[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday.]
Throughout this Epiphany season, which ends today, our gospel lessons have been about epiphanies, moments when Who Jesus really is took on clarity.
All of these narratives of Jesus’ earthly life have shown us the truth that Jesus was not just a man and was more than just a great teacher, but also was and is God in the flesh, our King, Whose mission still is to bring God’s kingdom to all who trust in Him.
None of the epiphanies we’ve looked at have allowed us to see this more clearly than what happens in today’s gospel lesson, Mark 9:2-9. Let’s take a look at it together and then consider what it might mean for us today.
It starts: “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves….” (Mark 9:2).
Six days after what? Well, just a few verses before, Mark tells us that Peter confessed his belief that Jesus was God’s long-awaited Anointed One (Messiah in the Hebrew, Christ in the Greek) and that Jesus told Peter that he was right.
The apostles’ euphoria over being alive when the Messiah was revealed was instantly smothered when Jesus explained the method by which their Messiah brings His kingdom. Mark says that Jesus told them, “...the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).
And if that weren’t enough of a downer, He says: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mark 8:34).
Imagine how disappointed the apostles must have felt at this moment. They had been following Jesus and seen amazing things. They knew His power: They’d seen Him cast out demons, feed thousands of people with just a few scraps of food, heal lepers, and even raise the dead.
They must have thought that with all of that power, their Messiah could undertake a simple procession into Jerusalem, vanquish the Romans, establish God’s reign over Israel, and, in the bargain, give them cushy positions in His government. Easy-peasy.
But Jesus tells them that sin is Israel’s (and humanity’s) greatest enemy, that the only way the kingdom of God could be brought to Israel (and to you and me, though the apostles at the time would have had no thought that Yahweh, Israel’s God, cared much for us) was for the Messiah Himself, perfect and sinless, to offer Himself on a cross, taking the condemnation of death we deserve so that He then could share with us the eternal life He of which He took hold on Easter Sunday.
Not only that, Jesus said if we are to have any part of His kingdom or of eternity with God, we must take up our crosses--we must own the reality of our sins, our mortality, and our need of a Savior--and humbly follow Jesus.
The way into God’s kingdom for you and me begins with death to ourselves, to our priorities, to our desires, and to our pretensions of being in control.
The apostles must have felt confused and disappointed. They were experiencing something C.S. Lewis talked about. “The truth [God’s truth] will set you free,” Lewis wrote, “but first it will make you miserable.”
We cannot have Jesus as our Savior and King if we persist in thinking that there’s nothing so bad about us that needs saving, nothing from which we can’t save ourselves, or no situation so desperate that we can’t conquer.
If we persist in believing these lies, we will be miserable, either in the present or in eternity or in both.
If we let go of them, we will see the kingdom of God, in this imperfect world and in the perfect world to come.
While the apostles were feeling miserable, Mark tells us that Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him up to a mountaintop and “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.” (Mark 9:2-4)
This was glory.
This was power.
Here was Jesus with Israel’s great law-giver Moses and Israel’s greatest prophet Elijah. The law and the prophets had pointed Israel to the coming of the Messiah and now the law and the prophets were confirming that Jesus is that Messiah, that King!
This was a great epiphany revealing Jesus as both God and human.
Imagine now the elation felt by the three apostles there on that mountain!
Two of them were tongue-tied. One of them, Peter, should have been. But he couldn’t help himself.
Verse 5: “And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi [Teacher], it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”
Peter could think of nothing but bottling up the moment in tents or booths so that he could keep hold of it.
But Jesus hadn’t brought the three apostles to that mountaintop to give them goosebumps. He brought them to that mountaintop to give them the truth: The truth from God that we are sinners, and that though “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), the power of sin and death over us can be erased by the infinitely greater Power, Jesus “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). All who believe in Him “will not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) in the Kingdom of God. In the face of sin, death, and darkness, no holy booths or goosebump-inducing feeling or place can save us. Jesus is our only sanctuary!
That seems to be the message from the Voice in heaven, the voice of God the Father, to Peter in response to his impulsive proposal. Verse 7: “And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’”
“Hush, Peter,” the Voice seems to say. “Now is not the time for speaking. Now is the time for listening. When the Word made flesh, My beloved Son, is speaking to you, whether in words or deeds, you can’t hear Him if you’re yammering. Listen to Him!”
One of the great problems in the contemporary Church is that we do a lot more talking than listening. We impulsively offer up our feelings, our opinions, our preferences for how the Church and the world should operate. We even make decisions, when what we should be doing is listening for what the God in Jesus Christ is telling us.
And to be able to speak the authentic Word of God, we need to spend time, like Jesus did, in quiet places reflecting on Scripture and praying with the expectation that Christ will speak to us.
We need to spend time with Jesus and other believers, reading and reflecting on God’s Word like Peter, James, and John did on the mount of transfiguration.
We cannot speak God’s truth to each other or to the world, we can’t authentically tell others the saving good news that all who repent and surrender to Jesus Christ are given new, eternal lives in God’s kingdom, unless we take the time each day to listen to God.
Verse 8 says that after the Father had given this message to Peter, James, and John, “they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.” Peter, James, and John must have kneeled before Jesus in stunned silence. Moses and Elijah had pointed to Jesus, but they weren’t equal to Jesus. Neither is any preacher, guru, president, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, or friend. Jesus alone is King. And if we have any desire to experience the kind of life for which God made us, a life of love and fulfillment even in the midst of this uncertain, fallen world, we will only find it in Jesus. Only Jesus!
Then comes the final and maybe, strangest, verse in Mark’s narration for today, verse 9: “And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
In the midst of the apostles' misery over Jesus’ talk about His own cross and about the cross all who would be His disciple must bear, Jesus had taken Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain. He had shown them the glory of His kingdom, a glory that is only experienced by those who take up their crosses and surrender to Him. The world wouldn’t be ready to hear about this glory until they had seen that the way to God goes through the crucifixion and humbling of the self before Jesus our King. Until then, the disciples were to keep following and to keep listening to Jesus.
On this side of Jesus' death and resurrection, we're free and commissioned by Jesus to tell the world about Him. But we have the same call as the apostles, to keep following and listening to Jesus.
In a little book called Why I Am a Christian, Lutheran theologian Ole Hallesby talked about five ways that you and I can know Jesus, keep following Him, and listen to Him.
First, we can daily read the New Testament. We will meet Jesus there.
Second, we can pray in Jesus’ name. Jesus promises that when we pray in His name, God hears our prayers.
Third, we can ask God to show us how we may have displeased Him. Because Jesus is our Savior and Advocate, He will show us our sins so that we can repent and have our relationship with Him restored.
Fourth, we can receive Holy Communion every time it’s offered. Jesus gives Himself to us in this sacrament. We feed on His life, are drawn closer to Him, and receive forgiveness.
Fifth, we can spend time in fellowship with Jesus’ people, gathered around His Word.
If we will follow Jesus and listen to Jesus, we will see the glory of God even in the most mundane moments of our lives.
And we will realize that the moments we spend with Jesus are never mundane. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]