Up and Down the Mountain, includes Study Guide

Published: Monday, 12 February 2018

This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound at ABC on 11 February 2018. It is the first in the ‘Journey in Mark’ series. Following the lectionary readings, the occasion was Transfiguration Sunday. The service contained reports on Small Groups and included a commissioning of some of our young adults departing for overseas. With Ash Wednesday happening on 14 February, this sermon concludes with an invitation to take the sign of a dusty cross on the forehead or arm.

At the end of the sermon manuscript there are some questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study.

Reading: Mark 9:2 - 9 

If you’ve ever visited an IKEA store you’ll know the IKEA experience. You may go only to get some tea lights and they’re probably in a room close to the entrance but by ropes and signs you’re led for a couple of hours on a wild goose chase through this never-ending building.

They take you from one floor to the next through curated rooms. From the kitchenware rooms, to bathrooms, everything is all decked out with the latest furnishings, and then you’re taken through bedrooms, lounge rooms, balconies, the lot!

There are no windows to look out of. Who knows where you are? Who knows where you’re going? You are muddled in a maze. You’re lost in this labyrinth. But in your daze, you see so much that you think would come in handy at your place.

Just as your trolley is full to the brim, you come to the room before the checkout. It looks like a warehouse to remind you that all your purchases are bargains. You pay, load up your car and when you phone to say, “I’ll be home soon”, your family member or flatmate says, “Where have you been? I hope you’ve got the tea lights!”

 

On every journey, in any project, in all organizations, it’s so easy to get lost. To forget what we’re there for. To forget what we came for. To end up with our hands full of stuff but forget the one thing that is needed.

Last Sunday we read the story when Jesus got lost (or at least his parents lost him) but in today’s mid-Gospel passage, Jesus senses that his disciples have forgotten why they’re following him. They’ve lost the plot. They’re consumed by all the calls upon their time and energy so Jesus invites the leaders of the group up a high mountain.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.

-          Mark 9:2

Mountains usually offer a grand view, so this is an invitation to regain their perspective, to renew their focus and refresh their vision.[1]

It’s an invitation to come away from all the people and simply be with Him, this One whose call they have followed, this one who keeps on calling.

If Jesus invited his disciples then to such an experience, it would suggest that still today He invites us and gifts us with such a rhythm—to come up the mountain for reflection and rest so we go down to the valley of work and ministry with new vision and renewed energy.

I wonder what this mountaintop invitation could mean for you in this pre-Easter period? It may mean joining a Small Group, attending a WellSpring Lenten series,[2] committing yourself to reading the Gospel of Mark or making some other creative investment.

What’s this mountaintop experience all about? Mark says:

And he was transfigured before them, 

-          Mark 9: 2

The mountain experience wasn’t primarily a lecture or a training drill. It was supremely about Him. He wanted them to be with Him. He wanted them to discover something new about Him. He wanted to take them deeper on their journey of understanding him.

This week we may be involved in work or in volunteering. We may be engaged in Sunday Club, Student House, Breakfast Club, Prayers and Squares, playing music, asylum seeker housing or activities in Vietnam, but it’s as if Jesus is saying: “Come with me up the mountain, discover me at the centre of all these ministries. The most vital and life changing thing is to know me, to be with me, to see me in all my radiance.”

There on the mountain with his God, Jesus begins to change. What a mysterious metamorphosis.

And his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 

-          Mark 9:3[3]

Doesn’t this sound like an advertisement for washing liquid, for the highest quality detergent called ‘Dazzle’?[4] The point is, this transformation isn’t something we can manufacture. He’s not talking about doing a course on self-improvement or the power of positive thinking. This is something that only God can do. Christ’s own ministry on earth was so full of light only because of his regular mountain top exposure with the God of light. So, He’s commending to them and to us, such an experience.

And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

-          Mark 9:4

This is getting weird. Up on this mountain when Jesus is with his God, can you see Elijah, the representative of the Hebrew prophets? And there’s Moses probably with the Ten Commandments in his hands, and wouldn’t this mountain of transfiguration remind Jewish readers of Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law?[5] Have they got nametags? So, those disciples and the readers of this Gospel would come to understand Jesus in this grand tradition. But amidst these representatives of the Law and the Prophets, Jesus appears supreme.

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 

Mark 9: 5

As this wonderful experience is unfolding, Peter sadly, has to interrupt it with his speech.[6]

Firstly, he downgrades Jesus by calling him ‘Rabbi’, a mere teacher[7], when Jesus is disclosing his divine nature.

When Peter says, “Let us make” he’s inferring that they need to be busy…now…yet Christ is calling them to linger and look.

