There’s a well-known story about a man who fell off a cliff. On the way down he managed to grab a branch, and there he was, suspended a thousand feet above a gorge, with only the branch preserving him from certain death. He cried out, “Help! Help! Is there anyone there?”
A deep voice replied, “Yes”. The man looked around, couldn’t see anyone, and said, “Who is this?” The voice replied, “This is God”. After a moment, the man asked, “Can you help me?” “Yes”, God replied; “Let go of the branch”. The man was silent for a minute, and then he called out, “Is there anyone else there?”
When God asks us to do difficult things it’s natural for us to call out, “Is there anyone else there?” We can second-guess ourselves, wondering if it’s really the voice of God we’ve heard, or wondering if we’re interpreting the Scriptures in the right way. Sometimes we’re right to wonder; we’re not always very good at discerning exactly what it is that God is asking of us, and it’s good to check and be sure. But there are other times when, deep down inside, we know what’s right; we just don’t want to face it, because it’s too costly.
I don’t know whether the three disciples mentioned in today’s reading, Peter, James, and John, were genuinely confused about whether Jesus was truly speaking the word of God to them, or whether they just didn’t want to accept what he said because it was too costly. But there’s no doubt that they had recently heard a very hard message from Jesus, and in the first sentence of today’s gospel, Mark directs us back to that hard message. We read, ‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves’ (Mark 9:2). Mark very rarely gives us time references in his gospel, and so when he does, we can be sure they’re significant. So the first question we should ask ourselves is ‘six days after what?’ To find the answer, why don’t you turn with me to the end of Mark chapter 8?
In Mark 8:27 – 9:1, we have a body of teaching that Jesus gives his disciples near the town of Caesarea Philippi. It begins with him asking the question, “Who do people say that I am?” They reply, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asks them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You’re the Messiah” – in other words, “You’re the King God has sent to set us free, the one like David, the one who will make our nation great again”.
In the tradition of the day, the coming Messiah was seen as a glorious figure, a conquering hero like David. But what Jesus says next completely rewrites that script. He says that the Son of Man – a title he liked to use for himself – must suffer and be rejected by the religious establishment, and be killed, and then after three days rise again. Peter, the very one who has just had a moment of revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus in his turn rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” he says, “for your mind is on human things, not the things of God”. He then calls the crowd and his disciples together and says, “If any want to be my followers, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. If anyone tries to hang onto their life, they’ll lose it, but if they give it up for me and the gospel, they’ll save it”.
This is a hard word, like “Let go of the branch”. But the problem is that nowadays we often misunderstand this passage. We think that ‘taking up the cross’ refers to going through suffering in general, so whatever my suffering might be, that’s my cross: it could be my difficult friend, my incurable illness, or even my domineering mother-in-law!
But that’s not what it meant in the time of Jesus. A person carrying a cross was a person who was going out to be crucified, and crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans used for rebels against the empire. Jesus was saying to his disciples, “I know you think I’m going to conquer the Romans, but I’m not. Quite the opposite, in fact; the Romans are going to conquer me! And if you want to follow me, you’ve got to be prepared be seen as a dangerous rebel, and to carry the cross as I’m going to carry it, and let the Romans conquer you, as well!” In other words, instead of killing his enemies, Jesus was going to love his enemies to the point of death, and he was calling his disciples to walk the same road with him. That’s what it meant to ‘let go of the branch’!
So this is the background to today’s passage. Can you imagine the confusion in the minds of the disciples? They’ve gradually come to understand that Jesus is more than just a wise human teacher or a prophet; he’s the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But now he seems to them to be taking a disastrous course. How could he be the Messiah if he was planning to be killed by his enemies? It couldn’t possibly be true. But if he was the Messiah, could he be wrong about this? Well, maybe he wasn’t the Messiah after all?
So now Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. Going up a mountain was full of Old Testament resonances; Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive the law from God, and when he came down again his face was shining so brightly that the people were terrified and asked him to put on a veil so that they wouldn’t have to look at him. The prophet Elijah, too, had made a long journey into the Sinai desert to the same mountain to meet there with God. Now, as Jesus and his three disciples were standing on the mountain, we read that Jesus’ appearance was transformed, or transfigured, before them: his clothes, like Moses’ face, became dazzling bright – Mark adds the little detail that it was ‘brighter than any laundry you can imagine could ever bleach them!’ And suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared there, talking with Jesus.
The disciples, of course, were terrified, as you would be if you saw a friend of yours suddenly transformed into a figure of dazzling light and talking with two people you knew to be dead! Peter blurted out the first thing that came into his mind: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here; let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” Mark comments that ‘he didn’t know what he was saying’.
And then comes another Old Testament resonance. In the story of Moses going up the mountain to meet God, God himself came down on the mountain in a cloud; later, when God led his people through the desert to the promised land, we read that he travelled with them as ‘a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night’. Now the cloud comes down over the three figures, including the one that looks like a pillar of fire, and they hear a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then the cloud fades away, and the disciples see that Moses and Elijah are gone, and only Jesus is there with them.
So what did these three disciples get out of this amazing experience? And what is Mark trying to tell his readers?
