I want to begin my sermon today by asking you this question: who do you listen to? Why do you listen to them? And what might cause you to stop listening to them?
Currently, a lot of people are listening to Donald J. Trump. I checked on Twitter and it says he has 47.5 million people following him. Of course, not all of them are actually listening to him, in the sense of seeing him as a reliable guide; in fact, I’d guess that a good number of those people are doing quite the opposite; they’re following his every tweet so they can catch him out when he says ridiculous things. But nevertheless, 47.5 million is a lot of people. It’s a lot more than the people Trump himself is listening to. Do you know how many people he follows on Twitter? Forty-five!
Sometimes we listen to people we’d be well-advised not to take too seriously, and sometimes we listen to people for the wrong reasons. But most of us have also made some very good choices about who we listen to. We’ve got friends we respect and trust, and we know they’ll give us good and thoughtful advice. We’d got spiritual leaders and mentors, maybe some favourite writers who have guided us well in the past. When we’re asking big questions about the direction we’re taking in our lives, it’s natural that we should consult them. Two of the authors I really look up to and respect are C.S. Lewis and Eugene Peterson; I don’t agree with them on absolutely everything, but I see them as wise and reliable spiritual guides and I take their advice very, very seriously.
In the time of Jesus, it would have been natural for Peter and James and John to look on Moses and Elijah in this way. Moses was the great founding leader of the nation of Israel. Moses was the one who had led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through their forty-year desert pilgrimage to the edge of their promised land. God had spoken to the Israelites through him, and through him had come the Torah, the Law, which later grew into what are now sometimes called the Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – which are pretty much the constitution of the people of Israel. It would be very hard for the first disciples of Jesus to imagine that anyone could be greater than Moses.
Elijah came hundreds of years later; he was the first great prophet of the kingdom of Israel. He was the one who stood up against the wicked Queen Jezebel and her husband Ahab and all the prophets of the false god Baal. Many prophets had since followed in Elijah’s footsteps but he was widely regarded in the time of Jesus as the greatest of the prophets, and people said that before the Day of the Lord came God would send Elijah back to them again. So yes: he was right up there with Moses. It would be natural for people to ‘listen to him’.
That’s part of the background to our gospel reading today. But we also need to read it in context of the passage that comes immediately before it. In the first sentence of today’s gospel Mark directs us back to what came before; he says, ‘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?’ The obvious answer is, six days after the events of the previous passage.
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 – another title for the Messiah – 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, and obviously causes Peter to rethink whether or not he wants to ‘listen to Jesus’. I think today 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.
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? Should they be listening to a man who might be a false Messiah? What should they do?
So now Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. When they reached the top, 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. 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. 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 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?
Here we have Moses and Elijah, these two revered figures from Israel’s past, standing on the mountain 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. 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.
We Christians believe that Jesus is not just one great religious leader among many. We believe that he is the incarnate Son of God – that in him God has come among us in a unique way. We don’t believe that every other religious figure in the world is wrong about everything – in fact, we believe that God has spoken in many and various ways to people down through the ages. But we do believe that because Jesus is the unique Son of God, he is God’s highest and most accurate Word to us. Above all other, we should ‘Listen to him’.
We believe this in theory, but here’s the million-dollar question: Do we in fact ‘listen to him’?
For us today, we don’t very often hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us in an audible way. A few individuals do have this experience, and I’m sure it’s a very wonderful thing, but most of us don’t. Some people find that a problem. I had a woman ask me once, “So now I’ve given my life to Jesus, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do next!”
Fortunately for us, ninety percent of the will of God for us is the same for everyone. Jesus has come among us and spoken his word. He’s explained the Old Testament scriptures to us and applied them to our lives. He’s given us a clear picture of what God is like, and he’s also given us a clear picture of God’s will for us as human beings.
You don’t need me to tell you what that’s all about; you hear the gospels read every week, and I hope you read them for yourselves too. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He told us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, to forgive those who sin against us, even as much as seventy times seven. He told us not to accumulate possessions but to live simply and give to the poor. He told us that when we have something against a brother or sister we’re not to gossip about them but to go straight to them and talk it over. He told us that when we give a dinner party we shouldn’t only invite our friends and rich neighbours, but the poor and needy as well.
And it’s not just Jesus’ words; it’s his actions as well. The Book of Common Prayer tells us to bring the ‘teaching and example of Christ into our everyday life’. I think about the way he treated women and children as his equals. I think about the way he ignored barriers telling him who he should spend time with and who he shouldn’t. I think about the way he made prayer the centre of his life, sometimes even taking whole nights in prayer with his heavenly Father, and being willing to go on long fasts as he as seeking God’s guidance.
My friends, I don’t need a special, private word from Jesus telling me what to do. I could spend the rest of my life working on the things he’s already told us, and never get to the end of it!
I must admit – because I’m a sinner like anyone else – that there are times when I’m tempted to stop listening to Jesus. If you have two coats, give one of them away to someone who doesn’t have one. Does that apply to my two cars? My two very nice guitars? And how do I sell my possessions and give to the poor in a freezing cold province like Alberta? So it’s not always easy to know how to apply Jesus’ teaching, and this is where we really do need to pray and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit – which will often come as we talk these things out together.
This Lent we’re going to try very hard to listen to Jesus as a parish. I’ve sent out a list of Bible readings, five days a week, that will take us through the Gospel of Mark in the season of Lent and the first part of Easter. Along with the list of readings, I’ve given some suggestions as to how we might spend a daily time of Bible reading in such a way that we don’t just skim through the text, but really take time to listen to what God might be saying to us in it. I hope that, if you don’t already have a daily discipline of Bible reading, you might join us in this journey through Mark. If your email address is on our parish list you would have received the list of readings a few days ago, and there are some paper copies on the table in the foyer.
‘Listen to him’. But sometimes, sadly, it’s true that (in the words of Paul Simon) ‘A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’. I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that there are times when I’ve treated the words of Jesus in that way: I’ve heard what I wanted to hear and disregarded the rest.
So this Lent, I’m going to try to remind myself who Jesus is: ‘the word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). I’m going to ask him to help me really listen to him, with my whole heart, and to put into practice the things that I hear. I hope you’ll do the same.