Preached FCCW February 11, 2018
Two men were having a conversation one day. One of them said, “My wife talks to herself a lot.” His friend answered, “Mine does, too. But she doesn’t know it. She thinks I’m listening.”
When you eavesdrop on conversations Jesus had with his disciples, you have to wonder if sometimes he must have felt like he was talking to himself. They just never seemed to be really listening to him, especially when he tried to tell them about things they would rather not hear.
In Mark’s telling of the Transfiguration story, he sets the scene by saying “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.”
Which begs the question, Six days later than what?
Flashback six days and you would find Jesus dropping this bombshell on his disciples; telling them that soon he would be rejected by the religious leaders, undergo great suffering, and be put to death.
But, Jesus might as well have been talking to himself, because the disciples couldn’t have tried harder to not hear the things he was saying than if they had clasped their hands over their ears and were going, “la-la-la-la-la” to drown out his voice.
Peter spoke for all of them when he took Jesus aside and demanded that he not talk this way. Peter often reacted impulsively, but rarely recklessly. He preferred to play things safe rather than take risks;, like when he denied even knowing Jesus when all those bad things Jesus tried to warn them of, eventually came to pass. Peter refused to hear that the man they had left everything to follow was on a death march to Jerusalem where his enemies were waiting to crucify him.
Whatever it was these disciples thought they were signing up for when they leaped out of their fishing boats and walked away from their tax booths, it didn’t look anything like what Jesus was describing.
Jesus had even more unwelcome news to give them, though. He calls them all together and says to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Jesus was clear that being a follower of his meant a bumpy ride and not a gravy train. The disciples had been with Jesus but had not understood his true identity, try as he may to explain it to them. And, in failing to understand Jesus’ identity, they had yet to discover their own identities as his disciples.
So, six days later he takes three of them up a mountain with him, for what turns out to be a spectacularly eye opening event. On the mountaintop, Jesus glows with an intensity that’d fry your retinas. When the spots finally cleared from their eyes, they see Moses and Elijah there speaking with Jesus.
To put this in its proper context, Moses was the traditional author of the first five books of the Bible, which formed the heart of the Jewish religion. And, Elijah was a prophet who was taken up to heaven and was expected to reappear on earth just before the Messiah came.
Moses and Elijah had this in common: they both had experienced close-up and personal encounters with God on mountaintops. Oh, and they also shared something else in common. They had both lived centuries before Jesus or any of his disciples had even been born. Yet, here they were, talking with Jesus.
It says that the disciples were terrified and did not know what to say. But, Peter, who never let not knowing what to say, stand in the way of saying something, blurts out, “Master it is good for us to be here. How’s about James and John and I build shelters for you, Moses and Elijah so we can all stay up here permanently?”
It was the old, impetuous Peter speaking. But, it was the old play-it-safe Peter’s way of thinking behind the words. Because, if Jesus was right about him being betrayed by the religious leaders in Jerusalem, then why not stay up here on the mountaintop with friendlier folks like Moses and Elijah? And, if Jesus was right about his disciples having to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him, then it would be in everyone’s best interest if they could convince Jesus to stay put and spare them the necessity of following him to places where crosses awaited them all.
That’s when what had started out as an eye-opening experience for Peter, James and John turned into an ear-opening experience. A cloud descended over them, and from the cloud came a voice.
Peter, James and John knew the stories of Moses and Elijah well enough to recall that when Moses met with God on Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, a great cloud covered the top of that mountain; and that when Elijah encountered God it was as a still, small voice that spoke to him. So when a voice spoke from this cloud, they knew who it was that addressed them. What the voice said was “This is my Son, the Beloved; LISTEN TO HIM!”
Well, up until then, they had not been very good listeners, except when it came to what they wanted to hear. And when Jesus spoke about what they didn’t want to hear, they stopped listening before Jesus got to the best part.
Let me explain. There are three times in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus predicts his death by crucifixion. I’m going to read all three and invite you to listen for the good news embedded in the bad news.
Mark 8:31 – Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Mark 9:31 – he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
Mark 10:33-34 – “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
Do you hear the good news on the other side of the bad news in each of those verses? The good news that on the far side of disgrace and rejection and crosses to be carried there lies resurrection. Not just for Jesus, but for those who follow him. And not just resurrection as in life after you die, but resurrection as in a life transformed here and now.
When Jesus led James, John and Peter down from the mountain where they had witnessed his transfiguration, he told them not to tell anybody about what they saw until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Then the passage ends with them “questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.” It’s as if they had never heard of such a thing, even though Jesus tried to tell them. And in a way, they never had heard, because when they stopped listening to Jesus describe the bad stuff, he was just talking to himself by the time he got to the part about new life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” coined the terms “cheap grace” and “costly grace” to explain the difference between a “safe” Christianity and the risky discipleship that Jesus calls us to. He defines “cheap grace” as “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer explains it, is religion that makes us feel good about ourselves but does next to nothing about transforming us into followers of Jesus who are willing to take up our crosses when needed for the transformation of the world in which we live.
This is, in his own words is how he defines “Costly Grace.”
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
The Season of Lent, which begins this week with Ash Wednesday, beckons you and me to hear again the message of costly grace; apart from which the resurrection joy of Easter has little to say to us. Lent implores us to examine where we have short-changed ourselves by settling for a cheap grace when we could be experiencing life as Jesus imagined it could be.
I encourage us all to immerse ourselves in Lent this year by making use of every opportunity, from Ash Wednesday through the Holy Week services of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, to grow in our experience of God’s costly grace, by really listening… to what Jesus is saying to us.
Copyright 2018 Raymond Medeiros