Jesus Alone

Mark 9:2-8

Six days later, Mark tells us, Jesus took Peter, James, and John, up a mountain, by themselves.  Six days later.  Two things happened, one after the other, six days ago.  The first is that Jesus asked the disciples, while they were walking along the road, who people were saying that he is.  Not all that long ago, they were sent out on a mission of preaching and healing in Jesus' name, so they knew what the word on the street was about this guy they'd been following around, whose very name seemed to change the world.  "Some say you're a prophet, or John the Baptist come back to life, or maybe even Elijah."  And then we get the question at the heart of the gospel: "But who do you say that I am?"  And Peter says, without a blush or a blink, "You are the Messiah."  In other words, You are the One who will establish God's reign on earth; you are the anointed, the king after God's own heart, the One who comes in all the authority of heaven. 

Peter's proclamation is a profound moment of clarity about Jesus, coming from the folks who know him best.  It's right in the middle of the gospel, and the whole thing pivots around this claim: that in Jesus, the dividing line between heaven and earth has gotten awfully thin; he has everything to do with God's will on earth, as in heaven.  But, to everyone's surprise, Jesus follows this beautiful moment up by talking immediately about his certain and imminent death at the hands of the religious and political authorities of their world, which is not precisely what the disciples had in mind.  Actually, he talks about his death and resurrection, but nobody hears the second part--that's too far outside what we know and understand.  But death we know, and Peter is quick to point out that it's a terrible strategy. 

That's when Jesus calls his best friend Satan, "Accuser," and tells him that he's not focused on divine things, but on earthly ones.  Peter's insisting on what he knows, rather than what God can do.  And Jesus goes on to say that anyone who wants to get in on what God's doing, anyone who wants to be a part of this new world order that Jesus is embodying, is going to end up living a cross-shaped life; anyone who wants to follow Jesus is going to have to abandon their strategies, and dive headlong into his; into the strange way of Jesus, where abundant life comes out of unpromising death: the seed that falls to the ground and dies is the promise of a fresh abundance.  Jesus insists, without qualification, that his death will be, somehow, the beginning of a new, resurrection way, and the pattern for those who will walk in his name. 

Let's pray: Lord, may we be patterned after your way.  Shape us in the ways and means of your grace.  Open our hearts for what you have for us this morning.  Convict and comfort and call us anew.  May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds, be true to who you are.  In Jesus' name: Amen!

So, six days later, they go up a mountain.  Mark is not big on details.  His is a gospel that moves at breakneck speed; he's often moving quickly from one moment to the next, without a whole lot of attention to the timing of things.  So, when he tells us something as specific as "six days later," it might be worth paying attention to.  What does that remind us of?  I don't know about you, but when I hear six days, in the Bible, I can't help but think about Genesis, about the story of God's creative work, speaking and shaping the world into being.  The sixth day of that creative work is when the world begins to pulse with new life--we see birds and cows and bugs and fish, whales and lions and eagles spoken into being; and it's when we are created--humanity, shaped in the image of God. 

Is Mark setting us up to catch a glimpse of a new creation?  I think so.  We're about to get a hint at what St. Paul will sing down the road: If anyone is in Christ, it's new creation.  The story, this glimpse into God's ways and means, is be a bit of mercy in the middle of the gospel, as we begin to come to terms with the conditions of this new creation, the cross-shaped pattern and resurrection promise, that Jesus has set out for us.  It's a bit of grace that we get to join Peter, James, and John--not really alone any more, but spied on by Christians in every generation--surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, as it were--as we see Jesus, fully alive; as we catch a hint of the glory God's got in store for this broken and beloved world.

So, what do we see, in this wondrously strange story?   

The first thing I think we see is that this new creation is a "vertical" action.  It's going to be God's work.  Peter's problem, the thing that gets him into so much trouble with his Lord and friend in the story just before is that he's only got a "horizontal" vision.  He's only seeing what's on the ground, the way things are.  What he sees is that Jesus' plan is a bad one--all this rejection and death--because rejected and dead people make notoriously poor leaders.  Everybody knows that Jesus.  Self-giving love is a nice sentiment, but it doesn't get things done.  Perfect submission is alright to sing about, but when it comes down to it, it's not very kingly!  Also, telling folks that this is going to cost them their lives is not good promotion. 

The horizontal vision sees in Jesus' kingdom plan, only rejection and death and loss.  (But go back and read the end of chapter 8) It misses entirely the radical love of God who is with us and for us, come what may; it misses the sure and certain hope of resurrection; it misunderstands the invitation to trade lives that are invariably, inevitably perishable, for life that is stunningly imperishable, life not even death can consume: abundant life here and now and forever.  It misses the call to truly be God's image-bearers: a cross-shaped people, world-loving people, hope-wrought people, a people eager for something more than the way things are; a body of good news, a sign of God's world order come to life.  With eyes on the ground, all that stuff is missed.

On the mountain, with Peter, James, John, and Jesus, we're being drawn into a vertical vision, a God-shaped, God-powered, God-beloved way.  As Jesus is transfigured, lit up with glory--as his clothes become brighter than anyone on earth could possibly make them--the veil between heaven and earth is torn from top to bottom.  If we see it, then we can't operate any more as though God is not at work in the world, as though God's power and presence is elsewhere, as though the God who saves and redeems and makes all things new is content to stay away, indifferent and other.  In this glorious light, we can't operate that way anymore. 

