Now, But Not Yet
Walking Into the Chaos of Life
Last Sunday evening I enjoyed going with our youth to Central Christian Church in Lexington for the Martin Luther King, Jr. service. They like to go because they enjoy the service but they also enjoy catching up with their friends from camp.
I loved getting to see my friends from camp. I spent a lot of time at church camp when I was in junior high and high school. I would go as often as I could – I would go as a camper and then I would go back for more weeks as a dishwasher or to mow the grass or to work as a maintenance person (which is a scary thought).
Life at camp was great. You didn’t get much sleep but you had a lot of fun and experienced some really meaningful moments. You know what we called those kinds of experiences? You’ve had the kinds of meaningful moments where you called them – mountaintop experiences.
That’s a phrase that comes out of our scripture reading for this morning, when Jesus goes up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John and is transfigured before them and Elijah and Moses appear with him.
What I never liked about camp was coming back to the reality of everyday life. Camp was great because you were shielded from so many of the realities of life. When I came home I had some yards I needed to mow, I had errands to do on our farm, and I had to deal with some of my friends who would make fun of me for going to church camp. It would have been so much simpler, I always thought, just to stay on the mountaintop of the camp experience. Maybe we could all just move there and live out our days in that experience.
But the mountaintop is not where we spend most of life, is it? As much as we enjoy the time at the top of the mountain, it seems to me that we spend most of life somewhere between the mountaintop and the bottom of the valley. Some days we have that great mountaintop experience but most of our days are somewhat further down the mountain. Sometimes we are in the middle and there are times when it seems we are dragging along day after day in the lowest part of the valley.
Today we come to this great story, and what is especially great is how Mark takes us not only to the mountaintop but back down to the foot of the mountain, and it is at the foot of the mountain that the disciples learned to walk into the chaos of life. They learned the goal was not to avoid the chaos, but to embrace it and stride right into the midst of it.
This is the traditional location of the transfiguration, where you can see the Church of the Transfiguration. Many scholars believe it may have been on this mountain, Mount Hermon.
Whichever mountain, Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up on the mountain and witness this transfiguration, and see Jesus speaking with Elijah and Moses.
The first point of interest in this story, I think, is the choice of the three disciples to go up on the mountain with Jesus. Imagine being Peter, James, and John. First, you are one of the twelve specially chosen by Jesus out of all those who were his followers. That’s pretty great, but then out of those twelve you are one of the three who form his inner circle. That’s pretty special. They must have been pretty special. They may have gotten inflated egos because of being so special.
But the point of being chosen was not because they were special or set apart for privilege, but to be set apart for service. At this point they may have simply thought they were the most important of the twelve disciples, but Jesus was setting them apart for a greater responsibility of leadership and service.
Billy Graham made an interesting comment years ago when he spoke about the celebrity status people often bestowed upon him. He admitted it was difficult to keep a spirit of humility when people offer private planes and limousines for your transportation. There are some celebrity ministers that don’t seem to mind those perks, unfortunately.
For Peter, James, and John, Jesus was setting them apart for an extra measure of leadership and service. That measure of leadership and service would not lead them to a life of privilege but to a life of suffering and in the case of Peter and James to martyrdom.
The second point of interest is Peter’s verbal response to this experience. It is such an overwhelming moment that Peter just has to open his mouth and say something, which would have been okay except for the fact that he says something dumb. One of the things I so like about Peter is his ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time – dumb things, because I say a lot of dumb things.
All of us have said dumb things. Do you want to know one of the dumbest things I ever said? One of the things that made it dumb is that it wasn’t said just to one person; it was said to a group of people. In church. During a sermon. It was such a dumb thing to say that I always win the prize at minister gatherings when we compare dumb things we have said in sermons. It was so dumb that I’m going to add to the dumbness by telling you what I said – now that’s really dumb! (but you’ll notice I waited until a really wintery day when the attendance would be lower). It wasn’t just what I said, it was the context that really made it dumb. When I was a senior in college I was the youth minister at Bethel Christian Church in Jonesboro, Tennessee, a small African-American Disciples church. They gave me the opportunity to preach one Sunday, and in that sermon I told a story from my church camp days. On Friday evenings at our camp, at the vespers service, we met on a hill, on one side of a valley. On the other side of the valley was a large cross dug into the side of the hill. On Friday afternoon corncobs were soaked in kerosene and then put in that dug out cross on the hillside. At the end of the service, when the sun had set and it was dark, someone would light up that cross. You can already see it coming, can’t you?
