Sunday, February 15, 2015

At the Top

MARK 9:2-9
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


Ten years ago I took a trip to Costa Rica. Costa Rica is in South America, and it's similar to the Untied States in that there are coasts on both side of the country and a ridge of mountains down the middle. But, unlike Pennsylvania, Costa Rica is warm. Tropical warm. Shirts and short sleeves warm.

The mountains are gorgeous. There are trees dripping with moss. More than 500 orchids grow in the mountainous rain forest. A mist seemed to hang over everything. It was like walking into a fairy tale setting.

On the trip, we had an all-day hike in the mountains. It would be awesome because someone was driving us up the mountain. All we had to do was walk down it. No problem, I thought. A day of walking downhill in a fairy-tale forest. But, it was nothing like I expected.

In this story, Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain where they see the glory and power of God shining through Christ at the Transfiguration. But it turns out that being a disciple of Christ was nothing like they expected. All the power and the glory they were experiencing was coming to an end.

This mountaintop experience with Jesus is in the middle of the book of Mark. It is between two very important events—Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion.  Jesus moves up the mountain in ministry, preaching and healing and gathering crowds. But, Jesus’ ministry will look very different as he and the disciples head down the mountain toward Jerusalem.

Their trip up probably seems easy. Jesus is in the drivers seat and his ministry is taking off like wildfire. The crowds keep growing and growing.  Thousands gather to hear him preach. Wherever Jesus goes, it seems that there is a crowd waiting for him, a crowd calling for him, a crowd longing to experience him in person. Jesus’ ministry is a huge success. It’s all very exciting.

But then Jesus’ message changes. He tells the disciples and the crowd that “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.”

Jesus tells the disciples that the journey they are on together isn’t about fame and power, it’s about suffering. Jesus says whoever wants to be his disciples must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Suddenly, other powers are determine the agenda--elders, teachers and priests control what happens in Jesus' ministry.

When Peter hears this teaching he is incredulous. He thought Jesus the Messiah had come to restore Israel to power. The suffering was supposed to end with Jesus, not continue.

Peter takes Jesus aside to rebuke him for that teaching. Maybe Peter had some advice about being more upbeat. After all, suffering, killing and death are real downers. People come to hear Jesus preach good news. They come to be inspired, not depressed. But Jesus pulls no punches with his response.

He tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan!”  In other words, you’re wrong. Jesus tells Peter he’s focusing on human concerns. But Peter doesn’t get it.

This is where our story starts today--after Jesus introduces the idea of his suffering and death. Six days after Jesus starts preaching about suffering he takes Peter, James and John up the mountain.

They’ve reached the top literally and figuratively.  They are high up, close to God and doing well with ministry. Peter and the disciples see Moses and Elijah are there, even though they’ve been dead for many years. It’s like a religious trifecta—Moses who gave humanity God’s laws, Elijah the prophet who heard God in a still, small voice and Jesus the Son of God.

Transfiguration by Lodovico Carracci
And Jesus is different. He is transfigured before their eyes. The very holiness of God shines through Jesus as his clothes become dazzling white. Peter, James and John experience the overwhelming glory of God in Christ. They see Jesus full of power and radiant with promise. They have a heart-stopping encounter with the divine that leaves them terrified, confused and unsure of themselves.  It was an awesome and awe-full experience.

Peter starts babbling in his confusion and fear. Fear and insecurity can do this to us. You go to a job interview or are meeting with a doctor or a person you respect immensely and suddenly you say something that makes no sense because you are nervous.  Then you spend hours wondering how you could say something so odd.

Has this ever happened to you? I thought so.

It seemed to be happening to Peter, too. The Bible says, Peter “did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Feeling like he should say something, Peter blurts out:

"Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 

Peter witnesses the glory of God in Christ and says, Let's build some tents. Hmmm...

This statement has puzzled scholars. What does Peter mean?      
  • It could be a way of showing honor to Moses, Elijah and Jesus.
  • The gospel writer Mark could be showing us that Jesus is as important as the law and the prophets.
  • It could also mean that Peter wants to prolong the experience. Maybe he wants to stay on that glorious mountain forever—a camping holiday that never ends.
  • Making three dwellings could also be a reference to the Jewish celebration of Sukkot—the Festival of Booths.
  • Sukkot is a fall festival with both agricultural and historical significance. It’s occurs in the fall as a harvest festival and it also commemorates the wandering in the desert.

