Ascending and Descending
It’s so good to see you all. Let’s turn, if you’re not already there, to Mark 9. Mark 9. If you’re visiting or just joining us, we are working our way through the book of Mark. Really spending the entire year detoxing in Jesus and, as we were just singing, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. So, we’re going to jump back in to Mark 9.
Rene Daumal was a French writer who merged a little Western philosophy with a lot of Eastern spirituality. In his poem, creatively titled, “Poem,” he wrote about mountain climbing. Why climb if you have to unclimb? Why go up a mountain if you have to come down? Look at his poem. He says:
“One cannot stay on the summit forever — one has to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this. What is above knows what is below — but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees — one descends and sees no longer but one has seen! There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one does at last still know.”
Think about that. “There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up.” Another way of saying that is, you can’t stay on the summit, but the summit can stay in you. You can’t stay on the summit, but the summit can stay in you. Tragically, Daumal did not realize this summit-shaped lifestyle he so craved. He died suddenly at the age of 36 of tuberculosis, but many believe his death was accelerated by his numerous mind-altering drugs he had previously used. Daumal longed to not only get to the summit but stay on the summit.
We humans are mountain climbers. We crave the summit. We despise the boredom of the lowlands. We try to use money and sex and drugs and alcohol and education and entertainment and religion or whatever else we think will get us to the top. We pile boxes of busyness, one on top of another, to boost ourselves up to see a bit further. But as much as we try to escape the trivialities of life, many of us, in Henri Nouwen’s words, live with a “deep sense of unfulfillment.” He says this:
“While busy with and worried about many things, we seldom feel truly satisfied, at peace, or at home. A gnawing sense of being unfulfilled underlies our filled lives… Boredom is a sentiment of disconnectedness… To be bored, therefore, does not mean that we have nothing to do, but that we question the value of the things we are so busy doing. The great paradox of our time is that many of us are busy and bored at the same time… In short, while our lives are full, we feel unfulfilled.”
In this world, it feels like we can never quite see far enough. We’re like Moses, who was taken up on a mountain and could look into the promised land but then died before he went there. Jesus is the ultimate Sherpa who invites us to transcend the swamp of our culture and cravings and climb with him.
He says in Mark 8:34, “If anyone would come after me.” Come after me. Notice the emphasis on me. He is the summit we are seeking. He is the summit we are seeking. And he’s not some drug dealer or time-share salesperson who promises instant ecstasy or bliss. He actually promises the opposite. Look at verse 34 again. We’re looking back where we were last week, 8:34. “And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” Follow me. He’s essentially saying, by saying, “deny yourself, take up your cross”, I am going to take you down before I take you up.
Why would anybody in their right mind want to do that, go down? And he gave us three reasons. He argued with us in the passage we saw last week. Quick review, #1, he shows us the way to life. You want to do this because (v.35) “Whoever would save his life will [actually] lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” He teaches us the value of a soul. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” And he warns us of the role of shame. “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
He’s essentially saying, if you’re not willing to go down with me, why would you think one day you will go up with me? If you’re ashamed of me now, why would you think suddenly everything would change in the future? Come, he is saying. Come to me. Those who look to him, their faces will be radiant. They will not be ashamed.
Well, in Mark 9:1 we have a transition verse that moves us from this call to the cross of last week into this promise of this. Look at verse 9:1.
“Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
So, some here are going to go up before they go down. So, what is this vision of the kingdom coming in power? All three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – tie together three things. The three that are here: the end of chapter 8, which is the call to the cross, Jesus is called to the cross, the 9:1, which is the promise of the kingdom coming in power, and 9:2-13, which is this transfiguration of Jesus. All three tie those together and so the message seems clear. Mark 9:1, this promise of this vision of the kingdom coming in power is predicting 9:2, this glimpse into the glory of Christ who is the king of the kingdom.
So, we could say it this way, the big idea for this passage: the vision above is a provision below. The vision above is provision below. The vision of Jesus above is a provision for suffering below. It’s another way of saying you can’t stay on the summit, but the summit can stay in you. Let’s look at those two parts, the vision above and the provision below.
The first is a beautiful vision above, the ascending of verses 2-8. Verse 2,
“After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”
Now, if we assume that they’re still near Ceasarea Philippi, which they just were, the mountain is most likely Mount Hermon and one of its many peaks that range from 4,000 to almost 10,000 feet high. Imagine being with Jesus on a mountain. Imagine watching the sunset from Mount Hermon with the one who made it. This, both the climb and the experience, was overwhelming to the disciples because Luke’s account of this same event describes them, Peter, James and John, falling asleep while Jesus was praying, and that’s when it happened. Second part of verse 2,
“He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.”
