Even before I tell you about the sermon, I must tell you about what went through my mind in at least two of its delivery times.
I was preaching away, a bit extemporaneously, when the phrase “trump card” would have fit. My mind was about two sentences ahead of my mouth, however, and I immediately realized, “I can’t say that! Not in this particular political moment in our land!” So I hemmed and hawed and said something on the fly . . . one of those times when verbatim memory of the manuscript might help.
Nevertheless, the message is one my favorites. I felt good about the exegesis of the Transfiguration story — appreciating Mark not only as a theologian but also as a literary artist — I felt good about the application, and I felt good about giving this sermon with this bottom line at this particular cultural and political moment in our land.
Bottom line: Jesus doesn’t stand out. He stands alone.
OK, today as we start Jaw Droppers, you all get to help me solve a dicey pastoral dilemma. Isn’t that nice of me to let you help me like that? Here it is. A pastor I heard about was asked awhile back to pray before a city council meeting. And he was also asked to pray generically and not mention Jesus . . . to pray as vague a prayer as possible so as (understandably) not to offend people of different persuasions. Definitely don’t mention Jesus and definitely don’t offend. So what should he do? Doesn’t want to dishonor Jesus but Jesus is not big on causing offense (apparently). What a dilemma! Makes me think of the time – and this really happened – when someone asked me to do a funeral, but “please don’t make it a religious one.” So what do I do? Gotta help a family in grief; but how should I respond to making it vague, not religious, and certainly not centered on (or even including!) Jesus.
See, in today’s cultural climate – with Xnty rapidly becoming a non-majority religion in our land, w/ conversations about immigrants of dif religions & ESPECIALLY Islam, with our work with pastors in Hindu-dominated India, with a prof at Xn Wheaton College suspended for wearing a hijab and declaring (along with the Pope!) that Xns and Muslims worship the same God – this is a deep, vexing dilemma, one that demands the best of our minds AND spirits. Because our view on vague prayers & religion-less funerals plays into so much of our lives.
And it’s an issue that our first Jaw Dropper addresses. Now: you might not think so, you might figure what does the Transfiguration have to do w/ the place Jesus holds relative to the religions of the world, or you might never have heard of the story at all . . . but let me tell you – it’s about this. Here’s what’s going on. Look at Mark 9:2-3:
2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone.
“After six days” takes us back to Mk. 8 (six days earlier!) where Peter is the first human being (demons have done this throughout) to identify Jesus correctly: the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of the living God, God wrapped in flesh. That scene is the major turning point in Mark’s story of Jesus. And so it’s no accident that this is the next thing that happens in Jesus’ story . . . it’s an expansion of and elaboration of what it means that Jesus is the Christ. So Jesus takes his inner circle of P, J, and J up an unnamed mountain and there decides to put on a light show to end all light shows, one that doesn’t need sparklers, matches, or the Fire Dept on standby:
There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
You know what these comparing words of “dazzling” and “whitest bleach” suggest? That Jesus turned into a human light saber in that moment! More than that, himself inside out on that mountain. If you want to see my heart, my character, my essence, he is saying, well here it is. What had previously been hidden and invisible is now revealed and visible. Every secret gets this brilliant, bright exposure. And you know, PJ&J have their jaws drop. Because this is a miracle in which Jesus does NOTHING – no healing, no feeding, no water walking – and yet he IS EVERYTHING. A miracle of exposing, revealing his essence. And you know these guys had their jaws on the ground and their eyes opened wide because they’d heard it said no man sees the face of God lives & yet PJ&J DID!!!
Then look at v. 4:
And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
I love the aside “who were talking with Jesus.” What were they saying?! How’s the weather? Did you see that game? How long you been dead? Love it. And then Peter, God bless him, look what he does in 9:5-6:
5 Peter said to Jesus, “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.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
I dunno but I just think that v. 6 is one of the funniest places in the bible. Mark HAS to tell us that his mentor Petere, in a tongue-tied moment of fear TALKS ANYWAY! Listen: if you don’t know what to say, don’t say nothin’! Something smart WON’T come to you mid-sentence!
But back to the story. So much attn. gets devoted to these appearances of Moses and Elijah. What does it mean? Why are they there? Ppl have suggested Much has been made of WHY these two showed up at the Jaw Dropper. Some say it is to give history’s approval on Jesus. Some say that Elijah had to appear before Jesus could legitimately claim the time for his Messiah-ship. Others have said they appeared so we could follow them as role models – that we’d obey the law like Moses and seek justice like Elijah. Well, I believe that as nice as all those thoughts are, they miss the mark. Actually, those totally, completely, cluelessly miss the point & actually serve as a distraction from this incredibly important thing Mark is trying to say. And that distraction ignores Mark’s artistry & skill as a writer.
Because look what happens next in 9:7 –
7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
– which is a prelude to the climactic moment (yes, more climactic than the voice of God!) in 9:8:
8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
Jesus is suddenly there alone, all by himself, and it is just as suddenly clear why Elijah and Moses showed up in the first place: to disappear. Their purpose in the story is ultimately to exit stage left so that Jesus can remain alone center stage. “No one except Jesus.” The two godly men leave this remarkable scene so that P, J, and J can gaze only on Jesus. Their role is to decrease & vanish so that Jesus can increase & magnify . That’s it.
And then Peter’s booth building folly takes on a whole new dimension. His great sin was NOT, as most assume, wanting to stay on the mtn & bask in the glory. Not his booth building. His folly, his sin, his blindness, was in regarding Jesus as one of the guys. As the next in the progression. There’s a crowd – Moses, Elijah, David, Abraham (and in modern times, say, Mohammed, Krishna, Horoscope) – and Jesus is part of the progression. He may stand out in the crowd, but he is still part of it. Next in line, next man up.
