The Essential Rhythm of Highly Effective Followers of Jesus

Published: Monday, 08 February 2016

This address was given by Geoff Pound at Ashburton Baptist Church on Transfiguration Sunday, 7 February 2016.

 Reading: Luke 9:28-43a mount dandenong A

When my daughter was at high school, she and three girlfriends had a holiday in Noosa. It was my job to pick them up from the airport. On the way that Saturday evening I decided to listen to an address on CD by Stephen Covey. It had the same title as his book: "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."[1]

Starting from Blackburn, Covey spoke about the first habit: ‘Be Proactive’. Getting on to the Eastern Freeway he introduced the second habit: ‘Begin with the End in Mind’ and on we went.

Half way along the Tullamarine Freeway, Covey was extolling the virtues of the final habit: ‘Sharpen the Saw’. Don’t go on forever sawing the wood. Take time out to sharpen the blade.

No sooner had he spoken of the stupidity of those who drive with the petrol gauge on empty, than my car began to splutter. The timing was uncanny. I switched my empty gas tank over to petrol only to discover that I’d forgotten that I’d turned it over a few days earlier. The petrol tank was also now empty.

Fortunately it happened right at an exit off the freeway and my car continued like a kangaroo having a fit! I walked to a service station in Essendon to buy some petrol, a can and a funnel.

But it was a late, red-faced, highly ineffective father, reeking of petrol that had to give a pathetic explanation to four young women at the airport who were asking, “Where have you been?”.

Since taking part in this parable, I've been more aware of running on depleted reserves.

Taking time to renew ourselves physically, spiritually and filling up our emotional tanks, means different things for different people. I wonder what you do to fill up your tank?

Today’s reading begins at Luke 9: 28, but if we back up we see Jesus teaching his disciples, we hear the threatening news that King Herod was now targeting Jesus, there was the teaching of the masses, the feeding of the 5,000 and more conversations with his team about who the crowds said he was. It makes you exhausted just reading the account. How did he keep it up? In v28 we see Jesus and his inner circle filling up their tanks:

9:28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

‘The mountain’ is thought to be Mount Tabor, which is high up with magnificent 360 degree views and refreshing cool breezes. There are clues here that they went up at night.[2]

For Luke the mountain is a place to encounter God and where the divine infilling leads to service. Mountains are places of majesty, perspective, wonder and fear. Mountains can kill us! Mountains can also transform us.

To really understand the importance of Jesus and his disciples going up into the mountain I thought this week that I needed to do some experiential research. This would involve taking two days to mosey around Mount Macedon, then to get a contrast, another couple of days at Mount Dandenong and then to consolidate, a day or two up at Arthur’s Seat.

I thought I’d get some lofty insights into this passage. My plan this week didn’t quite come off but I feel the need for this hands-on sermon preparation.

I’m just hoping that next week’s passage is about Jesus and his disciples in the boat fishing on the lake. Incidentally I am leaving all the crucifixion sermons to Keren this year.

Sometimes we need to get away from it all. We need release. We need relief. We need a fresh perspective. We need a new vision of ourselves. We need a new vision of who Jesus really is.

They went up on the mountain to pray (v28).

The Gospel writers record nine occasions when Jesus prayed:

+ following his baptism (3:21),

+ after His early ministry (5:16),

+ prior to His choosing the Twelve (6:12-13),

+ before Peter’s confession (9:18),

+ here on the mount of Transfiguration (9:28-29),

+ prior to His teaching the Model Prayer (11:1),

+ and twice on the cross (23: 34 and 46).

We see the frequency of his prayer.

We see the intensity of his prayer.

We see his dogged persistence in prayer.

At every major juncture, at every key decision we find him in prayer and encouraging his disciples to do the same.

So let’s be attentive to this rhythm.

It’s not a choice between being a contemplative or an activist.

It’s not a personality thing about being a Mary or a Martha (Luke 10: 38-42).

It’s having a rhythm of service below coupled with a life of prayer above.

9:29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

His face changed.

The word is ‘metamorphosis’ but this was a momentary change as the veil on his humanity was lifted.

His clothes dazzled like lightning.

Doesn’t this look forward to the resurrection (Luke 24: 4) and his ascension (Acts 1:10) when similar things happened?

His disciples are "allowed to see in Jesus something of the glory of God…that…

life [and dimension] to which human eyes are otherwise blind."[3]

As we’re thinking about prayer we see that what happens on this mountain was a far cry from reciting a shopping list of requests.

Prayer for Jesus and his disciples was an experience and encounter with God.

We’re not asking for pyrotechnics and Persil white brilliance but don’t we crave change in our character and spirit? A sense of wonder? A touch of light that we may grow in conviction and glow with vibrancy?

