Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12 , Psalm 50:1-6, II Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 11 2018
If it’s a clear day the view from a mountain top can be spectacular. In our reading this morning it was not the view from the mountain, but what Peter, James and John saw happening on the mountain that took their breath away.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, when churches that follow a liturgical calendar recall what happened when Jesus and a few close friends took a hike up a high mountain, got down to some serious praying and the glory of God descended with dazzling intensity.
As the disciples look on, in the midst of that blinding glory, two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, Moses, the Law Giver and Elijah the Prophet are glimpsed talking with Jesus. Not surprisingly the disciples are awestruck by what has happened. Prayer meetings… even prayer meetings on mountain tops… didn’t usually turn out like this!
The disciple Peter was the sort of person who wasn’t afraid to speak what was on his mind. At times it won him high praise… such as when He proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. Other times it got him a rebuke… such as when he tried to talk Jesus out of going to Jerusalem and Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan”.
On this occasion his words are just plain inappropriate. Excusable maybe… Peter was scared half to death… but inappropriate nevertheless. Over the sea in my homelands they describe such inappropriate comments as “Dropping a Brick.”
For example if you have an audience with her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth the II of England, ‘dropping a brick’ would be to greet her with the words, “Yo! Lizzy, you look a lot younger on the postage stamps”.
The ‘bricks’ Peter drops seem to have a particular relevance to any church that is seeking to find new ways of outreach or of understanding its mission. What can the bricks Peter dropped on the mountain teach us about our mission as individuals and as a church?
BRICK 1: Peter answers a question nobody was asking
In the pew bibles verse 5 begins, “Then Peter said to Jesus.” In Greek the words translated there as ‘Peter said to’ are from the word (avpokri,nomai) ‘apokrinomai’ which means “to give an answer to a question”. A more accurate translation would read “Then Peter answered Jesus.” (As in the NAB, KJV and NKJV)
There’s Peter’s first brick. Jesus didn’t ask him anything. Nobody asked Peter to throw in his two cents worth. Jesus is in the midst of a conversation with Moses and Elijah. He wasn’t about to start a conversation with Peter. There was stuff going on here that Peter did not understand. It wasn’t a time for offering answers. It was a time for listening and understanding.
I read somewhere that the job of the philosopher was to raise questions nobody was asking and that, correspondingly, theologians and preachers saw their task as answering the philosophers questions. No wonder no body pays attention! “Jesus is the answer.” But what’s the question?
As we seek to minister to others in a changing world we have to answer genuine questions, not simply respond with clichéd answers and yesterdays perceptions to what we think others may be asking.
The Gospel message of salvation through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ is clear. What’s not so clear is how we connect that message to the circumstances of people’s hearts and lives as they live and move and have their being in the early 21st century. To do that, we need to listen and observe and learn.
If we don’t commit to the listening then all we will be doing is dropping bricks on people from mountain tops. We’ll be interrupting people’s lives in an inappropriate way… offering solutions where there are no problems and fixing things that aren’t broken. And then... when people don’t respond… we’ll start thinking… well what is the point, these people don’t want to listen.
On the contrary, if somebody reaches the needs of your heart, in the way only the Spirit of God is able, then people respond and people are changed. Now that’s the kind of Kingdom business Jesus calls us to be involved in.
BRICK 2: Peter wants to stay on the mountain, not travel to the valley.
The remaining part of verse 5 “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Some translations say tents, some say booths, some say tabernacles, some as here use the word dwellings.
Look at Peter’s reaction. “Wow. We’ve got something good going on here. Moses, Jesus, Elijah, the Glory of God. Whatever we do we mustn’t change a thing. Make it permanent. Make this last for ever. It can’t get better than this”.
He wants to stay on the mountain. And if people want to be a part of it… then let them hike up the mountain and join in the party! I mean it’s all in place. ‘Want to know how to live. Come visit Moses. The man with the plan who gave us the Big Ten. Want to know what the future holds? Come visit the tent of Elijah the prophet! Want to meet the Son of God? Pop in to the Jesus tabernacle. It’s all here... on the mountain.’