Many scholars believe that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome, in the mid-sixties of the first century A.D. During that time Nero was the Roman emperor, and he was the one who launched the first great persecution of Christians. It happened after the great fire of Rome; the rumour went around that Nero had started the fire for his own amusement, and he needed a convenient scapegoat, so he blamed the Christians. “You know those Christians”, he said; “They’re always telling us that the world is going to end in fire! They’re the ones who did it!” And so began a terrible time for the church in Rome. Christians were hung on poles, covered in pitch and set on fire as torches to light Nero’s processions. They were crucified, as Jesus had been crucified. They were thrown into the arena to be torn apart by lions. It seems likely that Peter and Paul both died in this persecution.
Mark wrote his gospel in the context of this time of great suffering. Part of his job in writing the story of Jesus must have been to make sense of what the Christians were going through. We can be sure that many of them were tempted to lose their faith. If they really had been adopted into God’s family, as Paul had taught them, then why was God letting the Romans do this to them? Was Jesus really Lord, or was he powerless to help them? And shouldn’t they take up the sword and defend themselves?
You can be sure that when Mark reminded his first readers of the words of Jesus about denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus, he had their suffering in mind. When he reminded them of Jesus’ words – “If you hang onto your life you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for me you’ll save it” – he knew that many of them were in danger of losing their lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. He was reminding them that Jesus walked the way of the Cross, the way of loving your enemies and allowing them to kill you rather than retaliate, and that he had called his followers to do the same thing, because we believe in a God who loves his enemies and causes the sun and rain to fall on the good and bad alike.
So what is this story teaching us about who Jesus is, and what he is asking of us who follow him?
Moses and Elijah were revered figures in the history of God’s people. Moses was the one through whom God had given the Ten Commandments and the Torah, the Law. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets, the men and women through whom God had spoken to his people down through their history. Together then, Moses and Elijah represented ‘the Law and the Prophets’, which was a phrase sometimes used in the gospels to mean ‘The Scriptures’ – the Old Testament scriptures, that is.
So here we have the two revered figures, who together represent Israel’s scriptures, standing there with Jesus. These disciples loved their Master, but I’m pretty sure that until now it had never entered their mind that he could possibly be greater than Moses and Elijah and the scriptures they represented. To put it another way, they would not have expected the voice from heaven to say, ‘This is my Beloved Son; listen to him’, but rather, ‘Here are the Law and the Prophets; listen to them!’
Nonetheless, the voice from heaven points not to Moses and Elijah, but to Jesus. Mark wants us to understand that he is the one the Law and the Prophets have been pointing to. In his life and teaching he fulfils the Law, and the Prophets foretold his coming. The Old Testament scriptures told the story of God’s people, and he is the climax the story has been leading to. So honour Moses and Elijah, yes, and the scriptures they represent, but ‘listen to him’ – listen to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.
My friend Harold Percy was teaching a Christian Basics class once when a woman made the following remark: “I don’t like it when Harold talks about Jesus. I don’t mind him talking about God, because the word ‘god’ can mean anything I want it to mean. But ‘Jesus’ is too close and too specific for my liking”.
In the light of this comment it’s interesting that in our epistle for today Paul puts Jesus front and centre in his message. In 2 Corinthians 4:5 he says, ‘For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake’. ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ – that was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor. Christians were proclaiming that Jesus, and not Caesar, was the true ruler of the world, and in the eyes of the Romans that made them rebels against the empire. And so they were persecuted, as their Master had been persecuted, and they responded to that persecution with love and not hate, just as their Master had taught them.
‘Listen to him’. The one who speaks to us is not just another human religious teacher on the same level as Moses or Elijah. He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Paul says in our epistle that he is ‘the image of God’. And this Son of God speaks to us and calls us to the way of the Cross. “No”, he says, “I’m not calling you to be conquering heroes. In fact, many of you are going to lose your lives. I overcame hatred with love, and I’m calling you to do the same thing. But don’t imagine that you’ll be the loser in this; you won’t. Whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel will save it forever”.
So what does it mean for us to ‘let go of the branch’? Does it mean going around trying to be disagreeable so that people will persecute us? Not at all! It’s first of all a matter of loyalty and faithfulness. If Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, then he’s God’s anointed King. So we’re called to give him our primary allegiance, to put our commitment to him ahead of all the other commitments in our lives, and to be loyal to him, no matter what the cost might be. When he speaks, we are to ‘listen to him’, and if he disagrees with the advice we’re being given by other people, we’re to follow him.
Stuart knew what it meant to take up his cross. He was a friend of John Bowen, and John told his story in a little booklet called ‘The School of Jesus’. In a job interview, Stuart was asked, ‘Since it is clear from your resume that you are a Christian, does that mean that you would not be willing to tell a lie on behalf of the company?’ ‘That is correct’, Stuart replied. ‘Thank you’, answered the interviewer, ‘that will be all’. John Bowen comments, ‘Stuart did not get the job, but he did get a good grade from Jesus on the assignment!’
Jesus said, ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me’. The voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, listen to him’. The voice in my opening story said, ‘Let go of the branch’.
What might it mean for you today to ‘let go of the branch’, to listen to God’s beloved Son? Where in your life today is Jesus challenging you to make a difficult choice out of loyalty to him? And where do you draw the line? Where do you say, ‘This far I will go out of obedience to Jesus’ commands, but no further?’
‘This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him’. Christians are disciples, and disciples are those who have given their allegiance to Jesus. Each day they live their lives in the spirit of the disciples’ prayer: ‘Lord God, help me today to learn to see life as Jesus sees it, and to live life as Jesus taught it’. So let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to truly ‘listen to him’, and to put into practice the things that we hear.