Monday, March 28, 2016

Good Friday Sermon- Why did Jesus die?

I am a bit reluctant to post this sermon on line... as it is vey dependant on the work of Nicky Gumble and his wonderful alpha presentation 'Why did Jesus have to die?'  However I am sharing it as I share all my sermons on line for member of the St peter's congregation who may have missed it and people round the world who I hope it will help come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior...This by the way is my 501 post on my blog...

 Maximillian Kolbe was a polish Franciscan monk, who was ordained a catholic priest in 1918. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Maximillian, because of his father’s German heritage, was invites to sign a paper that would offer him the same rights as a German citizen if he acknowledged his German heritage, which in affect meant giving approval to the Nazi regime.  Maximillian refused to sign, rather he and his monks continued to run their monastery as a shelter for Polish refugees and in particular Polish Jews. In 1941 he was arrested for that and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. On the last day of July 1941, an escape was reported and in reprisal the guards selected ten men to be put into a bunker and starved to death. As the ninth man was being pulled out of line he cried out in despair “my poor wife and my Children”. The diminutive spectacled figure of Maximillian Kolbe stepped forward and said to the guards that he was a catholic priest and was old had no family and asked if he could die in the man’s place. The guards agreed and Maximillian was placed in the bunker with nine other men. Normally in this situation the condemned would act like animals or cannibals and tear each other apart, but this time, led by Maximillian, while they had strength, they spent their time in prayer or reciting psalms. After two weeks Maximillian and three others were still alive, but the bunker was needed so on august 14th they were killed with an injection of carbolic acid.  

On 10th October 1982 , a crowd of 150,000 gathered as the catholic church pronounced Maximillian Kolbe a saint. In the crowd that day was the man Maximillian had saved Francis Gajowniczek with his family. The pope describing Maximillian’s death saying “this was a victory won over all the systems of contempt and hate in man- a victory like that won by our Lord Jesus Christ.’ When Francis Gajowniczek died at 94 his obituary read that he had spent the rest of his life after 1941 telling people what Maximillian Kolbe had done for him, dying in his place.” 

 We are gathered together today to remember another death. We are gathered together today to remember Jesus death on the cross: The event that along with the ressurection forms the centre of our faith.  It seems strange that an instrument of torture, the cross, which was so barbaric a means of execution, that the romans themselves outlawed it AD 337 should be the centre of religious worship, but it is because as Christians we believe that this death was for us. Like with the example we started with that because of Jesus death on the cross those who put their trust in Jesus have life: abundant eternal life.

Now usually on Good Friday I don’t preach but rather lead a reflection but today I want to change that and invite us again to look at why Jesus died? And what that means for us. To do that I am very dependent on Alpha presenter Nicky Gumbel’s book Questions of lIfe.

Gumble says’ The cross is a beautiful diamond, with many facets. From whichever angle you look at it you can see different colours and lights. The cross in a sense is a mystery; it’s something too profound for understanding. However from whichever angle you look at the cross you will never fathom its full depth and beauty.” Now theologians have tried to do that by tying it all down in what are called theories of the atonement but Gumble says rightly that  “In the New testament these angles are simply explored.”

The first is that to understand the cross we must look at it from the perspective of the love of God. John 3:16 says ‘That God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in his would not perish but have everlasting life.”

In the shorter Westminster catechism it says that the chief end of man, the meaning of life was that we were made to know God and enjoy him always. But there is a problem, while we were made in God’s mage and made to know him intimately the bible says that we have sinned. Christianity sees humans as capable of great good and also acknowledges the reality that we are fallen, broken and do things that are wrong. Now it’s not always PC to talk about being sinners and most people would want to say that they lead an Ok life they never killed or robbed anyone.  Maybe they might not consider themselves amongst the great saints but they are definitely not down with the really bad people. But in Romans 3:23 Paul sets the bar very high he says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. The bar is not those we deem the height of human integrity but rather the sky  God himself. English novelist Somerset Maugham once wrote “ if I write down every thought I have ever thought and every deed I have ever done, people would call me a monster of depravity.”

