Scripture - Mark 9:2-8
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, February 15, 2015
As is my habit, I arrived at the church a couple of hours early and made my way into the sanctuary to make sure that everything was in order, and to "center" myself for the service of worship that was on the near horizon. In this particular case, the service on the horizon was a wedding of 2 members of the church I was serving at the time. I did the visual check and everything seemed to be in order. The florist had set up the flowers for the wedding, the paraments on the pulpit and lectern were white as they should be for a wedding, there were no stray bulletins on any pews leftover from Sunday's worship, and all the hymnals were in their proper place. Yes, everything was in order. We were ready to go.
As the groomsmen were in the final stages of ushering, and the organist was preluding, and the bridesmaids were lining up I began to make my way toward the sanctuary but stopped in the hallway outside of the sanctuary for one final check. Robe zipped and stole on straight? Check. Microphone on? Check. Black notebook containing service notes? Check. It was in my hand. Notes inside in the proper order? Oh no, there were no notes inside my black notebook. No pieces of paper were in the binder. It was completely empty.
Knowing I'd need to hurry back to my office to retrieve my notes before the organist was ready to start the processional, I turned around quickly and started back to my office when I suddenly realized that not only were my service notes not in my notebook, but I couldn't remember the names of either the bride or the groom. I knew the bridal couple well, but now minutes before they were to come down the aisle, I was having a "brain freeze." Was the bride's Jill or Jean? Was the groom's name, Bob or Rob?
Knowing that their names were in my missing service notes, my desire to get my hands on my notes grew even more urgent. But when I got to my office, I discovered that my desk was completely clear. There were no papers of any kind on it. My service notes were not there. And the wedding was about to begin. And I couldn't remember the order for the service without the notes. And I had no idea of the couple's names. And the service was about to begin. And then I woke up from the nightmare. But even once fully awake my heart was racing for quite a while and my anxiety level was sky-high. It was a surreal experience, but it was only a dream.
Peter's experience on the mountain with Jesus that you just heard probably felt surreal to him, but it wasn't a dream. It was real; for him it may have been the most real thing he had experienced in a long time.
This story, commonly called the Transfiguration of Jesus, is at the very center of Mark's Gospel. In a Gospel that moves quickly (if you read Mark you see his affinity for the word "immediately"; everything happens immediately), there's kind of a pause here at the transfiguration story. This mountain-top journey doesn't happen "immediately," but Mark says it takes place six days after. Six days after what? Six days after Jesus had been in conversation with his disciples in which he asked, "Who do people say I am?" And, more pointedly, "Who do you say I am?"
Peter answered, "You are the Messiah." [Mark 8:29]
While Peter mouthed the right words about Jesus, he certainly didn't understand what that meant. When Jesus began to teach them about what was going to lie ahead, telling them he would undergo suffering and, be rejected, Peter pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him. And in response to Peter's misunderstanding, Jesus rebuked Peter saying, "Get behind me, Satan". [Mark 8:33]
Following Jesus' rebuke of Peter, Mark says that Jesus began teaching the crowds that those who want to become his followers need to deny themselves, take up their cross; that those who want to save their lives, lose them, and that those who lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel find them.
Now, six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and John up a high and unnamed mountain. As they climbed the winding trail upward, they were surely aware that mountains had been places of revelation, and as it turned out, this mountain became that for them.
Once they reached the summit of the mountain, those 3 disciples saw something that was beyond anything they could ever imagine or could ever possibly dream. Jesus' clothing became white, whiter than white, dazzlingly, blindingly so; whiter than all the Clorox® in the world could make any fabric. And alongside this dazzling Jesus, was Elijah, who was certainly one of the greatest prophets of all time. According to the biblical witness, generations before the transfiguration, chariots of fire and horses of fire had descended and had carried Elijah up to the heavens in a whirlwind. But now Elijah was back on earth, talking with Jesus.
And, if this weren't amazing and glorious enough, Moses was also there. Peter couldn't believe his eyes. Moses had led the Hebrew people out of bondage, across a desert, and to the edge of the Promised Land. Moses had given them God's commandments. Now, decades, generations, after he died, he too was there on the mountain top with Jesus and Elijah.
