A Vision and a Voice
Monday, July 31, 2017 - 11:00 to 12:00
Soon after we left beautiful British Columbia to serve the congregation of St. Andrew’s Hespeler Presbyterian Church in southern Ontario, I was approached by a woman who asked whether we were adjusting to our new home. And I responded that we’d been warmly received and welcomed by everyone, and that we were getting to know the area where we lived, Waterloo County and the cities of Cambridge and Kitchener and Guelph.
But then I said there was one thing that I was missing from life back in New Westminster; I missed seeing the mountains. From the back porch of the old manse here you could see Mt. Baker on a clear day. And almost any direction you travel in the Lower Mainland, you can see great, majestic, looming mountains off in the distance; if the clouds aren’t in the way! My new friend from Ontario looked a little put off when I said this, and she responded rather defensively, saying: “Well, we have mountains here too, you know!” And I asked, rather naively, “Oh really, where are they?” And she replied, “Well, there’s Hamilton Mountain, to start with!” Later I checked the elevation of Hamilton Mountain on the internet. It’s 500 feet above sea level. I don’t think I made a good first impression with her!
So what’s going on here, in the story we’ve just read from Mark’s gospel, and what is the Lord wanting to tell us through this particular paragraph of God’s inspired Word?
WHAT HAPPENED UP ON THIS MOUNTAIN?
Again and again in Scripture, God reveals himself on a mountain, and meets his people there. For example on Mt. Moriah in Genesis 22, God revealed his faithfulness to Abraham and his son Isaac by providing a sacrifice in such an unexpected way. And then on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20, the Lord established his gracious covenant with the children of Israel, and gave them a law to live by. And then there’s Mt. Carmel in First Kings 18, where the prophet Elijah challenged the four hundred false prophets of Baal to a legendary power encounter and God reveals himself in such awesome and unmistakable ways. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks his most famous message on a mountain -- his sermon on the mount -- revealing the heart of God’s character to the world. It was from the vantage point of the Mount of Olives that Jesus took in the vista of the city of Jerusalem and wept over the city. And when Jesus left this earth forty days after his resurrection, he promised to send the gift of the Holy Spirit and then ascended to heaven from on top of a mountain, the very same Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Today’s Bible reading from Mark’s gospel is referred to as the transfiguration of Jesus. It’s a story that’s also found in Matthew and Luke as well as Mark’s gospel. It’s an account of how Jesus took his three closest friends, Peter, James and John, up to the top of a mountain to pray and talk with God. There is no biblical reference for exactly which mountain they climbed up, but a very early and strong Christian tradition links the event we’ve just read about with a place called Mount Tabor. Mount Tabor is located about 18 kilometers west of the Sea of Galilee. It’s a small but very prominent wedge-shaped mountain that rises rising abruptly from the relatively flat lands surrounding it.
So Jesus and Peter and James and John made their way up the steep slopes of Mt. Tabor, until they arrived at the place Jesus had in mind. And while they were on top of Mount Tabor, suddenly something happened to Jesus while he was praying – his appearance and his clothes took on a heavenly light. The text says, "he was transfigured before them… His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (NIV).
On this mountain Jesus is transfigured—we get our English word metamorphosis from this Greek word that the Gospel writers use. Jesus “metamorphoses.” He changes. Every Christmas we celebrate the incarnation, the fact that the Son of God took on our human nature; in Jesus, God took on flesh and blood and became a human being. He was, in the words of The Shorter Catechism, “found in a low condition.” Jesus’ glory here on the days he walked this earth, to use John Calvin’s word, was “veiled.” His glory as the Son of God was hidden. He came among us as God but his ‘godness’ was camouflaged because he came to earth as a man. But here at the transfiguration, for a few fleeting moments, the veil is taken away and the dimness of their perception recedes, and the three disciples see Jesus as he truly is, in all his glory.
And then two other men also appear “in glorious splendour,” as Matthew puts it, who join Jesus. Both these other men had long been dead – Moses, the lawgiver and leader of the Jewish people when God liberated them from slavery in Egypt; and Elijah, the great prophet who struggled to keep the people of Israel faithful to God. You may remember the Bible tells us that both Moses and Elijah, when their time came, had unusual departures from this world -- Moses, on top of Mount Nebo, looking out over the promised land that he himself would never enter; and Elijah, carried off and taken into heaven in a chariot of fire.
And here they both are, talking to Jesus about his own departure, as Matthew’s gospel tells us, how Jesus would “soon fulfill God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem.” And wiping the sleep out of their eyes, Peter, James and John began to take in this scene, and marvel at what they were witnessing. Here, before their eyes, was a spectacular display of the very glory of God.