Sin has marred that image of God in us, tarnished the great good we were called to do and be. In scripture it talks of it like pollution making us unclean. It holds power over us, it is like an addiction that can mess up our lives. Again in romans it says that sin has a penalty, it has affected all human beings’ The wages of sin is death. Not physical death, but rather a spiritual death, we become dead to God. That is the other thing that sin does, it separates us from God.

God’s response to that is love, to make a way for us to be reconciled with him. To be forgiven. He did it by sending his son to die that we might have life. Christians from an early time have seen the passage we started our service with this morning from Isaiah 53 speaking of Jesus. Though innocent He took our wrongdoing on himself. He died for our sins. People often ask how God can let evil and suffering carry on in the world and the answer is that in Jesus he came into its midst and took it and its consequences on himself.

One of the ways of looking at the cross is that in Jesus willingness to give up his life for us, he has won a victory over death and sin. In our reading from Luke’s gospel the crucifixion is not seen so much as a tragic death but rather a coronation. It is the one time in the gospel Jesus is acknowledged as the king of the Jews, ironically it is the criminal charge above his head. In the face of violence and injustice he offers forgiveness, to those who crucify him and to a repentant sinner next to him on the cross. They read like the pardoning of enemies when I new conqueror or king is appointed.  The centurion who would have been used to the swearing and vitriol of condemned criminals concluded that surely this was an innocent man. By doing that Jesus gives us an example of how to overcome sin with selfless love but also shows that in his death he has broken the power of sin and death not with the ways of man and empire but the ways of love and selfless sacrifice.

In the New Testament, they use four very common illustrations from the everyday life of first century Jews to explore the cross as well.

The first is the temple. The Jewish sacrificial system was set up to show people how serious sin was and the cost of being forgiven.  A repentant sinner would take an animal. The animal was to be as near perfect as possible.  The sinner would lay their hands on the animal and confess their sins. Thus the sins were seen to pass into the animal and it was then killed. It’s where we get our English term scapegoat from. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament says that it is impossible for the blood of bulls or goat to take away sins, rather it was a picture or a shadow of what was to come. That only the blood of Christ, our substitute could take away our sin. John the Baptist saw this when he said “look the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” : An innocent pure sacrifice able to wash away the pollution of sin.

The New Testament also uses the image of the market place: In particular the idea of debt. In the ancient near east if you were in debt you could be sold into slavery and the only way to get out of it was for a rich relative to come and to pay that debt and then you would be free.  That is where we get the word redemption from… WE were caught in the power of sin, but Jesus has paid the ransom price to set us free.

The third comes from the law courts. There is a consequence for things we do wrong.  A punishment if we are found guilty. In Romans Paul, who is a lawyer,r uses the legal term justified  to explain what Christ has done for us. It
is a legal term which means that we are right before the law because the fine or sentence has been paid for us. A good illustration is two people who had grown up together and been best of friends. But as they had got older they had gone their different ways. One became a judge and the other for certain reasons ended up in his court room charged with a crime. The judge loved his friend but was a just judge and couldn’t just acquit him; that would not be right. So he declares his friend guilty and fines him what the law says he must. But then he steps down takes off his robes and pays the man’s fine, so he can go free, he no longer has a charge to answer.  Scripture says Jesus is both our judge and saviour and we are not having our punishment paid for by a separate innocent third party but by God himself. The poet Heinrich Hiene once said ‘God will forgive me because that’s his Job’ and we can take forgiveness for granted, and people often see it as cheap grace, but the cross shows us the costly price God was willing to pay for our forgiveness.

Lastly the picture of home… That God invites us back into relationship with him. In Luke’s gospel as Jesus dies the curtain in the temple is ripped in two from the top to the bottom. The curtain was placed in the temple to separate the holy of holies the place where the Jews believed that God presenced himself from humanity. It was too holy for people to enter and was only entered once a year by the high priest and then only after he had made many sacrifices. But the curtain being broken symbolised that Jesus death on the cross has dealt with the partition of sin, that separateness of from God…because of Jesus we are able to come back to know God as our heavenly father.  In an online discussion group someone wrote that they couldn’t accept the goodness of God because when they looked at The cross they saw God as a father who was into child sacrifice. But Paul says ‘God was in Christ’ we forget the oneness of God’ often in our Trinitarian thinking and at the cross I wonder if we don’t see the father in the parable of the prodigal son, who when he sees his son far off throws off any ide of dignity and runs to greet him and be reconciled, runs even to the point of death on the cross.

