Todd Agnew in his song “My Jesus” asks the question “Which Jesus do you follow? Which Jesus do you serve?” He then goes on to compare the Americanized Jesus, the Jesus that is essentially an epitome of the American dream with the Jesus of the bible that dined with tax collectors and sinners. Agnew concludes that he wants to live his life imitating the Jesus of the bible. As he writes it “Not a poster child for American prosperity, but like my Jesus You see I'm tired of living for success and popularity I want to be like my Jesus.” The American dream tells stories of rags to riches as signs of its success. But as far as I am concerned the greatest success story in human history is actually a riches to rags story, it is the story of God in His richness taking on human flesh and ultimately a Roman Cross. Why is this “riches to rags” story so great? For me it is because it shows the love and humility of God.
Today, I want to redirect us back to our first-love. I think it is easy in the church today to get caught up in other things, the authority of scripture, the role of the law today, what is the role of the church in a changing world, and many others. But what I want to do today is take us back to where all these things, Scripture, law, church are supposed to be pointing, that is Christ, our first-love. I want this to be a time of revival, a time to reconnect with the one who first loved us. Today, I preach Christ crucified. But what does the transfiguration account we just read, have to do with the crucifixion? Let’s take a look at the context in Mark.
A central claim to Mark’s theology is that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (Mk 1:1). It is in this section of the Gospel (chapters 8-9) where what this means really begins to come into the foreground. This section starts with a question that Jesus poses to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am” (8:27ff). Peter answers correctly, “you are the Messiah” You are the Lords anointed. Jesus then began to teach them what it meant to be the Son of Man, namely that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected” (8:31). Peter’s response to Jesus definition of Messiah showed that while his answer was correct, his understanding of Messiah needed some major tweaking. In fact, his response was so flawed it commanded a harsh response from Jesus “Get behind me Satan.” The problem that Peter has is rooted in his understanding of the Son of Man, which comes from Daniel (7:13-14) of one who was coming with the clouds in authority, glory and sovereign power over all nations into eternity. Peter could not equate one having supreme eternal power with one who would suffer and die. The Christ of the cross was too much for Peter’s Christology to handle. But as we can see the cross is the focal point of what it means to be Messiah for Mark. We see this same theme again in the text that follows the transfiguration, where Jesus identifies the Son of Man as one that “must suffer much and be rejected” (9:12). This section and the entire narrative of the book of Mark point us towards the cross. Today we will get just a glimpse of this as we explore the narrative contrasts between the transfiguration and the passion narrative to get a better picture of who this Jesus is.
Six days after Peter is confronted by Jesus, Peter is in his glory; his beliefs about Jesus being the Messiah are confirmed as Jesus is transfigured (i.e. changes his appearance), before them, joined by Moses and Elijah. There was even a voice coming from the clouds affirming that Jesus was the Son of God. To commemorate this occasion, Peter suggests building tabernacles for the guest. Peter wanted that glory to last forever; he still had no room for the Christ of the cross. What Peter wanted, along with many Jews of the day, was a Messiah that would free them from Roman authority, re-establish the kingdom of Israel and bring about shalom, perfect peace in the land. But this was not God’s plan for redemption. The glory of the Christ faded, Moses and Elijah disappeared just as quickly as they appeared; it was just Jesus and the disciples remaining. The glory did not last; that glory was not an eternal redemptive glory. But soon the Christ that stood before Peter, James and John in clothes that radiated whiter than any launderer could make them, would soon be disrobed with Roman guards casting lots for his clothing, his disciples which saw this magnificent sight would disown him, the Christ that was conversing with the saints Moses and Elijah would be mocked by the criminals that accompanied him on the cross, but perhaps worst of all, God who in a cloud said “this is my Son listen to him” would leave his Son asking “Why have you forsaken me” as death drew near. Yet it is my claim here today that Christ’s true glory is in His humility, particularly in the humility he showed on the cross.
Mark states that Peter, James and John were brought up on the mountain with Jesus. It was common practice at the time that testimony had to be verified by two or three witnesses in accordance with Deuteronomic Law (Deut 19:15). This is a time before forensics and fingerprinting were used to identify and convict criminals. But even though these tools were not available, justice and truth were still important principles. The entire system was reliant upon the testimony of witnesses to reach a verdict, or affirm the validity of a claim. Peter, James and John were taken up the mountain of transfiguration, three people to act as witnesses. At Jesus trial, the Chief Priests and the Sanhedrin heard testimony against Jesus from false witnesses, whose testimony did not even agree (Mark 14:56-59). Where were the true witnesses to Jesus, the ones he took up to see His glory on the mount of transfiguration? They were dispersed, in hiding. Where was Peter who vowed to stand by Christ even unto death? He denied even knowing Jesus three times (Mark 14:66ff).