And how did they react? Well, we know that they were scared. The text says they didn’t know what to do or what to say, because they were so stunned and overcome by this awesome encounter with the living God.
Then good old Peter, typically, putting his mouth in gear before his brain, breathlessly suggests that they begin an instant building program to preserve the memory of what was happening. Impulsive Peter, again not grasping or understanding the nature of our Lord’s Messianic mission, wants to prolong this profound spiritual experience from what it was obviously meant to be – a real yet temporary, brief moment. Because of course the disciples can’t permanently “stay on the mountain” any more than Jesus can, if he is to be true to his mission – they must return back to the ordinary world and suffer there with and for their Lord. In fact, that’s just what follows in the verses following our text, when they come down the mountain to encounter a father and his sick little boy who’s in need of deliverance and healing. From the mountaintop back to ministry! I want us to notice a couple of things about our passage.
EXPERIENCING A POWERFUL VISION
The first thing is the vision itself. The first thing to notice about what’s going on in this story is this amazing vision up on top of the mountain, when time intersects eternity and in one, ecstatic moment, James and Peter and John have an intense and overpowering spiritual experience.
One of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read was John Krakauer’s 1996 book Into Thin Air, a story about climbing Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, with all the dangers and mysteries associated with trying to go into an environment where literally one small wrong step can be your last one. The men and women who climb Everest, says Krakauer, are motivated for various reasons.
For some it’s the massive challenge of the climb. For others it’s the drive to excel, to set a goal and reach it. But there can be no doubt that for others the desire to climb was about something else. As one writer put it, “Most of the peoples of the world, including the Sherpa and Nepalese, have never thought of mountains as things to be mastered or conquered. Instead, mountain tops are reminders of the power of Mystery and of the Transcendent.” (Jon Magnusson, Christian Century, “The Lure of the Mountain: Death and Divinity in the Himalayas,” Feb. 18, 1998, 171). In other words, mountains are spiritual places, where people encounter God, where revelation breaks through. That’s the draw for many people to this day. It’s not about the number of climbs you’ve made or conquering a mountain; it’s about having a spiritual experience with God. That’s what Irene and I experienced a few years ago as we took in the awesome grandeur of the Canadian Rockies out in Alberta, and again this past summer as we spent three days worshipping with the monks of the Benedictine Abbey high up on the mountaintop of Montserrat, towering over the countryside of Catalonia and the city of Barcelona. It was a powerful spiritual experience for us up on those mountains!
The point I’m trying to make is those mountain climbers didn’t invent this idea of a rocky mountain high, of having an experience with God, out of thin air. This is a biblical concept. Again and again in Scripture God reveals himself on a mountain, meeting his people there.
So here on the Mount of Transfiguration, God reveals himself, meeting with three of Jesus’ disciples, people just like us. And the vision they see is intense and overwhelming. There’s Moses, representing the Law of God; and there’s Elijah who once heard the voice of God as a still, small voice representing all the prophets. And now with Jesus standing there with them… it’s like a salvation-history summit conference! It’s a way of underscoring the fact that Jesus stands in continuity with God’s work throughout all history. When the vision evaporates, only Jesus is left standing there. This is a powerful vision!
And brothers and sisters, we should thank God for the times like that in our lives. We should praise God for those mountain-top, fork in the road, life-changing experiences of God’s grace when they come to us. There are moments in our lives, fleeting and rare, when the veil is pulled away and the fog lifts, and we sense the presence of God with us in deep and unmistakable ways, when Jesus seems close enough that we could reach out and touch him, when the Holy Spirit’s presence is real and tangible in our midst.
Maybe it’s an experience like that that has led you to Timothy Eaton Church, and that’s the reason you’re here this morning.
I’ve had a few times like that in my life, in the churches I have been a part of, and so have many of you! Sometimes it happens when we’re all alone, facing some trial or challenge. Other times it happens with other believers, whether we’re in a small group or when we’re gathered together for worship, and we feel lifted up into the very presence of God. And when those transcendent moments occur in our lives, we should give praise to the Lord for loving us enough to reveal himself to us in such profound, unmistakable ways.
LISTENING TO THE VOICE
But as significant and as powerful as these transcendent experiences are, these brief visions of God in our lives are transient and temporary. And they’re not enough. They’re important but they’re not fundamental.
What is fundamental on the mountain is the voice they heard, and what that voice said, and that’s the second point I want to make. The deeper meaning of what happens on the mount of Transfiguration centres on the voice they heard.
In the text, we read that a cloud came over all of them, another manifestation of the presence of God just like at Mount Sinai, just like when the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness, when a cloud became the very presence of God, protecting and guiding his people. And from out of the cloud came a voice, the very voice of God the Father, just like when Jesus was baptized, and that voice said: “This is my Son, whom I love; listen to him!”