Last week we invited you to identify with the repentant sinner in Luke’s gospel by pinning your name or a drawing round your hand on the cross as a way of saying “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Identifying with his death for us. This morning I hope you encounter and know what Jesus has done for us on the cross. We are going to finish our service with the hymn ‘and can it be” which is Charles Wesley’s reflection on the Cross. It’s a very personal reflection because he sees what Jesus has done not just as an academic abstract or a doctrine or religious dogma… But something he has experienced that has transformed his life. He encountered that love of God, that cleansing of sin, that debt paid, that being justified and reconciled with God. As certainly and as concretely as Francis Gajowniczek knew he had life because Maximillian Kolbe died in his place. We too can know life because Jesus died for us. We too can know freedom and forgiveness because Jesus died for us. Sin and death are defeated because Jesus died for us. We can live life in relationship with God, abundant full eternal life, because Jesus died for us. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Random thoughts on the unaffordable housing in Auckland, the narrative we tell ourselves and Jesus teaching in Luke 9:48

In Luke 9:48 as his disciples are arguing about who is the greatest Jesus places a small child in their midst as an object lesson... An tells them 'who ever welcomes this child welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For whoever is least among you all is the greatest'.

It was part of the passage that I was preaching on last sunday... But as I wrestled with this passage I couldn't help but think of the Auckland housing issues at the moment. And it was  children that bought the situation to mind... The son of friends of mine had spoken at the Auckland City Council meeting where plans for intensification were challenged and eventually voted down. He had talked of the fact that he was part of a generation that could not afford to buy a home or live in Auckland.

More than that my own daughter, who has just started University, expressed the same opinion, that she would never be able to own a house in Auckland.  The mayor of Auckland. Len Brown had been the keynote speaker at the senior prize giving at Epsom Girls Grammar last year and has spoken to the Girls and the parents who were gathered (us amongst them) about the wonders of the Auckland transport system and how it was making Auckland the most liveable city in the world... and I remember turning to my wife and saying 'he is talking to a generation of people who will not be able to afford to live here."

While the prices of Auckland houses is a complex issue. I think that the disciples quibbling over who is the greatest actually speaks to part of the issue. The story of the initial migration from the British isles to New Zealand was one of there is room for people to own their own piece of land. People came seeking a better life... now, and I'm going out on a limb here, Maori may view that in the same way as the Nazi myth of 'lebenstraum'. But that idea of providing a place for people to live and own their own home has been  an important factor in how we viewed our nation and how we planned our cities. It comes under pressure when numbers rise, what it looked like for a nation a 1 million is different than it is for a nation of four million. But that central narrative we tell ourselves has also changed.

Have you noticed instead of it being about finding a house for your family to live in that the languge we use around housing has changed? Yes we still talk of the family home... but now we have a housing market in which people invest. Now buying your first home is considered getting on the first rung of this market. Radio advertisements talk of property as a way of  wealth creation. We do have people who are talked of being in the market for short term gain. Houses are thought of as investment properties. We live in rented accommodation so we appreciate those who have bought such houses. However it has changed the basic story we tell ourselves as a nation. That we first and foremost are about having a place of our own to raise our family...not raise ur wealth. People move a lot more than they did as well wanting to move to a better and better suburb a more up market address, and it means that pressure is put on housing stock and house prices all over follow that demand on houses in the leafy suburbs up as well. It means that communities become more transient as well. Instead of everyone having a home it becomes... more, greater better, richer... Moves to make more houses and intensify our land use become threats to the value of our property instead of wanting to see everyone housed well... well at least housed.

We have lost the Kiwi ideal of egalitarianism, maybe that was a myth in the fist place? An like with Jesus teaching its only when a child, usually our own comes into view do we realise the great cost of this change of narrative.

Jesus teaching about welcoming a child and that the least will be the greatest is helpful in addressing that new narrative of wealth creation. To see the least as the greatest is to see all people as important and equal. It is to see the basic needs of everyone as important and being willing to settle for less so that people can have at least some.  It changes us from thinking about me, me, me to realising that as a community we have a responsibility to care for those who do not have. It changes our narrative back from property market to making room for people.

