As I thought about this week’s lesson in relationship to last week’s lesson, I began to wonder what kind of response Jesus would receive on our current social climate. I mean, if Jesus were to bring a great crowd together and say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it; and if anyone loses their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, they will find it. For what does it profit a man to gain the entire world but lose his soul? 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,” what do you think people would do?
Honestly, I think the reaction would be very, very diverse. People would have all sorts of reactions. You would have those who would hear what Jesus said and think He was crazy–they would scratch their heads in bewilderment because they have never been taught that denial of self is a manner of life. For many in our society have been taught to embrace themselves just the way they are, and there is a strong thread which runs through our society that says, “Do not do anything to crush another person’s ego. For the crushing of egos is the worst thing we can do to a person. Let people be free to express themselves and be who they consider themselves to be without fear.” Another group might hear Jesus’ words and believe they actually are accomplishing them in full. They will latch on and believe they indeed have denied themselves; they are carrying their crosses; they are following Jesus, and it is the rest of the world with the problem. Everyone else needs to become just like them or Jesus will be ashamed of those heathen and send them to hell. Others might hear Jesus and seek clarification from religious authorities. “What does this man mean?” they would ask. Then, depending upon how the religious leader interpreted the words, they might agree with Jesus or they might not. Again, others might simply look at Jesus and say, “That’s just your opinion. There are others who teach a very different understanding, and if this works for you, fine. It doesn’t work for me, so I will find someone who teaches me what I think works. Our current society and culture is so very diverse that the reactions to such a teaching would be just as diverse; just as messy, and no one would agree on the significance of that teaching.
I would like to submit to you this morning that it wasn’t all that different in the ancient world when Jesus actually made this proclamation. For you see, the Roman Empire was a very, very diverse place. Roads had been built throughout the empire making travel relatively easy for that time and place. People from various cultures were meeting and coming into contact regularly. Rome had established a wide list of accepted religions–generally one’s that didn’t cause sedition–embracing religious pluralism. As long as people submitted to Roman rule, things were okay.
Now, let’s bring things down even further to Israel and what was happening amongst the Jews. The Jews themselves were broken down into different factions. There were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots, the chief priests and the scribes. All of these constituted different veins of thought within the religion. Each had particular teachings, and the groups argued amongst themselves. Not only this: at the time Jesus spoke these words, it was the height of the Rabbinical tradition. What does that mean? Well, there were teachers, rabbis, who were teaching all throughout Israel. These men would gather students and teach those students their understanding of the Law. The rabbis taught very, very diverse things, and we actually have some of those teachings recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud–a body of Jewish literature interpreting the Jewish Bible. So, it was not uncommon for people to argue about scripture by saying, “Rabbi so and so said this, but Rabbi so and so said this. The Pharisees say this. The Sadducees say this.” and so on and so forth.
I hope that you can see at this point a very muddy puddle of understanding. I hope that you can see that things were not clear cut by any means when it came to understanding what religious faith and belief was all about. While there was indeed some general agreement about certain aspects of faith–as I said last time, those who believed that there was going to be a Messiah had three agreed upon points–there was no such thing as a broad overwhelming consensus. People were essentially free to choose the teaching that best meshed with their own understandings.
I think there were those among Jesus’ followers who might have thought to do just this thing. After Jesus told them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him, I can imagine they very much wondered if they were following the right Rabbi. After Jesus taught them that He must be handed over to the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, to suffer many things, to die, and on the third day rise, I can imagine them thinking they had hooked up with a crazy man. For it was unheard of that the Messiah would suffer. It was unheard of that there would be an individual resurrection apart from the final resurrection, and there were even many Jews who did not believe in a final resurrection! As one of my commentaries said, the disciples had no categories to even begin to make these things fit! And so, I think, there was an awful temptation to abandon Jesus and find someone who would make more sense–at least to their ears.