In other words, don’t just look at the vision. Don’t settle just for spiritual experiences and rocky mountain highs and leave it at that. That’s seems to be the way some Christians try to live, chasing after one experience to the next, which can end up leaving us feeling spiritually unsatisfied and discontented.
Don’t just seek the experience of God; don’t just settle for a vision! No, we need to pay attention to the voice that says “Listen to Him.” Because Jesus Christ is God’s best word. All that God is trying to say, he has said most fully and most finally in and through Jesus Christ who speaks to us in the words of the Bible. As the author to the book of Hebrews put it: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”
And as Fred Craddock puts it, “Jesus is not just another in a [long] line of prophets, he is preeminent. Jesus is to be heard, not over and against Moses and the prophets, but as the proper interpreter and fulfillment of… Scripture.”
Listen to him! I wonder if that instruction God gave the disciples to “Listen to Jesus” presumes that the disciples weren’t listening very well. It seems that on the mountain that day the Peter and James and John had their heads in the clouds about what was next for Jesus and for their own lives. In the previous passage, it’s clear that they were shaken to the core when Jesus announced for the first time in no uncertain terms that he was going to suffer and die and be raised on the third day. He was on a sure and certain journey to the cross. But they protested. They wouldn’t hear of it.
But God tells them now that was exactly what they needed to do. They needed to listen to Jesus, to listen and respond to what Jesus says, and so do we.
LEARNING TO LISTEN
Several years ago, a television program preceding the Winter Olympics featured blind skiers who were being trained for slalom skiing, as impossible as that sounds. These sight-impaired skiers were paired with sighted skiers, and were taught on the flats how to make right and left turns.
And when they mastered those basic skills, eventually the blind skiers were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied right beside them shouting, “Left!” and “Right!” If the blind skiers obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course and cross the finish line. But they had to depend entirely on the sighted skiers’ word. It was either complete trust, or total catastrophe, as you can imagine. [Craig Brian Larson, Illustrations for Preaching and Teaching, 252].
And friends, that’s a vivid picture of what it means to live the Christian life, and it illustrates what this passage is all about. Because in a very profound sense, we too are spiritually blind to the things of God, and we are invited to learn what it means to live by faith, not by sight.
When we don’t know what course to take in life,
when we’re unsure what to do next,
when the future seems unclear or clouded or perplexing,
We have to rely solely on the word of the only One who truly sees what we cannot see. And it’s the voice of the Lord speaking to us, speaking his word to us just as surely as he spoke it out of the clouds through Moses to his people on Mt. Sinai. We must listen to the God who has spoken his word to us most clearly and fully in his Son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who comes along side of us to give us directions and encouragement to live the kind of life we’re meant to live.
I wonder then, friends, are you listening to Him? He speaks so powerfully and so graciously in his word… in the Bible… in our fellowship… in our times of prayer and devotion…
But what is Jesus saying – in particular -- to Timothy Eaton Church? And what is he saying to you, dear friend, in your own walk of faith?
Is he saying, I know you’re lonely. I know there are moments you feel lost; let me lead you through this life and into the next.
Is he saying, I have forgiven you. Won’t you forgive yourself and let me love you? I have loved you with an everlasting love.
Is he saying, I came to give you an abundant and full and purposeful life; and only in an ongoing relationship with me can you really live the life you long to live.
Is he saying, Don’t be afraid of the future. I will never leave you nor forsake you, whatever it is you may be facing.
Indeed, the Father’s words, spoken on that mountain to Jesus his Son, are now ours too, through our union with Christ. Do you realize that? Because what Jesus did in his saving death on the cross was to establish a new, close, intimate, family relationship between ourselves and the God of all creation, so that now the Father says not just to Jesus but also to every one of us, that we too are his beloved children, adopted into his family!
You are my son, whom I love!
You are my daughter, whom I love!
Rest assured, you are my beloved!”
And when we really know that love, at the deepest places in our lives, there’s no more room for fear.
Dear friends, in his life and death and resurrection, Jesus gives us all the direction we will ever need to live a life of faith. And that’s true for you and me at in Timothy Eaton Church in Toronto in 2017 just as surely as it was 2000 years ago when Peter, James and John hiked up Mount Tabor and were transformed by their experience with Jesus.
The question is, Will you let him be your guide? Will you listen to him?
Let’s pray: Lord open our eyes, like you did for the disciples on the mountain, to see the your glory, even in this place. And may you also open our ears, and help us to listen… to really listen… to what Jesus is saying to us. Amen.