! Granny, you know who I am.'" Granny looked at her and said, "Yes, you are Helen." Natalie answered, "No, Granny, I'm not Helen. Who is Helen?" Granny answered, "Helen is my husband." Natalie was so upset by what she heard that she threw back the covers, climbed into the bed with Granny, hugged her, held her close, and began to sing the songs that Granny had taught her as a little girl-songs like, "Oh, My Darling, Clementine" and "I Love You a Bushel and a Peck"-all those wonderful songs that grandmothers teach their grandchildren. After a few moments, Granny started singing too, and a few moments later, Granny looked at her and said, "I know you; you're Natalie."
Natalie had found a way to connect again through song, through touch, through embrace, to connect again, and share with her grandmother the blessings of comfort and love.
We are all asked to find ways to connect again.
Did you know that in the world today there are 250 million children who are malnourished or starving? That's virtually the population of our country. Literally, millions of children will die this year from diseases and infections that are curable if one had the proper vaccinations. But these children do not have the vaccinations.
In Atlanta, there are 500,000 poor people. There are 25,000 homeless people, and, thank God, we do our best to address the needs of many of them. A few years ago, I was at lunch one day with former President Jimmy Carter-it was a great lunch-I enjoyed it. Of course, there were 500 other people there as well. Jimmy Carter was telling us what he thought was the group in our city that faced the greatest threat. Can you imagine what he said? He said, "The people that are under the greatest threat are sixth-grade girls." Twelve-year-old girls-they're the ones that the pimps go after. The girls are too small to put up much resistance. The customers like them because they charge less, and because they are so young, they're less likely to have AIDS.
We cannot walk blindly and indifferently into the future. We have been blessed, and we are asked by God to bless others.
Jesus Christ, our Master, leads us back into the world so that we may connect with his people.
All of us can look down the road and see the crisis coming.
All of us feel the need for the mountain-top experience.
I pray that you will have it in your life, and I pray that empowered by that experience, you will come again into the valley and connect with the people of God.
May God bless you, friends, as you climb to meet the Master on the mountain top. Amen.