Yes, this is going exactly where you think it is going. As I stood behind that pulpit, in the town where Tanya was raised and as a young girl had witnessed the Ku Klux Klan marching in the town’s Christmas parade, and before a congregation of African-American worshippers, I told of that cross and then said you’ve never seen a more beautiful sight than that burning cross. That’s pretty dumb, isn’t it? Actually, it’s incredibly dumb. Now don’t you feel better about some of the things you’ve said!
Peter’s response seems pretty tame in comparison. He says to Jesus in verse 5 – Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. And then Mark adds this note – He did not know what to say, they were so frightened. Here’s a good rule of thumb – when you don’t know what to say – don’t say anything! When you don’t know what to say, but are insistent on saying something, it’s almost always going to be the wrong thing to say.
What was wrong with what Peter said? Here’s what was wrong – he wanted to stay on the mountaintop and forget about all the people down in the valley. Imagine the excitement and power of this experience, imagine witnessing these events, and then imagine having to come down from the mountain to be confronted immediately with the chaotic situation that awaited them. Mark tells us that when they get to the bottom of the mountain there is a large crowd gathered around the other nine disciples. The teachers of the law were arguing with them and a man with a son possessed by a spirit was complaining about the inability of the ten to provide healing. Who wouldn’t want to stay up on the mountain?
It would be so much easier to stay on the mountaintop, away from the needs of people, away from the clamor of the crowd, away from all the people wanting something from you, away from the stresses of the multitude of needs that waited.
When we are on our mountaintop we cannot forget about those who are still in the valley. When we are soaking up the joy and excitement of the mountaintop there are many who are struggling through the valley and they cannot be left behind.
So Jesus leads Peter, James, and John down from the mountaintop and Mark says in verse 15 that the crowd, at the foot of the mountain, when they saw Jesus, ran to him. It’s enough to make you want to run back up the mountain. Can you imagine the stampede of needs that came at Jesus? Who wouldn’t want to run away?
But the lesson Jesus is teaching to his disciples is that there is a connection between the mountaintop and the valley. If we are not willing to walk with people through the valley then what happens to us on the mountaintop is negated; it’s not really true.
There is a connection being made in this passage between meeting God and then entering into the lives of those around us. If worship is to meet God then we can say the real test of worship is how well it moves us to connect to the lives of others.
Jesus didn’t go up the mountain to avoid people or to escape human need; Jesus went to the mountain to further prepare himself for what was ahead – the cross – and it was a reaffirmation of his mission. Sometimes that requires a time of solitude, but it doesn’t call for complete and total withdrawal. Faith, writes William Barclay, must have solitude, but not solitariness (Barclay, p. 214). Solitude makes us better prepared to meet the challenges of life and of our calling, but it should not to lead us to withdraw from the realities of the world.
It is absolutely critical that we have times to renew and recharge our faith. You can’t give yourself away without taking time for renewal or you become a burnt-out shell. Sometimes we wear people out by putting so many things on them. When a church finds a willing worker, what often happens? We load them up with every job we can and we burn them out. I remember hearing someone say, some years ago, that they dreaded going to church because they had so many jobs there it was worse than going to work.
What a sad commentary on what had been put on that person.
But what we are seeing more and more in our world is not stepping aside for a time of renewal but removal. It’s so easy to look at our world and throw up our hands and say I’m done. I’m going to live in my own world and take care of myself. If you choose to do that you’ll have a lot of company, because that’s where more and more people are choosing to live.
Jesus didn’t give his disciples that option.
When the youth group went to All People’s Christian Center in LA last August we had an interesting experience when we had some time off and went into Hollywood. We ended up driving along the edges of the Beverly Hills Mall, which was a very interesting contrast to the area where we were staying and working in south Los Angeles.
Economically and socially, Beverly Hills is a mountaintop in our culture. As a group, we felt more out of place there than we do in south LA, which is the valley in economic and social terms.
It’s so much easier to want to stay on the mountaintop and escape the realities of life, but let us remember that Jesus very purposely led Peter, James, and John down the mountain and into the chaos of life, and he leads us there as well.