The disciples were ashamed to be following Jesus when Jesus needed them most. They had no place in their theology for the Jesus of the Cross, only a very triumphant Jesus, like the Jesus of the transfiguration. But at the end of the day do we fare any better? Western Theology is very comfortable with the Jesus of the Transfiguration, a Jesus that can embody many of the Greek perfection, like omnipotence (all powerful), omniscience (all knowing), omnipresence (all present), impassable (without emotions), etc. which all would seem to be embodied in the Jesus of the Transfiguration mindset. If we in the West have to deal with the cross it’s usually only in the context of a necessary evil, which freed us from our sins. Or to use the words of Saint Athanasius “God became man, that man might become divine”. That is to say in order for us to be made perfect, Christ had to make atonement for our sins. Everything is always in the context of aspiring after perfections. But this is not the case in every tradition, Asian Theology offers a different approach, particularly seen for instance in The Gold Crowned Jesus, a Korean Theological piece. The Gold Crowned Jesus asks the question, Who is Jesus? We in the West typically answer it in the manner I have been describing by utilizing these concepts of perfection. But what this piece does is put that portrayal of Jesus, with his Gold Crown in conversation with a leper and a beggar. For them the question is how is Jesus going to help me, how is Jesus going to help put food in my stomach, heal me from my illness or provide some form of comfort, very pragmatic and basic concerns. The author’s conclusion, which is commonly held within Asian theology, is to take a position which is centered on the cross, on the point of suffering, on a Christ that can sympathize with the suffering of others. Once this side of Jesus is realized the golden crowned Jesus statue speaks to the Leper, “I have been closed up in this stone for a long, long time, ... entombed in this dark, lonely, suffocating prison. I have longed to talk with you, the kind and poor people like yourself, and share your suffering. I can't begin to tell you how long I have waited for this day, ... this day when I would be freed from my prison, this day of liberation when I would live and burn again as a flame inside you, inside the very depths of your misery. But now you have finally come. And because you have come close to me I can speak now. You are my rescuer." What we see here is a Christ that is able to identify with the suffering of the world, not just offer some pie in the sky glimmer of hope for perfection in the future but actually share in their suffering. It is emphasizing Christ as the humble suffering servant, one who is incarnate with us. Perhaps the more perfect revelation of God is not of a God standing in supreme power and perfection, but of one who would humbly take upon himself a cross and die in the company of sinners. Ultimately what I hope to convey in this is to begin to ask the question of who is Jesus to you? And how does that Jesus compare to the Jesus we see revealed in the gospel?
The garments in which Jesus was wearing on the mount of transfiguration became radiant; they were whiter than anyone could bleach them. He was transfigured before them. White was symbolic for purity, Christ was perfect, without blemish to a super-natural degree. But while on the cross, Jesus was stripped and exposed for the entire world to see. The guards were casting lots for Jesus clothing (Mark 15:24). This is perhaps one of the most powerful contrasts for me, in large part due to the shame accompanied with the cross. This concept of shame is much more easily understood within more communal cultures than in individualistic cultures like the United States which operates under a penal system of guilt. In communal cultures ones identity is always as a part of a larger community. They are very concerned with “face”, or one’s social value within a group setting. One’s face determines their group identity, and each person within that group seeks to preserve their face, and not lose face. Bringing shame upon oneself brings shame and disgrace upon the entire family/ community, they lose face. Often in communal cultures, bringing disgrace upon the community, often leads to the community abandoning you. Without that community there is no identity. Jesus had brought shame upon his community, the disciples had abandoned him, and he was left all alone, exposed for the whole world to see. Stripped of everything, including his clothing, he bore the shame and rebuke of the world.
What one wears was often symbolic of status. Kings often wore very stately clothes to set themselves apart. But even today people wear designer clothing as a symbol of status. So just seeing the humility of Jesus displayed in this way should act as a challenge to our personal values. We live in a world that praises wealth, power and fame. It is a world that does all it can to avoid suffering and pain. As Paul writes in I Corinthians 1:18 “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”. The thought that someone could be God and yet die on a cross is irrational to the world. But yet to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God. Wealth, power and fame, are not the goal for the Christian, because for the Christian the true joy is found in the cross. The cross and the incarnation act to overturn traditional structures and values through their display of complete humility. In like manner we have been called in 1 Peter 5:5 to “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility”. What all of this means, is that Christianity commands total life transformation, one must be reborn into the image and likeness of Christ, with renewed values and goals rooted in humility.
