We’re going to be in Mark 9 today.
This summer we’ve been following Jesus around the gospel of Mark
and asking ourselves, “What would it look like for us to take this guy seriously?”
What would it look like for us—
here, now, in this room,
as a part of this community in northwest Denver,
in our everyday lives,
in our families and friendships
where we work, where we play, where live—
what does it look like for us to actually take Jesus seriously?
what does it look like for us to be Christians?
Last week we hit THE hinge-point—THE turning point—
in Mark’s account of Jesus’ life.
For the first half of Mark’s story, Jesus has been an action hero,
Jesus has been winning, he’s been vanquishing evil,
he’s has been announcing the kingdom of God.
But last week,
Jesus told his followers that he is going to die.
He’s heading to Jerusalem
not to summon armies of angels to make the world right,
but to allow wrongs to be done to him.
He’s heading to Jerusalem, not to raise a rebellion against Rome but to be executed by Rome.
And last week Jesus said that
the people who really want to take him seriously,
the people who really want to be his disciples,
the people who really want to follow him,
are invited to take up their cross and follow him.
That hinge point came at the end of Mark 8,
and it leads us straight into our passage for today where Jesus is still talking the crowd and to his disciples:
(9.1) And he said to them, “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.”
“Some of you are actually go to see the power of God’s rule and reign arriving.”
And then he goes straight into a strange story:
(9.2-10) 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.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
Let’s say first that this is a weird story.
A weird, mysterious story coming on the heals of Jesus saying that he’s going to die.
Jesus takes the three people that he’s closest to—
his three best friends—up a mountain.
None of the gospels tell us what mountain this is,
but a strong early tradition says that it’s a mountain called Mount Tabor.
So Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain (maybe Mount Tabor) and something freaky weird happens up there. They have some sort of divine encounter.
When you look at the histories of ancient cultures across the world,
mountains were often considered sacred places—
places where you go to reach the divine.
Just a quick glance at Mount Evans or Pikes Peak,
(especially if the clouds happen to be hanging low)
and it’s easy to see why the thought that way.
A mountain is a place where the earth literally sticks up into the heavens.
It’s a place where the world of men seems to reach up into the world of the gods.
Even when we go up on a mountain (if we go on a hike or go camping),
it’s easy to feel like we’ve risen above the everyday noise of the world and somehow feel like we’re more in harmony with God.
The people of the ancient world had that same impulse.
They told all kinds of stories about mountains.
Particularly famous was Mount Olympus—
the second highest mountain in the Balkan Peninsula—
where the ancient Greeks believed their gods and goddesses
(Zeus, Hermes, Athena, Apollo, and the rest) lived and dwelled.
Other ancient cultures from the Sumerians to the Aztecs
would actually build mountains themselves.
Ziggurats is what we call them—
temples that tried to do what mountains do:
that climb into the clouds and touch the heavens.
The grand, awe-inspiring mountains,
the places of towering heights and majestic beauty
that’s where you could find the gods.
That’s where you found the divine.
The ancient Hebrews also told stories about mountains.
They told stories about mountains that were similar to the cultures around them but also altogether different.
Similar because they said that experienced God on a mountain,
but different because the mountain could not contain God.
For example, in the book of Exodus they tell the story
of how after they had been freed from bondage in Egypt
the One True God—the Transcendent Creator of all things—
had descended to Mount Sinai in a great cloud to meet them and Moses (their leader).
It’s not that God lived on this mountain,
but since mountains are the places that people expected to find God,
he met them at a place they expected—at a place they could understand—on a mountain.
They tell another story that they told is in the book of Kings, where God met a prophet named Elijah on that same mountain.
Elijah is in danger for his life,
looking for comfort, looking for encouragement,
and God meets him in a place he expected— at a place he could understand— on a mountain.
So when this story says that Jesus takes his disciples up a high mountain (v2),
maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised that something mysterious happens.
I mean—the mountain is the kind of place where everyone expected to encounter God.
It’s the place that transcends day-to-day life,
it’s the place get above the common-and-everyday,
it’s the place where it just feels like we’re with God.
Mountains are still the kind of places
we we expect to find God.
When we have particularly meaningful experiences—
if we’ve felt like we’ve had a particularly profound encounter with God—
what do we call these experiences?
Growing up in a youth group at a church, we all looked forward to one week of the summer.
Because we just knew that was a place where we would encounter God.
