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The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four gospels. It opens with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” then instantly Jesus is baptized, tested and calling his disciples. There’s no birth narrative or family tree, instead in chapter one Jesus begins to journey from one place to the next and is healing someone new or teaching something new in every paragraph. By the time we get to our scripture today in Chapter 9, the Gospel of Mark is more than halfway over and we are already moving toward the cross. Up until this point, the disciples have been confused and often afraid. Sounds like a great time to get away right and just relax in the mountains, right? So they let Jesus, this guy who has been predicting his own death and telling them to take up their cross and lose their own lives, to take them up a mountain…alone. Are these guys not listening or are they just that naive? Or maybe they are doing exactly what they should have been doing, whether they knew it or not. After all they had already dropped their nets and left the comfort of their daily fishing labors to follow Jesus. We are going to go a journey today
and follow Jesus up the mountain, so as we do let us pray for the Spirit’s guidance…
God of grace and love, open our eyes to see your beloved Son and through your word, may we be grateful of his presence, filled with his light and strengthened by his sacrifice to follow you all our days. Amen.
[ Mark 9:2-10]
One of the things I find helpful to do when reading scripture is to take a step back and look at the full picture of where a character has been and where they will go. If you mapped out the life journey of the disciples, initially they were walking on even ground doing their daily work. Then a big change occurs in their life. They head down a new trail following Jesus and now it’s switchback after switchback. It’s new and energizing, then the way gets steeper and they begin to stumble over the rocks and roots in the trails. They only wish they knew where this journey was headed. Their packs are weighted down with questions but it still feels like they are missing something. About now they’d give anything for the predictable trails of their past where they went back and forth from the sea catching fish, selling in the market and returning home to rest each day. All of a sudden they find themselves at the base of a mountain. Thanks to Jesus’ leading, they have the mountaintop experience of seeing God’s love and glory embodied in the flesh of Jesus. They are filled with fear and awe as they hear the voice say, “This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”
Thinking about all the moments of the disciples’ lives got me thinking about topographical maps- the kind of maps that show you all the changes in elevation. The highs and the lows are shown either by lines on the map or sometimes you can even find a 3D map at a State Park where you can see and feel the mountains, valleys and flat plains of the land. It made me wonder, what would a map of my life look like? What would a map of your life look like? It’s probably easiest to start by mapping the biggest moments in your life. These are the mountaintop moments that overwhelm us with joy or awe. We feel a deep connection to the people around us and perhaps even catch a glimpse of God’s love at work in the world. They could happen on a literal mountain, but they might occur by the ocean or somewhere in-between but wherever they occur, they have the tendency to stop us in our tracks and say, “Wow! This is what it means to live life to the fullest in God’s world.”
We talked about moments like these at our high school bible study this week. Sometimes these were big moments like making the journey across rope bridges suspended in the trees of the rainforest or the hush of a crowd of MIDDLE SCHOOLERS when they witnessed a big mountain vista, but others were in our daily life- like feeling so united to your teammates that it didn’t matter if you won or lost. When in your life have you experienced a mountaintop moment, one that overwhelmed you with God’s presence, made you appreciate the connections with people or the earth around you and made you feel alive?
Maybe it was at a wedding or holding your baby for the first time
Maybe it was connecting with a new friend or a special trip, a birthday party or a soccer game
Maybe it was the end of your cancer treatment or finding a new passion that filled you with joy
In these moments when heaven and earth seem so close they could touch, don’t you just want to pitch a tent, as the disciples suggest doing with Jesus, so that you can stay in the moment forever? Even if we haven’t fully processed the experience and couldn’t begin to put it into words, we know we don’t want it to end. Maybe we are even a little afraid for the moment to end because we know that life back down the mountain will not be like this.
When Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop he urged his disciples not to tell anyone until he had been raised from the dead. It seems that Jesus did not want them to separate this moment from the sacrifice it would take for him to follow God’s will. He knew that mountaintop was not the end of the journey and that they couldn’t possibly understand what his glorious display meant to them until they had the full picture. Not to mention the disciples were already struggling to understand how the salvation Jesus was promising was going to involve both healing and suffering, both joy and sorrow, and both receiving and sacrifice. At that moment on the mountaintop, the disciples could look out and see the glory of God’s world shining in Christ’s light but they could not yet imagine the valleys ahead that they would travel with Jesus.