Peter suggests they build some temples or tabernacles to freeze and nail down this experience.

With so much misunderstanding, no wonder later, when Jesus is on the way down:

He ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

-          Mark 9:9

Mark sums up Peter’s blundering when he says:

He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 

-          Mark 9: 6

The Aussie translation says: “He put his foot into his mouth.”

Frederick Buechner recalls a late afternoon when he was walking to a class that he had to teach. He noticed the beginnings of what promised to be one of the great local sunsets. When he got to the classroom, the lights were all on and the students were chattering. He was just about to start teaching his lesson, when he thought of the sunset going on out there in the winter dusk.

On an impulse, he flicked off the classroom lights. The room faced west so as soon as it went dark, everything disappeared, except what they could see through the windows, and there it was—the entire sky on fire, like the end of the world.

You might think that somebody would have said something. You might have expected a wisecrack from a student or at least the creaking of chairs. But the astonishing thing was that the silence was so complete. They all sat there still.

For over twenty minutes nobody spoke a word. Nobody did anything. They just sat there in the near-dark and watched one day of their lives come to an end. And it was a great class because the teacher’s only contribution was to flick off the lights and then hold his tongue. And it was a great class because the sunset was the least of it.

What was great was the unbusy-ness of it. It was taking unlabelled, unallotted time just to look with maybe more than their eyes at what was wonderful.

It was the sense too that they were not just themselves individually but that they were in some way all looking out at it together. They were bound together there simply by the fact of their being human and by their splendid insignificance in face of what was going on out there through the window.

We are so apt to use words as a way of concealing who we really are and what we really think. A few moments of silence can make us so tense and uneasy. But if we can bear it, silence can be communion at a very deep level.[8]

There on the mountain as the disciples were awestruck, Peter’s bumbling words were drowned out:

Then a cloud[9] [which in the Hebrew Bible was a symbol of God’s presence] overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 

-          Mark 9: 7

So much to see but now so much to hear. On the mountain, we hear the voice giving the corrective: “Peter, this is no ‘Rabbi’. This is my Son, my Beloved: Listen to Him.”[10]

On the mountain, we come to a fuller appreciation of Who this one is that we follow.

Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

-          Mark 9: 8

No more Moses. No more Elijah. Only Jesus.

So, this is what a mountain top experience is all about: Only Jesus. ‘Listen to Him’.

Our passage begins with the words, “Six days later…” When we go back six days earlier we hear Jesus saying what these disciples had forgotten in their busyness:

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 

-          Mark 8:31

This was surprising news. This was unpalatable news. Had they understood him? Then:

 

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 

-          Mark 8:34

 

Deny themselves? Meaning, drop all that extraneous stuff? Take up our cross and follow? Only by seriously listening to him, will we move beyond an IKEA spirituality (of razzle and dazzle) and discover who Jesus really is and what it is he calls us to be and do.

Then Jesus comes down the mountain. Down into the valley. Down into the mundane, everyday life. Down into the world of misunderstanding, squabbling, disbelieving disciples. Down into the pain and poverty of our world.

As we begin our Journey in Mark and join with the church this week with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of this pre-Easter period, I’m reminded of this final story.[11]

There’s a church in New York that’s located right near the end of one of the subways. Every year at the beginning of the Easter season one of the old priests takes a huge bowl of ashes and stands on the bottom step in front of the church. Morning and evening rush hours are his favourite times. Each day, hordes of frenzied New Yorkers stop quietly to have their foreheads marked with the traditional cross of ashes and to hear the ancient words: "Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return."

One year the priest went down the escalators and ashed scores of people as they came through the turnstiles. Another time a bus driver pulled up, opened the doors and called the priest onto the bus to anoint everyone with ashes.

Over the years he’s become something of a fixture and every Easter season people would look out for him—executives, prostitutes, office workers, cleaners and the homeless. The fashionable and the forgotten all line up together to receive the holy ashes.

What is it that prompts the urging within people to receive the ashes, especially in the Big Apple, where there's entertainment and success and market forces; ambition, luxury and extravagance?

What would it mean for you to be marked by a dusty cross in your city or town? You might need the entire Lenten period to find the answer to this question.

We’re going to sing that song, For You, Deep Stillness, and as we sing the first few verses, we’re inviting first of all members of the Vietnam team to receive a sign of the cross on their foreheads or on their arm.

After we’ve sung the song through twice, we’ll just have instruments playing quietly and all of us will be free to receive the sign of the cross from members of the Vietnam Team.

To be marked with the cross might be to admit that we know the taste of ashes. It may be to recognise that we have had broken hearts and crushed dreams. To receive the ashes may signify that we, like those disciples, lose the plot, but we want to look and linger this Lent.