Filled with awe, perhaps a little terror too, yet surely experiencing in that moment a sense of joy that was almost unspeakable, they could find no words that would adequately describe that day. Peter's first instinct is to do something...to build something...to make that day permanent...to capture it forever; to maintain it, keep it, hold onto it. Forever!
And so, Peter said, "Let us build three houses. One for each of you. And then nothing will ever change, and we can keep things just as they are this moment, from this day forth and forevermore.
But as soon as he started gathering the building materials needed to enshrine the glorious day, thick clouds enshrouded the mountain until they could not see anything at all. Not able to see beyond their noses, they heard God's voice saying, "This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him."
And what had Jesus said? Six days before, something about suffering, rejection, about crosses, and losing a life to find it.
Peter wanted to build a house for them, but instead of issuing Peter a building permit, or showing him where the scaffolding was kept, or instead of saying, "Good idea Peter. Get your hammer and I'll get mine and together we'll get some pretty sturdy houses built," God said, "Listen." Listen to Jesus....listen..."
The path ahead will involve suffering before it involves glory....Did you hear it, Peter?
Faithful discipleship involves losing life before getting it....Did you hear it, Peter?
Following Jesus means risking not keeping, exploring not preserving, responding not holding...Did you hear it, Peter? Did you hear it, church?
When God stopped speaking, the cloud moved away, and there was only Jesus standing there. What lay ahead was a journey down the mountain with Jesus, back into a world with Jesus, back into a world with Jesus the Beloved Son where there were sick children, hungry crowds, corrupt power, violence, betrayal, and a cross. But in that world, there was the Beloved Son of God, and if the Beloved Son of God is present, even in that world there would be more glorious days to come.
On the mountaintop on that glorious Transfiguration Day, Peter proposed that they do what was necessary to preserve that moment, to maintain it, to secure it for the future. And I think we can understand that inclination, can't we? We want and we try hard to preserve what we love. We want and we try hard to find ways to maintain what gives us joy and purpose and meaning, to maintain what is comfortable and familiar. And yes, we spend much of our lives trying to secure what we treasure, seeking to protect what we care about. But I'm not sure preservation, maintenance, or securing is our purpose, any more than it was Peter's purpose on the mountain top.
Over against Peter's inclination to preserve that moment of glory, to make it permanent, was God's voice saying, "Listen". No booths needed to be built. No homes to be constructed. The glory of that moment wasn't meant to last forever, because with Jesus by their side, there would be other moments of glory in the days to come.
No hard hat needed. No tools were necessary because it's not about preserving and maintaining the moment or the experience. It's about listening. And in listening, they would find their true calling. But, it was a calling that might not be what they expected, or thought it would be. It was a calling that certainly looked different than Peter imagined when he rebuked Jesus for having suggested the way would lead to rejection just a handful of days before that mountain-top experience with Jesus, Elijah and Moses. But it was a calling that was assured to end in glory one day.
"Listen," God said to Peter and James and John.
"Listen," God says to us, church. Listen, and perhaps we will find our truest and most faithful calling.
But listening can be hard. It takes silence sometimes, not words. And silence makes us uncomfortable; that is, if we can even find silence in the midst of the noisy world in which we live. Listening involves struggling with Biblical texts with an openness to encountering a fresh word in it, even if the word we hear today after study and prayer is different than we had always believed we would find there. Listening takes prayer, lots of prayer. Listening means making tentative steps occasionally before the destination or directions are completely clear. Listening to Jesus requires a willingness to put our trust in God, a willingness to trust that the God who has been with us in the past, will give us the promised future. Listening is hard. It's hard because sometimes when we really listen, we hear a calling, an invitation, a push, to make changes that unsettle us, to give up what is known and familiar and comfortable, to go where we never wanted or thought about going before.
The glorious day on the mountain came to an end, but God's glory did not. Jesus' path led to a cross, to be sure, but the tomb could only hold him for 3 days. There was glory on that Transfiguration Day. There was glory on Easter Day. And be assured there will be more glory days to come because the Beloved Son is with us.
So, listen to Jesus, people. Listen to Jesus, church:
"'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.'" [Mark 8:34-38, NRSV]
Listen to Jesus, Peter. Listen, church. Listen.
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