It was a place where we could
transcend day-to-day life,
and get above the common-and-everyday,
and where it just felt like we were with God.
As adults, we’re not always chasing the next youth-camp-high,
but we’re frequently chasing mountains.
There are places where we just feel like we’re closer to God.
Within evangelical church culture, a lot of times it’s the next church service, or the next weekend retreat, or the next hit worship song that just does it for us, or the next best-selling book that fill us with insight.
We’re chasing mountains.
We’ve got ideas about where we’re going to encounter God,
and we chase those experiences.
Mountaintops seem to be our favorite way of experiencing the presence of God.
And so when Jesus takes his disciples to the top of Mount Tabor,
it’s probably isn’t completely unexpected that something mysterious happens.
The mystery begins in verse 2 when says that Jesus is transfigured before them.
Jesus goes nuclear in front of them.
He’s transformed before them.
They see the metamorphosis of Jesus.
Jesus’ clothes shine with in uncanny, unearthly way.
Mark almost seems to be grasping for a way to explain this weird moment, because he resorts to saying that not even Mr. Clean could have done this:
(v3) “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.”
And then two people appear with Jesus.
Elijah and Moses (v4).
The Israelite dream team.
All the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people couldn’t be better represented than by these two guys.
The two people who embodied the history of the Jewish people—
the quintessential prophet and the great lawgiver.
Moses and Elijah.
The law and the prophets.
These are the two guys who hung out with God on a mountain.
Now here they are.
Once again on a mountain.
But now they’re hanging out… with Jesus.
The transfiguration is pointing us to where the presence of God is found.
Moses and Elijah are still hanging out with God on a mountain—
and (holy mackerel) it’s that action hero we’ve been following around.
The presence of God is now embodied by presence of Jesus.
Peter doesn’t know what to say—to any of this.
But (v5) he just starts talking—
“Guys, guys—isn’t this awesome? It’s like heaven has descended.
It’s like Eden itself has returned to this mountain.
It’s really good for us to be here.
“We’ve found something amazing— let’s hold onto this, let’s stay here.
“We can set up some tabernacles, some tents—
one for each of you guys.”
Peter doesn’t know what he’s saying (v6)—
he just knows he’s having an amazing encounter with God,
and he doesn’t want it to end.
But then a cloud descends on the mountain (v7),
and a voice from the cloud repeats the words we heard
at beginning of Mark at Jesus’ baptism:
“This is my Son, whom I love.”
And then the voice adds: “Listen to him.”
And then the cloud is gone
and Peter, James, and John find that Jesus is the only one left with them.
And then it’s all over.
It’s time to leave the mountain.
Time to come down from the mountain.
Time to plunge back into common, day-to-day life.
As they’re coming down the mountain (v9) Jesus tells them to keep this to themselves until he’s risen from the dead.
(And then verse 10 says that the disciples are talking among themselves saying,
“He’s still talking about rising from the dead—what’s he talking about?”)
This is where the good news that Mark is telling us really kicks into high gear, if we pay attention.
Going up on a mountain and seeing Jesus transfigured is an amazing story.
Jesus going nuclear is pretty incredible.
And this is such a weird story and such an embarrassing story to the disciples
(they had no idea what to make of this or what to say)
that it’s hard to imagine someone making this story up.
Something amazing happened on the mountaintop—God showed up.
Jesus was standing in for God himself—
how amazing is that?
But Mark pushes us past all of that.
Everyone knows that mountaintop is where you encounter God.
What seems absolutely amazing about Mark’s story is that God doesn’t stay on the mountain.
Jesus comes off the mountain with his disciples makes his way into the everyday parts of life, the mundane parts of life— even the worst parts of life.
Turn to chapter 14 of Mark.
For the second half of Mark’s story,
Jesus is the action-hero who has stopped winning.
The miracles, the fireworks, the swelling crowds,
all of it seems to vanish as Jesus keeps saying that he is going to die
and as Jesus keeps inviting people to come with him.
He’s inviting his followers to Jerusalem—
where he says that he’s going to be betrayed and executed.
Jesus shares a last meal with his disciples, and then:
(14.32-42) They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”
He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. (v40) When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.
Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
These moments in Garden of Gethsemane are like a dark mirror of the transfiguration.
But these moments are also the moments when the kingdom begins coming in power.
Here, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him again—
the same three people, the same best friends—
but this time there’s no light, no brilliance, no obvious glory—
there’s agony and ambiguity and darkness.
Jesus is struggling with the moment before him and the path ahead of him.
