The Rev. Preston B. Hannibal
“Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “this is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Mark: 9:7
First, a little background to today’s gospel. Our gospel reading this morning begins six days after Jesus and his disciples appear to have concluded the first part of their visit to the area of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus has gone from village to village: healing, teaching, being tested by his critics, and proclaiming to all the reign of God. He fed those who needed feeding and brought comfort to all who came his way.
It seems from the gospel writer’s account that on this particular journey Jesus spoke to his friends in a way he had never spoken before. He talked about the cost of discipleship and what would happen to him as he set his mind on Jerusalem and the cross. I imagine those who followed him were shocked. It sounded as if Jesus were preparing them for the end of their fledgling community, before it had any chance of taking root.
In one memorable exchange, Peter, who just moments before had called Jesus the Messiah, the Holy one of God, would not hear any of this talk of persecution and death. He wasn’t going to listen to such negativity. Peter, for one, did not believe it. And he told Jesus what he thought.
It seems that our Lord was not pleased with Peter’s intervention. Mark’s Gospel records: “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mark 8:32-33).
But Peter was worried for his friend, and he did have very human concerns. He could not hear words of death from his friend. If Jesus was the holy one of God, how could he talk about the end? There was so much to do, so much promise to be fulfilled. They had seen the healings, they had heard Jesus talk about the new thing God was doing in their midst. They had led others to the living care found in Jesus.
It appears that Jesus had hoped the disciples would display a strength of conviction: a strength of purpose that would allow not only Peter but all of the disciples to realize and embrace the necessity of the sacrifice that our Lord made for us all. So now the days had passed and Jesus was ready to begin his receive the guidance he needed to move forward.
For Jesus to leave the crowds and go off alone was not unusual. When he went off by himself, he went to pray and to get ready for the work that God had given to his care. What was unusual was for Jesus to take anyone with him. This time he took Peter, but he also took James and John.
James and John (the sons of Zebedee) and Peter are among the disciples of Jesus who stand out as the ones who let their humanness get in the way of understanding what Jesus really wants them to do and who they were capable of becoming. But Jesus saw their true worth, in spite of themselves. So Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him to the mountain of Transfiguration.
The story of their experience on the mountain is at best brief. Other than Peter suggesting building shelter for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the three disciples stood by stunned at what they were witnessing. “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). The command by God is straightforward and not to be misunderstood. And then it was over.
The Glory of the Lord had been revealed and now it was time for them to go back into the world. Even though God is always present in our lives, our glimpses of God—our personal Epiphanies—are often as surprising and as fleeting as the epiphany Peter, James, and John experienced high up on a mountain. And we, just like them, must listen carefully for God speaking to us, guiding and directing our lives as we attempt to put those thoughts and words of faith into action.
When we are separated from the Sunday morning rhetoric of biblical analysis and textual criticism, we are left with the ever present challenge of how to live a Christian life in a world that is anything but Christian, and not likely to transform itself anytime in the near future.
The point of this passage from Mark’s Gospel is not simply listening for our Lord’s direction and going on our merry way. Rather, we are directed to take what we hear and live it daily with our family, friends, and colleagues. But also with all those whose paths we cross, directly or indirectly. What God says to each and every one of us, in any number of ways and through countless experiences, is that we are all called to a life of goodness, fairness, and decency toward all people. This is the essence of the Christian life and it is the essence of our communal existence. It is essential to attempt to live out the faith that we proclaim.
One of the joys of my ministry is presiding at weddings. A few years ago I was privileged to witness and take part in an event of extraordinary faith, love, respect, and trust. I was asked to preside at the wedding of a former student of mine and her fiancé. They were friends from my days as a college chaplain. I go to a lot of wedding rehearsal dinners. But I cannot remember one that was more impressive than the one associated with this particular wedding. It had nothing to do with the food or wine served. It had everything to do with the company.
When the time came for the inevitable toasts that are part of such a celebration, the young guests, the groomsmen and bridesmaids and their friends took over. We were regaled with stories and memories of the young couple. Some poignant, some personal, most were amusing, but all, and I mean all, were directed at thanking the couple for having been faithful to their calling as disciples of our Lord. Young, intelligent, educated, energetic people talked openly, honestly, and without one bit of shame or embarrassment about being brought to the Lord by the example of Christian discipleship exhibited by the bride and the groom.
As I listened and watched, I was amazed and heartened by the ease with which these young women and men spoke about their faith. Now those of you who have been to such events know that the people who staff hotel dining rooms have heard it all before, and are deaf to what is going on. All they want to do is serve the food, pick up the food, clean up, and go home. But this night, in this particular hotel it was very different. While the people were speaking, not a fork was dropped, not a glass clinked against a plate. No one came around to offer more coffee, for fear of interrupt the mood and our thoughts.
The staff stood silently in the shadows of the room—listening and watching in rapt attention as the friends of the bride and groom proclaimed their love for God and for the couple that had brought together such a wonderfully diverse group of people. To those in attendance their perspective on faith was such that a public profession of their love of God and God’s creation was viewed by them as normal, that is, in the ordinary events of the Christian life. It was truly an extraordinary experience.
To see the goodness of God in the people around us should be our perspective on faith. It should be what sustains and guides us as we live our lives. It should be what gives meaning and direction to our lives. For each and every one of us the truth of Christ words and actions is the power that enables us to shake off the dust of the world and encounter the living God without fear or reservation. For us, as for the first followers of Jesus, the words of Jesus are a beacon of hope in a desolate land.
For those who followed after Jesus and submitted themselves to him, he was a living presence, someone whom they met and knew. He was alive in their hearts and alive in the witness and ministry of his disciples. “This is my beloved son. Listen to him” had meaning because the disciples and those who followed Jesus know with a certainty that we can only envy that God was with them in every aspect of their lives. Even when times were bad they relied on the reality of the risen Christ directly leading and guiding their every word and action.
To listen to our Lord, really listen, means giving up the control of self that we hold so dear. We need to stop long enough and often enough so that we can open ourselves and allow God’s voice to be heard. It is hard to do because most of us think we can do it better ourselves.
My late father was a priest. Everyone, including me, came to him for pastoral advice and counsel. He went home to God almost ten years ago. In the early 1980s dad had bypass surgery. Even though the doctors were honestly reassuring about my dad’s chances of recovery, our entire family was anxious and worried until the surgery was over and the surgeon came in and assured us that he was in good shape.
I was talking with him a few days after his surgery. He said that while he had been frightened at the prospects of the operation prior to going into surgery, a sudden calm had come over him the night before the operation. He said I know that this might sound strange, but it was as if all of the prayers of friends and family people known and unknown, had engulfed me in God’s loving arms. He said that he knew he could let go, and that he was in God’s hands and God’s will would be done.
Thomas Merton has put it another way: “If you descend into the depths of your own spirit…and arrive somewhere near the center of what you are, you are confronted with the inescapable truth, at the very root of your existence, you are in constant and immediate and inescapable contact with the infinite power of God.”
The apostles and disciples of Jesus knew the reality of God directing and sustaining their lives. They had been the first to witness the truth—the truth of God’s grace, mercy and love, in their lives—and it had set them free. To listen to the words of our Lord and Savior and to follow where he leads us is not to retreat from the responsibilities of the world. And it is not to separate ourselves from all those who do not think or act as we do. Rather it is to acknowledge that our perspective on the world is defined and directed by the reality of the living God actively present in our lives.
We are challenged by our faith to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers. Today we are challenged, more than ever before, to be witness of God’s truth in this broken and sin-filled world. To this we are called. To this we are directed.
“Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7).