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From another world

What could a mysterious event on the top of a mountain far away and long ago, possibly have to do with us here and now? I believe it is very important. It opens a window on another world and lets us see Jesus in quite a different 'light'; but it is mysterious. It was hard enough for the fishermen who knew him well to understand, and they were there: they at least had their own direct experience of it to remember. They passed it on to the other disciples of Jesus, and what they experienced is told in slightly different ways by Matthew, Mark and Luke; and there is apparently a later reference to it in the Second letter of Peter:

See how the apostles have passed on their experience. They were eyewitnesses, and that was their great importance in the early church: we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty, they said. They said it was not a myth, not like some, they said. According to the gospel writers, the three apostles all saw something strange which caused them to feel afraid.

Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain, apart by themselves [Mark 9:2]. They were getting away from it all. This happened a few days after the occasion when they were on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philipi to the North of Galilee and Jesus had talked with them about who he was. Peter had said that he was the Messiah [Mark 8:29], but Jesus then told them not to tell anyone and went on to tell them that he would be going to Jerusalem to die. He had to rebuke Peter for saying that such a thing should never happen to him, because Peter had the wrong idea of the kind of king Jesus the Messiah was. He also warned them and the crowds, when they were thinking of power and privilege, of the danger of having big ideas about themselves:

 They were being forced to think seriously about the kind of Messiah that he might be.
The presence of God
 It was according to Mark about six days later that he took them up the mountain. Their discussion about who Jesus was must still have been fresh in their minds. Now they had another experience that brought home to them that he was more than an earthly leader. The dazzling white light signifies a divine presence. There is another example of it in the New Testament when Paul was confronted by the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus:  The symbolism of light appears at many points. Jesus is called the light of the world [John 8:12; 9:5]. John speaks of his coming as the light coming into the world [John 1:9]. Light and glory are closely associated. To be seen in his glory was as if the light shone out of him, so Paul was to say later, as we read in the epistle today:  The other gospel writers, Matthew and Luke make mention of his face shining: The Jews would have remembered what was written about Moses, how at one time his face shone so brightly that he had to wear a veil, after he had been talking with God on Mount Sinai. [Exodus 34:29-35]. Here we have Moses again on a mountain. And Elijah, the first of the great prophets after Moses the law giver, also went up the mountain to be with God, though he experienced his presence not with lightening and thunder but in the sound of sheer silence [1 Kings 19:8-13]. Moses and Elijah meant, for the Jews, the knowledge of God which was passed on to them in the scriptures, which they called the law and the prophets. So here they see Jesus, the Word of God in the flesh, with these two great witnesses to God's word for his people. As the Christ or Messiah, Jesus is the fulfilment and perfection of all that had been revealed about God in the law and the prophets. So when the cloud came down they heard a voice say: This is my beloved Son, listen to him [Mark 9:7].
The cloud too was an Old Testament sign of the presence of God known to the people of Israel when Moses was leading them through the desert after they escaped from slavery in Egypt: Who was he?
So this experience of the disciples with Jesus on the mountain was full of familiar symbols of the presence of God and his word. The message they received from it, This is my beloved Son, listen to him, reinforced the confession of faith Peter had recently made: You are the Messiah. It was similar to what Jesus himself had experienced at his baptism by John: That is the point of the story: here is the Son of God. We might wonder what we would have experienced if we had been there. What would you expect to have seen and heard? If you had taken a video camera what do think it would have recorded? Does it matter? Some say it was a vision. If so, it still has a miraculous character, as it was a vision which three people had at the same time. Remember that the apostles told of their experience as eyewitnesses and made a point of saying it was not just a myth that had been passed on from unknown sources. It is hard to know what we would have experienced, but it was an event of importance to them, and their response to it is interesting: they were afraid, and yet they wanted to stay there!
I have previously preached on this Sunday I recalling some memories of my youth in Tasmania; and I spoke of mountain top experiences and life in the valleys. Today I began with reference to 2 Peter 1:16-18, to the apostles being eyewitnesses to the glory of God in Jesus Christ, because I think it is important in our present circumstances to recognize that the truth about Jesus is not a myth. The apostles were saying something substantial: that, in their experience, Jesus was more than a good man. They were saying that he came from God and was God. There is an unavoidable other-worldly character to it. So in a few minutes I will invite you to say with me Philippians 2:6-11 as an affirmation of faith: I believe in Nature pointing beyond itself
We have all had some experience of the wonder of God. Sometimes it comes to us through the appreciation of nature, sometimes, indeed, on a mountain. Some fine descriptions of that kind of experience have been posted on the Internet a few years ago by a minister in Vermont, a beautiful part of the USA, still largely unspoiled, where I have been a number of times to visit old friends in a stone house in the woods. He was responding to what someone in Canada had written: I know and love some places like that, especially in Tasmania where I grew up close to the mountains-- and I remember one or two in Vermont -- though the thought of snow piled up on little branches is rather strange when the temperature has been over 100 F. And of course it is not just the place, but the moment. And how like Peter, we want to capture the moment and keep up! It reminds me of how Paul Tillich, who was a great theologian at Harvard when I was there, described a miracle as an ecstasy of nature.