Perhaps the greatest example of this was Mother Teresa, who spent her life ministering to the people of Calcutta in India. Here is what Shane Claiborne in his book The Irresistible Revolution had to say about her humility in service: “People often ask me what Mother Teresa was like. Sometimes it's like they wonder if she glowed in the dark or had a halo. She was short, wrinkled, and precious, maybe even a little ornery—like a beautiful, wise old granny. But there is one thing I will never forget—her feet. Her feet were deformed. Each morning in Mass, I would stare at them. I wondered if she had contracted leprosy. But I wasn't going to ask, of course. "Hey Mother, what's wrong with your feet?"
One day a sister said to us, "Have you noticed her feet?" We nodded, curious. She said: "Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds them. And years of doing that have deformed her feet." Years of loving her neighbor as herself deformed her feet.” (Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution, 166-67). She took the worst pair of shoes for herself, so that no one else would have to suffer. Mother Teresa did not consider herself any better than those whom she served. In spite of all of her wealth and fame, she never used these things to give her some advantage over the people she served. But rather she became one with them; she took the worst so that others could have better. She became like a Mother to the people in Calcutta, wanting the best for her children. But she is not without her critics in this matter. Critics have argued that if Mother Teresa had just worn better shoes, she may have been able to touch more lives and been better able to help those in her care. In other words, that by going to such extremes she hampered her potential productivity. To which I can only respond…does Mother Teresa’s strength come from her feet? Rather her strength comes from God, and her example of humility acts as a testimony for others. So it must be among you, if you want to be first in the kingdom you must be last, the kingdom is found in those who hold the posture of a servant. But let me be clear here, as there is such a thing as a false humility. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, its thinking of yourself less (C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity). Humility is not putting oneself down, it is putting others ahead of oneself; it is going the extra mile to love our neighbors.
On the mount of transfiguration, Jesus conversed with Moses and Elijah. Moses was a remarkable servant of God; he was the one who led the Hebrews along with the rabble of non-Israelites out of Egypt. Elijah on the other hand was a prophet sent by God to a Jewish people who were led astray by foreign deities. Elijah is perhaps best known for his calling down fire from heaven upon a water soaked sacrifice to confirm that YHWH is God and not Baal. But each likely mentioned here because they were beholden to God. Moses after seeing God had to veil his face because it radiated (Exodus 34:35), Elijah on the other hand saw that God was not in the wind or the earthquake but passed by him in the cave (1 Kings 19:11-13). In other words, Moses and Elijah‘s presence at the transfiguration further confirms that Jesus is God. The topic of the conversation, given in Luke of his coming departure that was going to be accomplished in Jerusalem, was not mentioned in Mark, drawing further emphasis on the importance of with whom Jesus is speaking rather than about what they are speaking. That is to say, the emphasis in Mark is that Jesus is speaking with Moses and Elijah something that Mark than sets in contrast on Calvary, where Jesus is surrounded by criminals/rebels and was mocked and insulted as he hung on that cross (Mark 15:27-32). The victory that Christ won was not in the company of the saints on the mountain of transfiguration but being surrounded by condemned rebels, sinners, being taunted by those who passed by and those in the religious establishment.
We have been called to replicate Christ’s humility in the company we keep. Christ ultimate work of redemption was done in the presence of sinners not saints. This is seen first and foremost in the cross where Jesus died. But also in his recognition that it is not the healthy that need a doctor but the sick. He dined with sinners and tax collectors, those on the margins of society, those who the religious establishment sought to do away with. We, like the Pharisees, could only associate ourselves with the “saints” of the world and parade ourselves around with a holier than thou attitude or we, like Christ, can incarnate ourselves into communities outside of our circle of saints. Like Christ, we could be on friendly terms with those on the fringes or outside of our faith tradition. As Paul so eloquently put it, to those under the law he became like one under the law but to those not under the law he became like them in order that he might win followers to Christ (1 Cor 9:20). Sometimes Christian communities get into a mindset that good, pious Christians don’t go to that pub, good Christians don’t go to that casino or good Christians don’t go to that part of town, in other words good Christians don’t go to areas where the riffraff of our society hang out. They don’t want to be associated with that crowd. These sentiments are very similar to the Pharisees who critiqued Jesus for hanging out with the sinners and tax collectors. The problem with the Pharisees is that their piety is not rooted in humility but in pride, in proving oneself more worthy than another. Our calling on the other hand is to replicate Jesus humility by going into the world; to go into all of the world as the Great Commission states, not just a subset. This means humbly lowering ourselves (incarnating ourselves) from our place of perceived moral hierarchy, to become one with the “sinners and tax collectors” of our generation, those who are poor, oppressed, in prison, on the margins of our society and often times of our religious institutions. The challenge is to be like Christ in our encounters throughout our daily lives and really take time to reflect on what it means to be a Christian in each aspect of our lives.
