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Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-13

 Walking Up The Mountain

 

THE QUEST FOR THE NORTH POLE OR OTHER MOUNTAINTOPS

Eugene Peterson has an uncanny ability of perceiving the spiritual significance in literature that I would completely miss without his insight. Recently, his wife was reading to him the story of Winne The Pooh's quest for the North Pole. While she was reading chapter 8 Eugene caught a glimpse of the symbolism of the story. 

Christopher Robin has organized a band of animals on a journey to the North Pole. The expedition is going quite well except for one minor problem-no one is sure where the North Pole is located or where it will be found, not even Christopher Robin who proposed the expedition. 1

For Eugene Peterson the expedition to the North Pole became symbolic of our culture's quest for the spirituality life. They are in search of something but no one knows what it looks like or where it is located. In "our meaning-hungry, spirit-thirsty, God-curious world" we are flooded with "spiritualities" that are in search of something. Fundamental to the Christian task is to tell the world that we have a guidebook that tells us not only where we are going but how to get there. While the Holy Spirit through Scripture provides us with a comprehensive map to the "North Pole," the gospel of Mark holds a certain primacy. It was the first Gospel written and today's lectionary passage in particular offers us helpful guidance in our search for an authentic spiritual experience.

Today's story takes place late in the ministry of Jesus. From the larger group of disciples, he has already selected the twelve men who would be members of his inner circle. They have seen him feed 5000 people using just 5 loaves of bread and two fish and 4000 people with just 7 loaves. They were terrified when he calmed a storm and stood in amazement when he walked on water. They listened attentively but often with confusion as he taught them new insight into how to apply the law to their daily lives. They had watched the religious become increasing agitated by his teaching. They could feel the tension escalating. They were still not certain what it all meant until Jesus asked Peter that one question. "Who do you say that I am?" They still remember Peter's response, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Of course, they should have all been able to say those words. They had discussed the possibility amongst themselves but no one was able to say with any degree of certainty until the impetuous fisherman put their thoughts into words. It was finally beginning to make sense for them. However, immediately after issuing a response that demonstrates his theological brilliance, Peter shows his human ignorance by rebuking Jesus for talking about suffering and dying. Peter is truly a model disciple. In one moment he stands as a stalwart of faith and in the very next he cowers in doubt. In one moment to walks in courage and in the next, he runs in fear. In one moment he displays wisdom but in less than a breath stupidity and unbelief. The man who would become the leader of the Church shared the same struggles that you and I wrestle with each day.

Six days after his statement of faith, Peter joins the sons of Zebedee, James and John, one a short excursion with Jesus. The mention of the number six may serve a dual purpose for Mark. While it conveys a chronological record of time. It also holds symbolic value. In Jewish thought, the number, six represented incompleteness. Mark may have been making a theological statement. The life of discipleship is never complete. It is ongoing process. Throughout our lives, we display faith and commitment but also foolishness and doubt. Like Peter, we have not arrived. We are on a journey. We have no reason to be filled with pride for our achievements or shame for our failures. We are a work in progress. God is truly not yet finished with us.
 

 IT BEGINS WITH GOD

Six days after Peter makes his proclamation of faith and his daft statement of ignorance, Jesus takes this impulsive disciple along with James and John up the mountain. By his actions, Jesus reminds us that the first step in the spiritual life is always initiated by God. 

In our take charge make it happen world, we are uncomfortable with the suggestion that we are not in control. However, God is the One who initiates, directs, and controls our spiritual life. Peter, James, and John were taken up the mountain by Jesus. They did not ask. They did not make an appointment. They responded in obedience.
 

 IT TAKES MORE THAN ONE

The second step of the expedition of faith requires us to recognize that we do not walk the journey alone. Jesus took three disciples with him. However, our culture tends to enjoy its spiritual experiences alone. In his book entitled, We the Lonely People, Ralph Keys says that above all else we Americans value mobility, convenience and privacy and of these three our most cherished value is privacy. I think this is one reason why so many refuse to car pool or take public transportation. We enjoy the privacy of our own automobile. We can select the style of music that we enjoy and do not have to acquiesce to the preference of another person. We do not have to adjust our schedule. We do not have to listen to the endless chatter of someone else. 

