Mountains and Valleys – Sermon on Mark 9.2-8

Mark 9.2-8

Six 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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then 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.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

the-transfiguration

And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

Six days later. An innocuous beginning to our scripture today. In order to properly experience the depth of the transfiguration, we have to go back six days in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Before hiking the mountain with the inner circle of Peter, James, and John, Jesus asked the disciples about his identity. “Who do people say that I am?” “Well Jesus, some call you John the Baptist, and others call you Elijah or one of the prophets.” “Okay, but who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.

Jesus then immediately taught his disciples about his impending death, and predicted his resurrection for the first time; “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter, the great representative for the rest of the disciples, the great representative for all of us, pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke him for making such claims: “the messiah cannot be rejected by the elders and be killed Jesus, thats not what a messiah is supposed to do.”

Jesus quickly stopped Peter in his tracks, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

And so, six days later, perhaps when the disciples needed a reinforcement of faith after such a strange episode, the inner circle was invited by Jesus to the top of a mountain. I can imagine their wavering faith as they slowly walked along the path, unable to comprehend the new understanding of what it meant for their Lord to be the Messiah.

In the cool of the morning, with the dew still hanging in the air, Jesus was transfigured before the disciples. His clothes became dazzling white beyond human comprehension. And there, on either side of Jesus appeared Elijah and Moses. Then Peter said aloud, perhaps while cowering in fear, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Suddenly, a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a great voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

4, Example 2a, The Saviour's Transfiguration, an early-15th century icon from the Tretyakov Gallery, attributed to Theophanes the Greek

Today, we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday. In the life of Jesus the Transfiguration was a defining moment that would come to determine the course of his mission to the world. From this point forward the trajectory of Jesus and his disciples was set toward Jerusalem. For the modern church, Transfiguration Sunday is celebrated immediately before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Just as the Transfiguration trained the disciples’ eyes to the coming death and resurrection of Jesus, so too we are training ourselves to make our way through the coming forty days of Lent preparing for the celebration of Easter.

What do you think of this story? It has forever been a favorite of mine for many reasons. What does the appearance of Elijah and Moses mean for the disciples and Jesus? What must it have felt like to be there with Peter, James, and John to have witnessed Jesus transfigured before them? How powerful and enveloping was the cloud and God’s voice declaring Jesus as his Beloved? A whole sermon series could be devoted to these 7 verses. However, today we are going to focus on Peter’s peculiar request to build three dwellings on top of the mountain.

Peter is both frightened and ignorant. Within the last week he had made the stunning confession of Jesus as the Christ and then he was connected with the likes of Satan and commanded to move behind Jesus. Like many Christians, Peter was willing to go wherever Christ called him, though that didn’t necessarily mean he understood everything that was going on. This event had to have been remarkable for the three disciples present. In a brilliant fashion Jesus was validated as the Son of God. In spite of the shock regarding his own suffering and approaching death, this transfiguration confirmed him as the Lord’s anointed, the beloved Son.

Perfectly timed as a reinforcement for the disciples’ faith, particularly in the wake of Peter’s movement between perfection and ignorance, Peter responds to this glorious moment with the desire to build three dwellings. Behind his words was the need to prolong the experience. Who among us would not want to stay up there on the mountaintop with the transfigured Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah? This was a moment high worth; the true, embodied, and illuminated understanding of Jesus. It was an experience that any of us would have liked to make permanent. However, life is not made up of mountaintops alone, for every glorious mountain there is a equally draining valley. It was good for Peter to experience the transfiguration, but it was NOT good for him to try and prolong the experience. Life must continue to move on.

A few months ago I was blessed with the opportunity to preside over my first wedding. Brian and Sarah are a delightful couple and I was thrilled with the invitation to join them together in marriage. The wedding went off without a hitch, well thats not exactly true, I had to remind the nervous father of the bride to stand with her until he gave her away, and then I had to direct him to sick back down after he had finished. Nevertheless, when it came time for the homily, I stood before Brian and Sarah, remarking about the sanctity of marriage and the role that God plays in all of our unions. I ended the homily with something I tell all couples preparing for marriage:

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“From this point forward your individual stories are coming together. I want to tell you something that most will try to claim the contrary. Today will NOT be the happiest day of your lives. If you limit the joy of what you can experience in marriage to this one particular Saturday afternoon, it will cease to be organic and life-giving but instead repetitive and dull. You have an incredible story in front of you, one that has yet to be written, you are traveling as strangers into a strange land. There will be countless mountains and valleys and so much of your horizon is still beautifully unwritten.