The word transfigured there is “metamorphoo,” which we get our word metamorphosize, which means to change into another form. The humble human body of Jesus revealed temporarily, was transformed externally into this radiant expression of the glory of Christ.
This is different from Moses’s glow in Exodus 34. You remember, Moses came off of Mount Sinai and his face, his skin shown. That was the reflection from the glory of God, like a really bright sunburn but coming off of the glory of God. Like the moon reflects the sun’s radiance. This is different because this radiance is coming from within. It’s not merely a reflection. It is a radiation of who Jesus is as the son of God. Hebrews 1:3, “He is the radiance of the glory of God.” John in Revelation 1 experienced this when he saw Jesus post-resurrection coming and “His face like the sun shining in full strength” (1:16) and John “fell on his face as though dead.” When Saul was traveling on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to him, and his radiance was so bright. Saul, even though Saul was antagonistic and did not even believe in Jesus, was thrown to the ground and could not see this radiance of Christ. When Peter wrote of this experience later after the resurrection, because he couldn’t talk about it before the resurrection, after the resurrection, he wrote in 2 Peter 1:16, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” In other words, we went to the summit and saw the one who is above all.
Can you imagine waking up to that? I would think they would have thought they were dreaming. They’re wiping the sleepies off their eyes, but it’s so bright they couldn’t open their eyes. As their eyes adjust, they realize that Jesus was not alone. Verse 4, “There appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.” So, it’s as if, you know we pray for the kingdom to come? This is a manifestation of the kingdom, heaven coming to earth. Elijah representing the prophets, Moses the law — all of God’s revelation converging in Jesus. At this point, Peter could not contain himself any longer. He was, verse 6, terrified and unsure what to do or say. And as is classic Peter, when you’re not sure what to do or say, just do or say something. And in verse 5 he suggests building tents or literally booths to maintain this glorious experience with a kind of final Feast of Tabernacles. And Luke tells us that Elijah and Moses had been talking with Jesus about Jesus’s exodus, his death in Jerusalem, Luke 9:31, referring to this same experience.
So, it could be that Peter blurted out because he was once again uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. “Hey, guys, we’re on a mountain. You’re manifesting your glory. This is not the time to talk about death. Why are we not talking about something more exciting? Let’s build booths! Let’s stay on the summit. Let’s never go down.” And as he was speaking, verse 7,
“A cloud overshadowed them [this is the shekinah glory], and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’”
Can you imagine more beautiful words? “This is my beloved son; listen to him.” In Matthew 17:6, which is Matthew’s account of this same event, we learn that the disciples, upon hearing this voice coming out of this cloud enveloping them, fell on their faces. Verse 7, and suddenly looking around they no longer saw anyone with them, “but Jesus only.” Matthew 17:7 goes on to say,
“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”
All of God’s revelation converging in Jesus alone. This is the beautiful vision, the ascending. And unfortunately for Peter, it doesn’t stop there. There’s a descending. One has to come down.
Number 2 – a sustaining provision below. As they’re descending the mountain, Jesus does two things: he raises questions and answers questions. First, in 9, he raised some questions.
“And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So, they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean.”
Imagine them climbing back down the mountain, they’re still stunned at what they saw. And Jesus begins to tell them, “Hey, you can’t tell anyone what you saw until after I rise from the dead.” And there it is again; you’re going to die and then you’re going to rise. Remember, they had no category for a dead Messiah. And they had no category for one who was raised from the dead. So, they begin questioning among themselves. What is this resurrection? They had a category for a collective future resurrection but nothing like what he’s talking about here. They’re totally confused. Stunned by what they saw, confused by what they hear.