But I want to get beyond the myth-like character of natural beauty which invokes fairies and leprechauns (which was a fair enough example) to somehow convey a word about relationship to another reality (which such human experiences point only faintly towards). I suspect that the top of the mountain was a barren place, even an 'awe-ful' place, and they were certainly not taken by the view when the cloud came down. Their first response was to feel afraid. I think this means that, as in true worship, they were filled with awe and wonder. If they wished to stay it was because for them, there and then, a window had opened onto another world in which they saw Jesus in a new light, in relation to a much grander scheme of things.
Our calling today
It is to confess Jesus as Lord of all in that grander scheme of things that I believe we are called today. We do need to follow him in humble service in the streets that are busy with human life when we come down from the mountain, but we will not serve him truly if we do not acknowledge him as the Lord of our whole lives. The Christian life is more than social action for the good of others. It includes that. It is more than maintaining tradition or keeping a local church alive, though we hope to do that. And it is more than having our own private experience of the presence of God or glimpses into the spirit world, though it may include some of that too. It is, above all, a response to Jesus, knowing him to be the Messiah, the holy one of God, the Son of God, the one who is the Lord of all in the great drama of God's creation.
Our worship of him in his glory takes us into service in the world in which we are challenged to take up our cross and follow him. It requires, loyalty, commitment and sacrifice. That only make sense if he has a right to absolute devotion because of who is. Everything depends on that: who is he? That is the question which puzzled the disciples and which they began to answer for themselves in such experiences as they had with him as they talked with him on the road and as they looked through that window onto another reality as he was Transfigured on the mountain. These experiences inspired and equipped them to become his apostles, leading others who shared the faith, proclaiming him as Lord and serving him in great hardship, carry their own crosses to the ends of earth, in many cases going to painful deaths in devotion to him.
Any local church today in the West is at risk of falling into deep trouble in a hostile culture; and so in the Uniting Church in Australia and the whole Christian church in all its denominations in Western countries. (The situation is different in other parts of the world where there are many millions of new Christians.) The very survival of this church, and the wider church in our society, is in question. Unless things change radically, there will often be trouble in regard to money; and there will be tensions and disappointments around social witness, education and worship; and you will have worries about ineffective and confused leadership locally and in the wider church. There is no way out of it by using human survival tactics, like being better organised and working harder. Nothing less than renewal of faith in Jesus as the Lord, the one who came from God and is God, will save the day. The Christian faith depends absolutely, and in the end, solely, on who Jesus is. The testimony of the apostles remembering their experience on the mountain is to say: He is the Lord.

I invite you now, in sincerity, to the extent that you can do so honestly, to say with me the ancient confession of faith which was said when the apostles were still alive and is preserved for us in Paul's letter to the Philippians [2:6-11]. Let us stand and confess the faith.

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