As we watch Jesus face to face with Moses and Elijah, the markers of Israel's story, we're reminded that this is how God is: since the beginning, God has chosen to be with and for us; God has chosen to move for the sake of the downtrodden, to call a people to live in a new way, to break the bonds of the way things are and shape us in the way they will be, the way God will have things--on earth as in heaven, blessed and whole.

And doesn't it sound great?  But the next thing we see is more or less true to form: actually faced with it, the disciples are terrified.  I expect that most of us, at some point or another, have at least thought something along the lines of, "If I could just have some proof, some evidence... then I'd follow with abandon, I'd be all in."  This scene might caution us to be careful what we pray for.  Like Peter, we've grown quite accustomed to our horizontal visions of the world.  We know how to move through a world in which death is death, and self-giving is noble but not a good foundation for a successful kingdom (heavenly or otherwise), and clothes only get as white as we can make them, whatever the advertisers claim.  It may not be perfect, but we can navigate that world.  We've gotten quite good at it, frankly.

But when we're called into cahoots with the God who made heaven and earth, when we're enlisted for the sake of heaven's kingdom, when Jesus says, "Anyone who tries to save their own life will lose it, and anyone who gives up their life for God's untameably good news, will have life and life abundant--life that is truly life," then we're dealing with stuff unfamiliar.  We're suddenly in the presence of the God whose ways and thoughts aren't ours; we're dealing with the God in whose kingdom our standard measures don't work.  Having cultivated a fair expertise at living and moving and having our being in the way things are, it's more than a little unnerving to be pulled out of and beyond that.

Often enough, we do what Peter does: we try to kind of settle things down a bit.  We get useful.  Perhaps the Lord will be convinced to do things our way, if we just come up with the right plan.  I know, Jesus: how about let's not get you crucified.  How 'bout we stay up here, where you look good and heavenly.  We'll build a few huts and you and Moses and Elijah can be up here and do your heavenly thing, safe and sound.  You gotta admit, Jesus, this looks a lot more like the kingdom of heaven than the stuff you've been talking about lately. 

In their fear, they don't lean into the splendor that they're seeing; they don't fall on their knees in wonder, love, and praise.  Instead, they reason their way away from it.  They grasp for anything familiar.  They latch onto the apparently good, which is perfectly satisfactory for the way things are.  It's not a bad idea Peter has, it's just not the right one.  As one preacher has said, "If the devil can't get you to do bad things, he'll get you to do almost good things."  Almost good is perfectly fine for the way things are.

But God wants more than almost good.  Our God is into very good (Genesis 1:31). God is not interested in staying safe and sound up on the mountain.  This God is living and active for the sake of the world; this God calls and cajoles us into the ways and means of unstoppable grace; this God catches us up in the dragnet of divine love, takes us up the mountain so that we might have a taste of what we're being drawn into, back on the ground. 

And that can be, seems generally to be, terrifying.  365 times in the Scriptures God's people need to be told not to be afraid.  Whenever God does God's thing in and among us, someone needs to be told not to be afraid.  Every day that we're mixed up with this God we're dealing with a presence and power not our own: a presence and power beyond our comfort and control.  Everyday we're called to live in passionate love with the One who is not content with the way things are, but who is making all things, even us, new.

And again, we get grace.  As Peter's going on about his mountain top huts, babbling in fear, a cloud overshadows them.  They're blocked from seeing this terrifying glory that has undone them, that seems to be entirely too much for them to handle.  I think this really is grace.  They're not actually required to come to terms with the full scope of salvation, milling around in front of their eyes.  The glimpse is more than enough.  The cloud overshadows them and they get a word.  It's essentially the same word that tore open the heavens at Jesus' baptism.  It's a word of promise, a word that echoes with a love older than the universe, a hope stronger than death.  "This is my son, the Beloved; listen to him."

And they look up and see Jesus, alone. 

They look up from their fear, and see Jesus, alone. 

This is the primary way of new creation, I think.  Not blinding light from heaven; not divine proofs; not terrifying glory.  Those things might be bread crumbs on the trail of grace.  We might get them occasionally.  But mostly, new creation comes as the word of divine love lifts our eyes, which have been fixed on the ground in fear, to see that love made flesh, that love unflinchingly with us.  New creation comes when that love draws near enough to look us in the eyes, to take us by the hand and raise us up, to lead us down the mountain and into the world, suddenly, unavoidably aware that there is more going on than the way things are.  He leads us back down the mountain to world clearly not glowing in glory, a world where the way things are is being vigorously and violently defended, a world still sin-scarred and death-marred, a world where injustice and greed and self-indulgent power and irreconcilliation, still seem to hold sway.  We don't get to close our eyes to that stuff.  We don't get to bury our heads in the sand; we don't get to stay safely up on the mountain.

But we do get to have a different vision, a different pattern; a fresh imagination for the way things really are.  We've caught a glimpse of another way, the way things will be, new creation: a stubborn and unquenchable light that we're created to walk in.  We've seen it in the One who lifts our eyes from the ground and goes ahead of us--in the One who will be the embodiment of God's love that won't be withheld, no matter what; in the One who will refuse anything less than the way of heaven on earth, the love and justice and righteousness we're made for; the One whose life not even death can bind; the One who didn't see divine power as something to grasp at but emptied himself for the sake of divine love; in whose name every weight will be lifted, every chain destroyed; whose way has been vindicated in resurrection, so that at the name of Jesus, at the end of it all, every tongue will be loosed to sing God's ferocious love--the love that nothing in heaven, earth, or hell can separate us from, because Jesus Christ is Lord!

And they looked up and saw Jesus, alone.  Thanks be to God.