Into Thin Air – February 22, 2009

I Kings 19:1-3, 8-13, Luke 9:28-36

February 22, 2009

One of the good thing about living in Kansas all those years, was that Kansas was right next to Colorado. In about 9 hours, I could drive to one of my favorite places in the world, Summit County Colorado, just west of Denver.

Summit County is an amazing place! Many of the towns in there – Dillon, Frisco, and Breckenridge – are above 10,000 feet. To give you some idea of how high that is, the little planes I fly could not get up there! The air is too thin! The highest I can fly is just below 10,000 feet – and that’s with a brand new engine and no bugs stuck on the wings! (Planes the can fly that high have to have turbochargers!)

Anyway, I love Summit County. I love the Rocky Mountains. I love that high altitude! I love to feel that thin, dry air in my lungs, and to have that slightly lightheaded, unexplainable feeling when I’m there. It’s almost like it’s a reminder – a heightened awareness – of where I am. And, of course, at the same time, I am overwhelmed by some of the most rugged and beautiful scenery on the planet! It’s wonderful!

Well, I thought about all that as I read this story for today. This is Luke’s version of the Transfiguration. It’s the story of the time Jesus took his closest friends and went up the mountain, and while they where there they saw some amazing things! And by the way, I “borrowed” the title of this sermon from the book by John Krakauer’s entitled “Into Thin Air.” That was a book written about the climbing of Mt. Everest, and the disaster in May of 1996, in which 8 people died on the mountain during a storm at high altitude.

By the way, if any of you have read that book, I want to recommend that you read another book written by one of the guides on that Krakauer’s expedition. It’s called “The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest” by a Russian climber named Anatoli Boukreev.

Now, I know the Rockies with their 14,000 foot peaks are small in comparison to the Himalayas with their 28,000 foot peaks. And I know the mountain Jesus climbed with his disciples that day was almost nothing at all in comparison. But I still like to think of this story in similar terms. Because when I think of the disciples on that mountain that day, I think they really were in “rarefied air” – at least spiritually! When Jesus took his friends to the mountaintop that day, I know that my experiences of thin air and amazing scenery are nothing in comparison to what they experienced. There’s was “spiritual high” beyond compare – and rightfully so!

As I often say, we sometimes read these stories using our “Bible voice.” We read this as “liturgy,” and we tend to leave out the emotions and the amazement! You know what I mean. We read very lyrically, and with great reverence, “Jesus went up on the mountain and his clothes got all white and shiny, and he saw Moses and Elijah.” And it all falls a bit flat in comparison to this incredible thing that happened that day!!

Try to imagine this scene! The disciples saw Jesus in his heavenly form. They saw Moses and Elijah – the great Patriarchs of the faith – alongside him. Then they heard the voice of God! After that, it’s almost comical the way the Gospel writers record these words of Peter. What he says next seems incongruous – almost comical! Amazing and important things were happening and his only reaction was to suggest that they make a religious shrine out of the spot!

Jesus took the disciples to the mountaintop! And that meant more than just elevation, didn’t it! This was the ultimate in “spiritual highs.” And we often refer to the high points in our spiritual lives as “mountaintop experiences,” don’t we? That’s more than just a matter of altitude! We go through “highs” and “lows” in our lives. We have times when we are elated, and time when we are in the depths of despair. We refer to those in terms of the valleys and the mountaintops. I think of the famous speech of Martin Luther King, in which he said, “I have been to the mountaintop! I have seen the promised land!” He was describing a spiritual high point, using the image of Moses on the mountain.

I want you to think about your mountaintops today. Perhaps yours was on a retreat, or in a special service, or in some place that’s special to you – like Kirkwood, maybe. One of mine was on a retreat at Harvey Cedars, New Jersey in 1973 That was the time I felt God was speaking to me very powerfully about going into the ministry.

What are your mountaintop experiences? What are those spiritually important times in your life that brought you to where you are today? Maybe you remember that time God touched you in a powerful way that changed the course of hour life. Maybe there was a time when you were in a spiritual low point – we call them valleys, don’t we – and God pulled you up from the valley and took you up to the mountaintop. Maybe it was a time when your faith was weak, or dull, or unexciting, and God shook you out of your complacency!

We need those times in our lives, don’t we? We need the mountaintops! I know I do!! These disciples did! They needed this one! In fact, this scene, this transfiguration, was for their benefit! They were questioning. They weren’t sure where this thing with Jesus was going. In fact, it looked like it was taking a dramatic turn, perhaps for the worst. They were wondering if this Jesus was really going to deliver on his promises of the kingdom. And now he was starting to speak about his death. And that didn’t make any sense. They were understandably nervous – perhaps afraid – certainly apprehensive. They needed the mountaintop!

As I’ve said before, whenever people in the Bible were given great things to do, they were given great visions by God. They were given those experiences that gave them the inner inspiration and strength they needed to do whatever it was they were called to do. Think about Moses and the burning bush, Isaiah and his vision in the Temple, and the boy Samuel hearing the voice of God. Well, this was the disciples’ vision. These men were about to be called on to continue the ministry of Jesus after he left them. We can’t begin to imagine what that was like. They certainly couldn’t! They needed this vision!

We can’t imagine what it was like for them, but we can imagine what it’s like to need the mountaintop experience, can’t we? Many times we feel like we’re in the valley and there’s no way out. We feel like everything’s coming down on top of us. We feel an almost desperate need for that spiritual connection with God! Isn’t that true? Doesn’t our spirit sometimes long for God, yet we wonder where he is? Don’t we sometimes wish God would stop being so elusive and break into our lives and lift us up?

Maybe it’s not a matter of being in a valley. Maybe it’s more a feeling of listlessness in our faith. Maybe it’s just an unexplained feeling of emptiness within us – like there’s something missing, like we want more somehow. There’s an old saying that God places within each person a hole that only he can fill – a God shaped hole. And all of us are restless and wanting until we have that void filled by God’s spirit. Read Psalm 24, sometime. That psalm describes that longing in terms of a deer that thirsts for the water. Maybe that’s you.

So, what do we do about all that? What do we do about the despair in the valleys of our lives? What do we do about the spiritual longing we feel? What do we do when we know we want more, but we can’t figure out how to get it? How do we get to the mountaintop?

Well, I can’t answer that definitively. I can’t tell how this works for everybody. God touches different people in different ways. However, I can tell you that sometimes it’s a matter of placing ourselves in a position where that can happen. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in prayer, in study, in being open to God. Sometimes it’s a matter of meeting Jesus part-way up that mountain! Sometimes it’s moving in his direction. And let me tell you that this is not always just about us. Sometimes this a matter of taking someone else’s hand, and leading them toward the mountain. That’s one reason God put us in congregations. That’s one reason we don’t just “do church on TV.” We’re here for each other. We need to help others when they are in that valley.

It would be wrong to assume that the people searching for God are only out there. I’m sure there are people inside these walls who are searching. There are those of us who are hurting. There are those of us who are longing for God, seeking to have that void filled, searching and maybe not even knowing for sure what we’re searching for. God wants to fill that void in us. God want to hear our cry. God wants to respond and reach out to us!!

So let us as a congregation and each of us as God’s people seek the mountaintop. Let us be intentional – especially during Lent – about putting ourselves in a position where God can touch us and take us to the mountain. Let us “be there” for each other, encouraging one another in faith, taking that hand when it is needed, walking beside one another out of that valley, into the thin air!


Eternal God, we long for your spirit in our lives. We all searching in some way for you. Help us to feel you touching us, leading us through our lives. Help us to grow in our joy in your kingdom. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.