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Nothing We Thought Up Ourselves

Mark 9:2-9

February 15, 2015

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Most of you came this morning hoping to receive something from the sermon that is relevant and practical, something that you can apply directly to your everyday walk with Jesus, something that will connect with the “real world” in which you live. It’s something like spending a half hour watching a cooking show and saying afterward, “I’ll try that recipe tonight!” You want something helpful if you are going to spend a half hour listening to my sermon.

When I was a seminarian, I remember being told, “Every sermon ought to end with something specific that the congregation is able to do in response to the sermon. It’s like having a three-point sermon so that you might list 1 to 3 on your bulletin and write down three easy points.

Being busy people who you are, you want to be able to talk about the sermon hopefully from my perspective as your pastor with your friends and coworkers in the work place. You want something practical to share at coffee break.

It’s ironic that those of us who listen to NPR (National Public Radio) in the morning learned one day, the show “Talk of the Nation” was replaced by “The Take Away!” We just don’t want “talk,” we want something practical to “take away.”

That’s why we pastors love it when you leave the sanctuary after worship telling us, “Pastor, that’s was a very helpful sermon!”


And yet one problem with the idea that every single sermon ought to be readily applicable to life’s situations is that many biblical texts just don’t apply readily to daily life. They seem to have other intentions. Today’s lesson is one of them.

Jesus takes a couple of his disciples up a mountain. Whatever Jesus wants to tell them or show them cannot be told or shown down in the valley, but rather they must arise out of the mundane and commonplace daily existence. Remember the two men who free climbed El Capitan recently. It was dramatic, not ordinary.

We know from scripture that mountains are a favored location for a human encounter with the divine. Moses had to go up a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus preaches his famous sermon from a mountain. As a church, we make our annual trek up the high Sierras to be with the mountains of Yosemite. Presumably, if you think of heaven as “up,” then a mountain puts you closer to heavenly things.

No sooner had they arrived on the mountain than Jesus is transfigured before them. His appearance becomes dazzling white and they are blinded by his brightness. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah, two great heroes of the Old Testament—the great leader and lawgiver and the great prophet—are back from the dead, standing before them. They are talking with Jesus. It is at that moment that the heavens are split open and the voice of God speaks to the disciples directly: “This is my son! Listen to him!”

This is not the first time we heard the voice of God. We heard the voice of God when Jesus was baptized. Since that time, Jesus has been saying some strange things and performing even stranger works. Jesus feeds 4000 people on seven loaves of bread and a few fish, and then the Pharisees ask for a sign to test him. Perhaps they are testing whether Jesus will perform such signs upon request, like asking the pianist in the restaurant to play your favorite song. Of course, Jesus refuses.

Jesus boards the boat to go to the other side of the lake and while en-route warns the disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod. The disciples assume he is saying this because, again, they have no bread. You can just see Jesus drop his head in his hands at how dense these disciples are! This is not about whether there is bread! When they arrive in Bethsaida, Jesus restores sight to the blind man. He is rewarded by Peter’s declaration that he, Jesus, is the Messiah, but then disappointed when Peter demonstrates that he does not know what Messiahship means. Peter goes from being a rock to being a goat.

Jesus seems to be confusing his disciples. If he is indeed the Son of God, then he is not the God whom they were expecting. But on this mountaintop, how wonderfully exciting it is for this voice from heaven to address them directly—to say explicitly who Jesus is. Finally, the disciples’ expectations of who Jesus is—is finally confirmed—the Son of God!

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This scene on the mountaintop of transfiguration is at the center of Mark’s Gospel. And I think it is squarely at the center of the Christian faith. It is a story about revelation, about the veil between heaven and earth being pulled back, just for a moment, and that which is so often hidden, implicit, and mysterious is now being made wonderfully explicit.


Our religion, Christianity is a “revealed religion.” This means it is something given to us rather than something that is achieved by us. Nobody can come to this faith just by taking a long, solitary walk in the woods or by delving into his or her personal psyche. None of us can lock ourselves in a room and in time discover the truth about God. No, this faith must come to you as a gift.

One of the great lies in the modern world is the notion that religion is something that we come up with on our own, a projection of our wishes and desires. You have heard people who are not religious say to you they are glad that your religion is “helpful” to you. This implies that religion is a “crutch”—something that arises from within us that we sometimes find helpful in making it through the day.

That is a conventional modern way of thinking about religious faith. It’s like when you decide to go out to lunch and you can choose from a dozen choices around your office knowing that anyone of the places will satisfy your hunger. Today, religion is looked at as something helpful to get through the day.