To take the sign of the ashes may be to identify with Peter bumbling along in misunderstandings yet to yearn to be with Christ. It may declare that we are acquainted with grief and tragedy yet we seek renewal and refreshment.

It may mean that despite it all, on the mountaintop we have heard Christ’s call to take up the cross. What will it mean for you?

Benediction

Loving God, on our foreheads, there are signs of a crossroad.

Where do we turn? Where can we turn from the way of ruin and walk the way of life?

Loving God, we’ve been seeking to regain perspective and focus and purpose on the mountaintop of worship but these ashes invite us to come back to earth,

To wonder at the gift of life,

To carry our cross

To follow Jesus, the Son of God, the beloved

To minister in Jesus name

So, may the blessing of the God of life, love and grace, be with you always.

Amen.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

 

Reading: Mark 9:2-9 

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Icebreaker

Geoff told his IKEA experience. It was like this blueprint:

Have you visited IKEA? What’s been your experience?

Losing Purpose

“On every journey, in any project, in all organizations, it’s so easy to get lost. To forget what we’re there for. To forget what we came for. To end up with our hands full of stuff but forget the one thing that is needed.”

Got a story to recount where you, your work team or organization gradually lost the sense of purpose and vision about what you were supposed to be doing?

What did it feel like? How did you regain your purpose and vision?

Invitation Up the Mountain

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.

-          Mark 9:2

Why was Jesus selective in only taking the three heavies?

Why did Jesus not take the rest of the 12? Why were they robbed of a blessed experience?

If Judas was invited up the mountain he may not have betrayed Jesus.

How do you think this trio would be feeling as Jesus “led them up a high mountain?”

How do you think this trio would be feeling as Jesus “led them…apart, by themselves?”

What might this mountaintop invitation mean for you at this time?

“He gifts us with such a rhythm—to come up the mountain for reflection and rest so we go down to the valley of work and ministry with new vision and renewed energy.”

How well do you implement this rhythm and what might you do to make this rhythm regular and enriching?

The Mountaintop Experience

And he was transfigured before them, 

-          Mark 9: 2

And his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 

-          Mark 9:3

How do you understand the significance of this transfiguration for Jesus, the disciples and for us today?

And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

-          Mark 9:4

Why the appearance of Elijah and Moses in this mountaintop experience?

These two representatives of the Hebrew faith may have been reassuring, comforting and inspiring to the disciples. Name two people who inspire you in your faith and describe how they encourage you.

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 

Mark 9: 5

What do you find about Peter’s style and statement that are examples of what to avoid?

In what ways do we try to institutionalize, bottle or nail down the spiritual experience?

Did any good thoughts emerge from Frederick Buechner’s experience with his students of witnessing the sunset?

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 

-          Mark 9: 7

Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

-          Mark 9: 8

What did the disciples see and hear which is pertinent for us today?

What might it mean for us to ‘Listen to Him’ in an ongoing way?

What had changed for Jesus and his three disciples as they descended to the valley?

Ashes to Ashes

The study concluded with the story of the anointing of New Yorkers as they emerged from the subway on Ash Wednesday. Any thoughts that came to you from this story?

What is it that prompts the urging within people to receive the ashes?

What would it mean for you to be marked by a dusty cross?

Prayer

Think about what you are going to do resulting from this Scripture study. Write it down and pray it as a prayer.

 

[1] Some traditional identifications are Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon.

[2] For example, Growing in Prayer, WellSpring. Check the 2018 Programme.

[3] This appearance is reminiscent of Daniel 7:9; 10:5.

[4] ‘Dazzling white’ means no one on earth is like this. Such radiance is God’s very essence (Ex 16:10; Numbers 14:10b; Ps 63:2)

[5] Are they conferring authority on Jesus?

[6] Other instances of Peter’s misunderstanding: Mark 8:31-33; 9:5-7; 9:33ff; 10:35ff.

[7] The only other person to call Jesus ‘Rabbi’ in Mark’s Gospel is Judas (14:45) which puts Peter in questionable company.

[8] Frederick Buechner, ‘The Hungering Dark’.

[9] A cloud in the Hebrew Bible was a symbol of God’s presence (Ex 16:10; 19:9; 24:15-16; 33:9)

[10] The second of three decisive acclamations of Jesus’ unique identity in Mark. The first is at his baptism (1:11); the last at his death (15:39). This is the least public. No one else in Mark is designated ‘God’s Son’. Not Moses, not Elijah, not John the Baptist

[11] This story was described in The Age. n.d.