And yet Mark – vividly & artistically – says NOPE! To all that. Elijah & Moses appear to disappear. They get on stage so they can get offstage leaving Jesus ALONE as center stage. They are the ultimate in supporting actor because Jesus isn’t the lead actor; he’s the movie! Peter thought Jesus was the next chapter in the story & Mark lets us know with jaw dropping drama that he is the Author! He’s not the best of the lot, he doesn’t stand out among the crowd of really good guys; he is altogether different. Can you imagine if you’d seen Moses or Elijah turned inside out? Bleh. You’d have seen jealous and murder & suicidal tendencies & pity parties galore. Not Jesus! He was … what? … brighter than anyone else in world. Oh Peter’s mountainside retreat had Jesus standing out in the crowd but still part of that crowd of religious titans. But here’s what you jaw droppers need to know: Jesus doesn’t stand out. He stands alone.
See, this is a jaw dropper that I want to turned into an eye opener for all of you. Because in the library, Paul writes these things logically (Col 1), John reports it like science fiction (Jn 1), Mark & Matt paint the picture of this mic drop solo appearance by Jesus, but they all say the same thing. Jesus doesn’t stand out. He stands alone.
And I want you to relate to Jesus as he really is, not how you want him to be. Or not how the news channel or your college portrays him to be. Because there is so much MENTAL LAZINESS out there in how ppl think of Jesus, especially w/ regard to other religious greats. So much that SOUNDS GOOD & APPEARS TOLERANT but actually just has all the spine a bowl of oatmeal. Like this poem that appeared in a UMC sermon & then it online:
Pray to whoever you kneel down to:…
Jesus nailed to his wooden or marble or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the Bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah, raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekinhah, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.
Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, Record Keeper
of time before, time now, time ahead, pray. Bow down
to terriers and shepherds and siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.
If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.
Pray to the angels and the ghost of your grandfather.
Oh. My. God. And Jesus wept at that drivel being used in a Xn pulpit, a Methodist preaching place. Just because it sounds nice doesn’t mean there’s a lick of truth in it. Jesus doesn’t stand out. He stands alone.
Because our culture, our media, our academics all want to hide the distinctions between world religions. Hey – the NT wants to highlight them! Not to cause wars! Heaven forbid! But to convey truth. To invite people to surrender to and be amazed at the one who is truth! What gets me is that we in the US (like the pastor & church w/ the poem) blur the things for which our pastor friends in India DIE. If they would worship Jesus AND Krishna, that’s fine. But because it’s Jesus to the exclusion of the myriad gods of Hinduism . . . persecution and often death. Yikes. We’re such intellectual cowards and their courage is with their whole selves. Jesus doesn’t stand out. He stands alone.
Because listen – when religions disagree at key points they can’t both be true. Either one is right, the other wrong, or they are both wrong. For example, Xnty teaches strongly that you arrive at eternal bliss by God’s grace through faith. Islam teaches you get there by being good or by martyrdom. They can’t both be true. Xnty teaches God is Trinity; Islam explicitly rejects that – they can’t both be true & don’t worship the same deity. Xnty teaches that it is appointed for man once to die and then to face judgment; Hinduism teaches we are continually reincarnated as someone/something else. They can’t both be true. Xnty teaches we have a God who is a loving and invasive Father; Buddhism teaches that God is all & all is God, in an impersonal way. They can’t both be true. On & on. It is intellectually lazy to say all religions are equal, all leaders are Lord. You take yours & I’ll take mine & let’s just get along.
Many of you know that I was an atheist as a teenager. And the night my friend laid gospel smackdown on me, I asked the question many of you may have asked, the one I was sure would stump him: what makes Jesus or Xnty any different from all those other religious leaders like Moh, Buddha, or Krishna? His answer? Of all those people, Jesus is the only one who claimed to be God and then proved it by rising from the dead. Simple answer, profound truth, life changing conversation. You can visit Mohammed’s grave, the Buddha died, Joseph Smith died, Jesus alone rose the dead. Verified fact. Hey – it’s why we sing In Christ Alone and NOT In Christ Among. Jesus doesn’t stand out. He stands alone.
This is not to say we are better, smarter, or holier than others. Or that we advocate a hostile takeover. This IS to tell you that I want you to have a living relationship with Jesus Christ – the REAL Jesus, in all his technicolor majesty – and not the Rotary Club facsimile. The real Jesus is the blindingly bright, invasive, loving, annoying judge of the quick & the dead who won’t share space on his throne with anyone or anything. You need to be able to think about him clearly in order to worship him authentically. Jesus doesn’t stand out. He stands alone.
And that Jesus . . . well he’s the ONLY one to have the Father’s approval, the ONLY one to offer his sinless life as a substitute for our sinful selves, and the ONLY one whose predicted resurrection has already come to pass. The rest of us wait! He’s the only one for everyone. Which is why we invite – don’t force, don’t harass, don’t bother, we invite – ALL PEOPLE into a living relationship with the one who doesn’t stand out in the crowd. He created the crowd. So he stands alone.
And that pastor? The city council prayer? Ultimately said, “I can’t pray neutral prayers.” And neither can I. I don’t want to pray to a God I believe does not exist. The God we have – or who has us – is Trinity, F,S, and HS and I want your jaws dropped & your eyes opened. Don’t fall for a distraction. Don’t be seduced by what sounds sensible & tolerant but is ultimately fool’s gold. Jesus can’t tolerate merely being tolerated. He longs to be, needs to be celebrated in absolute jaw dropping amazement. Jesus doesn’t stand out. He stands alone.