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Listen to Him

February 20, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on Transfiguration Sunday, February 19, 2012


Mark 8: 31 – 9: 9

Before Jesus went up the mountain in our text this morning, he was down on the ground.  Down amid the people who lived in Caesarea Philippi, a city notorious for its architectural and artistic opulence, a tribute to the Roman Emperor and Imperial power.  Caesars’s City.

You see, we have come to a turning point in the gospel. Jesus has left the relative safety of rural Galilee where his ministry of providing faith based social services, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, casting out demons and including the excluded, has been widely received. Having healed and empowered the sickest and poorest people, Jesus now turns his face towards the center of Roman and religious power, Caesarea Philippi and Jerusalem, where the debts-payments and taxes of the people flow into the pockets of the occupiers and their collaborators, where he will meet rich young men who cannot follow him, religious leaders who cannot understand him, and roman officials and soldiers who understand him far to well. Caring for the poor is one thing, changing the world that makes them poor will be another. And Jesus knows that his ministry is about to cross into unacceptable territory. So he turns to his disciples who confirm their faith in his messianic leadership. And he doesn’t mince words.  In chapter 8 he lets his followers know, “I will suffer for this. I will be betrayed and turned over to the authorities, and I will die. Take up your cross and follow me”

Whoa! Hold it. Up till now the disciples have been making a difference, even enjoying Jesus’ presence as he announced “good news” in community after community. But what is this talk about crosses? “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross?”  Take up the reigning instrument of Roman political execution, and follow him?  Follow him in the same way that condemned criminals, bearing the cross beam across their backs followed their Roman executioners to the place where they would be killed?  This sounds like someone bent on martyrdom, not the expected Messiah.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  One wonders if the crowd, so enamored with his healings and teachings to this point, began to thin a bit.

Emphasizing how unexpected and confusing this teaching was, Mark says that six days later Jesus and his friends went up the mountain.  On can assume those six days were spent stewing, and debating, and badgering Jesus about this teaching.  So what to do.  Well in the tradition of all great leaders and prophets, when the going gets tough, the tough head up the mountain.

So up the mountain they go, taking their struggles with them.  And Mark says, “And he was transfigured before them.” 

Now, whenever we read the bible, we should pay attention to the setting.  Location and scenery in bible stories is as important as the characters. Mark’s gospel is short and fast paced, with minimal detail and character development. But if you pay attention to the clues you are given, they suggest the entire sweep of Hebrew history, unfolding in this life of Jesus and among his friends.

What do I mean by paying attention to scenery. Take the beginning of Mark’s gospel, the Baptist John crying out in the wilderness, baptizing in the Jordan river. The wilderness, place of testing and trial, of trouble and complaining, place of wandering for 40 years, land through which the exiles marched to Babylon. The Jordan river crossed by Joshua and his army as they entered the promised land, the same Jordan river, to which the Temple priests would march out to re-enact the triumphal entry of the Hebrew people into the land flowing with milk and honey, the Jordan river which separated the Hebrew world from the gentile world, the Jordan river.

Or take the sea: the primordial chaos which was tamed by God during creation. The sea over which the Philistines had come to conquer and occupy Palestine, the sea, across which Roman soldiers came and food and taxes left. The sea, crossed by Moses, calmed by Jesus. This is what I mean by reading the scenery.

But perhaps the most important scenery is the mountains. It was on Mt. Sinai that Moses spoke with God, received the Ten Commandments, spoke the covenant with Israel. It was on the mountain Joshua organized the people into units and tribes, appointing overseers to govern the people. It is on Mt. Zion, elevated plain that lifted Jerusalem above it s neighbors and gave it a military advantage, that Jerusalem, David’s city, resides. It was to Mt. Horeb that Elijah the prophet fled when his victory over Baal’s prophets brought down on him the wrath of Queen Jezebel. And it was in the crags of that same mountain that Elijah heard God’s voice, not in the great wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still silence, a voice saying “Go back down, return to Damascus, be my prophet.” It was from the mount that Jesus taught his disciples, It was on the mount that he organized the people into units for feeding, And it is up the mountain that Jesus goes in our story today. If the wilderness represents , a liminal place – a threshold straddling worlds or meanings, mountains express the unequivocal presence of God, the place of authority and teaching, and the renewal of the holy covenant.

We have a tendency to call wonderful experiences mountain top experiences; times when God’s presence is made known to us. We feel high. A mission trip to Kenya or Nicaragua can be a mountain top experience. Or maybe summer camp at Holmes. Or certain worship or prayer meetings when we feel transported into God’s presence.  They are times when we see life’s priorities fall into place, and our story finds it place in God’s story, and we know we are part of something larger than ourselves.

But the critical turning point in this story is when the voice of God echoes out of the cloud saying, “This is my son, My chosen one, Listen to him.” There my point again, turn and look, listen, pay attention. The voice of God calls us up the mountain only to send us back down again, to the ministry, the mission, the trials and suffering. God sends the disciples back down the mountain to Jesus’ teaching about the cross “Listen to him” says the Divine.  The point is not just to listen to any old thing, but to listen to what Jesus has been trying to say about the deep cost of following him.  The paradox of the transfiguration is that it points us away from the transfiguring event itself and back to the way of the cross.  It does not permit escapism or a life of spiritual highs.  It demands a religion that is our life, not our lifestyle. 

The transfiguration of Jesus invites us to be transfigured, to be transformed as Jesus was, not by ascending to the top of a mountain and feeling mystical, but by conforming our lives to his, by attending to the needs of the suffering, by welcoming the poor, by touching the untouchable, by feeding the hungry and sheltering those who are without homes. By loving, with dignity and confidence, even those who intend us harm.   But it also means following Jesus when he sets his face toward Jerusalem, challenging the larger systems that make people poor and rob them of dignity. For example, there is something we must address when the average U.S. worker’s salary ($49,445) could pay for 10 months of health insurance, 5 months of college tuition, and buy 10 percent of an average home, while on the other hand, the average Fortune 500 CEO’s salary ($11.4 million) could pay for 300 years of health insurance, 200 years of college tuition and buy 34.5 new homes.

So the bottom line is, God is endorsing Jesus ministry no matter how difficult it may be, and no matter how challenging it may be, and no matter how confusing is may be, especially for those who are comfortably religious. Not only is Jesus person/appearance transfigured, but so are the disciple’s expectations. Transfiguration is simply that moment which comes from outside our experience which confirms our experience. Transfiguration Sunday is both a demand and a promise.


Remind us always, O God, that you are not merely a “mountain top experience.” We know that as soon as Jesus came down from experiencing your presence on the mountain, he made that experience real by healing a child, transforming a life. Help us know, O God, that our experience of you must lead to transformed lives – our own lives and the lives of other people, the life of our society. Keep us from taking your presence for granted, and forgive us if we have remained untransformed by your presence.

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