Monday, March 18, 2013

A New World: Up and Down the Jesus Mountain

Preached on Sunday, March 17, 2013

Scripture readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Mark 8:27-9:13

Sutter Buttes, West Live Oak, California
The smallest mountain range in the world stands about four miles west of my home town. It’s called the Sutter Buttes. The buttes form a circle about five miles in diameter.

My home town is about fifty feet above sea level, in the middle of the Sacramento Valley, and some of the Buttes are around two thousand feet high, so they are pretty noticeable. When you grow up in Live Oak, you don’t have much to look at (except for those Buttes) so they make an impression on you. You sort of carry them around in your head for the rest of your life.

Palouse Falls, South of  Washtucna, Washington
We have a special landmark here. We don’t see it every day, but we learn to carry it around with us, in our heads. I think Palouse Falls is a landmark like that. It is a secret, mighty water fall, and it gets inside us. I think that’s important. It must make us just a little bit different from the rest of the world, unless they also have a secret, mighty water fall of their own.

God’s people learn to carry a spiritual landmark in their minds, and their hearts, all the time, all their lives. You might think our landmark is the cross, but it is more complicated than that.

Our landmark is a story. You might say it is the story of a God who goes with his people. We have a God who came down from heaven, to be with us. He was born as a baby in Bethlehem. He grew up and worked at a job in order to support his family. Then he went on the road and did and said amazing things. Then he went to Jerusalem to be welcomed by the crowds and killed by the crowds. Then he rose from the dead.

Like I said, you might say this was such a story of a God who goes with his people. He is, after all, the God who, in Jesus, is called Emmanuel, which means “God with us”.

But, really our landmark is the story of a God who takes us on a journey that we do not choose and that we cannot understand. God took Abraham on a journey through the wilderness to a secret destination only to be revealed when he got there.

His destination was what would come to be called the Promised Land, where his descendants were going to make their home. Even when he got there he hardly ever got inside. He mostly wandered around on the margins looking in.

Abraham didn’t choose this journey for himself. God chose Abraham for it, and God took him along. What Abraham chose was to trust God as his King, but he often had questions about this.

I’m glad he had questions, because the Bible calls him the father of all who have faith. It means we can all have faith and questions at the same time.

God took Abraham’s descendants on a journey out of slavery in Egypt to the same Promised Land. They never chose that journey. In fact, if you read about it, they chose, over and over again, to go back to slavery in Egypt. Only God kept them from going back. God kept on being in charge (being their King), choosing them and making them go on.

If the disciples could have chosen a journey with Jesus, it would have been a journey to kingship. It would have been a journey to Jerusalem where the high priests of the Temple would anoint Jesus with oil and place a crown on his head. It would have been a journey in which Jesus would change the circumstances of their lives and the circumstances of their nation by leading them in a great army to drive out the Romans.

Instead of that, Jesus chose them for a journey they would not have chosen for themselves. They liked Jesus a lot, but they had no idea what he was up to.

In fact, the more they understood it the less they liked it; especially when Jesus began to talk about his cross and theirs. Crosses were terrible things: wicked, and gruesome, and desperate, and so painful.

None of God’s people have ever quite known what to make of this journey. At their best, they only knew that this journey required them to trust the Lord and to listen to him: which means to hear and to follow.

This is because God is our King; but that is who Jesus is. This is what it means to call him Christ. It’s the royal title. There is no higher name or title. (Philippians 2:9-12)

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “You are the Christ.” But Peter didn’t know what he was saying. The way Matthew tells this story, Jesus responded this way to Peter’s correct answer, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17)

Imagine taking a test. Jesus was giving his disciples a kind of test. “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s own flesh and blood (not meaning his family, but his natural self) didn’t have a clue. He didn’t have it in him to know the answer.

When I had chemistry and physics in high school, my science teacher, Mr. Williams, gave us a university level test on our subject toward the end of the year. We thought he was a pretty demanding teacher, so he showed us how little he was asking and how little we knew.

If someone had given us the correct answers to these tests so that we could write them down and get a passing grade, we still wouldn’t have known the answers: not really known them. We might be able to parrot the right answers, but we wouldn’t understand them.

So it was with Peter. The Father was willing to give Peter the honor of knowing something beyond his understanding, and this is true of all the people of God. We really know so little of what we do know. This is why it is so easy for us to get scared on this journey.

Some people describe the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, when Jesus suddenly began to shine (like lightening, like the sun) as a mountaintop experience. They say that we want to hold onto our mountaintop experiences because they are so inspiring, and that is why Peter wanted to build shelters on the mountain for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. They say that such an experience typically happens to us on a retreat, or at church camp. We feel so inspired that we don’t want to go home.

But Mark tells us that Peter said this because he didn’t know what to say. This is another way of saying that Peter didn’t know what he was saying at all.

Mark tells us that Peter and the others were afraid. When you are afraid, and you don’t know what to say or do, just how long do you want that to go on? Maybe Peter thought that if he could only get him inside a tent, Jesus would be less scary.

Peter didn’t know what it meant for Jesus to be king, and it scared him when he got one tiny glimpse of it. In fact it is much easier to call Jesus King and Lord when we are not scared. When we are scared it is an entirely different matter and, in either case, we don’t know as much as we think; but that doesn’t matter to the Lord.

When Moses was angry, when Elijah wanted to die, when Peter was scared, the Lord (as we see him in Jesus) was still willing to be their king. He still led them on the journey that he had chosen for them: a journey through the desert to the Promised Land, a journey through the cross to the resurrection.