So, they begin asking questions and this is where Jesus answers. Verse 11, “They asked him, ‘Why did the scribes say that first Elijah must come?’” Now, that’s very interesting. They’re very tuned in to the promises of the coming Messiah, that Elijah would come first and then the Messiah would come. Verse 12, “And he said to them, ‘Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?’” So, Jesus agrees that Elijah does come first, but that the Son of Man will suffer many things and be treated with contempt. And not only the Son of Man, verse 13, “But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”
This would have been super confusing to James, Peter, and John. Elijah has come. Who is he referring to? John the Baptist. But they did to him whatever they pleased. They had a view, Peter, James, and John would have had a view of Elijah as one who never died. Remember, he was threatened. Jezebel tried to kill him, the Old Testament Elijah. But he was taken to heaven in a whirlwind. And so, they’re imagining, “Hey, that’s much closer to our image of what a Messiah should be like and what the forerunner of the Messiah should experience.” But Jesus says the opposite. He said not only is the Son of Man going to suffer, but the forerunner of the Son of Man was mistreated. “They did to him whatever they wanted.” Herodias did what Jezebel didn’t. Now, you could imagine at this point … Are you confused at this point? Because the tension you feel is the same tension I’m sure they felt. We’ve gone to the mountain with Jesus. We’ve seen his glory. And now you want to talk about death and contempt and doing whatever they want to you or to your forerunner?
What is Jesus doing here? Let’s bring all these all this together, the ascending and the descending. He’s bringing together the sovereignty of Christ with the suffering of Christ. In their minds, it’s one or the other. He’s either the Messiah, and so he reigns in power, crushing all his enemies. Or he’s weak, rejected, suffering – a loser. Which is it? And Jesus is bringing together two things that they could not previously imagine. He is sovereign; you saw him glorified on the mountain. But he is called to suffer; they will do with him whatever they want.
This is the vision above that is a provision below. You can’t stay on the summit, but the summit can stay in you. In other words, the summit, the summit experience prepares them for the suffering experience. Can you imagine what this would have meant to Mark’s first readers, Christians in Rome who were being hunted and persecuted. And it starts to make sense. Wow, he is, yes, the exalted Lord, but he has come in weakness as a sacrifice. He is the lion, but he is a lamb. It’s not one or the other; it’s both. And until we embrace both, until we can go down with him, we don’t understand what it’s like to go up with him. The gospel is both, and if you choose one or the other, you’ve rejected the gospel, you’ve rejected Jesus.
This is such a clear reality for our brothers and sisters around the world. It’s like normal life. Preaching this sermon would be a “duh” moment around the world. For Americans, it’s a little more difficult, but we need to hear it and we need to learn from our brothers and sisters. So, I want us to watch this true story of brothers and sisters in Iran, Taher and his family. And let’s ask the Lord to teach us both the sufficiency and sovereignty of Christ, you’re going to hear it throughout, and yet also the call to suffer.
So do you feel that weird tension between (inaudible) felt very strongly in there in Taher and his family, both a recognition of the worth of Christ. Let me remind you just a few of the statements they made: “As I need air to breathe,” Taher’s wife said, “I think I need Jesus more to continue my life.” More than air to breathe. Or Taher said, “I wanted everyone to know what paradise I am in.” Paradise? You’re being followed everywhere, tracked, life threatened, eventually leave, lose everything. Paradise? What is he talking about? Or, “I would give even more; it’s still worth it.” It’s not just an emotional experience. There is emotion to it, but it’s that deep awareness that Jesus is better than anything while at the same time, a willingness to follow him, whether that leads to prosperity or suffering. We’re with you, Jesus; we want to go with you. We don’t want to pick and choose. We don’t want to just be with you in the good times and when you do stuff for us that we demand. We’re with you. We’re with you. Jesus is saying that same invitation to us. Come to me.
Jesus, we pray that, like you did with Peter, James and John, you would wake us up to your glory. You are the summit we are seeking. You are better than anyone or anything. And you know, our hearts, Lord. We see a story like that, and we wonder, could we stand? Would we be firm? Would we deny? Would we fail? And Lord, we pray that you would not allow us to be distracted by that question. But right now, right where we are, are we saying yes to you? Are we denying ourselves in the battle of the mind and the heart with the affections for things that suck the life out of our souls? Lord, let us begin with the small denials so that if you call us to the big ones, we are trained, our spiritual muscles are prepared. Taher and his family didn’t just do that in one moment. It was your work in them over time to deny themselves, to take up their cross, and to follow you because you are worth it. Lord, reveal your glory to us so that we will follow you no matter what.
And as we pray that for us, we remember our brothers and sisters around the world and we thank you for them and we pray that you would encourage them, the ones in a cell right now. Thank you that Taher, the first thing he wanted to do was write verses for the next person. Lord, please encourage them. Let them know they have a big family around the world and a Father who loves them. May we hear the words that you spoke over Jesus. As we are in Jesus, we experience/hear those words. This is my beloved son, daughter. Lord, continue to speak to us now. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.