Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sermon for Feb. 22, 2009 -- Transfiguration Day

A Crisis of Fear

Mark 9:2-9

Some of you may have heard the name Clarence Jordan. He was a prophet for racial integration in the South. In 1942, after receiving his doctorate in Greek from Southern Baptist Seminary, he returned to his native Georgia and established a place called Koinonia farm. It was an experiment in Christian interracial community living, a concept that was not widely accepted in the 40’s by the general public. Koinonia Farm eventually became the inspiration for Habitat for Humanity. However, at the time, Jordon was often persecuted for his vision of what the church should be. It’s told that at one time, when Jordon was being harassed, he asked his lawyer brother for legal help. His brother had political aspirations. He realized that helping such a radical cause would jeopardize his future career. And so, he refused to help. Clarence challenged his brother to go back to the rural church where they had both walked down the aisle to accept Christ and explain something to the folks there. Clarence said, “Tell them what you really meant to say was that you admire Jesus, not that you want to follow him.”

Jordan’s comment raises a question that I constantly ask myself. Do I admirefollow him? We Christian are good at saying the right words and performing the bare minimum requirements that we think will secure our place in God’s favor. But do we really follow Jesus? Do we back up our words with actions that demonstrate we are followers of the God of suffering love? This morning we will look to Mark’s account of the transfiguration as we think about these questions. Jesus or do I want to

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up a high mountain to be alone. As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white, far whiter than any earthly bleach could ever make them. Then Elijah and Moses appeared and began talking with Jesus. Peter exclaimed, “Rabbi, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials — one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t really know what else to say, for they were all terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my dearly loved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, when they looked around, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus with them. As they went back down the mountain, he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Mark’s gospel gives the reader some honest details that the other gospel writers leave out. Mark depicts the disciples as colossal failures. As you read Mark’s gospel, you will notice that at every key moment in Jesus’ life, the disciples fail to understand the significance of his actions. Mark has a great way of describing this. He says that the disciples were afraid. When Jesus heals a demon-possessed Gentile, the disciples were afraid. When Jesus walks on water, the Greek indicates that the disciples were shaken to their souls with fear. At the empty tomb, the women tremble with astonishment. Most New Testament scholars agree that Mark intended his gospel to end with the words “they were afraid.” With this in mind, we come to Mark’s story of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Did you notice how Mark described the disciple’s reactions when Jesus starts glowing and talking to dead prophets? The Greek indicates that they are frightened out of their wits. For Mark, fear is an indication to us, the readers, that something has gone wrong. The disciples consistently fail to see who Jesus is, what he has come to do, and what he asks them to do. They are so terrified that they become ineffective disciples. It is truly a crisis of fear.

Have you ever felt like a failed disciple? Have you ever felt ineffective because you were afraid of what Jesus may ask you to do? I’ve heard people express their fears in many ways:
“What happens if I get serious about following Jesus? Will I lose control of my life? Will God ask me to do things that I don’t want to do?” Let’s explore some ways in which today’s text can teach us how to overcome our fears and become the disciples we are called to be.

This account begins with the words, “After six days.” Less than one week before this event, Jesus asked the disciples to tell him the local gossip. Word on the street said that Jesus was a reincarnation of John the Baptist, or Elijah returned to earth, or both. Remember Elijah – we heard about him in our first reading from 2 Kings? Jesus then asks another question: “If that’s what people are saying, what do you think? Who do you say I am?” Peter courageously answers, “You are the Christ.” Now, less than one week later, Peter is so scared at the sight of Jesus, he addresses Jesus not as Christ but as Rabbi, the word for teacher. Peter’s use of the word Rabbi or teacher here seems strange. It’s as if Peter is still thinks of Jesus as a teacher of the law, not as the Messiah.

The mount of transfiguration is a place where the heavens burst open and confront humankind with the glory of God. The realm of God breaks into human affairs and astounds us with the reality of who Jesus is. Jesus is more than a great prophet or teacher. He is God’s beloved Son who boldly stands beside trembling disciples in the presence of God.

I think that if we want to overcome fear and be better disciples, then we need to see Jesus for who he really is. Who is Jesus for you today? A prophet? A teacher? A great historical figure or a superhuman being? Or, is Jesus the glorified Son of God and Savior? When we can see Jesus for who is really is, we are changed. (1 John 3:2-3). Our journey of discipleship begins on the mountaintop where we come face-to-face with the terrifying yet glorious presence of God. We climb the mountain and see Jesus for who he really is. We allow ourselves to be transformed by his compassionate love.

I wish I could end this sermon on the mountaintop, but it would be deceptive to tell you that we could stay there, nervously basking in the glory of God. Some say that Peter’s biggest mistake is that he wants to make this mountaintop experience permanent. He offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to commemorate the event. But, seeing the glory of God is only part of the experience. Jesus and the three disciples can’t stay on the mountaintop. They must come down and deal with the reality that awaits them. It’s no mistake that Mark sandwiches the story of the transfiguration between two predictions of Jesus’ upcoming agony and death. From this point on, Jesus will preach a message of suffering, the cross, and death. It’s a future that he and anyone who wishes to follow him must endure. The glorious vision may be what the disciples want to see, but it’s the message of suffering that all must hear. Even in his terror, Peter seems willing to be impressed by a transformed Jesus, but he seems unwilling to accept the word of suffering that Jesus preaches. The realm of God is not the result of seeing Jesus’ glowing garments. It is the result descending the mountain and practicing Jesus’ central definition of discipleship. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (8:34).

I don’t know about you, but this is the point where I start to get afraid. What happens when we follow Jesus down the mountain and put these words into practice? We know what happens to the disciples. By the end of Mark’s Gospel, those who claim to follow Jesus will not be able to follow him to the cross. They will take to their heels and run away in fear. To be better disciples, we need to put dreams of glory aside and walk in the steps of the suffering Christ.

One more point. Becoming better disciples involves listening. You may not want to listen to me at this point, but hang in there. This is where the good part comes in. Let’s go back to the mountain for a moment and pay attention to the action. After Peter panics, a cloud covers the mountain and a voice declares, “This is my dearly loved Son. Listen to him.” The cloud represents the presence of God. The voice repeats the words we’ve already heard at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and then commands the disciples to listen. In response, the next words out of Jesus’ mouth are about suffering. The problem with the disciples is that they never get it. Even after hearing a divine voice, they never truly listen and understand.

For those of us who are afraid, for those who lack courage to take up the cross and follow, Scripture encourages us with two words: Fear not! The Bible is stubborn on this affirmation. When confronted with terror, God says, “Fear not.” I must admit, on my more cynical days I say, “Year, right. If I went on a backpacking trip with Jesus and he transformed before my eyes and shined like the bright morning sun, and then the most famous prophets of history appeared to shoot the breeze, and then a thick cloud smothered me and I heard a voice talking to me from within the water vapor, and then it all instantly disappeared and Jesus said, ‘I’m going to die, and by the way, let’s just keep all this between you and me,’ I would be stricken with fear and confusion.” And then Jesus says, “Fear not!?”

God’s antidote to fear is courage. We can hear the words “fear not” because Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses in every way. We can hear the words “fear not” because God can transform our fear into faith and give us the strength to follow Jesus.

Do you just admire Jesus, or are you ready to follow him? Our path to better discipleship begin when we can answer these three questions:

1. Who is Jesus to you?

2. What is Jesus asking you to do as his follower?

3. Are you afraid to do it? If so, hear the word of the Lord. “Fear not!”

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