Believe it or not, on many a mountain, going up isn’t the hardest part. Often times, coming down requires far more determination and effort. And coming down, my friends, is what Jesus is calling us to do. Oh, that he would only invite us up to the top! That would be wondrous! But no, he would have us come down the mountain.
When someone loves to climb mountains, as I do, they generally like going to the top of those mountains. Indeed, nothing else quite satisfies a mountain climber like getting to the summit! And no, it’s not easy. The glaciated alpine peaks I like to climb require strenuous effort, special gear, and considerable risk, ascending thousands of feet in the cold dark of night when the snow and ice are most solid. After such an effort, standing on the top of the mountain, especially on a clear sky morning, is a joy that’s hard to describe. One wants to soak it all in: the view, the thrill, the satisfaction. But it’s a joy that is generally short-lived. Why? Because even though we may be exhausted from the climb up, we still have to climb back down! As the sun rises, the glaciers become like reflection ovens, making the descent hot, exhausting, and increasingly prone to avalanches. Coming down the mountain isn’t as glorious or seemingly as ambitious as going up, and, in truth, it isn’t easy, but come down we must. There’s no staying on the top. The success of a climb is measured not by the arrival at the summit, but the return to the base of the mountain, the valley, the lowlands.
As you probably know, Jesus at times took his disciples to the tops of mountains. On one such occasion we are told that he was “transfigured” before them, and Elijah and Moses appeared with him. (see Mark 9:2-9) Peter was so enthralled with the experience that he wanted to set up camp and stay a while! “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents,” he told Jesus. He wanted to soak it all in! However, there would be no prolonged hanging out on the top of that mountain. God spoke from a cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” We’re not told what they then heard from Jesus, but I suspect it was “Let’s go down,” because the continuation of the story begins with “as they were coming down the mountain…”
Have you ever had a “mountaintop experience” with Jesus? I hope you have! Though they may not be literally on top of a mountain, I believe Jesus wants to give us times when we come to know in powerful and meaningful ways something more of his person, his presence, his love, and his mercy. Our personal devotions and community worship services are meant to be something like that. We cherish such special times of assurance, peace, and joy! But the path of a disciple doesn’t stop there. A disciple follows Jesus down the mountain.
“Coming down the mountain” was important for Jesus. It was essential for his mission, and it continues to be essential for the mission he entrusted to his disciples and to us. You see, the people of the world don’t live on a mountaintop. They may know little if anything of God’s glorious goodness. They live in the “lowlands.” Lowlands of need and injustice and despair. Lowlands where sin and evil blind and entrap them. Coming down the mountain into the inglorious lowlands is a burdensome path. Nonetheless, it is the path we must follow if we hope to fulfill our Lord’s commission to make disciples of all nations. Especially for those sent to the unreached corners of the world, but in some ways for all of us, it likely will entail some humbling and uncomfortable crossing of barriers, and some letting go of things we’ve previously grasped too tightly. For Jesus it required nothing less than the scorn and agony of the cross. This path he was willing to walk because it was the way to the people he loved. It was the way to find the lost and heal the hurting. It was the only way to show them God’s mercy face-to-face, and, remarkably, to share with them his Good News invitation: that some day people from all nations will revel in a mountaintop experience with their Creator! (see Isaiah 25:6)
Friends in Christ, though we may desire mountaintop experiences, we need not strive for them. Resting and marveling in God’s abundant grace and provision is an experience given, not earned, and something that we, by God’s grace, will enjoy for all eternity. Coming down the mountain into the lowlands of this world, however, will require every ounce of our determination and strength. It will require also a “mountain” of trust in the One who calls, sends, and leads us. This we must recall: as Jesus is with us on the mountaintop, so he is with us as we come down. He leads the way. Let’s follow!