However, I also think that it is important that we realise that what we are seeing now is a worldwide issue. It is the fact that the western dream or expectation of successive generations being able to have a higher and higher standard of living is wrong and false. That the materialistic worldview is bankrupt and its time that we started looking for new narratives for life.

Christians should be involved in the housing debate. Calling for change and reform, speaking out about intensification and looking at alternative ways of getting people in to houses. But I also feel we need to challenge the very core of the idea of single family dwellings being as well.

Futurist Tom Sine wrote an interesting article in the book 'new monasticism as fresh expressions of Church' comments
"I am concerned that our one single family housing model in the West is not only unsustainable environmentally but economically as well- particularly for growing numbers of the middle class young. Unfortunately, few of those who work with university age young are informing them that many of them will be among the first of the post World War 2 generations whose lifestyles will not exceed that of their parents. Further, the young need to be informed that if they attempt to purchase houses like those they were raised in they will come ayt a very dear price, foreclosing other life options.

let me explain what has happened. few of us in the silent generation (born 1925-1945) spent much over 20 per cent of one income on rent or mortgages. Of course houses were smaller when we seniors started our lives but those same houses are not inexpensive today. Many of this generation will spend over 40 to 45 percent of two incomes for the purchase of a single family house....

....he comments that this is even higher if people wanted to buy an apartment in the central city...He continues.

"AS the Christian young launch their lives, wouldn't it make sense to make them aware of a broader array of options, including residential communities, which offer more sustainable lifestyles at a lss expensive price?"

I want my kids to be able to afford to live as their parents and grandparents have but also I am aware that as Christians we have become happy and domesticated in our materialistic western worldview and maybe as the narrative our society tells itself becomes less and less based on Christian values we need to encourage them to live a different narrative. I wonder if the idea of churches with communities attached like the old monastic movement isn't one possibility. Mixed housing for families and singles. sharing resources, committed to working in a certain locality or attached to a particular church. committed not to who is the greatest but raising the least ups to God....   

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Encountering Jesus... Listening to Jesus on the rocky road of discipleship (Luke 9:43-62)

I went down to Tauranga a couple of weeks ago to pick up my son James. While we were down there I decided it would be god to go and catch up with a family that has connections to our church that had just moved down there. I knew the address but didn’t know where it was or how to get there. Know when that happens I usually go and look at a map, even if it is on my tablet these days and not an actual paper map. But James who was driving simply pulled out his smart phone typed in the address and the voice on his phone gave us instructions of how to get there. ‘In 800 m turn right, turn right, in 2.4km take the third xit on the round about. Turn left in 200m your destination is on the right…’ I know my way round Tauranga I thought I knew the quickest way to the mount, which is where they lived, So I gave Jams my own directions… but I had lived in Tauranga before they had put in the new motorway and the phone kept giving James directions to get back to what it saw as the best way to go… which we did and we got there.  It seemed he best way to get o our destination was to listen to the voice and do what it said. Which is a good metaphor for the journey of following Jesus… This is my son, my chosen one, listen to him.   

In New Zealand we seem to take travel for granted. In fact when I shared with a fellow minister that I’d never been outside of New Zealand, he was shocked, he said “it made me a strange Kiwi.” Ironically as a people who identify ourselves with a flightless bird we have an international reputation of being world travellers. OE is a rite of passage, most families are now international families, we are at home in our globalised village and market place, weather we agree with it or not. 

Even travel within our own country is a lot easier than it used to be. In fact last time I flew to Wellington, it took more time to get from home to the airport than it did to fly from Auckland to Wellington. 

Most of the Jews in galilee in Jesus day would live their lives without travelling beyond the region they were born in. Except for one journey they would make a pilgrimage to the festivals in Jerusalem, a walk of four of five days. In the passage we had read today, the whole of Luke’s gospel shifts as   Up until now the focus has been on Jesus ministry in Galilee, and has revolved around Jesus miracles. Now the central part of the gospel story is on this journey, and the focus is on Jesus teaching and parables.  Another focus in this middle section is what it means to be a disciple, to follow Jesus. We are used to using metaphors of travel and journey and pilgrimage to speak of our faith… even our vision statement here at St Peter’s talks of inspiring others to join us on the journey. Following Jesus is a journey, it is walking through this life with Jesus, listening to him and being totally about the purposes of God. 
Jesus in 9:51 sets his face to make that journey to Jerusalem, and starts the journey that will lead to the cross and the empty tomb.