Like Peter, many of us want to desperately hold on to those “transfigured” moments of our lives. We want to experience events where we get a little slice of heaven, but as soon as they fall in our laps we are often unwilling to let them go. The excitement of Christmas is often replaced by the anxiety and dull atmosphere of January. The beauty of a newborn baby is quickly rivaled by the long nights of crying and wailing. The joy of summer break from school flies by too quickly and before we know it we are sitting in a new classroom surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Life is made up of both mountains and valleys. Neither one can, nor should, last forever.

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Transfigured moments are all around us, particularly here in worship. Worship is supposed to be a shining hour, high and lifted up, an event where the glory of God the Father, Son, and Spirit shines radiantly throughout our space. Like the disciples gathered on the mountain, worship is supposed to surround us like a cloud when Jesus and his revelation of God are made known to each of us. Worship, when done well, produces a glow unlike anything else on earth. Worship, beauty, joy, love; all of these are those wonderful transfigured moments that surround us daily. A life that has no transfigured hours of worship is poor, no matter how rich and decadent the elements may be.

So, just think for a moment, imagine the many areas in which the mood of Peter, when he said, “Lets just stay here” blocks the possibilities of life. Life cannot just be one big wedding celebration, nor can it be replaying our favorite song over and over and over again, nor can it be a endless worship service here at St. John’s. Whether we like it or not, we cannot stay on top of the mountain forever, we have to move and go on to new experiences of life, faith, and understanding.

As the disciples grew closer and closer to their Lord, his words and proclamations became increasingly difficult to understand and follow. While making their way to the inevitable result of Jerusalem, the disciples needed to hear Jesus. The voice from the cloud echoed out, “listen to him!” and I can think of no better words for all us to hear this morning.

When I was 16, standing on the sidewalk along Ft. Hunt road in Alexandria, Virginia on a cold and dark December evening my life was forever changed. I am a product of “listening to him.” I stand before you as the pastor serving this church because I was enveloped in that strange cloud of God’s grace, without a big booming voice, without particular words, and yet I somehow knew that I could do nothing with my life other than serving the church. My life has been filled with mountaintop experiences, some of them on literal mountain tops, but there have also been deep and seemingly endless valleys.

And so, what are to make of us this Transfiguration? That day when he took the three disciples to the mountainside to pray, his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame. Two men appeared, Moses and Elijah came. Lost in the cloud a voice, have no fear, we draw near, lost in a cloud, a sign, Son of Man turn your ear.

We are just like those disciples standing on the mountainside with Jesus. We are given glimpses of heaven regularly in our lives. We are blessed to be showered with transfigured moments if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. However, life must be made of both mountains and valleys. Like the disciples we are called to listen to Jesus when the time comes to re-enter the reality of life. We have the privilege of listening to Jesus and having his words become incarnate in the ways that we live our lives.

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If you want to truly experience a transfigured moment in your life, look no further than this table with the gifts of bread and wine. This banquet that has been prepared for you and me is an encounter with the divine, it is a little slice of heaven for us. This is our mountaintop, that incredible and glorious moment when Jesus’ true radiance shined in a way unlike anything else on earth. In this communion we are brought into union with the triune God, we are nourished with the grace of God for our journeys of faith. 

So, as we prepare to feast at Christ’s table, remember that we cannot stay on the mountain forever. We will depart from this place and enter the world filled with the body and the blood. Listen to him in the valleys of life knowing that we are always going on to something new and wonderful. Let us all strive to be transfigured and delight in God’s will, walking in his ways forever. God is with us at the wedding receptions and in the hospital waiting rooms, God is with us when we fall and love and when we lose our jobs. God is with us when we cradle new-born children for the first time and when they leave us to begin their own lives. God is with us on the highest mountains and in the deepest valleys. Listen to him.

Amen.