We hardly know what it is going to mean to call Jesus our king, as we are told to do (as we are, in fact, prompted to do). But he is our King anyway. Peter called Jesus the “Christ” (the “King”), and Jesus began to tell Peter about the cross on which Jesus would die in Jerusalem. When Peter didn’t want that for his King, Jesus told him that there would be plenty of crosses to go around, and this would be the typical journey of anyone who followed him.

We see the option making Jesus our King, and calling him our Lord and Savior, as a way to get out of trouble. The people of Israel, in Jesus’ time, wanted the Messiah to come and rearrange the world for their benefit. Somehow they forgot that the Lord’s typical arrangements for Abraham, and Moses, and his people took them on desert journeys.

This shows how wise God is. It was hard enough for them to learn that he was king in the desert. He warned them that, when they got to the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, it would be much harder than ever for them to know what it meant to call him king.

In fact, they pretty much forgot all about it when they got settled in the Promised Land. The only hope, then, was for God to design another wilderness for them, or an exile that would last who knows how long?

For some reason, in our homes, in our communities, in our country, and even in our church, it is hard for us to remember or to understand what it means to call Jesus “King”. We think it should mean making the kind of deal with him where he will rearrange things for us to make his Kingship more convenient and less trouble.

Maybe he does arrange our lives as our King: only not for our convenience. Maybe he has something wiser and better in mind for us.

He has a journey in mind for us. We cannot imagine the end, except that it means trusting him; and listening, and following.

That is how it will be. It will be our everlasting joy to trust, and listen, and follow. It will be heaven. It will be a joy that we will no longer be able to forget or misunderstand. It will be a joy that cannot be taken away from us.

When Peter was prompted to call Jesus “King”; when Peter saw Jesus shining brighter than anything on earth, he was forced to make the connection between the kingship of Jesus and the cross. He was forced to make the connection between the glory of Jesus and the cross. And Peter did not understand.

The ancient Christian Bible translator and teacher, Jerome, back in the fourth century, preached a sermon that we can still read today where he pretends to have a conversation with Peter. “O Peter, even though you have ascended the mountain, even though you see Jesus transfigured, even though his garments are white; nevertheless, because Christ has not yet suffered for you, you are still unable to know the truth.” (Homily 80)

We cannot know the Lord, and we cannot know ourselves, until we see Jesus who has suffered on the cross for us. We don’t know anything until we know what he was willing to do for us. We don’t really know what we are talking about, if we try to talk about him without seeing him on the cross and risen from the dead.

The power of Jesus to rule, and to change our lives and our world, comes from his grace. It comes from the fact that he allows nothing to keep him from making us his own (whatever the cost), as he chooses to take us on his journey.

Max Lucado says: “Nails didn't hold God to a cross. Love did! The sinless One took on the face of a sinner so we sinners could take on the face of a saint!” The cross and the resurrection of Jesus are God at work to transfer us into a new life, in a new world, with a new reality.

Different values apply. A desert can be a place full of God’s fullness. Sacrifice can be our true wealth.

In a world that shuns God, the cross looks like a failure. In the new world of God, the cross is where God wins us over. The cross is where God, in Christ, sets us free, and recreates us in his image, just as he is in Jesus.

On the mountain of the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets. They represent the heart of everything that was typical of God to do in the lives of his people. The Law (called the Torah in Hebrew) is not really legal. The law was “a teaching” that taught its people how to think, and feel, and live in a certain pattern. It was meant to create a certain kind of people with special strengths and sensitivities. The law is a way of life. It is a pattern of life, and a pattern for the heart and mind.

The prophets are a voice in life. They are the voice of God unfolding a dream for the future. They are the voice of God showing the road ahead and telling us how to drop all the excess baggage that keeps us from going forward to that dream.

The law and the prophets represent the core of the journey on which God calls his people.

On the mountain with Jesus we see that Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets) can only be understood in perspective when they are speaking to Christ, and when Christ is the one who is speaking through them. We see that the whole story of the scriptures (the long, long journey from the creation, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, to the destruction of Jerusalem, and to the exile) really points us to Jesus, all along. We don’t know what the story means, or has meant, until we see Jesus by himself, and listen to him.

The law and the prophets point us to Jesus. They tell us exactly what we need to know if we are going to listen to Jesus. They humble us. They speak to us of our creation and of our fall into sin. So the voice from the cloud says, “Listen to him.” (Mark 9:7)

The mount of transfiguration is spiritual landmark showing us where we are: that we are so far from glory and holiness that we are scared and witless at the sight of them. It is a landmark that cannot be understood until we have been to the cross and to the resurrection of Jesus. The mount of transfiguration is a spiritual landmark that helps us to know the real Jesus who tells us to follow him through any desert where he may lead us, or to take up our cross to follow him.

The Buttes west of my hometown are tall, but, at their foot, the land is lower than the surrounding valley. They are surrounded by wetlands wherever the pioneers haven’t drained them. The pioneers called the wetlands swamps. The peaks and the swamps give me a landscape in my mind of the high places and the lowly places of the journey where God calls me.

Palouse Falls does the same thing. Here you have a waterfall that is almost two hundred feet tall and you have to drive down to it in order to look down on it. It is a high place in a low place. That is the right kind of landmark for our hearts and minds. It is a spiritual landmark, to have a God who is both high and low. It is a spiritual landmark that teaches us about a God who raises us up by leading us down.

God is in Jesus, on the cross and in the resurrection, so we can die to ourselves and rise with him. The dying and the rising are the gifts that the king wants to give us. They are what it means to listen and follow him as our King; our Lord and our Savior.

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