+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of my more vivid childhood memories is of the first time I jumped off the high diving board at our local swimming pool. I remember feeling a lot of pressure to jump off the high board. My younger brother was talking about going off the board, and to have a younger sibling do something like that before I did was simply unacceptable to me. Most, if not all of my friends had already made this rite of childhood passage. So despite my fear of heights and my lack of confidence in my swimming ability— and both of these endure to this day—I climbed the ladder and walked to the end of the board. I remember looking off the edge and thinking there was no way I could jump off. My next thought that there was really no way I could walk back to the ladder and climb down, unless I wanted to be deeply humiliated. So I jumped. Despite all my fears, all was well, and I made it back up to the surface and to the ladder, and lived to repeat this feat many more times before I got bored with it.
That standing at the end of the diving board for the first time feeling is the feeling I get at this time of the liturgical year. We’ve been through the festive season of Christmas and after that, through several weeks of Epiphany and all of its emphasis on the light of God made manifest in Jesus. Today is the Last Sunday in Epiphany, and in three more days it will be Ash Wednesday. Lent is almost upon us, and at least for me, entering into Lent can be as anxiety-provoking as jumping into a pool of cold water from a considerable height. As a child I wondered if I’d be equal to jumping off the high diving board; as an adult, and yes, as an ordained adult even, I wonder if I’ll be equal to the challenges that Lent presents this year. Those challenges, as you know, include self-examination and true repentance, truly turning around and returning to the path from which I’ve strayed like a lost sheep. Even when you’ve done, or at least tried to do these things a year before, they’re daunting.
My pre-Lenten anxiety is a pale shadow of what Jesus’ disciples experienced, but it provides a glimpse of the feeling they might have had at the point they come to in today’s Gospel lesson. At this point in their journey with Jesus they’ve had the rather heady experience of witnessing a few healings and exorcisms. They might well have been riding high. The experience was probably pretty exciting for a while. But Jesus has injected a whole other quality into their lives lately. He’s begun to talk about his suffering and death. He’s begun to talk about the cost of following him. What started out as a thrilling venture is starting to get frightening. Just before today’s reading, in the eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus teaches the disciples 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.” That sounds pretty scary to me, and Peter didn’t like it much better.
Peter’s reaction to this teaching is to argue with Jesus, and Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” And Jesus isn’t done setting Peter and his companions straight. Jesus lets the disciples know in no uncertain terms what the cost of discipleship is. Jesus says, “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.”
Whatever the disciples may have thought when they first began to follow Jesus, at this place in the journey they’ve begun to realize that the road ahead is harder than they ever could have imagined. Probably they’re wondering why they ever thought going down this road was a good idea. At the very least, they’re going to need sustenance for their journey. The disciples are going to need a real reason for walking a road that they now realize is fraught with peril. In the passage we’ve read today, they get this reason in the form of a full-blown manifestation of God that leaves them with no doubt who Jesus really is.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop. Mountaintops are one of what the Celts call thin places. A thin place is a place where the boundary between the earthly and divine is less clearly defined than it is in other places on the earth. If you find that you feel closer to God on top of a mountain, it’s really not surprising. Much of what happens on this mountaintop will recall God’s manifestation in the Book of Exodus both for the disciples and for us today. The location, the cloud, and God’s voice coming from the cloud echo God’s appearance to Moses.
But Peter’s response to the scene indicates that at this moment he isn’t understanding what’s really happening. Somehow he’s missing the associations and he’s missing the point. Peter suggests making “dwellings” for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He’s trying to impose finitude on an encounter with the infinite. What he does is to try to capture a moment that can’t possibly be captured. It’s the same kind of response that’s made humans worship golden calves and other idols for eons. We think if we can freeze a moment in time, if we can make something we can see and touch, we think we can possess it forever. But we can’t possess it forever, and anyway, possession isn’t the point.
Fortunately for Peter and for us, God is quite used to working with creatures who just don’t get it. So God actually speaks to Peter, James, and John, telling them quite clearly who Jesus is and what the disciples are to do. Speaking from the cloud, God says, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” Nine short words are all it takes. And it’s interesting exactly what God says in those words. Listen to him. God doesn’t tell the disciples to fall down and worship him. “Listen to him,” God tells them. In other words, God tells them to open their ears, hearts, and minds to take in what Jesus has to say and to heed his words.
God’s words to Peter, James, and John point to all the teaching that Jesus will do between this time and being put to death on the cross. Jesus tells the disciples that faith and prayer are essential to the healing of the boy with an unclean spirit. Listen to him. Jesus teaches the disciples that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Listen to him. Jesus cautions against the temptation to sin, saying, “If any of you put a stumbling block before any of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Listen to him. Jesus declared a special place for children in God’s kingdom when he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Listen to him.
One of the most disconcerting for us of Jesus’ teachings concerns his words to the Rich Man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. It isn’t enough simply to follow the commandments. Jesus tells this man, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” This instruction hits the Rich Man rather hard, and I suspect it hits us hard as well. Listen to him.
All of this listening, it’s to be hoped, will lead us to some action. It’s not enough just to witness God’s appearance on the mountaintop. We can’t stay on that mountain. We can’t, we oughtn’t, make an idol of the experience. Our job as Christians, as a people and a church who aspire to follow Jesus, is to come down off of that mountaintop and try to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. These footsteps aren’t easy to walk in. They don’t lead to fame and to riches; they don’t lead to any of the things that the world prizes. Jesus’ footsteps lead us to the cross. We don’t like that idea any better than the disciples did. But if we obey God’s injunction to listen to Jesus, following in his footsteps is exactly what we’re called to do.
At this point in our liturgical year, we’re about to enter the season where we follow Jesus to the cross. It’s a hard walk, with seemingly little sustenance available for a journey that sometimes may seem too hard to make. But thanks to our reading from Mark today, we know why we’re making this journey with Jesus. We know just who it is that we’re following. The one who we’re following is not just an inspiring leader. The one we’re following is even more than an important prophet. In following Jesus we are following God’s own Son. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Amen.