Now if religion is that way, how on earth could we have come up with a strange story like the one we have today? If we were thinking up a religion that had as its purpose to help us live an easier or happier life or to make it through the day, why in the world would we have thought up the Christian faith? That’s what the Church of Scientology has done or the Mormons have done or any other of the religious groups that have been thought up by us.

When you read a story like the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop, we have a sense that we are reading something from another realm, another plane of existence than the one on which we live our daily lives. We are reading a story so strange and wonderful we could not have thought it up by ourselves. This story is something that doesn’t arise from within us rather it comes to us. We are being addressed here.

Sometimes we think of church as where we can talk to God. In prayer, we tell God what is on our minds and what we need. But a story like the transfiguration suggests that the purpose of church is for God to address us! What if church is where we come to be addressed by God, to be told what is on God’s mind and what God needs?

In other words, what if church is much like that mountaintop of transfiguration? We come to church, withdrawing from the everyday world, not in order to escape the world but rather to rise out of the daily distractions of the world and focus upon that mystery who has focused on us. We dare to come up the mountain. We risk saying to God, “Go ahead, Lord, speak.”

I Don’t Know

This is not the way most of us in the world get our information. We are taught that truth is something that we discover through rational thought, by following certain methods of investigation, by eliminating false explanations and coming up with the one certain explanation that fits the subject under investigation, by listening to NPR. That way of thinking works for most of the things we think about.

Sometimes, ministerial colleagues who place great weight on the alphabets that follow their names amuse me. They seem to want to suggest that the more degrees they can amass, the more credibility they can have to say that they have the truth. But what if we are trying to just think about God and nothing more? Can anyone have enough degrees to say that they can now say they have the truth?

Read Related Sermon  Grateful Salvation

I have learned long ago that the best answer to a question that I am unfamiliar with is: “I don’t know.” You expect me to know something but frankly and honestly, I don’t know. You see, God is up there in heaven and we are down here on earth. As fallible, finite, sinful creatures therefore we have great difficulty thinking about the creator. There are just too many reasons—reasons having to do with who we are and who God is that keeps us from being able to think our way up to God.

Do you know that just about anything we say to ourselves about God is therefore suspect? We have this natural propensity or desire to conceive God in the ways that we find helpful and beneficial to ourselves. And when we do that, it’s idolatry. How do we know that when we say something about God we are not merely projecting something about ourselves?

We don’t. We don’t know and we shouldn’t try. To prevent ourselves from committing idolatry is to submit our thoughts to scripture, just like we do here, every Sunday morning, as scripture is read and preached. When we do that, we are apt to hear a strange story like the one we have listened to this morning. We cannot explain this story. We are trying to listen to some rational explanation of what happened. Rather, we are being told a story. And after hearing and telling this story once a year over the course of many years, some of you may even have similar stories like the disciples had up on that mountaintop.

Transfigured Times

One of the blessings about being your pastor is that sometimes people come to me to tell me strange, wonderful, mysterious stories—often stories that they have not told to anybody else—about transfiguring moments when it was as if they were on the mountaintop and the veil between this world and the next, between here and eternity, between the mundane reality as we normally experience it and some other wondrous reality, is pulled back and made explicit.

I have heard this when you have been in hospice. I saw this when you changed your habits after a heart attack. I saw this when you gave kindness after receiving it. I saw this when you retrofitted this church to continue to serve Christ in Chinatown. I see this when you bring a baby to be dedicated to the Lord. I see this when you rise up from the baptismal waters. I see it when you share Jesus on the streets of Chinatown.

I’m not sure what is the practical application that you might take away from today’s sermon. I don’t know how this applies to your daily life. But all the disciples are told to do at this point is simply “listen to him!” And that’s what you are doing now. You are listening for a word from the Lord. Perhaps, even during this sermon, the veil between heaven and earth is being pulled back, and you will hear something that it would be impossible for you to hear anywhere else, through any other means. God may be using this moment of worship, as a time to speak to you. You will be a recipient of revelation.

Let’s give thanks that God did not leave us to our own devices to climb up to God. Rather, in certain wonderful, glorious, inexplicable, but nevertheless real moments, God comes to us. The veil is pulled back and it is as if God speaks directly to us.

Let us give thanks that God is relentlessly self-revealing. Let us give thanks for this faith so strange, so wonderful, so true that we could never have thought it up by ourselves!

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, take us up the mountain with you. Bring us to places we could not have gone on our own. Reveal yourself and your will to us. Speak to us. And above all, give us the grace to listen less to ourselves and our thoughts and desires in order that we might listen to you. Amen.

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