9:30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.

Our rational minds find it hard to fathom these scenes of transfiguration, people who had died reappearing and voices from the cloud. It’s like magical realism literature.[4] But let’s suspend our judgement and peer through this biblical window to see the unfolding of Christ’s identity and mission.

Moses and Elijah are symbolic of the great Hebrew saints and Jesus appears as the fulfilment and culmination of all that has gone before.

Carlyle Marney used to say: “No one amounts to much until they learn to bless their own origins.”[5] Maybe this is what is happening as Jesus engages with these two. Perhaps up the mountain of prayer we too might look back and cherish our origins and look forward with greater clarity to that to which we are being called.

We have Moses the representative of the Law given on another mountain and the mediator who spoke on behalf of the people to God. Then there is Elijah who represented the prophets who were those who spoke on behalf of God to the people.[6]

Jesus is not just one of the three. Soon a voice will declare him to be ‘my Son’. The disciples will soon be called to follow Jesus not these two heroes from the past.

You know when someone dies we often hear people say, that now Mum will be reunited with Dad. Is there this same inference here on the mountain about life after death when Moses and Elijah seem still alive, and conscious, and aware of what is taking place? And they were recognizable. How did the disciples know it was Moses and Elijah? Did they have those sticky nametags?

Is this a clue into that question of whether we will recognise our loved ones and others in the life to come? These are some questions for your small group!

9:31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

The term ‘glory’ needs more unpacking but it was understood as a brilliance, a radiant light that marked an experience of God.[7]

This trio didn’t talk about their glorious past but about our Lord’s imminent ‘departure’. Literally his ‘exodus’ which implies just as Moses led people out of slavery and into promised land through the Red Sea, so Jesus would lead the people to freedom through the waters of his death.

Have you noticed how often our prayers are requests that God would take us or our loved ones out of pain? That God would fix our problems.

We talk about wonderful mountain top experiences of worship and prayer but this talk about Christ’s departure introduces a sombre tone. The shadow of the cross is beginning to fall. The disciples are reminded that suffering is also their experience.

There’s a strategic placement of this transfiguration event.

It happens after Peter’s confession and Christ’s teaching about his impending death (Luke 9: 23). He’d been circling around Galilee but 14 verses later he’s setting his face towards Jerusalem (9.51). This is a pivotal event. A turning point!

9:32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.

How could they sleep through this spectacle? But doesn’t this foreshadow their snoring off later in the Garden of Gethsemane (22: 45-46). I love Luke’s honest reporting. They didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of what was happening. They were dazed and groggy but they came to and saw His glory.

9:33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- not knowing what he said.

These words confirm that Peter had foot and mouth disease.

He wants to hang out on the mountain longer to preserve and prolong the glory of that moment.

He wants to stay away from the noisy streets of human need.

Let’s build 3 houses, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting more understanding and hoping for a further perspective but they are being urged down. The lessons on the mountain will continue down in the valley of human need.

I wonder how often we say: ‘It is good for us to be here’ when Jesus is saying ‘It is good for us to be down there’.

Peter’s name ‘petros’ means stone, rock—building materials.

Peter is a builder.

But his vision to build three adjoining shacks on a remote mountain is puny because Christ has a bigger plan and will say to him:

“Peter you are a rock and on this rock I will build my church.”

On the mountain in prayer we come to see how pathetic are our plans and how safe are our goals. But if on the mountain we catch a challenging vision of God’s purposes then let’s expect great things from God. Let’s do costly things in our church and in our community.

By the way this is a great verse for giving feedback to speaker, a lecturer, a preacher or a teacher. Just send an SMS or a tweet saying ‘Luke 9: 33c’. “He did not know what he said!”

Thank God for interruptions which cover our embarrassment.

9:34 While Peter was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.

You might have all your documents up in the cloud but in the Hebrew Bible the cloud is a symbol of God’s presence but it conceals more than it reveals.[8]

Earlier in prayer the dazzling light engaged their sight.

Now in prayer the cloud and the voice engages their hearing.

Prayer is not completely positive. These disciples were terrified.

They’d been lost in a fog of cluelessness.

9:35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

Hear the echo of Christ’s baptismal blessing? (Luke 3: 21-22)

Hear the reference to Isaiah’s servant song?: “Here is my chosen.” (Isaiah 42:1)

Earlier in this chapter Jesus asked the disciples:

“Who do the people say that I am?”

And “Who do you say that I am?”

Here is God’s estimation of Jesus, God’s authentication that Jesus was truly the Son of God.

Prayer is about experiencing God.