Lastly we see the humility of Christ, in that God turns His back on Him. Perhaps there are some in this audience today who have been forsaken by a parent or someone close to you. But for those who have not it is hard to imagine the agony behind Jesus cry echoing the Psalm of David (PS 22) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). It is a distant cry from the confirmation and affirmation given Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. But as we will see, while it looked so bleak, lots were cast for his clothing, insults were hurled at him, and figuratively speaking a pack of angry dogs surrounded him ready to devour, the LORD did hear his plea and resurrected him, giving him victory over his enemy once and for all.
Humility often comes at a high cost. It might be at the cost of being “proved right” on a given point. It may affect our social relationships, as some people may not be able to tolerate that you actually want to be friendly with those on the outskirts of our society. There will be tough times following in the road of the cross, it may even seem as if God has forsaken us or hung us out to dry. It does not seem logical that the path of the servant is the path to victory, but in Jesus we have hope. We may feel as if God has turned his back on us, so did Christ on the cross, we may feel as if everyone has abandoned us, so did Christ, we may be stripped of everything we have, so did Christ. Christ identifies in every way with the plight of His humble servants. His identification with us, encourages us, strengthens us, to see through all the challenges that being a humble Christian brings.
It is still almost hard to believe that the Christ on Calvary is the same Christ that was on the mount of transfiguration. One might ask the question as to why Christ would embrace Calvary the way in which he did, especially after displaying such power and majesty in the transfiguration. Danish Philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable of The King and the Humble Maiden to help explain God’s love for us. There was a king that loved a humble maiden. Now certainly the King could have just taken her to be his queen, but she would always be a humble maiden who the King graciously elevated, not an equal with him. Her love for the king would always be out of a lowly position. The king would much rather lose her than simply be her benefactor. Another option is that the king could just appear to her, as one whose position makes him worthy of her praise. But the king desires not his own exaltation but hers. Since her ascent will not truly allow the kings love to flourish, instead the king himself must descend. The king must take the form of a servant, not merely as one might disguise themselves in a beggars cloak, but truly embracing the servants role in every way. For this is true love, to desire to be equal with them, not just in jest, but truly two equals. God is not zealous for Himself, but out of love wants to be equal with the lowliest of the lowly. Christ loved us so much that he wanted to become like one of us, in every way. In like manner, we are called to enter into the lives of others. Perhaps Paul in the letter to the Philippians says it best, when he challenges the Philippians in chapter 2 to have the same mindset as Christ: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” In order to love like Jesus loved, we must first learn to humble ourselves before God and before our neighbor only then can we truly incarnate ourselves in the world.
It is easy to praise the Jesus of the transfiguration to admire the humility of Christ on the cross and the tremendous victory that he won on our behalf, but it is much more difficult to live it. To be the one on the top, to be in a position of power or hold a moral high ground, whatever that privilege may be, and be humble enough and loving enough to incarnate oneself into another group. As we saw at the beginning of this message, it did not make much sense to Peter either. How could the Son of Man, the one who was coming with supreme power, be one who was going to suffer and die on a Roman Cross? It took the resurrection to get Peter to understand the power of God at work through the suffering of the Son of God and he went on to preach Christ crucified, Christ in His humblest and meekest state. Now may we, whose lives have been transformed by the cross, be willing to do the same, not just in word but also in action.
As you go into this next week, take time to reflect on these questions: Who is Jesus to me? How does Jesus example of humility in scripture challenge my values and lifestyle choices? How can I better replicate Christ’s humility in the friends and acquaintances that I keep? Am I willing to pay the high costs of being a humble servant of Christ?