Mark 9: The Mountaintop & the Routine
Sunday morning worship, May 27, 2018
One of the most puzzling stories in the Gospels is the account of the transfiguration of Jesus. I’m not even sure to this day what “transfiguration” means. The only real clue we have is found in Mark 9:1 where Jesus tells his apostles, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” The next few verses of Mark 9 give us this account: “After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’” (2-5).
So somehow in the coming kingdom of God its power will transform our appearance and people who have once left this earth will once again appear on it. We will be recognizable somehow, for without having personally seen Moses and Elijah, two people coincidentally that were taken from this earth by God Himself and were never found again, Peter, James, and John knew who Moses and Elijah were. Also we know that after Jesus’ transfiguration, He, too, was recognizable. We will also have memories and be conversant. But what will be different will be the removal of our sins, our cleansing so to speak. Take some time this week and read the account of Satan’s accusation of the high priest Joshua in Zechariah 3. Part of what we read there says, “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you’” (3:3-4). This taking off of our sin-stained clothes and clothing us with pure white, and fine, clean linens is one of the Biblical images of our baptism. It’s why we have the traditional white baptismal clothing for babies.
It would have been wonderful to have heard their conversation that day. Moses represented the Law or the righteousness of God in the Jewish culture, whereas Elijah was considered its greatest prophet. Prophets applied the law in specific situations and spoke for God to the people giving them the daily guidance they needed. We now experience God through the Holy Spirit who is greater than the Law of Moses for He is God Himself. We now experience the daily guidance of God through the power of the Holy Spirit who speaks to us enabling us to do God’s will by also giving us the power of God we need to carry out God’s will, something no prophet could even do.
What’s not in Mark’s account that is in Luke’s account are these words, “Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what he was saying)” (Luke 9:32-33). The bottom line here and later in the Garden of Gethsemane is that the apostles’ weakened flesh unsupported by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit as we are supposed to watch and pray. (See Mark 14:38: Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”) Peter, James, and John slept through most of what was happening, but still felt the need to respond to what they didn’t see or understand. Think of how many times we come in on a conversation or a movie or a television show late and, having missed the bulk of what has happened, still want to understand all that is going on. Usually we ask someone to fill us in, or we make assumptions that later turn out to have been incorrect. Mark is quite blunt in recounting Peter’s version of what happened: Peter felt the need to respond without knowing what had happened or what to say. Think about how many pointless or sometimes even hurtful statements we make when we make assumptions and don’t know the whole story. Basically that’s what gossip is. We hear a part of the story or we witness a piece of the story and draw conclusions from partial material or experiences. Instead of simply asking Jesus what had happened and letting Jesus explain the whole story, Peter wants to build something out of nothing. That truly is the essence of gossip, making a monument, a story that lives and circulates and becomes something more than it is as it spreads from person to person. The sad part of gossip is that we begin to own our version of the story. Having repeated a story many times to many people, if what we have shared becomes known as untrue, then somehow we try to save face. We can try to justify our actions not wanting to look bad. At least Peter had the courage to admit he spoke without knowledge.
The other part of speaking without knowledge comes from the fact that something significant did happen. Peter, James, and John saw enough to know Moses and Elijah were speaking to Jesus. They had no experiential basis from which to interpret what had happened. Think of the first time you experienced something truly wonderful that you had never experienced before. We have the word afterglow we use to describe “a pleasant effect or feeling that lingers after something is done, experienced, or achieved.” We want to hold onto that feeling. We say we never want this moment to end. We want to just stay there and hold onto that moment forever. That’s how Peter responded. He wanted to build monuments, homes, for Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and the three of them so they could stay there and never leave that truly mountaintop experience. I enjoy memories as much as anyone. I hold onto people and events refusing to let them go. I keep them as close to myself as I possibly can. But why I think mine are healthy is that I carry those memories wherever I go. I don’t stay on the mountain past the appropriate time. I use those memories to make myself a better person and I use those stories to minister to others. I don’t get lost in them.
God the Father put the finishing touches on this moment. We read, “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’” (Mark 9:7). Peter, James, and John were frightened and without knowledge of what to do. Peter offered his best suggestion, but God the Father, in His love for His unique Son, told Peter, James, and John what to do—“listen to Jesus.” Jesus told them to “come down the mountain” or to get back to ministering to others because at the bottom of the mountain were “the other disciples…a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them” (v14). The specific problem the remaining 9 apostles were arguing with the teachers of the law about concerned a man whose son was “possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not” (vv17-18).
Think about the most wonderful vacation you’ve ever experienced, of some of the highlight moments of your life. Remember that feeling of just wanting to bask in those moments, hold onto them forever, and never let them go. For almost 20 years starting with Phil Simms in 1987 Disney ran a promotion with the NFL where they would ask the Super Bowl MVP what he was going to do next, meaning what could top winning the Super Bowl and the joy he was experiencing in that moment. His answer was, “I’m going to Disneyland!” or “I’m going to Disney World!” depending upon what part of the country the commercial was aired. We live in a world where we want bigger, better, the next big thing. Study the history of what have been called the greatest recent revivals in the Christian world and you will find people flocking to places around the globe hoping to experience some movement of God. Others might call these revivals something else. But the truth is we all want to experience something wonderful, beautiful, unique, memorable, powerful, life-changing because most of life is routine. When something out of the ordinary happens, we, like Peter, may not know what to say or do, but we know we don’t want this moment to end. God says to us in that moment, “Listen to Jesus” because life isn’t going to stay on the mountaintop. After vacation, we go back to work. After graduation, we go to work. After sleeping peacefully, we get up. After cleaning up, we get dirty again. Life goes on. After the mountaintop, there was failure at the bottom of the mountain as the apostles couldn’t help the troubled boy. After the life-changing moment with Moses and Elijah came the rebuke: “‘You unbelieving generation,’ Jesus replied, ‘how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?’” (v19). Wow! That’s like getting a reward and punished for doing something terribly wrong on the same day. Peter wanted the moment never to end and Jesus is just as quickly saying how long shall I stay with you, put up with you?
The bottom line is that’s how we experience life. The great commission of Jesus in Matthew 28, Jesus’ final words to those He loved best, starts with the word “Go.” We have the authority of Jesus to do everything that needs doing, but we can’t do it by sitting at home or by sleeping in. We have to get up and get involved with people. Life is to be enjoyed. God does give us those mountaintop experiences to hold onto. They are an important part of our life, but our faith is to be lived in the routine, in the everyday ‘goings on’ of our lives. That’s where we take our stands for righteousness. The kingdom of God is built in the trenches of real, dirty life, not in the mountaintop experiences. They are not sustainable. The routine must be.