Which is where our lesson for today comes into play. Mark chapter 9 begins with the following teaching by Jesus, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Now, there are some who think that Jesus’ statement here is wrong because obviously, when we look around our world, we do not see the perfect kingdom of God established. We don’t see peace and harmony and a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus must have been mistaken because all of those who were around Him when He spoke these words are now dead. However, you’ve got to put this statement in context. You have to put it into the midst of what Mark is communicating to us, and Mark is setting us up to see a vision of that Kingdom–a vision that will take place on a high mountain, which is where we are taken.
Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of a high mountain, and when they get to the top, Jesus is radically changed before them. Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white–whiter than any sort of bleach. Imagine that advertising campaign–Clorox Bleach, not quite like Jesus, but pretty darn close! Following on the footsteps of Mark’s report that Jesus called Himself the “Son of Man” it is not a stretch to once again see that the Scriptures from Daniel are being fulfilled. As Craig Evans says in the Word Biblical Commentary, “Mark’s depiction of Jesus is also reminiscent of Daniel’s vision of the “Ancient of Days,” whose “clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool” (Dan 7:9) The one “like a son of man” approaches the Ancient of Days (i.e. God) and receives authority and kingdom. Perhaps in his transformation we should understand Jesus, as the “son of man” in the presence of the Ancient of Days, has taken on some of God’s characteristics (much as Moses’ face began to shine with God’s glory).”
We are then told that Moses and Elijah come and stand with Jesus. These are two momentous figures from the Old Testament. There is no shortage of disagreement about what they represent. For our purposes this morning, let’s just leave it at the place of an awestruck experience–the getting to see heroes of the faith. Peter is overwhelmed. He doesn’t know what to say because he is so awestruck, so he blurts out, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here. Let us build three tabernacles. One for you. One for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Now, this statement isn’t as dumb as one might expect. It totally makes sense, but it is the wrong statement. You see, Peter was still transfixed upon Jesus as the powerful Messiah instead of the suffering servant. As William Lane says in his commentary, “Peter is anxious to find the fulfillment of the promised glory now, prior to the sufferings Jesus had announced as necessary.” Peter sees the three booths as God dwelling once again with the people of Israel with Moses, Elijah, and now Jesus. It makes sense, but it is the wrong thought.
And that thought is rebuked by the arrival of another party. We are told that a cloud envelopes the mountaintop. Let me read to you what Mark Edwards says about this because it is extremely helpful. “According to Mark, the cloud “enveloped” or overshadowed (Gk episkiazein) them. This verb occurs only rarely in the Greek Bible, but it is used in Exod. 40:35 to describe the cloud that filled the tabernacle with the glory of God and in 1 Kings 8:10-11 to describe the cloud filling Solomon’s temple...The cloud is the impregnating presence of God, symbolizing that in Jesus, even more than in the tabernacle of old, God dwells bodily with humanity.”
This affirmation that God dwells bodily with humanity is solidified with the statement from the cloud, “THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED, LISTEN TO HIM!” Suddenly, when the disciples looked around after this statement, they saw only Jesus. Twofold thing here: God affirms that the disciples should listen to Jesus. The absence of Moses and Elijah passes along the message: don’t listen to Moses. Don’t listen to Elijah. Listen to Jesus. The focus is on Jesus. The message issues forth from Jesus. The message is Jesus. Listen to Him! Period. Drop the mic and leave. Listen to Jesus.
Now, I could go further with this text and go through the remaining teaching by Jesus, but let me simply say two things before addressing what I started my sermon off with. First, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone with a qualifier: until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. Jesus didn’t want Peter, James and John caught up in the moment proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah when they still didn’t understand fully what that meant. Peter already showed once again that he had no clue about the suffering servant and the cross. Jesus still needed to open their eyes. Secondly, Jesus then teaches them and clarifies Elijah’s role and links John the Baptist to Elijah. This is a teaching moment by Jesus, and I apologize for giving it only a cursory comment. However, we need to move on to some very weighty things–things of massive importance in our culture and society.