He doesn’t want to go to the cross—
he doesn’t want to be betrayed, doesn’t want to suffer, doesn’t want to die—
but then he gouges a decision out of his soul—
“not what I will, but what you will.”
Jesus will surrender himself to the cross.
And that—that resolution, that decision, that prayer— is the deepest kind of power the world has ever seen.
Self-surrendering, self-giving love that says, “Not my will, but yours”
is the power that forged the world’s foundations and that rescues and remakes the world.
If we have eyes to see it,
this is Jesus going nuclear again— showing us the presence and the glory and the power of God.
The disciples are just as worthless here as they were on the mountaintop.
Whether it’s the dazzling light of Mount Tabor or in the crushing darkness of Gethsemane, the followers of Jesus are pretty helpless.
When they’re excited beyond reason and oblivious to Jesus plan—
they have no idea what to say.
Here they’re bored to tears and oblivious to Jesus’ pain— and they still don’t know what to say.
When things are going good and it feels like paradise has returned to the earth we want to set up camp and never leave.
When things are take a turn,
and the world begins falling apart,
we can’t leave quick enough—we scatter into the night.
But you, see, Mark isn’t giving us good news about the disciples.
He’s giving us good news about Jesus.
He’s giving us good news about God.
The transfiguration is pointing us to where the presence of God is found.
The presence of God is found in Jesus.
and Jesus never chooses to stay on a mountain and bask in his own glory.
The good news isn’t about how we find the presence of God— the good news is that God finds us wherever we are.
That God has become present
even in the places where we can only see darkness.
Not just shining mountaintops when it’s feels like he’s present,
but even the tears in the darkness where it feels like he’s absent.
That God cannot and will not be confined to mountains or weekends or experiences .
Mark is telling the story of a God who comes off of the mountain
and floods every inch of human existence with his presence.
Mountaintops might be our favorite way of experiencing the presence of God, but mountaintops aren’t the only place that God is present.
The presence of God is not confined to mountaintops—
to the moments you feel close to him.
The presence of God is present in the darkness—
in the moments when all is falling apart.
God is present with you in that situation that hounds you,
in that relationship, in that diagnosis, in that pain,
where all feels hopeless.
In Jesus, God assumed every bit of the human experience— every day of excitement, every night of betrayal.
He’s made our sin his sin.
He’s made our darkness his darkness,
He’s even made our grave his grave.
Jesus chose to drink the cup—
the cup of judgment, the cup of death.
God’s presence has even gone to the grave.
That’s a reason why action-hero-Jesus chooses to lose.
He’s got to infiltrate the place where there is no hope so that he can keeping spreading life—even there.
But the good news,
is that God’s presence cannot and will not be confined
to the grave any more than the mountains.
He has ruptured death from the inside.
Perhaps today, as we come to the table,
we need to remember that God is present.
Not simply on mountaintops—
I mean, that’s not where you need light.
God is present in Gethsemane—in the world’s darkest moments—
bearing the weight of the darkness and he will bring light.
Whether we are on the mountaintop or in the deepest darkness,
we never know what to say,
we never know what to do,
we never contribute anything.
But the good news is never how we help Jesus—
the good news is that Jesus always helps us.
That he surrenders himself to our death to bring us life.
The good news is that
the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
This table is the place where we come week after week
to remind ourselves that God is always present with us,
bearing our pain, bearing our guilt, bearing our darkness,
and always offering us something different—something new.
He’s always offering us his very own life.
A life of self-giving love that endures and conquers even death itself.
In just a few moments,
you’ll be invited to come down this center aisle,
to receive a bit of bread, to dip in the cup, and then return to your seats along the sides.
If we’re going to take Jesus seriously, we need to learn to say something to Jesus— to learn to say the only thing we can ever say.
This table teaches us to say… thank you.
“Thank you for the moments in my life when you feel close, when life is a dazzling mountaintop where I can see you clearly.
“And thank you that you are present even at midnight,
bearing the world’s darkness—bearing my darkness— and spreading life even there.”
As we come this morning, may we recognize and celebrate God’s presence on the mountaintops, giving thanks for a breathtaking world ruled by an even more breathtaking king,
may we recognize and celebrate God’s presence in the darkness,
giving thanks that Jesus bears our darkness and our death—
and invites us to share in his resurrection,
may we recognize and celebrate God’s presence all around us, teaching us to follow him in self-giving love and watch the kingdom come in power.