The passage we have today is a series of scenes around the starting of this journey. And the journey seems to start out as a bit of rocky road because in each of these scenes Jesus has to rebuke his disciples, the voice in the cloud had told us to listen to Jesus and listen to him actually means having some of their attitudes and thinking and action challenged and changed. 

The first scene deals with which direction are we going to travel in?
There is a move in our culture that when we do move we want to go in an upward direction and to the right… bigger, better, more, success, higher living standards, self-actualization, up market, up size, up-scale. But Jesus journey and the path of discipleship flips that thinking on its head.
 The passage started in the midst of the amazed crowd, remember the close disciples had glimpsed Jesus glory on the mountain top and Jesus had just healed a demonised boy, you get the sense there could be a popular movement erupt here, Jesus for King, But Jesus asks his disciples to, “listen carefully to him,. He will be delivered into the hands of man.” He will be betrayed, suffer and die. The crowd in the gospel is fickle, it is amazed here but by the time we get to Jerusalem it is easy coxed to cry crucify him crucify him.  You can’t judge discipleship by numbers and the crowd, but as Jesus does, his willingness, his dogged determination to do what God has called him to do.  I spent a lot of my adult life working with young people and there was always this tension between seeing following Jesus in terms of the big wonderful events, the high mountain top experiences and the day to day faithfully following often in very hard circumstances…even when that road was the lonely way of the cross.

We are in good company if we wrestle with this because the disciples themselves didn’t get it either. There focus became on who was the greatest amongst them. They became success and status obsessed. In Matthew’s account we hear that James and John’s mother wanted to make sure her boys got the top jobs when Jesus came into his kingdom… and again we can get caught up with following Jesus being about getting ahead and being successful and Jesus flips that on its head. 

He places a small child in their midst. In Jesus day children didn’t have any status of their own and he says, “whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me… For it is least amongst you all who is the greatest.” The journey of following Jesus is more about the one who are going down and to the left, how we treat and welcome that person is the extent to which Jesus is in our midst.  To see the least as the greatest is to see all people as equally important to God and all of us raised up to God. It calls us to follow Jesus who came not to be served but to serve. It’s the way the kingdom of God evaluates our society not in what people have but in how we treat and care for those who have not. It’s not about personal advancement, but the advance of the kingdom. 

Then the question arises who are we going to travel with? The disciples could have got the idea that they are the elite. In Jewish society a rabbi wouldn’t pick a rabble to follow him but rather the best of the best. John tells Jesus that he seen someone who wasn’t one of them cast out a demon in Jesus name and had stopped him from doing it. He expected Jesus praise for that. But Jesus again rebukes him and says ‘ for whoever is not against you is for you’… whoever is fighting against evil in the world in Jesus name is to be considered a friend. 

 There is a sense in churches that ministry is reserved for those in leadership, or the ministers or pastors. Yes we are all along for the ride, but we’ll all that ministry stuff is for this elect group. But actually following Jesus is about being willing to take up doing what Jesus is doing. Form this point on in the gospel Jesus disciples are actively involved in the ministry of Jesus. We see the twelve still with Jesus but that also messengers are sent out to the villages in Samaria to prepare the way. When we will come back to the gospel story after Pentecost we will be coming back to Jesus sending out a group of seventy two. This journey is one of proclaiming in word and deed Jesus and making places ready to receive him. 