For the transfiguration of Jesus brings out two very important things that we have to grasp as the church. First, God’s instruction from the cloud. “Listen to Him!” Listen to Jesus. Keep your focus on Jesus. It almost pains me to say this to you, but I have to. When it comes to the Christian faith; when it comes to trying to figure out what things are all about, do not listen to me. I wish I didn’t have to say that, but it’s true. Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to Joel Osteen or Ed Young. Don’t listen to the Pope or the Bishop. We are not the ones you are following. We are not the ones who understand God most fully. We are not the ones who understand Christianity most fully. We are all sinful, broken, people who are deeply affected by our own assumptions and biases. When we preach and teach, our own sinfulness clouds our ability to grasp and to proclaim the Law and the Gospel. It is my job, and the job of anyone who preaches and teaches to get you to Jesus. It is the job of the Church to proclaim Jesus and Him crucified. It is the job of the Church to say, “Listen to Jesus!”
Ah, but that raises another important point. How do I know what Jesus says? We don’t have clouds enveloping us with God’s voice telling us to listen to Jesus. We don’t have Jesus walking next to us bodily explaining Scripture to us and helping us understand the world around us. We don’t have the luxury of having Jesus videotaped or audiotaped. We have a book. A very old book. A book that we do not have any of the original copies of the text. A book that is written in two “dead” languages. A book that some say is embellished–that has undergone much editing and is more the stuff of legend than it is reality. How can we be certain Jesus said and did what is recorded in this book?
The question really is one of credibility. Do you trust the accounts written in the Bible? Do you trust the witnesses who first recorded what is included in Scripture, and do you trust the process of how things were handed down? You see, the Christian faith is a historical faith. It is built upon historical events. Historical events aren’t like scientific experiments. You cannot replicate them. You are literally forced to choose whether or not you believe the witness of those who report them. For instance, I can report to you this morning that Wednesday night, there was a small group of us who gathered to hear a presentation of what it was like to care for an aging parent given by James and Karen Tiner. Now, you weren’t there. You don’t know if it happened or not. You have my report. Am I trustworthy? That is the question. There were other witnesses to the event. You could talk to them as well. You have to judge if they are trustworthy. If things fit in a coherent picture, and they help explain why there were cars up here at the church on Wednesday, why the lights were on from 6 to about 8, and so on and so forth, you can conclude that, yes, I am a credible witness. Yes, this makes sense. Yes, indeed there was a group that met to hear a presentation by James and Karen Tiner. You didn’t scientifically prove it. You relied upon eyewitness testimony that you deemed credible.
There are some very good arguments that indeed present the Bible as such credible testimony. There are some very good historical reasons to accept the Bible as credible testimony like: the Bible is written closer to the events surrounding Jesus than is the histories we have written about Alexander the Great. Did you know that one? It’s true. There are others as well. I do not have time to go into them this morning, but the question still comes down to you this morning. Do you trust the witness of Scripture? Do you trust this witness that has been handed down to you through the generations?
And if you trust this witness, then you can indeed listen to Jesus. You can indeed hear His words. You can indeed know of His actions. You can indeed come to know Him and what He teaches. And you can know why you should listen to Him. In the myriads of voices that swirl around our culture, that try to tell you how to live and what to do, His voice will stand alone. His voice will carry more weight because as you come to know Him, you will see that His is the only voice who truly knows who you are. His is the only voice who truly knows deep down your true identity–all of the good things about you, and all of the bad. He alone knows the recess of your heart where your fear and anxiety and selfishness dwell. He knows your motives and motivations. He knows your flaws and failings, and He doesn’t let you try to hide them or escape them. He forces you to stand before Him fully known and fully vulnerable. And if you know yourself as you should, this should terrify you.
But instead of condemning you, He loves you. He stretches out His arms and dies for you when you don’t deserve it. He does not falsely tell you you are okay just the way you are. He doesn’t mandate that you change to satisfy Him. Instead, He dies for you and invites you to die to yourself. He invites you to take up your cross and meet Him at the place where He poured out Himself for you. He invites you to look at the cross where He showed the greatest love possible.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.
Jesus did not come into the world to condemn you, but to save you. And He did. On the cross. As he died for you. Certainly a good reason to listen to Him. Amen.