Our demand for privacy and the value that we place on individual autonomy is a relatively new in social thought. Prior to the 1500s western culture placed a greater importance on community. A person's identity came from their membership in a group-family, tribe, church or guild. One historian has noted that "it took the invention of print to tear us from our tribes and plant the dream of isolation in our brains." To which, Charles Swindell comments, "I suppose [this] is another way of saying that most of us would rather curl up all alone with a book than with another person."2 

The writer of Ecclesiastes understood the danger of living in isolation and the advantages of community when he wrote:

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Eccles 4:9-12)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer issued a double edge warning "Let him who cannot live alone beware of community...Let him who cannot live in community beware of living alone."3 His words underscore the importance of both solitude and community in the spiritual life. We need time alone with God but our experience in God is incomplete unless done in relationship with others.

The Christian faith is not a set of doctrines, it is not a philosophy, nor is it a set of rules that one may follow on one's own. The essence of the faith is a relationship, a relationship that we enjoy with our God, but also a relationship that is discovered, strengthened, enhanced, and nourished in community. Jesus did not tell Peter that his personal faith would become so strong that the gates of hell would not prevail against him. Jesus said, "upon you I will build my church, and the gates of Hell would not prevail against my Church. Our strength is not found in our isolated faith but in our relationship with one another. We may experience God alone on the mountaintop, those isolated experience become deepen through our relationships with one another.

Today we are baptizing one adult and four children. In the Reformed faith, baptism is seldom done in isolation or apart from the community of believers. It is not an individual event but an activity of the Body of Christ. The Ethiopian eunuch would have had a more difficult time getting baptized if Phillip had been a Presbyterian minister. Baptism symbolizes that the person is brought into the household of God. They do not embark on the journey of faith alone. Through our vows, we pledge that we will scale the heights with them. We will carry their burdens when the load becomes too heavy. We will encourage them during discouraging moments. We will comfort them during times of pain. And we will challenge them to walk the path in faithful obedience.

The second step up in the spiritual life is never alone, it is a step in fellowship. 

 IT CANNOT NOT BE MANUFACTURED

Not only is our society thirsty for a genuine religious experience but it has also become enamored with technology. The latest fad in the world of high tech is the virtual reality arcade. For few dollars a minute, you can ski down a mountain side a 70 miles an hour, race at Monte Carlo, fly an F-16 through combat, or play golf on one of the world famous golf courses. If you want a more quiet gentler experience, you can walk through woodland forests and smell the scent of pine or stroll through a rose garden and enjoy the fragrance of the flowers. The experiences are so real that you feel the sensations emotionally and physically. One reporter wrote:

'Let's have a cup of coffee,' I find myself on a roaring motorcycle going faster than I ever dreamed possible. 
S
suddenly -- wham! -- I bang into the stone wall. Wham, I rebound into the traffic barrier. I go back and forth in a path of bone-shattering destruction. I slow to a crawl. I wait for time to run out, panting. My stomach feels like half-melted Jell-O. What's next? 

I find myself in the pilot's seat of an F-1 fighter. It looks completely real, instrument panel and everything. My task is to race through a canyon at speeds approaching supersonic. I roar into the wild blue yonder. I give the beast full throttle. I can't control the thing at all, and nothing feels particularly artificial at the moment. I bank to the left, I bank to the right. I roll over almost completely, I feel like I might be sick. Suddenly the death plane stops. Everything stops. There is utter silence. My back is drenched with sweat.4

I wonder how long before someone creates a other worldly version of the Holy Land. We would then be able to stand with Abraham as God revealed his glory to the patriarch of the Jewish nation. Or walk with the people of Israel around the city of Jericho and watch the walls come done. Or listen with Samuel to the voice of God calling in the stillness of the night. Or, stand with the disciples on the mountain and witness our Lord transfigured before our eyes.