Then as we see Jesus trip takes him into Samaria we see the issue of how do we deal with opposition to our journey? Jesus takes the more direct route to Jerusalem through Samaria. The reaction is totally different than in galilee, people don’t welcome Jesus. The Samaritans were a group of mixed race , who while keeping the Jewish faith didn’t want anything to do with the temple worship in Jerusalem, and as Jesus was heading to Jerusalem that included him.  James and John asked why Jesus didn’t just call down fire from heaven, and nuke them all.  
Maybe seeing Jesus on the mountain with Elijah they thought that was what Elijah had done so why not Jesus. But Jesus again rebukes them, and they move on to another place. When Jesus had sent out the twelve he had given them teaching on how to handle places where they were not welcome and here Jesus does what he had taught them. It is easy for disciples of Jesus to think in terms of judgement and we see that tendency in a lot of the hate language that come from places like greenboro Baptist and their hate speech against gays and homosexuals. But Jesus reminds his disciples and us that his mission is one of grace and open offer of salvation and reconciliation with God. Even when it is met with “no thanks.” We can get caught up with personal vindication and wanting to be right and proved right rather than the gracious offer and demonstration of God’s love.
Finally, we see that as the journey starts there is a question of on whose terms are we going to travel with Jesus? Our own or his?

Jesus encounters three people who seem to be good prospects for followers. The first is keen to follow. In Jewish society to be picked as a disciple of a rabbi was a big deal you followed them around but you’d also find a home with them in the place they would set up their school. But Jesus lets this man know that he is not like that rather he does not have such a place. He is an itinerant prophet in fact we know that this journey will end in the cross. The journey of discipleship is one of being continually willing to be where Jesus is. As humans we like to settle down and find a place. But journeys end is with Christ in eternity. …Following Jesus is anything but being able to settle into our comfort zones. 

The second man who Jesus asks to follow him asks to be able to be let go to bury his father. now I’ve been involved in some long funerals, but in Jewish culture this could have meant can I wait till my father dies and then I’ll come or it could refer to the yearlong mourning process, between placing  the body in a tomb and then a second burial where the persons bones are put to a permanent resting place.  It’s a significant delay that is mind. While burying ones father was seen of paramount importance in the Jewish culture of Jesus day, Jesus concern is for those who ae still alive who need to hear about the Kingdom of God… there is a urgency about the mission we are on. If we have found life and forgiveness and purpose and meaning in Jesus isn’t that something that people need to know about?   

The last person asks simply to go back and say good bye to their family, even Elijah allowed Elisha to do that in the Old Testament. Jesus cuts to the quick for this with a farming metaphor of not turning back once you’ve put your hand to the plough. If a person did this it would mean that the line they were ploughing would most definitely go crooked and off path. The person was torn between their family and their following Jesus.

Perhaps for many of us we don’t get that tension… During the week I heard the testimony of Nabeeli Qureshi a Muslim doctor who after years of looking at the Christian faith with a Christian friend became a Christian. For him the biggest hurdle for accepting what he had come to believe about Jesus was that he knew that to become a Christian meant that he would hurt and probably lose his family. He was from a family that had several generations of Muslim missionaries and preachers in it. He wept for several days, he looked for God to speak to him through the scripture and was lead to Matthew chapter 10 where Jesus says if we acknowledge him know he will acknowledge us before his father and goes on to talk of coming not so we could have cosy living, but in a way that sets father against son and finally that we will find life if we willing give up our lives for Christ. He felt God speaking to him directly in that and became a Christian. It was hard telling his parents his father seemed at a total loss and he said even know after nine years the joy seems to have gone out of his mother’s eyes. He has found purpose and life in sharing his faith with people. 
I tell you these scenes from the start of Jesus journey to Jerusalem really challenge me. They put what it means to be a disciple on the line right… The road of following Jesus is not an easy one. It is rocky it’s not a domesticated highway it’s a wild road. Walking it calls us to listen to Jesus as we come to roadblocks that might cause us to stop or turn to the side. It’s an all or nothing journey. It’s a call to service and to be totally about the purposes of God. It does lead to the cross, but it is the road that leads to life. It is the road that sees the Kingdom of God come into our lives and our world as we walk it. Jesus has set his face to walk the road; he has walked before us, and will walk with us.  Are you ready to walk this road, to follow him.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Encountering Jesus... On The Mountain Top and When We Come Back Down (Luke 9:28-43)

The story of the transfiguration and the demonised boy, that the disciples couldn’t help, appear in three gospels, Mathew, Mark and the passage we had read out from Luke today. In each gospel these two events follow each other, they belong together not only because they follow each other in Jesus ministry but because it tells us the two go together in life… “the glorious mountain top experience, and the valley floor where stubborn demons shriek and sufferers weep.”  While some people would prefer neither extreme in life, the passage tells us that as we seek to know Christ more and more he will reveal himself to us and as we are more open to the Glory of God the more we are opened to the pain of the world. The reality is that we will encounter Jesus on the mountain top and when we come down again: In the midst of life’s great joys and deep sorrows, the words that help us to follow Jesus are the words that came from the cloud that day in galilee “this is my son, my chosen one, listen to him”. 

