by David Baer, February 7, 2016
Text: Mark 8:27-9:8
Right now you can’t turn on the TV without seeing people giving God credit for their successes. You see it in politicians who dedicate their electoral triumphs to the glory of God. You see it when a wide receiver catches a touchdown pass. And while I don’t want to put down anyone’s genuine piety, while I think it’s a spiritually healthy thing for all of us to give thanks to God for the blessings we receive, I’m not sure that it’s entirely good for the rest of us to witness these displays. Because it’s not just about when public figures invoke God. It’s also about when they don’t.
For example, when is the last time you heard a quarterback say, when asked about a sack or an interception, “I just want to give God the glory, and remember how good God is!”? When is the last time you heard a politician, after losing an election, give thanks to God for the loss? You see, if successes and triumphs are the only times you hear God invoked, you start to imagine that the way God works is the same as the way the successful and powerful people of this world work. Perhaps you imagine that God is the god of the winners, the god of perfect families and confident people who have it all figured out. And maybe you wonder, tired and anxious as you are, messy and compromised as your life is, whether God is actually your God too.
But Jesus came to tell, came to live a very different story about God.
The passage we heard today is about a confession, a cross, and a cloud. It begins with a confession. A confession involves truthful words spoken from your heart that change the course of your life. Sometimes a confession involves naming the truth about something you’ve done, but sometimes it means naming the truth you’ve come to recognize about someone else. In this case, Peter named the truth about Jesus. When Jesus asked his friends who they thought he was, Peter said that Jesus was God’s Messiah, God’s chosen anointed king. Now, remember, a confession isn’t just speaking the truth. It’s speaking a truth that changes you, that means your life can never be the same. After following Jesus for months and wrestling with his teaching and trying to figure out what it means that he’s able to work miracles of healing and stilling storms on the sea, after finally being given the insight that this is the man, this is God’s Messiah, you don’t just turn around and say, “Wow… The Messiah! That was a real head-scratcher for a while, but now that I figured it out, I think I’ll go back to fishing.” Peter’s confession means that he is committed. He is going to be front and center in Jesus’ story.
But after the confession comes the cross. Though Peter speaks truthfully when he says Jesus is the Messiah, he still can’t see clearly what it means. Like we often do, Peter thinks that being chosen and blessed by God means being powerful, being a winner, being safe. And so Jesus begins to teach Peter and the others just what is going to take place. Being the Messiah means being the opposite of a powerful winner, Jesus says. It means being a despised loser, rejected and betrayed by the religious authorities, humiliated and tortured, killed and buried… And then raised from the dead. Peter resists this new teaching, but Jesus tells him off. Get behind me, he says. In other words, because you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t stand in my way—follow me instead—watch what I do, and learn. Not only that—Jesus calls a crowd together and tells them all that anyone who wants to follow him need to take up their own cross, to follow Jesus willingly through sacrifice, shame, and suffering, through death on the way to life. What it looks like to be blessed and chosen by God is to lose everything important and valuable in the eyes of the world. What it means is that Jesus has much more in common with a hospice patient, with a homeless man, with a clinically depressed woman, with a refugee family than with whoever winds up holding the Super Bowl trophy this evening. And if any of us want to follow him, we have to look for him there—helping to shoulder one of their crosses, if not our own. Confessing Jesus as the Messiah brings us, ultimately, to his cross and to ours.
After the cross comes the cloud. Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain and was transfigured right in front of their eyes, shining bright white and talking with Moses, who represents the Law, and with Elijah, who represents the Prophets. Peter once again forgets what it means that Jesus is the Messiah, and so he proposes that they stay up here, offering to build tents for Jesus and the two prophets of old. The cloud envelops them, and Peter can no longer see Jesus or the other two, but he hears a voice saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” The cloud blocks Peter’s sight. It reminds him that his understanding is incomplete, that he doesn’t yet see Jesus as he really is. Peter was looking to prolong this experience that was transcendent, that was special. The voice tells him he’s got a lot to learn, that he needs to listen to God’s beloved. And that means going back down the mountain, toward Jerusalem, toward Good Friday, toward the cross. A cloud is where we live most days too. We don’t understand everything God is up to around us. And like Peter, it’s less important for us to perceive and understand than it is for us to listen to God’s Beloved and follow where he leads us.
Our culture surrounds us with stories of soaring success. From the mountain heights of achievement we hear folks offer prayers of thanksgiving to the God who brought them there. But Jesus is the one who leads us down the mountain, Jesus is God with us.
Even those who seem the most holy and heroic to us come down the mountain. After Mother Teresa’s death, those who had been closest to her related how she had experienced God’s presence in a powerful way, and enjoyed a rich and comforting spiritual life… until she followed God’s call to her to serve the poor of Calcutta.1 For all her years of ministry, she never heard God speak to her in the way God had spoken before, when she was young. Jesus called her down off the mountaintop to follow him. That rich spiritual life she had known as a young woman had to sustain her the rest of her days. But what a life she led!
Don’t get me wrong. I think God has a rich and beautiful life waiting for each one of us. I believe we are an Easter people, a people that live with the hope of resurrection. I think we glimpse that new reality from time to time, even in this life–we see our day-to-day experiences transfigured like Jesus on the mountain. We should be grateful for those mountaintop experiences when God gives them to us. But God gives them to us so that we can be part of God’s unfolding story, a story that begins with a confession, brings us to the cross, and in which we always see only dimly, like those following a voice through a cloud. But what a gentle and hopeful and loving voice this is. God calls us onward toward the cross, toward Good Friday, but also Easter, with these words, “This is my Son, my Chosen! Listen to him!” Amen.
Richard N. Ostling, “Mother Teresa’s Surprising secret: Exemplar of saintliness often felt abandoned by God.” Naples Daily News October 18, 2003.