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Look and Listen!

A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on February 19, 2012.

Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9

Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany in our church calendar.  As you recall, Epiphany is about the manifestation, the revelation of the Son of God in the person of Jesus Christ.  And in my messages these past several weeks, I have examined scripture passages that showed Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, manifesting or revealing Himself as the Son of God to his disciples by inviting them to “come and see” his life up close.  We observed how Jesus taught with authority.  We watched him perform miracles of healing and exorcism.  We witnessed how Jesus healed a leper not only physically, but also by bringing him back into a loving community.  All of those actions were signs that the Kingdom of God was near.  They were manifestations of the identity of Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. 

Today’s scripture lesson recounts another manifestation.  Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up on a mountain.  While they were all alone, Jesus was transfigured before them.  An epiphany occurred, a “shining forth” that revealed the true glory, the true majesty, the true brilliance of Jesus.  It was as if a bright divine spotlight had shined on Jesus together with Moses and Elijah, two of the most important spiritual leaders in the history of Israel. 

Since that transfiguration, Christians for two thousand years have been trying to recapture and re-create mountaintop experiences of God.  As a minister to youth and college students in Charlottesville, I received hundreds of pieces of mail promoting big conferences where thousands of students were pictured immersed in the ecstasy of a mountaintop experience where big-name bands played under bright lights and pyrotechnics, and big-name speakers give life-changing messages.  I’m not against those conferences, for I’ve taken my youth to a number of them.  But there is a danger when we look to those experiences as the only way to experience God.  This applies not only to student conferences, but any experience like summer camps and even Sunday morning worship.  Those events and experiences can become a “fix” that we need to get a “high” on in order to make it through the rest of the time in between.  It’s no wonder that Peter suggested that they build dwellings for Moses, Elijah and Jesus to stay in for a while.

But we are not meant to dwell on mountaintop experiences.  Jesus told his disciples to make disciples, not to make conference junkies or worship junkies.  Even for Peter, James and John, the mountaintop experience was fleeting.  No sooner than Peter spoke, a cloud appeared and enveloped them.  The moment of the big reveal was immediately followed by a big conceal.  The disciples could no longer look at Jesus, but they could still listen to the voice of God, the same voice that was heard during Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, whom I love.”  But this time, the divine voice also issued a command: “Listen to him!”

Look and Listen!  It is hard to listen with our ears when we’ve been dazzled by our eyes.  Six days before this mountaintop experience, Mark chapter 8, verses 27-33 records this conversation that Jesus had with his disciples: Jesus asked them, “Who do people say I am?”  The disciples replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  “But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”  Simon Peter had seen Jesus’ miracles and wondrous deeds; after all, Jesus had healed Simon Peter’s own mother-in-law.  The miracle-working Jesus who could heal the sick and cast out demons was the kind of Messiah that Peter was looking for.  So when Jesus then spoke about how He must suffer and be killed, Peter just could not listen to the words or hear the message.  Peter even had the nerve to rebuke Jesus for speaking about his suffering!  It was in this exchange that Jesus said some of the harshest words to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” 

We may shake our heads at Peter’s wrongheadedness, but if we are honest with ourselves, some of us may acknowledge that there’s a lot of Peter in us.  Some of us still long for the “glory days” of the forties and fifties when the church had the prestige and power in American society, when our churches were filled with people, and the culture was still influenced by Christianity.  “Ahh,” we say, “it was good for us to be there. Let us return back to those days.”  Others of us may be seeking that kind of mountaintop experience like a great week at camp or a terrific message that transcends the humdrum routines of our daily lives.  “If we can only get there, we’ll build shelters to prolong the experience.”  Then there are also preachers on TV with immaculate suits and bleached white teeth who teach that if you truly have faith, then God will shower you with success, wealth, and glory, and you will not have to go through suffering and heartaches.  “If you only have faith,” they say, “then your whole life will be a mountaintop experience.”  As Fred Craddock once said, “It is not easy to resist the offer of a gospel of success, an invitation into what Reinhold Niebuhr once described as a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”[1] 

Now don’t get me wrong, there is truth to the notion that God will bless (in the earthly sense) those who put their faith in Jesus.  But that is not the whole truth.  Listen to Jesus himself as He tried to tell the whole truth to Peter, James and John as they walked down the mountainside.  Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  What the disciples had seen so far in the first eight chapters of the Gospel of Mark – the miracles, the healings, the authoritative teachings, the dazzling transfiguration – is only the first half of the story.  In the last eight chapters of Mark, Jesus will now tell and live out the second half of the story.  It is a story of rejection, of suffering, of injustice, of crucifixion, and of death as the sinful world tries to do everything in its power to snuff out the light of the world.  Before the disciples can witness to the whole truth of the Son of God, Jesus will have to journey to the cross, down through the valley of the shadow of death, and finally into the dawn of Easter morning.  As wonderful as the story of the miracles and teachings of Jesus is, the rest of the story is the cross and resurrection of Christ. 

Therefore, the point of the transfiguration was not to provide the disciples a place to dwell on the mountaintop experience, but to provide Jesus the strength he needed to depart to Jerusalem.  The point of the transfiguration was not to launch a new building campaign, but to launch a new phase in Jesus’ ministry, where he will travel the way of the cross.  God gave His beloved Son a glimpse of a glorious resurrection future in order to strengthen Jesus for the weight of the cross that He will have to bear in the coming days.  Listen to the words of Jesus as recorded in Mark 9:31: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”

Walter Brueggemann once said: “What the disciples need to understand is that Jesus is both the Son of God, powerful agent of healing and subject of dazzling glory, and the Son of Man, who will be betrayed, and persecuted and crucified.  The disciples, in common with many Christians throughout the church’s life, want to have the glory that they can see without the message that they must hear, but the two cannot be separated.  Over and over Mark lifts up both aspects of Jesus’ identity, relentlessly recalling that the suffering will yield to triumph, but that the triumph cannot be had without the price of the cross.”[2]

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fully understood that triumph cannot be had without the price of the cross.  Listen to the conclusion of his final public speech before he was assassinated. 

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land!  And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”[3]

Closer to home, I went to The Woodlands retirement community several Fridays ago to lead a communion service.  After the service, ninety-year-old Alma Lewis, a church member for sixty-two years, came up to me and we talked.  With slightly teary eyes, she told me that it was not her first choice to move out of her house and into assisted living, and sometimes it is still hard.  But then with conviction in her voice, she told me: “Although I miss being at Farmville Baptist Church, God sent me here for a reason.  I have a mission to bring God’s love and joy to everyone here at Brookview.”  At that moment, I witnessed a transfiguration.  As I looked into Alma’s face, I saw a glimpse of the glory of Christ.  At the same time, I was reminded of the divine voice that spoke at the first transfiguration, and I imagined the voice speaking again: “This is my daughter, whom I love. Listen to her!”

On this Transfiguration Sunday, we are invited to look and listen.  May God open our eyes to look and see God’s glory.  May God open our ears to listen and hear Christ’s voice.   Amen.

 

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B, p. 127.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, et al, Texts for Preaching Year B, Westminster John Knox, p. 181.

[3] http://windsofchange.net/archives/002576.html