The passage starts with a temporal connection to what hasgone before. It was eight days after Peter’s confession that Jesus was indeed God’s messiah, his chosen one. It was eight days since Jesus had told the disciples that he would be betrayed by the elders, high priests and scribes in Jerusalem and he would suffer and die and on the third day he would rise again; that the road of the kingdom of God leads through the cross. It was eight days since Jesus had told them and us that to follow him meant that we too would walk the way of the cross, giving up our lives for Jesus and in doing that we would find life. Now some of the disciples, John, Peter and James catch a glimpse of the reality of who Jesus is.

Once again the context is prayer. They had gone up the mountain away from other people, away from distraction and pressing demands to seek God. In the Old Testament going to the mountain was associated with seeking God for fresh revelation. Two relevant examples spring to mind, Moses going up on Mt Sinai, in particular in exodus 34 where Moses face shines because he has spoken with God. The other is Elijah on Mt Horeb, in 1 Kings 19 who seeks God for encouragement and direction.  In the gospels we often have Jesus going off to pray, we are aware that he comes back with a new sense of direction or encouragement, but in this instance there is a reality for the disciples of Jesus relationship with God. It’s like our own prayer life, or our worship life, we seek God, and there are those times when God manifests himself, we are aware of his presence in a new and powerful way and others when it just seems to be going through the motions, but in both we trust in God’s promise that he is there and he is with us. Psalm 30 was part of my devotional reading for Friday and in it David gives thanks for God’s lifelong presence and in the midst of that also acknowledges there were times when he was distressed because God seemed absent. 

This is one of those times when the glory of God manifests itself in a very real way. The disciples see Jesus face and clothes begin to shine. They see him standing with two figures they recognise as Moses and Elijah and they hear Jesus speaking to them about Jesus departure his exodus. Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets in the Old Testament and in this experience we can see how those are going to be fulfilled in Jesus death and resurrection. The use of the word exodus here or departure gives us insight into a way of thinking of the cross that just as Moses had lead the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus was going to lead God’s people out of slavery to sin and death. 

The disciples don’t know how to react to this experience, you get the sense they are struggling with it, they are tired and wondering if it is a dream. Peter, always the spokesman for the group, asks whether or not they should build a shelter for each of the three, there on the mountain. In response to this experience he wants to do something. When we have a powerful experience of God it is a natural human response to want to stay there in that place, to keep the experience alive, or build something so we can capture what we have experienced. It maybe that we associate closeness with God or a special revelation with a particular place or activity or action, or worship style and music and we build a shelter out of that. A lot of our traditions and how we do things in church spring out of a particular revelation or move of God that we have enshrined. A lot of what happens in our worship service comes out of the reformation, a move of God through which many people rediscovered the wonderful truth of salvation by faith, the centrality of scriptures: the praise and worship format for services came out of the charismatic renewal, as people encountered Gods presence in a new way in extended times of singing. At a minister’s association meeting it was suggested we have a half day of prayer, because when another group of ministers did that there was a real revival that started in their city. It is easy to want to hold on to that encounter and experience.

It’s interesting that the passage says that Peter didn’t really know what he was saying. He’s very human and he is overwhelmed by this experience. I’ve had experiences like that where you are fully engaged both emotionally and physically and intellectually you just can’t process it. Spiritual experiences, mountain top times are best dealt with through reflection. There are times when I doubt my call to ministry, and I’m sure there are time when you doubt it to, often in those times I am drawn back to spiritual encounters that I have had in the past. Turning up with dreadlocks and not having bathed for a week at Orama Christian communities’ summer conference and the key note speaker pointing to me in the middle of a meeting (I thought he was going to throw me out) but rather had a profound word of encouragement for me about taking up Christian leadership. That call to leadership has been tested by the church in our training and call process and often now that expereince helps me in testing times… In 2 Peter 1:17 as peter is wrestling with people who would deny Jesus coming again in glory, he affirms that we can rely on the fact that the word of God says it will happen and also he thinks back to what he saw on the mountain of transfiguration and says he knows it’s true because he has had a sneak preview. He’s heard God’s affirmation of Jesus as his son.  

