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“The Curtain Pulled Back on a Mysterious Identity”

Sept.16, 2012  Mk.9:2-13


Christianity is a very realistic religion in that it doesn’t sugar-coat or idealize things, but addresses life as it IS, complete with its hardships and difficulties. For many people, life is tough: we need help in order to cope with life’s suffering and abusiveness.
    In Mark 9:12f Jesus states,  “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things.Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” Here we see Jesus allude to His own upcoming suffering at the cross, as well as John the Baptist’s premature death at the hands of Herod as a result of preaching against the rulers’ marital infidelity. The New Living Translation puts it more bluntly: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be treated with utter contempt...Elijah has already come, and they chose to abuse him, just as the Scriptures predicted.” Suffering, contempt, feeling abused and mistreated: life may treat us that way. Jesus can relate to the hardships we experience in the world.
    Many people are in situations where they feel pressure from life circumstances. This week we got another free sampler issue of Maclean’s in the mail. The cover story was titled “Crisis on Campus: The Broken Generation”. It describes how many college and university students are facing mental health issues. Nearly 90% of University of Alberta students said they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, and felt exhausted (but not from physical activity); over half said they felt things were hopeless, felt lonely, were very sad, felt overwhelming anxiety, and experienced more than average stress. Almost 7% had “seriously considered suicide” and 1.2% had actually attempted suicide. In 8 American universities, it was found that 15% of students had cut, burned, or otherwise injured themselves.
    Yet these are supposedly our ‘brightest and best’, with vistas of opportunity opening up for them; why are they so depressed and anxious? A study at Queen’s University suggested a range of reasons: the stress of moving away from home, academic demands, social pressures, parents’ expectations, and the tough job market awaiting them. Students say, “I need to get into this or that program, because the world is scary and I see people out of work.” Or there’s the “downward mobility” factor: let’s say you were top of the class in high school, but at university you suddenly discover there are a lot of other people brighter than you – forget making the Dean’s list! Another student writes, “In High School I was an overachiever but now in the real world it is more of a challenge! Things just seem so hopeless right now and I can barely sleep because of the stress.”
    So, life circumstance (such as higher education) can bring its own worries and hardships. There’s also evidence that being a Christian in itself can cause trouble in many countries. The EMC prayer bulletin this week “a pastor in Novosibirsk, Russia who was attacked and beaten unconscious this past week.” We received an update from Samaritan’s Purse in which Franklin Graham writes, “I recently contacted our longtime ministry partner in the region to check on the plight of Syrian Christians. He said that believers were frightened by the brutality and bloodshed. In one community, militant Muslims lined up 11 Christians and ‘slit their throats like slaughtered lambs’, he told me.”
    Graham also points to a February cover story in Newsweek, “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World” written by an atheist woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She notes, “Christians are being killed in the Islamic world because of their religion.It is a rising genocide that ought to provoke global alarm.” For instance, in Nigeria in 2011, the members of one radical Islamist group “killed at least 510 people and burned down or destroyed more than 350 churches in 10 northern states.” This journalist goes on to describe similar casualties in Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, and Indonesia. In Franklin Graham’s words, “the lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians now hang in the balance, as militant Muslims spread an ‘arc of terror’ across Northern Africa and the Middle East.”
    And there are even some signs that things are heating up against Christians with traditional beliefs right here in Ontario. A Hamilton-area dentist, Dr Steve Tourloukis (a member of the Greek Orthodox church) is seeking a court order against his children’s public school board after they refused to allow him to withdraw his children from controversial lessons on sexuality. He told LifeSiteNews, “[I want them] to acknowledge my inherent parental rights to direct the spiritual and moral education of my own children...They’re my kids, not the government’s, not the Hamilton-Wentworth School Board’s. I don’t believe that teachers are ‘co-parents’ with equal say in my children’s religious beliefs.” The Toronto District School Board has a formal policy forbidding withdrawals from its pro-homosexual curriculum and even forbidding notification of parents in advance; the Hamilton board appears to be moving toward a similar policy. Is the government backpedaling on parents’ rights and religious freedoms? In 2010 a spokesman told a news agency, “If there is a component of any course, in conflict with the personal beliefs of the parents, something they don’t believe in, the parents can withdraw the student from that component of the course.” But this week, according to LifeSiteNews, Education Minister Laurel Broten says school boards may refuse parents’ requests for religious accommodation if they deem fit. Tourloukis’ lawyer (on the other hand) says there is a “vast array” of previous decisions that deal with freedom of religion and support the case. Mary Ellen Douglas, president of Campaign Life Coalition Ontario, expressed concern that the government is supporting the school boards in taking a “very heavy-handed approach” and adds, “The parents are the primary educators of their children.If something is being taught that is morally repulsive to the parents they should be able to remove their children.”
    Are evangelical values based on Biblical teaching bound to bring us into conflict with the secular principles of the state? Would you go as far as Dr.Tourloukis in supervision of what your children are taught? Scripture does say fathers are responsible to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Note: the dentist’s wife is a teacher in the local public board.)
    The world dealt Jesus and John the Baptist hostility - suffering, contempt, abuse. This observation of Jesus in chapter 9 comes between his first prediction of His upcoming crucifixion (8:31) and the last two (9:31; 10:33). Hardship and even torture would probably have been very much on His mind. The event on the mountaintop comes at an ideal time to encourage Jesus (and us) to persevere amidst trials, and to give the disciples long-term hope.


