No Tents for Old Men
In times like these (have there been any times like these?) we hear many contradictory voices. We are not going to hear just one more voice to add to the din today. Rather we are going to hear a voice that will put all the other voices in perspective.
I believe this text is exactly what we need to hear today. Let us dive into it. The scene is set on a mountain top.
There are very few mountain top scenes in the Bible: all of them are literally awe-some – they all involve people meeting God. The first is the scene in which Abram takes his beloved son to Mt. Moriah, and is willing to sacrifice him there. Isaac is the only son of Abraham and Sarah, his “beloved son,” the one who God promised, the one through whom God’s covenant with Abraham will be fulfilled. God’s voice intervenes; Isaac is spared. The covenant continues (Gen. 22).
The second mountain top scene is Moses, on Mt. Sinai. After crossing the Red Sea to escape the pursuing Egyptian army, Moses leads the newly freed people to the base of the mountain. It is covered in a thick cloud. Moses ascends the mountain, and after six days, the Lord spoke to Moses (Exod. 24:16). Moses comes down and proclaims “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is One.” (Deut 6:4)
Before the third mountain scene we must recall that God promised, in the text of Deuteronomy, that after Moses died, God would raise up for the people another prophet who would, like Moses, hear the voice of God and teach it to the people. When that prophet comes, the text commands: “Listen to him.” (Deut 18: 15)
Who will be that prophet like Moses that the people should “Listen” to?
The third mountain top scene is the one in which the great prophet Elijah is, waiting to catch a glimpse of God; he was not in the wind storm nor in the earthquake, but Elijah heard his voice in the sound of sheer, awesome silence. (1 Kings 19:11, ff.)
Do you hear the echoes of those mountain top scenes in the text of Mark? The timing, after six days, the mountain itself, the cloud, the voice, the beloved son, the command to listen to him, all come together, along with presence of Moses and Elijah.
The fear on that mountain top is another shared similarity as well: Peter is terrified, as he must be, in the presence of God’s glory. His suggestion that they make three tents, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and now one for Jesus is pious, but that is not to be. Jesus is not on that mountain like Teddy Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore to take his place among his great predecessors. Jesus is there, just as the voice of God says, as the beloved son, the prophet like Moses that had been long promised. Listen to him! says the voice from the cloud.
Jesus’ clothing is transformed – it becomes dazzling white, just like the mysterious person called the Ancient of Days in Daniel’s prophetic vision (Dan. 7:9). There is something ultimate and final about that description, as if something has been achieved that cannot ever be superseded. The vision is being fulfilled: the final act is now being played. This is it!
All of these images are gathered up together on that mountain top: the significance is clear. Jesus is God’s fulfillment of the promise, the covenant with Abraham. He is the one whose voice we must hear; he is the one who speaks with God’s authority.
This is why we need this text today.
You are going to go home, and just like me, by this time tomorrow you will have heard a lot of voices clamoring for your attention. You will listen to the news reporters and anchors. They will tell you about the stock market, the statistics on foreclosures and unemployment.
You will probably watch some TV this week, maybe see a film. You will hear conversations and have conversations and beneath ever single word spoken there is a world of meaning that makes sense of it all.
We never just hear words purely, in a vacuum; we always hear words “as” something. I hear the news reports:
as an American,
as a white American,
as a white American male,
as a white middle class American male,
as a family man,
as a home-owner,
as an employed person.
I never hear anything except that it comes to me “as” something – and that something is who I am. I always hear words filtered through my identity.
You do the same; everyone does the same. When someone says that the value of our stocks is not completely lost until we sell them because they may recover some of their value – most of you hear that as retired persons: how long can you wait for that recovery? You and I will hear that news differently.
Here is the point: in the text we have before us, we see Jesus, on that mountain top, in the cloud of God’s presence, shinning in dazzling white like the Ancient of Days, hearing the voice of God almighty saying: “this is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
This is not a suggestion; this is our mandate. We are obliged to Listen to Jesus; to learn what Jesus said and is saying and what it means today. We were baptized because Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples…baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:18-20)
We will celebrate the Lord’s Supper today because this Sunday is the feast of the Transfiguration, because Jesus said, “Do this, remembering me.” (Luke 22:19)
These two examples, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are religious duties that our Lord told us to do – but to believe that he only spoke to us about activities inside the church is a grave error. In the very text in which he tells us to go into the world baptizing, he tells us first to make disciples. Listen to his words again:
“Go into all the world and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:18-20)
What does it mean to be a Christian? The shortest and most complete answer is: to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. That is our identity. We are disciples of Jesus. It is His words that we listen to. He defines us. He sets our agenda. He is not one among many, or even several; he is the Beloved Son: he is our Lord. He is the voice we listen to. This is the identity through which we filter everything else we hear around us.
Some of us were at a seminar recently at which the leader said that if you asked most of us Presbyterians what it meant to us that we are Christians, as he has, you would get a variety of answers, but in his experience, very few say first and foremost, “being a Christian means that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.”
If that is true, it is sad. Let that not be true of us here in Gulf Shores. Here, we listen to Jesus; when he says we are to be disciples we therefore define ourselves as his disciples; people who follow in his footprints.
So when I hear the news of higher unemployment, plant closings, thousands of lay-offs, I do not just hear this merely as a white middle-class American male: I hear this as a disciple of Jesus Christ. When the value of stocks plummets, I do not just hear this as a helpless consumer, I hear this as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
What does that mean practically? It means, first, that I will hear of the pain of others with great compassion. I will look around and see where that pain shows up in my community, and I will do everything I can with the strength God gives me to be his disciple, extending his compassion and care where I can. And if my physical body will not let me go over to the Christian Service Center anymore, then I can still pray for the people that come through that door – no one is ever too weak or sick to stop praying for people in need.
Being identified as a disciple of Jesus Christ means more than serving as Jesus served, it means trusting God the way Jesus taught us to trust God. Being a disciple means that when we hear bad news, we do not panic, as if there were no God. Being a disciple means that we have learned from Jesus that God is our Father in Heaven. We learn that he clothes the birds of the air and the grass of the field, and how much more are we to him than they? (Matt. 7)
What does that mean? It does not mean putting on rose-colored glasses and trying to convince ourselves that “everything will be OK soon.” It means that even if it is not OK with the stock market that I trust in God; I am in his hands. He will see me through.
Being a disciple means that we do not measure the meaning of our lives in net worth, but in our growth in similarity to Jesus himself. This past year has not been wasted even if I have been sick in bed all year if I am more Christ-like now than I was last year. If I trust God more deeply, if I have more compassion for people who suffer, if I am more welcoming of people different from me.
Disciples are not one-hour a week Christians. Disciples are learners. Disciples are people who seek out opportunities to deepen their understanding of God and his will. That is way Sunday School or, Adult Christian education is a vital ministry here. We are serious about learning to follow Jesus. We do not assume that we know all we need to know.
This is why Bible Study is so vital to our lives: our discipleship depends on hearing his voice with understanding. That is what Bible Study is for – to deepen our understanding so that we can live lives that are more congruent with our identity as disciples.
This is a challenging text, but it is also deeply helpful for times like these. This time of national and world crisis may be a clarifying time in our lives; a time in which we re-examine our values and consider what has been consuming our time and energy. Maybe this is the time to make a change; break some old habits; acquire some new ones. Start putting yourself within range of his voice more so that we can Listen to him.
We are not here to make religious tents for old men on mountains; we are here to listen to the voice of the Beloved Son, to be and to become disciples! To hear every other voice filtered through the identity that Christ give us. We are Christians. We are disciples!