It’s also about growing in understanding about who Jesus really is.

It’s about giving attention to his teaching even though it may be difficult to fathom and to follow.

Prayer involves studying the Scriptures, especially the teachings of Jesus.

9:36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

How did they keep silent?

Makes you think how often we keep silent about wonderful things we experience but fail to mention to others.

9:37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.

Here’s the connection between prayer and mission.

Theology must be worked out and grounded amongst confused and tormented lives.

9:38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.

The Transfiguration is not the main event and the boy’s story the sidebar, the P.S.

Our mountain lies next to someone’s valley.

The disciples had just heard a voice saying: “This is my son.”

Now they hear another voice saying: “This is my son…my only child.”

Luke describes in great detail (v39)[9] the spiritual, psychological and social chains binding him, and his father says:

9:40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not."

 

9:41 Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here."

The disciples were powerless.

What an indictment of our spiritual impotence.

What a statement that Christ is expecting us to do this work.

Jesus releases the boy from the evil spirit, he heals the boy and gives him back to his father.[10]

9:43a And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

So we learn that prayer is about being empowered to continue Christ’s work.

It’s about coming down from our fortresses and helping to liberate and heal.

We come to know God not only by the voice in the cloud but the voices in pain.

Here we learn that the transfiguration is not for a select bunch of disciples but for all people that they might be astounded at the greatness of God.

As I finish (and we prepare for communion), many of you will be familiar with the hymn, ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways’.[11]

It was composed by John Greenleaf Whittier[12] and there’s a line in it which reads:

“Drop thy still dews of quietness till all our strivings cease…”

Some would say: “The writer of that verse is an escapist. He’s running away from the realities of life.”

But Whittier was no delicate poet writing in seclusion. He was a tough militant social reformer who dedicated his life to the campaign against slavery. He once wrote: “I set a higher value on my name being appended to the anti-slavery declaration of 1833 than on the title page of any of my books.” That’s the man who wrote:

Breathe through the heats of our desire

Thy coolness and thy balm;

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire

Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire

O still small voice of calm.

One day when he was going to an anti-slavery meeting Whittier was cornered by a hostile crowd. They pelted him with rotten eggs until his black Quaker coat ran yellow. He was lampooned, ridiculed and ostracized but he kept on with incredible courage and toughness and this was the man who wrote:

Drop thy still dews of quietness

Till all thy strivings cease

Take from our souls the strain and stress

And let our ordered lives confess

The beauty of your peace.

 

Today we’ve been thinking about this essential rhythm of highly effective followers of Jesus: 

Up the mountain in prayer,

Down the mountain in ministry.

What God has joined together let no one put asunder!

Prayer

How tempting it is, loving God, to want to remain inside this blessing,

To linger where everything is dazzling and clear.

We could build walls around this blessing.

We could preserve and bottle this experience

But your blessing is given for leaving.

Your blessing must come with us

As we return to level ground.

Help us to develop the rhythms of mountain and ministry

Of seeing both the divine light and the shadows of service.

Of hearing the voice in the cloud and the cries of human suffering.

May our gathering in communion now

lead us this week to be effective followers, so that people may be astounded at the greatness and goodness of God.

Amen.[13]

Image: Mount Dandenong from The Basin in the foreground overlooking the city of Melbourne. A good place for an Australian transfiguration!

 


[1] Stephen R Covey, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.

[2] In verse 32 it says they were ‘weighed down with sleep’. Also, 9:37 ‘On the next day’…

[3] This is a quote from the Swiss Biblical scholar, Eduard Schweitzer, quoted by Phyllis Kersten, in “Off the Mountain,” The Christian Century, February 7-14, 2001; p. 13).

[4] More on this thought from Claudio Carvalhaes, ‘Commentary on Luke 9: 28-36, (37-43)’, Working Preacher.

[5] This quote is found in James Alexander Forbes, Jr., Transfiguration: Encouragement for Faithfulness Unto Death Luke 9: 28-36, ON Scripture, 7 February 2016.

[6] Remember how Luke notes that some people thought Jesus was Elijah (9:8, 19).

[7] See Leviticus 9: 23-24; Deuteronomy 5:24.

[8] Ex. 19: 16. Essay on cloud:

[9] Luke 9:39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.

[10] 9:42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

[11] Have a listen to one tune of this great hymn, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

[12] I first heard this story about Whittier in a sermon by the Rev. Scott McPheat when he was pastor of an inner city church in Auckland, NZ.

[13] The first part of this prayer is based on a blessing for Transfiguration Sunday, by Jan Richardson, ‘Dazzling’, Painted Prayer Book, 3 February 2013.