If you’ve ever driven through Squirrel Hill during the Festival of Booths, you see small, tent-like dwellings in the backyards of  some of the houses. Part of the celebration of Sukkot involves the building of a shelter in which to eat, pray and even sleep. It is a reminder of the time the Israelites wandered the desert.

Sukkot, is also known as a season of rejoicing. [i] In the Jewish tradition, Sukkot is only festival associated with an explicit commandment to rejoice.[ii]

Peter and the other disciples are overwhelmed by the transfiguration. But in his terror, I think he speaks the truth of his heart and it reflects almost all of those scholarly insights. Peter knows in his heart that Jesus is a man of God. Peter has heard him teach of the law and quote the prophets.

Peter has also heard the change in Jesus teachings. Peter now knows that Jesus will suffer, be killed and raised from the dead. He has heard Jesus say that the people who follow him will have to take up their own cross. Peter now knows that he will have to deny himself and possibly lose his life.

Is it any wonder Peter wanted to stay on the mountaintop? Do you blame him for saying let’s build some tents and make this like Sukkot, a time of rejoicing in the presence of the Almighty? The power and the glory of God are there and present. While all that transfiguring may be frightening, it would still be tempting to stay there at the top where things are good and holy.

We, too, are in the same place in our church year. We’ve come through the joy of Christmas, the inspiration of Epiphany, we’ve heard about Jesus’ ministry. We are standing here at the top, basking in the glory of Jesus’ success. And then, come Ash Wednesday, our worship will take a different tone as we enter Lent.

The music will be moody and reflective. We’ll hear less about healing and more about suffering. We will head down the mountain with Jesus and the disciples.

As I headed down the mountain on my Costa Rica trip, I was able to enjoy the beauty of the forest—for the first hour or so. But then, the blisters started forming on my feet and my toes started smashing against the front of my boots. A while later, I noticed that my steps were less sure. I couldn’t look around, I could only look at where I was placing my feet. My legs started shaking and I had to stop every few minutes and rest. Pretty soon it was all I could do not to cry in pain, anger and frustration. This was not what I expected or wanted. But what could I do? I had to walk down the mountain. In all honesty, I still resent that I couldn't appreciate or enjoy the hike down the mountain. But, I did it.

While the disciples faced a much more difficult journey, my experience walking down the mountain helps me to understand Peter a little bit. Peter says, Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Yes, indeed, it’s good to be on the mountaintop.

But, for Peter the mountaintop moment comes to an end. A thick cloud appears and God’s voice tells the disciples, This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him. When the cloud clears, Peter and James and John look around they see Jesus.

Only Jesus.

When they look they see the fulfillment of the law—in Jesus. When they look they see what the prophets had promised—in Jesus. When they look at their leader, they see more than an ordinary man. They see the Son of God, ready to lead them into a different kind of ministry. Authority has been give to Jesus and God says listen to him. Who can ignore the voice of God?

On the mountaintop, the disciples encounter the divine. And as mysteriously as it started, it ends. It’s time to go down the mountain and back into the world. It’s time to try and make sense of that experience. It’s time to start the journey toward Jerusalem, toward a new kind of ministry, toward a new kind of glory. 

Do you suppose the disciples look back up the mountain as they walk down? Did they look over their shoulders at what they were leaving behind? I’m guessing that they did. But they now know they have to listen and follow Jesus down the mountain.

They continue walking with Jesus, putting one foot in front of the other.  Maybe they are shaking. Maybe they are angry and frustrated that their ministry is taking a different turn. Maybe they did not want to hear anymore about the suffering.

But they did it. They went down the mountain with Jesus.

Peter and the disciples walk beside Jesus both on the way up the mountain and on the way down. Their trip alongside Jesus wasn’t perfect.  They made mistakes. They cut and run when things got really scary at the crucifixion. But, ultimately they did listen to Jesus and follow his path.

On that mountaintop, witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration, Peter and James and John were transformed as well.  God showed them something that was bigger than their fear and more powerful than suffering. God showed them Jesus in a new light--the light of eternity. That is a reason to rejoice.


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