Week of Sunday Feb 19 - Transfiguration
Gospel: Mark 9:2-9
As posted, this sermon is still very much in draft form. It takes religious experience seriously, and for real. But not everyone has such experiences, and I'm not sure it matters in the least! The experiences point to something else. I've quoted a deal more of Mark 9 than the set text for the week.
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, 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.
9 As 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. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. 11Then they asked him, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ 12He said to them, ‘Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? 13But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.’
14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’17Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’
19He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ 20And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood.22It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ 23Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ 24Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’
25When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ 26After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.
28When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ 29He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’
When I was a young Christian, I had the sense that I was missing something. I think that came from two things. The first was that I needed to grow up. I was young. I was searching for meaning. I was working in a very challenging job, where I was way out of my depth. I had not yet become, in any way, comfortable with the life God had given me.
The second thing was that I was in an environment which often claimed that Christian Faith was only Real if you had a certain kind of experience. We might call it ‘signs and wonders Christianity.’ You’re only a real Christian, it says, if you are having mighty experiences that sound a bit like the ones in the New Testament.
People should be getting healed miraculously. Strange and wonderful things—supernatural things, should be happening. These are the signs that God is in your life, and if they are not there, neither is God! It’s the kind of Christianity that lets some people feel rather superior to others, and can make the rest of us feel very second class.
So there I was... really longing for God to do something in my life, and the reason I wanted it was not so much to serve God as to make me feel comfortable.
I got what I asked for, and I got a lesson!
In 1980 we were sitting in a bible study. All of us worked with aboriginal people. People were talking about what aboriginal people had to give up from their culture to be really Christian.
Even then, I was not at ease with the tone of the conversation. I had a feeling that we whites were also trapped in our own culture, and not especially Christian... even us missionaries!
I let the conversation flow around me, withdrawing to my own thoughts. ''What do we whites have to give up of our culture? I asked myself. ''
“Andrew,'' said a voice, ''You have to give up your intellect." This was not a stray thought- this was a voice—and a definite answer to my question.
It was not a thought. It was a voice. It was located just behind the line that you could draw between my ears. It was real. That quiet experience of God is actually the most significant thing of the whole experience.
I was a stitched up tight, intellectually exacting, and rigid, rationalistic person. The idea of giving up my intellect was plainly ridiculous. Frankly, the church doesn’t use enough intellect, half the time, but I was way over the top. This was a true message, although I didn't understand it at the time.
The next night, we had to drive home; 300 miles of desert. It was late night: the highway seems to go on forever, and your truck thunders on through its own tunnel of light. Somewhere down past the Hugh River, as part of me remained driving, the rest of me was overwhelmed by some in-pouring from outside. I was left breathless and shaky, clutching the steering wheel for support, as my brain tried to catch up with what had just happened- a blessing from God... something far beyond my mind. I did not give up my intellect; it was overwhelmed.
My wife woke up to find her husband someplace else at 110km hour in cattle country. We were very fortunate not collect a beast.
For three or four weeks, I was... a bit manic. A jackeroo from a nearby station said, "I knew someone like him in Darwin- he was on heroin!"
So I’d had it—the big experience! And I’m grateful. But... I came down off the mountain. It didn’t last. I’ve had a few other things happen. Some were exciting. Some scared the life out of me.
But most of my life is like the disciples who stayed down at the bottom of the mountain. It’s hard work. We can’t easily heal the things around us. They only come out through prayer; long difficult prayer. There are no short cuts, and it seems, with some things, that nothing will happen until Jesus comes in person.
I’m telling you all this for two reasons.
One: these things happen... these mountaintop, mind-blowing experiences. It doesn’t mean we have gone mad. They can be a blessing.
Two: these things don’t have to happen. They don’t make us Christian; following Jesus does.
Let me make the point: if I hadn’t written home that week, about that experience in the truck, I’d be inclined to think I dreamed it. It doesn’t move me. It is an unreal memory. Wendy tells me it happened; I was well off my trolley, but if that memory, that distant brain-fart was what I live by, and what I live for, I’d be lost. I can think of a dozen different rationalisations for that experience! None of them have anything to do with God. I had a New Testament experience in a Toyota truck? The New Testament didn’t have trucks!
But these thing happen. The story of Jesus and the three disciples on the mountain has the smell of authenticity about it.
Mark’s worked on it, of course. He’s taken the experience and mined it for what it offers.
It’s like Master Chef, where they get the soup, and have to suss out the ingredients...
“Hmm... six days... Moses went up the mountain for six days in Exodus... when Israel first met God...
Clouds on a mountain.... that tastes like God...
White robes... that smells a bit like the end of time...when all things are fulfilled...
Elijah and Moses... ok... Elijah was coming back before the Messiah... Mm! Yes I can definitely taste Messiah in this soup!
Hang on... there is a complex structure here... Elijah is superior to Moses—he gets mentioned first. We’ve gone way past Moses being the authority for life, here. And they are both subordinate to Jesus! Wow... Jesus is the main flavour!”
... every ingredient in this story is telling us again, what God tells the disciples from the cloud: This is my beloved Son.
He doesn’t say, This is my beloved son, stay on the mountaintop.
He doesn’t say, This is my beloved son, you can’t be Christian unless you have a mountain top experience.
He says this is my beloved son, listen to him. So we read what follows; what Jesus says.
Jesus says to come down off the mountain and work with the sick and the trapped. (9:14ff)
And Jesus says next... ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ (9.31)
And then Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” ( 9.33)
And Jesus says next... “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us.” ( 9.38)
And Jesus says, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” (9.49)
We could go on, but you get the point. Jesus talks about living a life that costs.
He talks about living a life that serves.
He talks about living a life that respects others, and a life that means we are not living on the mountain top, but have plenty of trials; we get salted with fire.
So, if you’ve had a mountain top experience, be glad! But you can only prove it is true ,by living down on the plains with Jesus and with the rest of us. If you don’t, your experience is a big fat idol keeping you away from God!
And if you haven’t had the big experience... ? Remember that nine disciples stayed down the hill. They were the ones doing the work in the meantime; bringing in the kingdom.
Those of us who have been up there are mostly like Peter and his tents; we say dumb things, and do worse. Really, being Christian, and really being with God, is about listening to Jesus, and we can do that anywhere, and he talks to us anywhere.
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