Sermon Feb 11, 2018

“Seeing Jesus Only”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Mark 9: 2-9
February 11, 2018

“Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.”   Mark 9:8i

The disciples had seen one miracle after another. From the first chapter of Mark through the eighth chapter they had seen a man with a withered hand, a man who could neither speak nor hear, the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman, a paralytic lowered through a roof by his friends, a blind man, a woman who could not stop hemorrhaging, and many others who were afflicted all healed. But it is not until this ninth chapter of Mark that their view of Jesus is transfigured. Oh, it’s true that in the eight chapter of Mark Jesus ask His disciples who they think He is. It is Peter who proclaims Jesus to be the Son of God. But immediately after this confession comes confusion. Why? Because Jesus tells them He must suffer and die. Peter, the one who had just confessed Jesus to be God’s Son, rebukes Jesus. How can God suffer and die? Indeed, why would God do such a thing? Had not God’s Son come to bring victory – not defeat? Their view of Jesus needed to be transfigured if they stood any chance of seeing Jesus clearly.

Is the case any different today? We follow a crucified God. It is through the cross that Christians come to Easter’s glory, but so often I want the victory without the cross. I want life without suffering and justice without a cost. Oh, I confess Jesus to be the Son of God and unlike the disciples, I know how this story ends. Still, I want triumph without trial.

And the world? Does it see the power of Christ clearly? Apartheid is ended. The Berlin wall is down. Stalin is dead. Moa is no more. Hitler is laid low. Science and technology have given us new promise. Miracles abound and the lives of millions has been made better but our age sees all of it as the result of human effort alone. The providential hand of God, the vast ark of the universe bent toward justice, is not seen, is not perceived. Oh how we need to see Jesus in a transfigured light.

For the disciples and for us the cause of our lack of vision is largely the same. To eke out a living, one must forgo miracles and rely on the one’s own wit and wisdom. You don’t become a successful fishermen without knowing how to fish. It is by the dint of our labor that we survive and to rely on miracles to save us is to parish. So we, like the disciples of old, are slow to perceive the hand of God at work in our lives. And we are blind to the reality around us. Our three dimensional reality fails to see the full picture of complexity. Modern physics says as much. You and I live in the world of Newtonian physics where reality reflects what we can easily see and experience. Yet the world of modern physics points to dimensions of reality that we cannot readily see but which science says must exist for the universe to be as it is. It is not merely religion that calls for a transfiguration of our vision, but theoretical physics as well. All of this is to say that before we dismiss the disciples as obtuse, we need to see how we share in their blindness. They may not have seen Jesus clearly, but the cause of their lack of vision is largely the same as ours. The world does not readily acknowledge the mystery of God’s reality.

The consequence for the disciples was a bumbling understanding of God’s purpose. Remember how confused, even obtuse, the disciples often appeared? There was the time they wanted God to rain down fire on a village that had not heeded their call. There was the time when they argued who among them was the greatest and this came right after Jesus told them He was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Even after the transfiguration when they clearly knew who Jesus was because an audible voice from heaven proclaimed Jesus to be God’s Son, they all abandon Him at the cross.

Do we not face the same danger? The great Christian ethicist, James Gustafson captures us in these words:

“We want a God we can manage, a God who comes when beckoned, a God who permits us to say that ‘he’ is here but not there; a God who supports our moral causes and destroys the forces we judge to be evil; a household God and a kitchen God who cares more for us and ours than ‘he’ cares for others who suffer like we suffer, who fear like we fear. We desire to manage and manipulate the ultimate power that has brought the worlds into being, sustains them, bears down upon them, and determines their ultimate destiny. We want to shape God to look like us, to change ‘his’ mind so it is in accord with ours. But such a God is not God.”

Gustafson concludes: “God does not exist simply for the service of human beings. Human beings exist for the service of God.

God will not be manipulated.

God will not be ignored or denied.

God will be God.”1

The cure for the disciples was the cross followed by an empty tomb. They saw Jesus truly transfigured when they finally came to see the cross as the way to victory. Only then were they fully willing to risk their lives for the cause of Christ’s kingdom. It was one thing to confess Jesus to be God’s Son. It was another to follow in His way. They learned that there is no easy walk to freedom.

It is the same for us. I wish I could tell you, that I could tell myself, that following Jesus is a grand story of success and happiness. I cannot. Look at the world. Do you see the meek inheriting anything but the dirt? Do you see peacemakers proclaimed to be powerful? Do you see those who suffer for the cause of justice sitting on the thrones of power? And do you see those of us who say we love Jesus being saved from suffering and loss? I cannot tell you that following Jesus will lead to worldly success or happiness. But I can testify to this – that this is the only way to true joy and a life worthy of living. It comes, as it came to the disciples, by living out the wisdom of Simon Weil’s words: “Faith is not belief in spite of evidence, but life in scorn of consequence.” That can by ours because the power of God transforms the defeat of Golgotha into the triumph of an empty tomb. Live in the power of that truth and you, like the disciples of old, will finally see the transfigured Lord. Let us pray….

1 Gustafson, James M., Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Vol 2, University of Chicago Press, 1984, 320.

i 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.