Trouble was that the experience wasn’t meant to be permanent. Verse 8 tells us ‘Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.’ The glory moment was just that… a moment in time. A great moment, but not the end of all moments.
Every Christian life and every Christian church travels through moments when things seem to fall into place and everything seems to be working. We even describe those times as “Glory Days.” But they don’t last.
And because they don’t last the temptation is always to enshrine them and lift them up as being the only answer or the one true solution. Traditions can become idols. We serve what has been created rather than the Creator. We like what we know… so down from the mountain we do not want to go!
Don’t change the sanctuary we like it this way. Don’t change the hymns we sing, we like the way we sing them. Don’t mess with our way of doing things we’ve done it this way for the last million years… so it has to be right. Let the people come to us… don’t make us go out to them! For heavens sake, what if they turn out to be not our sort of people?
Do you know what happens to people in churches that enshrine their way of doing things as being the only way things should be done? They get to personally experience Mark 9:8. They look around and they see no one is with them anymore. They still have Jesus. But even He’s about to head down the mountain and if they don’t go with Him it’s just going to be them and a big empty mountain.
The mountain of Transfiguration was a great mountain. Moses and Elijah were great prophets. The disciples were witnessing a great moment in the history of salvation. But it was time to go down the mountain and head for the valley where the people were. Peters ‘brick’ expressed what many of us feel. We’d like things to stay as they are. We’d love to always be in the glory days. We really, really, really, don’t want to change, but … in our more enlightened moments we understand. There are mountains and there are valleys.
Peter says it so well. “Master. It’s good to be here!” It’s great to be on the mountain. But our calling isn’t to stay on the mountain. We are called to travel to unfamiliar places. And, I don’t know about you, but I find that a little scary! And it’s when we get scared that we act inappropriately. Peter’s third mistake.
BRICK 3: Peter reacts on the basis of fear rather than acting on the foundation of faith
Verse 6 “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” You would think the disciples would be getting the hang of things after being around Jesus for a couple of years. But they were just like us. When it came to the things of God they had a lot to learn.
And one of the hardest lessons to learn was how to center their lives on faith rather than fear. We’re no different. We worry. We panic. We carry with us enough ‘what ifs’ and ‘what ever’ to dishearten the most optimistic optimist on the planet. We many times come at our problems from a position of fear instead of on the grounds of faith.
By faith, I mean faith that is focused on the Word of God. I don’t mean “Hoping for the best, puttin’ on a brave face and smile because it may never happen, feel good and everything will be O.K … faith.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is NOT “Don’t worry about a thing. Every little things going to be allright.”
The Gospel of Mark tells us we have a lot to be concerned about. There is evil in the world. There is religion that is corrupt and politics that is warped and people bent on destruction and greed and in the midst of it all people are being chewed up and spat out again.
In the face of such a world we are invited, not to react in fear, but act in faith. The message of scripture forms the basis for our action. At the heart of the gospel is this powerful account of how the worst possible scenario took place. The Son of God came to this world and we murdered Him! We took Jesus and nailed Him to a cross and left Him to hang there pleading, “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?”
But by God’s Grace and love and power that event was turned around. He died for our sins. He was raised that we might live. He sends the Holy Spirit that we may be empowered to go into all the world with a message of redeeming love and power and joy.
Hold on! I missed out a verse. Verse 7. “ Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!" Following Peter’s ‘bricks,’ the disciples are invited to tune their lives into the Word which bought all things into being, The Word for all ages, The Word of God, the beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to Him! Hear the Word of God. "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!"
It happened on a mountain. The glory of the Lord was revealed. We can learn from what transpired. Tough lessons but necessary ones as we consider our mission as individuals and as a church.
- Beware of answering questions that nobody is asking. We end up doing more harm than good.
- Beware of the desire to enshrine mountain top experiences because we don’t want to come down into the valleys where the people are. Traditions can become idols. Worship the Creator, not what people have created.
- Beware of living a life that reacts out of fear rather than acts in faith.
May God help us to learn from the inappropriate words of Peter! For to God be the Glory, for ever and ever. Amen and Amen!
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.