Jesus Only

Mark 9:2-9

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 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.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) 7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. 9 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.

[This passage is a text rich with possibilities.  I guess we tend to read or hear it in a way that suits what is happening in our lives at a given moment.  That’s what has happened with me…]

We have an expression referring to a dramatic (or even traumatic) moment when someone might say, “My whole life flashed before my eyes”.

Flash!  In a sense this is what happens for ‘Israel’ at the event of the transfiguration which Mark relates in this reading.  To be fair, the whole people of Israel wasn’t there – but that select group of Peter, James and John represent ‘the people of Israel’, just as they represent us, the new people of Israel, the Church.  There they are – there we are – on the high mountain – and we immediately think of stories of God meeting with his servants on high mountains:  Moses at Sinai in those 40 years with Israel; Elijah at Mt Carmel and then 40 days down the road at Mt Horeb;  Jesus here, and soon another mountain down the road, about 40 days from now… -- here we are on the mountain looking at the whole history of Israel summarized by the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, sin and salvation, disobedience, rescue, new start, new land, new life – and Jesus, pure light, more bright, more glorious.  At Sinai Moses’ face shone so much the people couldn’t bear to look at it – here Moses is out-shone, out-bright, out-light by the glorious Jesus – Jesus who has just been mixing it with the unclean, the outcasts, the sick, the hungry, the poor, the marginalized, the desperate, the guilt-laden, the hurting, the dying and, in, with and under all of that, has spoken of his own coming suffering and death – here absolute glory!  Light in darkness!  Life in the midst of death!

Flash!  In a moment the moment is all over.  And they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.  “This is my Son, whom I love.  Listen to him!”  Still echoing; they see only Jesus.

There is a powerful lesson here for us in that contrast between ‘the whole of the history and life of God’s people with all its drama and historic figures’ … and … only Jesus.

The whole of the story, the whole message … and … only Jesus.

Epiphany!  Light!  Glory!  Thundering proclamation! … and … only Jesus.

“How good it is for us to be here!  Let’s set up tents!” … and … only Jesus.

I have a lot of conversations with people related to “God stuff” and “being a Christian” and “the Church” and any of you could probably list a thousand topics and questions that you might imagine stem out of those broad areas.

And there’s an interesting thing that can happen.  Imagine it for yourselves.  If someone were to say to you, “I’m kind of thinking about looking for a church for me and my family and I don’t really know much about church, and haven’t had much experience with church.  What’s your church like?”  What might you say?

I know from experience that there’s a very good chance that the person who asks the question is full of uncertainties about what worship is like, and how friendly are people, and “would my crying baby be a problem, and my older two have lots of energy, and I’m looking for some friendship with people my age, you know, belonging to a community, and I don’t know my Bible very well, and my family never really had much to do with the church when I was little so I’m not certain about what goes on…” – you probably have a sense of what I’m talking about and maybe have even started to think about what you could say.

And I’ve actually heard people in those kinds of conversations and there’s an interesting thing that can happen:  No mention of Jesus. 

And you might want to come back at me, fair enough, “Hold on Pastor Mark.  Jesus, God’s grace – of course that’s what we’re on about!  And that’s what all of our activities and groups and committees and traditions and rosters and structures and policies and planning and offerings and elections and services and …. Jesus.  Only Jesus.  That goes without saying! 

Actually, it doesn’t go without saying.  If you and I don’t say it, it isn’t said.  It may well be understood by us as ‘being said’ behind everything else – all that busyness, all that history, all that activity, all that energy and commitment and passion – but it needs to actually be said by us.  He needs to be said:  Jesus.

This story, this event, is a powerful reminder that all and everything in the whole of the history of God’s relationship with humanity in general, with Israel in particular, with us as the new Israel and the continuing people of God, together with the whole of all humanity to whom we have been sent – all of it is about Jesus; it points to Jesus.  Only Jesus.