 

To Fear, Or Not To Fear – Sermon on Psalm 112 and Mark 6.45-51

Psalm 112

Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments. Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation for the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. They rise in darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor. The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.

Mark 6.45-51

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intend to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astonished.

 

Happy are those who fear the Lord. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

It happened in a small town in a small United Methodist Church. A single mother was struggling to raise her two boys who were the talk of the town. At 10 and 12 years of age, the two brothers were often responsible for any of the “accidents” in town. They regularly vandalized certain buildings, were known for shoplifting candy from the local 7-11, and would ding-dong-ditch any house they could find.

Yet, on Sunday morning, there they were sitting on either side of their mother in church. The boys would politely greet the minister when they walked in, sat quietly, but during the sermon they loved to make farting sounds while the preacher paused in a sermon.

They were trouble.

Now because the mother was raising the boys all alone, many of the people in the community that wanted to do something about the two boys, felt that it wasn’t their place; that mother had enough on her plate.

This type of behavior went on for some time. The boys would continue their antics, driving people crazy, until one day when the mother had had enough.

The pastor at the local United Methodist Church was a young man fresh from seminary; he thought he had it all figured out. For weeks he had wanted to call out those two boys from the pulpit in the middle of a sermon, but he thought better of it, he would look down on that poor mother and let it go.

So it came to pass that the mother called the young minister. “Preacher,” she barked into the telephone, “I want you to strike the fear of God into my boys. This has got to stop.”

“It will be my absolute pleasure,” The preacher replied.

The following Sunday, after worship, the minister invited the two young boys toward his office, leaving one to sit outside while the other sat on the hot seat in the office.

In order to achieve some sort of repentance from the boys, the preacher thought about teaching them that God is always present, and therefore sees everything. This, he hoped, would teach them to behave better.

With the first brother sitting across the office table, the preacher began his lesson. “Where is God?”

No response.

“Where is God?!”

The boy began to fidget.

“Where is God!?!”

The lack of response was beginning to irritate the pastor.

“I want you to answer me right now, where is God?!?!”

And with that the boy jumped from his seat and hightailed it out of the office, grabbed his brother, and bolted for the parking lot.

“Whats going on?” The one brother asked the other.

“We’re in real trouble this time. God’s gone missing, and they think we had something to do with it!”

 

The psalmist writes, “Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” I have always found this verse a little strange considering the fact that whenever God shows up in the Bible, whenever God humbles himself to speak with one of his creatures, the first thing he usually says is, “Do not be afraid.”

fear

In Mark’s gospel we learn about a time when the disciples got into a boat to go to Bethsaida. After dismissing the crowd, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray, leaving his disciples alone on the boat. When Jesus came down he saw how the disciples were straining against the wind so he did what the Son of God would do, he walked on the water out toward the boat. He intended to pass them by, but when they saw him walking on the water they were utterly terrified, they thought it was a ghost and cried out. But immediately Jesus spoke to them across the water, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.

Yet, in Psalm 112, we hear about the blessedness of those who fear the Lord. To fear the Lord means that your heart is steady. If our hearts are fixed on evil, we shall become evil. If our hearts are fixed inwardly, we shall become ridiculously selfish. If our hearts are fixed upon things and possessions, we will become overwhelming materialist. All around us, perhaps even some of us, are failing because our minds and hearts are no longer steady, because our hearts are no longer fixed on the right thing.

So the psalmist calls out, blessed are those who fear the Lord. Fear comes to all of us, to the bravest as well as the cowardly. Fear comes to the faithful and to the faithless. Fear can be a good thing, it warns us to keep our eyes peeled for the danger that might lurk just around the corner. Fear teaches us to respect our elders, teachers, and bosses. Fear reminds us of our finitude. However, to be mindful of fear is one thing, to be constantly panic stricken is another.

A good friend of mine, raised in the church and pursuing a call to ministry, was once invited to a spiritual retreat at the cusp of high-school. For a long weekend, hundreds of young Christians would gather together in small groups to talk about the temptations of the world, how to keep the faith, and what it meant to walk with Jesus throughout their teenage years. They would also spend time as a large group worshiping, they would sing along to the contemporary Christian rock band, they would walk forward to receive communion together, and they would all reverently bow their heads to pray.