While the use of high tech gadgetry may seem artificial and inappropriate for the spiritual life it is already taking place in churches. In fact, it has been taking place. Evangelists have used revivalist hymns and emotional stories to induce religious experiences for decades. When the Spirit seems to be missing, some religious leaders are not at all hesitant about manufacturing the experience. But spiritual experiences cannot be fabricate nor manufactured. 

Thomas Merton once told a young pastor to quite trying so hard to pray. The monk said, "How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun."5 We need to stop relying on artificial experiences, to stop trying to improve are techniques and methods. God may choose to renew a life through a big screen TV. He may use a labyrinth circle or a rosary. He may even choose revitalize a person's prayer life by giving her the gift of tongues.  He could even choose to use a video series or glossy print study guide. But let us remember, that the day Peter, James and John stood on the mountain with Jesus, they witnessed his transfiguration not because of what they did rather because of what God did.

The third step up in the journey of faith lays aside the techniques, the gadgets and methods and waits for God.
 

 JESUS IS ALWAYS AT THE CENTER

Christopher Robin and his friends had a lovely journey that day. They meander through the countryside and encounter various minor problems. Each animal contribute at some point to helping solve the various challenges. At one point little Roo falls into a stream and the group rallies to his rescue. Pooh grabs a pole and fishes him out. With the emergency past, the animals talk things over. Pooh is standing with the pole in his hand when Christopher exclaims "Pooh . . . where did you find that pole?" The bear looking puzzled says "I just found it, I thought it ought to be useful. I just picked it up." Christopher Robin joyfully announces, "Pooh, the expedition is over, you have found the North Pole." The animals stick the pole in the ground and Christopher Robin ties a message on it that reads, "North Pole - Discovered By Pooh."

Eugene Peterson writes

What I so suddenly "saw" as I was listening to Jan read was the culture in which I live, peopled with engaging characters out looking for a vaguely defined spirituality (the "North Pole"). Every once in a while one of them picks up something and someone says, "That's it!" Sure enough, it does look like "it." And someone, usually a "spiritual authority" (Christopher Robin), hangs a sign on it: "Spirituality." And then everyone goes home again, until the next expedition is proposed. 


 People are attracted to "spirituality" in increasing numbers these days. Fresh expeditions for the "North Pole" set out almost daily from most places in the country. (The "East Pole" and the "West Pole" are also options). As I listened to the story that late autumn evening, I recognized many of the "characters" whom I love and admire so much but am not content to leave as is: I want to honor every detail of their childlike charm, but I also want to show them both what and where the "North Pole" is. I want to lead them to Jesus. 6

While standing on the mountain Peter, James and John were easily distracted by the appearance of Moses and Elijah but after the voice spoke and the cloud lifted, Mark records, they saw no one but Jesus. Our expedition of faith has an ultimate destination but it is to a person not a place. A person who was chosen before the foundations of the world to make know the Creator of the world.

The choice is before us. Are we willing to embark on a journey of faith? Are we willing to recognize that God has been actively trying to get us up the mountain? Are we willing to walk in the company of others? Are we willing to put aside all our gadgets and wait for God? Until we are willing to do that we will never be able to enjoy the splendid beauty of seeing the splendor of our Lord transformed before us.



1 Eugene Peterson, "What's wrong with spirituality" Christianity Today, July 13, 1998 Vol. 42, No. 8, 51

2 Charles R. Swindell, Living on the Edge, (Waco TX: Word Publishing, 1985), 131.

3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (San Francisco CA: Harper and Row Publishers, 1954), 77.

4 Douglas Martin, "Stepping into Virtual Reality," New York Times, December 26, 1996.

5 Glendon Harris, "Talking to God," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 17, No. 1, p. 21 quoting James Finley , Merton's Place of Nowhere.

6 Eugene Peterson, "What's wrong with spirituality," 51.

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