As post-Easter people, we know that Jesus was the kind of Messiah who would die on the cross and rise again in order to bring us new life. We experience this as we baptize one of our own, like Harper today. In these and other mountaintop moments, the promise of God’s grace is as real as the water in the font. Our unity with the body of Christ takes on flesh in blood in the people surrounding us and the love of God is as close is as the air we breathe. We feel ready to live lives that testify to the grace we have received and to point out the light of Christ shining in the darkness in the world around us. The way of Jesus seems to make sense on the mountaintop but I think we are still trying to figure out how to live as faithful followers of Jesus when our lives feel more like boring straightaways or gut-wrenching valleys of stress and anxiety.
In the midst of baptizing four new babies this month at DPC, we also grieve the death of many faithful members, family and friends. It is like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, in awe of the panoramic beauty but keenly aware of the depth that extends miles below us. The valley moments of life that cut us to our core can be brought on by death, illness, addiction, depression or a host of other causes. When we look at the journey disciples took with the Jesus, we can see they faced plenty of vast canyons too. They watched their leader and friend be crucified on the cross as the sky went black, perhaps haunted by their doubt and betrayal of Jesus. The journey of faith is much like a hike through the Grand Canyon- the deep valleys are just as much a part of the journey as the mountaintops and we need the switchbacks and flatlands to get us from one to the next. In the midst of it all we remember it was Christ who led the disciples up on the mountain and back down again and who chose to suffer on their behalf. In the midst of it all we remember that Christ is present in our journeys too and we rejoice in mysterious truth of our faith that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
The diverse topography of the journey of faith is striking. For Harper, the map is just getting drawn, but her parents and grandparents and her church family know first hand the great joys and sorrows that life can hold. When we see how Christ was present in the midst of all of these moments and willing to go to the highest mountain and deepest valley for us then we can begin to understand the magnitude of what it means to be called beloved children of God. It is when we see the whole journey of Christ dying and rising from the dead that we can begin to see how powerful it is to proclaim God’s grace through the waters of baptism and in the testimonies at a funeral.
As we walk through the normal days of our daily lives, there will be moments that stop us in our tracks. There will be moments when we feel like we are standing up on the mountain and we can see the vision that God has for our world because we are experiencing it here and now.
This summer when the children sing and and live out God’s story at Bible and music camp or when the youth are being their true selves singing and playing at Montreat, they will catch a glimpse of the fullness of God’s joy up on the mountain. Yet there will also be moments when we will be wondering when the light will shine again as we grapple with yet another teen suicide or yet another cancer diagnosis. But each of these moments and every moment in-between is deeply connected to our journey of faith AND deeply connected to the God who claims us as beloved. Thanks be to God that God journeys with us, unites us together and guides us to see light breaking in not just on the mountaintop but in the valley and in every moment in-between.
Take a moment and pause to consider where you feel you are on this journey of faith right now…
In baptism we are reminded of the promises of God’s grace that wash over us not because we have earned it but BECAUSE OF CHRIST. We also promise to be the community of God for each other and we affirm that on this journey of faith we do not go alone but with the presence of God and the support of our community of faith. This matters because when we are in our valleys, often it is our community of faith, the Church, that holds the light of Christ for us when we cannot hold it for ourselves. And it is often when we are wandering the switchbacks of life that someone who has seen a glimpse from the mountain shares with us the hope that we need to continue. Whatever the highs and lows of your life look like now, cling to the hope that comes from knowing that we walk this journey together and that it is just as possible for God’s light to shine high on the mountain, down in the valley and everywhere in-between. Pause, take notice and listen. Remember that sharing the light of the mountaintop will not come without sacrifice and great love. So as we walk this journey hand in hand and may we gaze at Christ’s brightness, hoping to mirror his light to the world along the way.
Rev. Allysen Schaaf
Decatur Presbyterian Church
February 11, 2018
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
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Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030