On the last night of the conference, at the final worship service, at the height of the concluding sermon, the fire alarm went off. The ushers and facilitators rushed everyone out of the building, yelling at the kids to hurry up as they struggled to find their peers. My friend was rushed through one of the hallways, forced around dark corners, until he found himself standing outside in the parking lot.

Spread throughout the area were life boats, and throngs of the young Christians were climbing aboard. My friend, unsure of what was going on, ran forward to the closest boat, grabbed hold of a rope and tried to swing himself on when the fire alarm stopped and a voice cried out over the megaphone: “Take a look around you, there are not enough spaces in the life boats for everyone. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

Fear can be a tool, but it can also warp and manipulate us. My friend refused to enter a church for years after that incident because of the way the people at his retreat attempted to manipulate his faith through fear. That is not the kind of fear that the psalmist calls blessed.

The disciples were on the boat, the wind was against them and they were having problems crossing on to the over side. They were doing their best to follow Jesus’ commands, yet the world was not matching their expectations. They must’ve felt tired and abandoned out there all alone; why had Jesus asked them to do this? Where was he when they really needed him? Somehow, though stricken with overwhelming fear, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water while calling out, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

When fear was the most appropriate response to the present circumstances, Jesus triumphantly declared, “Do not be afraid.” In the many chaotic moments of our lives, when bashed by the waves of the world, Jesus continues to call out to us, “Do not be afraid.” Christ is there with us on the rocky boats of life’s circumstances, God listens to our prayers, and the Holy Spirit moves through everyone of us to help transform this world into God’s kingdom.

The disciples, the Israelites who sang Psalm 112, and all of us are not called to be motivated by fear, but instead motivated by love. The disciples did not leave everything to follow their God because he had promised them hard days and suffering, though that often comes if we take faith seriously, but instead they were offered a new way of living. Those who do not want to be afraid are those who have decided to see the world through the lens of faith, to be free from the tyranny of the world. People without fear are those who are fully open to the troubles and the needs of their fellow human beings. They, as the psalmist writes, rise in the darkness as a light for the upright, they are gracious, merciful and righteous. Their hearts are secure and firm in the Lord, they will not be afraid because they know the Lord is with them.

Fearing the Lord, as the psalmist writes, means loving the Lord. Loving God enough to realize that God wants to us to love one another, to strive for justice, to celebrate peace, to take faith seriously, but not take ourselves too seriously. Those who cannot sigh with others in the midst of suffering, and laugh a little bit about themselves are the ones who will be controlled by their fear.

There has been plenty of fear used throughout the history of the church, perhaps today more than ever. Churches have become professionals with motivation by fear. If you don’t tithe, if you don’t believe, if you don’t commit to prayer, etc. Right now, what we need more than fear is a little bit of laughter, we need some joy, we need to rediscover the happiness that the church contains for those who want to follow Jesus Christ.

I like to imagine that later in Jesus’ ministry, or perhaps after the resurrection, the disciples would be together joking about the old times. “Do you remember that time Jesus went into the temple and over turned all the tables!? How crazy was that?” “Or when he asked us to go find him a donkey to ride on into Jerusalem? What a character!” “Or what about that time we were all shaking with fear on the boat and Jesus calmed the wind like that *snap* what a night that was.”

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Laughter, joy, and excitement must have been a part of the disciples journey through faith.

Thats why I started the sermon with a funny story about two young boys running out of a church. Until we can laugh together about the excitement of faith, then the fear of God will remain what many people get out of church.

Happy are those who fear the Lord, because they realize that God’s love is incredible. We fear God’s love because we recognize that we do not deserve it. We fear God for welcoming us into this journey when we have so little to contribute. We fear God for inviting us into a place to be loved, when we feel unlovable.

We have too often settled for the motivation of fear in church. Can you imagine what the church could look like if instead of gathering to hear about what we must do to change in our lives, we gathered out of joy and excitement and laughter?

Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.

Let us all recover that sense of happiness and delight in our faith journeys. Let us be motivated by the good God who calls us by name to laugh, live, and love. Let us rekindle the flame of faith in our lives to be utterly astonished by the God who came to die, and live, for us.

Fear not, for God is with you.

Amen.

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