Another disciple, Paul, would later have a similarly blinding experience of seeing the glory of Jesus – the risen Jesus!  From refusing to see Jesus Paul became, on that road to Damascus, a person who could see nothing but Jesus.  And when you read Paul, for all the issues personal, political and pastoral that he wrestles with – Paul ‘gets it’.  We hear him in today’s Epistle reading:  “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” (2 Corinthians 4:5)  Or as he says in his earlier letter to the Corinthians, “I made up my mind to pay attention to only one thing while I was with you. That one thing was Jesus Christ and his death on the cross.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)  The same thing to the Philippians:  “I consider everything to be nothing compared to knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  To know him is the best thing of all.  Because of him I have lost everything.  But I consider all of it to be garbage so I can get to know Christ.   I want to be joined to him.  For me, being right with God does not come from the law. It comes because I believe in Christ.  It comes from God.  It is received by faith. I want to know Christ better.  I want to know the power that raised him from the dead. I want to share in his sufferings.  I want to become like him by sharing in his death.   Then by God's grace I will rise from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8-11)  To the Galatians it’s “justified in Christ”, “faith in Christ”, and even “I no longer live but Christ lives in me”!  (Galatians 2:20)  To the Ephesians:  that we are “made alive in Christ”, “created in Christ”, “raised with Christ” and “seated with Christ in the heavenly realms”  And here and there, “our confidence is in Christ”, “we have victory in Christ”, “I am clothed in Christ”, “in Christ a new creation”, “I boast in Christ”.  And even when he focuses on the Church, more often than not he refers to it as “the body of Christ”.  He is driven to do this.  Two weeks ago, in the Epistle for the day, we heard Paul cry out:  “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

Even when he’s not specifically saying “Christ” or “Jesus”, his conversation is still about Christ Jesus; for example, “Suppose I speak in the languages of human beings and of angels. If I don't have love, I am only a loud gong or a noisy cymbal.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1)  “Love” here is not a reference to Paul’s charm, or generous spirit, or way with words, or sensitive nature – the word used refers to the self-sacrificing love which God works for the world, for us, for Paul – “I can speak, but if I don’t speak that love I am only a loud gong or a noisy cymbal.”  You could properly paraphrase it, “If I don’t speak Christ Jesus I am only a loud gong; if I don’t speak his grace I am only a clanging cymbal.”

Jesus only.  Jesus alone.  Christ alone.  And if Christ alone: by grace alone, through faith alone.

This is not a parochial Reformation slogan.  This is the reality that stands out in this ‘transfiguration’ at the point of transition, the intersection between the season in which we have just celebrated the glory of God, the glory of Christ Jesus revealed to the world and the nations in the birth of Jesus, and evident in the power of the miracles and teaching of Jesus, and now directed, paradoxically, to the suffering and death of Jesus – this Christ alone, this Jesus alone, this love of God alone, this grace alone – this is what it is all about.  The rest is either peripheral or, if it is essential and integral, it is because it points, leads, builds clearly and consistently to Christ Jesus alone and his grace alone.

And there is an important complementary reason for recognizing and remembering this:  ‘the world’ cannot, as Paul puts it in today’s Epistle reading – ‘they cannot see the light of the gospel’.  They cannot see Jesus.

There was a time – certainly in my growing up – when we could, in a community like ours, pretty much assume that everyone at least knew who Jesus was, knew the essentials of what the church teaches, knew the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, and had some basic understanding of Christian festivals, and even had some basic understanding of the Gospel.  We are at least one, probably a couple of, generations removed from that.  Our neighbours, our friends, even some of our family do not know Jesus, and do not know Jesus’ love, and do not know Jesus loves them!

They are not here this morning.  I realize that.  I will do my best to tell them tomorrow and the rest of the week. 

What I want to encourage you to do is to join Peter and James and John (and Paul) (and all God’s family) who, by the grace of the Spirit have been led to stand and see Jesus’ glory shown and affirmed by the Father right in the middle of everything, the whole story, everything that is the whole history of God’s love for humanity – see Jesus in the middle of all of that, then let the “all of that” fade and, for a moment, just see Jesus; no one with you except Jesus.  Come to the Sacrament with that in mind – let the liturgy and the songs and all the setting fade into ‘only Jesus’ – his presence with you and his Word to you:  ‘given for you’.  Be flooded by his grace.  There is a big story in our lives, and there is a lot going on today and this week; but just be blinded for a moment:  Jesus only, his grace for you, always and absolutely!

And then, like Peter, James and John, go back into the world having experienced that moment of glory in seeing ‘only Jesus’.  (But now you don’t have to keep it to yourself…)