Peter’s train of thought, his rambling about building plans are interrupted in an amazing way, the mountain is shrouded in cloud. In Old Testament encounters with God this is seen as a theophany, God actually turns up, the Hebrew word shekinah the physical presence of the glory of God. In exodus it is the cloud that leads the people of Israel through the desert by day and is a fiery pillar by night, it settles on Mt Sinai as Moses receives the law. The disciples hear a voice from the cloud saying ‘This is my son, my chosen one, listen to him’. God points to the unique relationship that Jesus has with him, one so close it is expressed as son and chosen one… Peter had wanted to build three shelters to the three figures he had seen, but here God is pointing to the importance of Jesus above Moses and Elijah. In our time and culture there in the name of tolerance people want to put Jesus on par with other religious figures but we have God’s affirmation of Jesus unique status. 

Secondly the voice reinforces what Jesus had been saying about saving faith in Jesus that we should listen to him. It’s not about enshrining our experiences or build structures and rituals around them but rather to listen… to hear what Jesus has to say and to put it into action in our lives. You may remember at the beginning of the year when I came back from holidays I sensed that the one word for us this year is ‘listen’ and here it is again. God’s call is to listen to his son, to listen to Jesus. Allow Jesus to speak into our lives, listening is not passive it is active, to hear and to put into action what Jesus is saying. That is saving faith, that is what it means for us as a church to grow as disciples of Jesus, which is at the heart of vision statement as a church… which is where our being a vibrant authentic sustainable community flows out of, where the inspiring of other to join us on the journey comes from. 

It would be great to stay in the cloud and on the mountain top, but we have those words ‘the next day they came back down’. People often attest to the fact that after an important spiritual experience they have times when they seem to come crashing back to earth, when the reality of a broken and hurting world strikes home. And Jesus and Peter, John and James walk straight into it. There is the crowd waiting with all its expectations and demands. Amidst the crowd is a desperate man whose son is tormented by an unclean spirit. While the three with Jesus had been having a wonderful mountain top experience, the rest of the twelve had been facing defeat, a problem that they couldn’t handle. Just a week ago they had come back from their mission trip full of rejoicing that even the demons obeyed them and here they seemed powerless to help. Sometimes being church actually feels like that, we can feel powerless, our ministry just doesn’t seem to make a difference. Some people seem to be on the mountain top and we are stuck on the valley floor. We try but it just doesn’t seem to make a difference. But Jesus turns up. 

Jesus words are rather stinging and challenging to the disciples and the crowd that they are a an ‘unbelieving and perverse generation’ there and our expectations of and trust in God maybe weak and compromised. We don’t know how the disciples went about dealing with the situation, in the other gospel’s Jesus said that there are some demons that will only come out with prayer and fasting. Maybe they gave up to quickly, put it in the too hard basket. Maybe they were full of compassion but were afraid to do what they had seen Jesus do or they themselves had done on their mission trip. But even here where the demons shriek and the suffering weep they encounter Jesus, and as he is prepared to get his hands dirty with the nitty gritty of life we see transformation and wholeness.

You know we don’t often have those mountain top experiences. In Jesus life this is really only the second time we hear God’s voice in such a way, the other was at his baptism. We can spend a lot of times seeking after them, when they happen they are wonderful and great. There are times when in our services there is a real sense of God’s presence, God is always with us, but sometimes it just feels like God just want to let us know it…They are there to encourage us and reaffirm of who Jesus is, maybe you also feel them in times of devotion or prayer as well, when you are ministering to other people. The great promise of the gospel is Jesus presence both on the mountain top and when we come back down, in those joys filled highs, where we are so overwhelmed by God’s presence you just don’t know what you are saying, and in the sorrow filled moments of struggling with innocent people suffering. In both we encounter Jesus Christ being with us, with a shining face or a rebuke or healing touch. 

And we know on both mountain top or when we come back down, even on an over cast day here at St Peters the call for us as disciples is to hear God’s words “this is my Son, my chosen one, listen to him”.