Have you been treated to any displays of extreme beauty this summer – something so lovely and attractive that it just arrested you where you stood? Last Sunday morning it seemed Blyth was particularly blessed, because from our living room window, a brilliant pillar of colour - a rainbow - plunged from the sky into downtown. Sometimes we may see a combination of colours in the sky and sunset that we would even declare “glorious!” What the 3 disciples - Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ ‘inner circle’ - witnessed that day must have been seared indelibly into their consciousness for the rest of their lives. Peter much later wrote to the church in his second letter,  “...we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory...We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” (2Pe 1:16-18) Unforgettable!
    So what exactly did they witness? Jesus was honoured or glorified in three ways - by His appearance; by association; and by the Father’s spoken affirmation. Vv2f, appearance: “He was transfigured before them,” metamorphed - like a butterfly metamorphs from larva to pupa to gorgeous adult. Jesus was the original transformer! He became “resplendent with divine brightness”; “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Perhaps a sneak preview of the One John would later see as he was about to write the book of Revelation, “His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.” (Rev 1:14) A sidenote - I always wonder, were Adam and Eve similarly sheathed in a glory-covering before they sinned in the Garden of Eden? Is that why they suddenly realized they were naked immediately afterwards, and sewed leafy coverings? (Gen 3:7) And what does this suggest about the appearance of believers after their resurrection into glorified spiritual bodies as Paul predicts in 1Corinthians 15(43f)? “So it will be with the resurrection of the dead...It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; ...it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body...And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.” So, as we peer at Jesus atop Mount Hermon, what do we see of the form we who believe one day shall take, by His grace?
    Jesus is also honoured by His association: v4, “there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.” These men were long dead, but here they are alive again! Elijah, a chief amongst the prophets, and Moses, giver of the Law; between them representing the fullness of God’s revelation in the Old Testament, or as the Jews called it, “the Law and the Prophets”. These two men were heroes of the Hebrew faith; to be associated with them brought Jesus glory. If I were invited to speak on a platform with Dr Billy Graham on one side and Chuck Swindoll on the other, d’you think I’d feel honoured? Elijah and Moses are far more famous than that!
    V7, Jesus has further glory attributed to Him by the Father’s spoken affirmation. A cloud appears and envelopes them, the cloud of Yahweh’s Shekinah glory, such as first filled the Tabernacle when Moses set it up in Exodus 40(34), or as Ezekiel witnessed it departing and returning (10:4, 44:4); akin to the radiant pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that guided the Hebrews from Egypt to the Promised Land. God’s voice boomed from the cloud, “This is my dearly loved Son; listen to Him!” (NLT) Jesus was no ordinary man; here the Heavenly Father “owns” Him as at baptism, declares Jesus to be one with Himself. The command “Listen to Him” distinguishes Jesus as far more authoritative than Elijah or Moses. The Life Application Bible comments, “As God’s only son, He far surpasses them in authority and power.Many voices try to tell us how to live and how to know God personally.Some of these are helpful; many are not. We must first listen to the Bible, and then evaluate all other authorities in light of God’s revelation.”
    What are you listening to as YOUR authoritative sources for guidance? Your parents or grandparents? Your peers? Popular culture? “Listen to Him!”
    I saw Franklin Graham being interviewed on CNN; he openly proclaimed his trust in the Bible as the authority for his life, and that consequently, though he acknowledged Barack Obama as a “gracious” man, Graham could not support him because he was “100% wrong” about abortion. For Franklin, his ultimate authority source is not the media, nor the government nor a political party, but the Bible; openly confessing that on national media, he deflected the spotlight to God, honouring Jesus by subjecting his life to Scriptural principles.


