A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 18 November 2018.
Sometimes, people surprise us. We think we know them. We think we have their measure. But then they surprise us. They do something extraordinary that shows us how wrong we were, that shows us who they really are.
In Mark chapter 9 Jesus surprised his disciples. But he was really just showing them who he really was.
This transfiguration, this transformation that is recorded in this passage, came at just the right time. In our message last week we saw how Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” Then he asked them, “Who do you say I am?”
Peter said, “You are the Christ”, the Messiah, God’s promised King.
And straightaway Jesus started telling them what kind of Messiah he was going to be. “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected. He must be killed and after three days rise again.”
This was too much for Peter. This wasn’t part of the plan. This was loser talk before they had even tried to win. This was bad for morale. He tried to rebuke Jesus, to put him straight in private, away from the others. But Jesus shrugged him off. “Get behind me, Satan.” Then he said to them all,
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Harsh words. Strange words, or so they would have seemed to his puzzled disciples. So it would have been a sombre troop that Jesus led to the base of a mountain six days later. He took three of them, Peter, James and John, with him and went up to the top where they were all alone. It was dark and night was all around them. But Jesus was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
Now, although the Scripture says that he was transfigured, I suggest to you that what happened to Jesus wasn’t so much a change in form, a transformation into something he wasn’t before. But a change in appearance, like pulling aside a curtain, or taking the wrapping off a present, to show who Jesus was all the time. What I mean is that on the top of the mountain, Peter, James and John saw Jesus’ glory. But it wasn’t a glory that he didn’t have before, until he changed in front of him. What they were seeing was the glory that was always there, though they normally couldn’t see it. Because the glory of Jesus wasn’t absent from his earthly life, when he mixed with the poor, and ate with the sinners, and called the fishermen to follow him, and taught the crowds until he himself was tired and hungry. But his glory was truly present in all those things.
The glory of the eternal Son, the agent of creation, the wisdom that guides and supports all reality, came down from heaven and lived among us. Jesus is our Emmanuel. He is God with us.
This is what it means to call Jesus, Lord. It is not because he was a good man, or a great prophet, or a social worker ahead of his time. It is because he is the Word of God through whom all things were made, who became one of us, showing us the true God and showing us what it means to be truly human. He is Lord. The king of kings, the Lord of all Lords. Because before time began, he was the divine Son of the Father, who in our world and in our time, revealed his true glory to us.
The disciples thought they knew Jesus. They thought they had his measure. They thought they knew who he was and what he was supposed to be. But on the mountain he surprised them by showing them how wrong they were, by showing them who he truly was: the Son of God. God, the Son. The Lord. His face shone with glory, not with a glory like Moses’ face, which shone with God’s reflected glory. But with his own glory.
We say, for example, that the moon shines at night. And we are surprised when we see things by moonlight. But what we call moonlight is just sunlight that has taken the long way round. That bounces off the moon and hits the earth. The moon doesn’t shine its own light. Instead, it reflects the light of the sun that shines.
In Exodus chapter 34 the face of Moses shone. But it didn’t shine with his own light. It only reflected the light of God in whose presence Moses had stood. In Mark chapter 9 on the mountain Jesus’ face shone with his own light. The glory he had always had.
Verse 4 says that there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Moses and Elijah make a natural pair. Moses, of course, led the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. Elijah, like a second Moses, tried to lead them hundreds of years later from their slavery to Baal. Both of them performed great signs and wonders to fulfil their ministry. Both went up Mt Sinai, although five or six hundred years apart, and saw the glory of God. According to Scripture, Elijah didn’t die, but was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. According to legend, a similar thing happened to Moses. Between them, Moses and Elijah represent the two largest parts of the Old Testament. The law and the prophets. If anyone should be sent from heaven to speak with the Son of God, it is only natural that it should be these two.
The presence of Moses and Elijah testify that the whole Old Testament, the law and the prophets, speak of the coming of Jesus. His mission and his purpose. They testify that the Father of Jesus is the God of Israel. Not a new or different god. They testify that a new deliverance, a new salvation, should be expected. A new exodus from a slavery to sin. And they testify that the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, is not the loser’s way. But it is the winning way. They confirm that the way of suffering and rejection and dying and rising wasn’t a product of Jesus’ poor self-esteem. But it was the path that his Father had set before him.
This is what Peter, James and John needed to see. This is what they needed to learn. That the path to glory goes the way of the cross. And that the way of the cross leads to glory.
Unfortunately, Peter seemed too confused by fear to learn his lesson. He said to Jesus,
“Rabbi, teacher, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Perhaps he had in mind another tent of meeting like the one that Moses used to meet God and his face would shine with reflected glory. Or perhaps Peter just didn’t want the experience to come to an end.
We long for the mountain top experiences of life. We remember the youth camps, the conferences, the pilgrimages to special places, those magical moments when God felt so close, and we remember the effect that they had on our life and on our journey of faith. We wish that they could never end. But it is not possible to live on top of the mountain. Sooner or later we must come back down into the valleys.
But before Peter, James and John came down from the mountain, there was one more experience waiting for them. A cloud appeared and enveloped them. And a voice came from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.”
It was the voice of the God of Israel, of the Father of Jesus. Its message was clear. Moses and Elijah were servants in the kingdom of God. They had a job to do and they were equipped for it. They did their best until their time came to an end. And then their service was taken up by others. They were servants in the kingdom. But Jesus was the Son, the beloved Son of God. The prince and heir of the kingdom.
And the voice said, “Listen to him.” Not, “Listen to them.” But, “Listen to him.” And when the cloud withdrew and the disciples looked around, they saw no one but Jesus.
The message was, “Listen to him.” Jesus was not a loser. He was the prince of heaven sent on a secret mission behind enemy lines to restore all creation to its intended blessing. His words, his deeds, his way of suffering and rejection, are stamped and authenticated by the highest authority in heaven. The disciples weren’t to listen to their fears or to the false hopes. They weren’t to measure Jesus by their own needs and expectations. Every passage of the law and the prophets in the Old Testament spoke of Jesus and testified to his coming and his mission. They had to listen to him and to change their expectations in the light of the truth of the glory right in front of them.
Sadly, it was a lesson that Peter learned too late. Not before Jesus was arrested and Peter had denied him three times. Not before Jesus had died on the cross, and Peter had watched from a distance. Not before Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared alive behind Peter’s locked doors in Jerusalem. But years later, Peter recalled that mountain top experience in his second letter. Chapter 1.
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
What Peter means is that the world is dark, and until the day comes when the Lord Jesus returns, night is all around us. But in the gospel the glory of Jesus shines. And its glory is reflected in the life and obedience and suffering of eyewitnesses, of the men and women called to follow the way of Jesus.
And Peter’s message to you gathered here, who hear his words centuries later, is the same as the message of the voice that came from the cloud. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Although rejected by men, he is loved by his Father. Although claimed by death, he is alive. Although afflicted with the curse of the cross, he is the source of blessing for all. Listen to him. Don’t listen to your fears. Don’t measure him by your own needs and expectations. See his glory revealed in his words and deeds, his life and death and risen life. Let its light guide you through the dark and twisting paths of life through the valleys at the base of the mountain.
Listen to him.