Vv5-6 contain a little diversion thanks to Peter that remind us how earthy and un-retouched these accounts are; Mark and the other early church writers didn’t “edit out” truth about the disciples’ foibles or ignorant interjections.  “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." (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)” (I’m sure if I’d been there, I would have let fly with something just as regrettable in retrospect!) Cameras not having been invented yet, Peter tries to ‘capture the moment’ another way – constructing shelters (perhaps like those used during the camping festival of Booths) so every one of the special guests has a place to stay.
    Man-made religion tries to capture the supernatural moment but it always evaporates in our grasp; so we’re left with a shell, not the essence of the experience. You can’t quick-freeze or vacuum-wrap a holy moment. The medieval church got way off track partly through veneration of relics – bits of bone or flesh or wood or cloth passed supposedly from the saints on down (though many were of questionable origin). We want to lasso the holy and put it in a pen, branding it with our own stamp, then sit back and wait for the world to beat a path to our sacred shrine. But God is pleased NOT to work like that. Perhaps there atop Mount Hermon Peter saw an opportunity to become a “holy huddle” away from all the seamy political dealings of Rome and the hypocritical religious charade of Jerusalem – but sooner or later it would become a sham as God, the Living God, had moved on.
    Next week we begin a new chapter in the story of Living Water Christian Fellowship, and frankly, I have some apprehensions. Up til now we’ve been forced to travel lightly, to be dispersed out in the community, to not get too attached to any one spot. Granted, it WILL be very nice not to have to set-up and tear-down every Sunday! That does get tiring after 11 years. Having a facility we can use throughout the week should have its advantages. But I hope we don’t lose our adaptability, our mobility, and especially our sense that the church is NOT a building – the church is PEOPLE. The church is the ‘foot’, the building is just a ‘shoe’ that helps the foot do what it’s supposed to. Contrary to what Peter may have thought, just because we have a ‘shelter’ doesn’t mean we’ve “arrived” or “have it made”. Beware lest we become too attached, too comfortable; lest maintenance start to overshadow mission - as has proved the “death knell” for too many congregations already.
    Religion tends to idolize the artifact of the spiritual reality, the material “thing” that can be held and controlled. We’re always tempted to worship the fancy object rather than the living, good, holy, gracious God. This past week a recent tourist to Israel was describing how at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity she waited in line two hours to see the supposed holy spot where Mary delivered the baby Jesus. Many pilgrims bring cloths they rub on the stones at the place so they can take the ‘essence’ of the spot home with them. Our friend became so annoyed at the length of time the little old lady ahead of her was taking rubbing her cloth on the stone that she hip-checked her aside so she could take a photo! Later, she was so ashamed of her behaviour that she decided NOT to go into the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem lest she resort to similar unChristlike tactics.
    Peter’s suggestion to build a shelter was ignored. If we’re not careful, the focus of the most fervent pilgrim can become misdirected, idolizing the experience or the place and missing altogether the Living One who has moved on to other places where He can reveal His goodness.


Verse 9 contains a significant direction by Jesus about keeping what they’ve seen under wraps:  “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what "rising from the dead" meant.” Why would He tell them to, essentially, “keep a lid on it”? They’d just witnessed a marvelous, miraculous supernatural occurrence: why not go and tell the whole world about what a glorious supernatural Son of God Jesus really was?
    Because, detached from His “rising from the dead” (which they couldn’t figure out what it meant because it had never happened before – not just a ‘resuscitation’ but being resurrected for eternity) – detached from “rising from the dead” the masses might jump to the conclusion Jesus was an earthly type of Saviour / Messiah: a conquering Saviour who would crush their political enemies the Romans and restore Palestine to Jewish rule. But that’s not the kind of Messiah Jesus is, because the Romans aren’t our real enemy – our actual enemy is our fallen sinful nature. The evil that’s inbred into our very makeup. And to overcome that “old self” – to bring victory over the guilt resulting from our inevitable sin and misdeeds, Jesus would have to pay the price of His perfect divine self in our place. Glory – Jesus’ particular kind of divine glory - is inextricably linked to grace. “No cross, no crown.” His supreme worth is vindicated by the trial and torture He endured out of love for you and me.
    V4 says Elijah and Moses “were talking with Jesus”; Luke’s account expands on this, saying,  “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” (Lk 9:31) The word ‘departure’ in the Greek is actually exodus (like the book): as Moses and Joshua (Jesus’ namesake, “YHWH saves”) paraded millions of Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, Jesus’ “exodus” would not be solo, but leading a great company of believers out of sin’s territory, evil’s dominion, into a place where He is Lord and has saved us from our guilt and sin’s power so we can experience the freedom of walking by the Holy Spirit. So, the Transfiguration can only truly be understood in conection with Jesus’ humiliation at Golgotha for our forgiveness, and His rising at Easter for our deliverance.


So when tough times come and threaten to discourage you, remember Jesus’ transfiguration: glory awaits beyond the hard grind, when God is leading.
    In A Turtle on a Fencepost, Allan Emery tells of accompanying businessman Ken Hansen to visit a hospitalized employee. The patient lay very still, his eyes conveying anguish. His operation had taken 8 hours, and recovery was long and uncertain. Ken said quietly, “Alex, you know I have had a number of serious operations. I know the pain of trying to talk. I think I know what questions you’re asking. There are two verses I want to give you – Genesis 42:36 and Romans 8:28. We have the option of these two attitudes. We need the perspective of the latter.”
    Hansen turned to the passages, read them, then prayed and left. The young man, Alex Balc, took the message to heart. He later enjoyed full recovery.
    Every day we choose one of these attitudes amid life’s difficulties – to be beat-up, or to be up-beat. To say with Jacob in Genesis 42:36: “All these things are against me.” Or to say with Paul in Romans 8:28: “All these things are working together for good to those who love the Lord...” Let’s pray.