Sermon: Stop.....Look....and Listen!

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Preached on 10th May 2013
(Local Arrangement Service taken by Puddlers)
by Dr Alistair MacDonald

Gospel Reading  Luke 9. 18-36.

   “STOP…..LOOK……and LISTEN!”

 

On the Saturday after Easter a few of us preachers travelled to the St Cuthbert Centre on Holy Island. The road, you probably know, takes you over the main line railway and the causeway.  Both have Warning Notices about Trains and Tides.  The first says “Stop…Look….and Listen!”  We crossed safely and gathered with friends for a day of reflection and renewal.  It was a beautiful day - a cloudless sky, the tide flowing and surrounding the holy isle. There were few folk about. It was quiet, peaceful.  Voices were low not wishing to break the silence.

 

Like Iona, Lindisfarne is one of those “thin places” where earth and heaven, time and eternity seem mingled, almost one. We were bidden to walk in the footsteps of the saints, to breathe their air, to Stop, Look and Listen to what we saw and heard and to share it with Aidan and Cuthbert and any others we met.

 

I walked over to the shingle beach facing the ocean where the cobles were hauled up, then past the Priory to the highest point of the island. As I rounded the lookout tower there was a woman gazing out over the bay.  She said simply “Heaven!”.  That one word spoken there on that seashore crag, on the anniversary of Freda’s death, made it for me a “mountain-top experience.”

 

I don’t think there will be any of us here who haven’t had - at some time in our life - a “mountain-top” experience.  They may be few and far between, but we recall them with a thrill of gratitude as a real milestone along our life’s journey.  The mountain-top experience is one that

            makes you catch your breath, halting you in your tracks,

            opens your eyes to what is really happening,

            is a clear signpost to the way forward in your life.

 

You just had to “Stop….Look….and Listen!”

 

The trouble with Peter and probably with the other disciples was that they had come to a turning point in their journey with Jesus, and had tripped over the milestone.  For three years they had  been his companions and had seen the signs of the kingdom of God (or “kingdom of heaven” - same thing) - the kingdom whose arrival he announced.  Over and over again he had been telling them what the kingdom of God is like. It had been dawning on them that Jesus exactly fitted the description of Israel’s Messiah, the Rescuer, the Redeemer, the King their seers and prophets had foretold. They had witnessed his power over natural and spiritual forces and the unique authority of his teaching and how it challenged and changed many lives. They were amazed at his compassion for outcasts and sinners, the disregarded and despised, the wretched of the earth.

 

 

When Jesus had asked them “Who do people say that I am?”, they had answered “Some say Elijah and some say John the Baptist.”  “But,” asked Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?”.  Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.  But when Jesus began to explain to the disciples what he - the Messiah - had to do: to be rejected and suffer and be killed and on the third day be raised to life, this was not at all what they wanted to hear;  this was not at all what the disciples expected or could stomach. This was not their idea of their Messiah, the Christ.  Surely he was to restore the kingdom to Israel - the kingdom of David and Solomon in all its former glory. He was to liberate God’s people and make them a powerful nation subduing all other nations in the name of their God.  As followers of the Messiah, the disciples expected to share the prestige and rewards of his successful revolution.

 

So Jesus’ talk of rejection, suffering and death was anathema to them. It made no sense; Jesus was turning their hopes and ambitions upside down. He said to his disciples:

 

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. (Luke 9.23,24.)

 

Yes, many of the things they were expecting of their Messiah were already  happening.  Jesus had announced that the kingdom of God was already here and the signs were all about them. But they couldn’t see it. Instead they saw dire warning signs, especially the dangerous displeasure of the religious authorities and the hostile stares of the political zealots.

 

Jesus  too had reached a turning point. They were at Caesarea Philippi, a town to the north of Galilee (not far from the Golan Heights and the slopes of Mount Hermon).  Jesus was about to turn south towards Jerusalem and the rage of his enemies.  He needed his friends to understand what lay ahead. They needed a breathing space.  They needed “time out”.  They needed to stop and get focussed.  And for that, they needed a graphic reminder of what  he had been showing them all along: how the whole of their ancient Scriptures was being fulfilled in him;  how the story of God’s love for his creation, for humanity, for the people he had chosen to be the object and expression of that love, through whom all the peoples of the earth would be blessed - how this story was reaching its climax in what he, Jesus, was about to do. That’s why Jesus led Peter and James and John up the mountain  by themselves.

 

Is this a time when we need to stop, to look at where we are in the great narrative of God, to check that our discipleship and mission as a church are really part of that story of God’s constant love, his saving grace and his kingly power? 

 

Or are we privately doubting God’s purpose, disappointed with our efforts to understand and please him, and refusing Jesus’ clear invitation to follow in his way?  How can we know his way unless we know where he is “coming from”, what the story so far has revealed of God’s great plan to show his sovereign power through the humility, compassion, obedience and suffering of his Son.

 

That is his way, and for us his followers it’s the only way too.

 

Which way are we going to take - the way of the world or the way of the cross, which is what Jesus demands?  As the church of God here in Morpeth, are we going to remain burdened by our cares, our anxieties, forever amending our plans, comfortable in our routines?  Or are we going to stay close to Jesus, come what may, and share the secret of his grace and power?  Do we warm to Jesus’s comforting and challenging words

 

“Don’t be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12.32)

 

If that sounds to us implausible, ludicrous, unrealistic (?) it’s time to stop, to take time out with Jesus.

 

“Stop…..Look……!

 

Ask a mountaineer why he or she wants to climb any mountain, their most likely reply is “Because it’s there!”  But most of us hill-walkers would reply, “Because of the view!”  Living in the valley (as I do down by the Wansbeck) one cannot see beyond the enclosing hillsides, and only a narrow band of sky is visible.  Living above the valley, your view may be limited by the flatness of the land, but you have great skyscapes!

 

Jesus took the disciples up the mountain “to admire the view” - to get things in perspective, indeed to get a wholly different point of view - God’s point of view!  He wanted to expand their horizons, to see something of the whole picture.  He wanted them to have time out, to get a glimpse of  a wholly different dimension, where man’s life - yes, the whole of human and cosmic history - is seen through the eyes and mind and heart of God.

 

The key to this window into the realm of the divine is prayer.  Luke says that Jesus took Peter and James and John up the mountain to pray.

            Prayer requires and provides a wider view than the concerns of self. 

            It is rooted in worship.

            It adjusts the focus of our vision to discern what God is concerned about            in our life, in our world, and what he is doing. 

            We are to pray with eyes open, with minds and hearts open to the world. Good newspapers like this one, Christian periodicals like our weekly Methodist Recorder, Christian Aid news and the intelligent use of our Prayer Handbook - all these are the lenses that help us survey the human scene.

            Prayer - silent or spoken - is how God’s Spirit of truth relates it all to the          divine plan and purpose for the world he has made and “loves so much      that he gave his only Son”.

 

But above all, God corrects and clears our vision by the Word he has given us - in the Holy Scriptures.  It puts all human life, indeed the entire history of the universe into their true context.

 

What must you take with you when you go out on the mountains?  Absolutely essential are a map and a compass.  When on the mountain, the disciples suddenly saw Jesus transfigured before them, and two other men - Moses and Elijah - conversing with him, it was as if God was handing them a map of his grand design conceived before the foundation of the world.  In fact they already had that map in the Scriptures they knew from childhood.  Now it came alive for them, oriented by the person of Jesus himself.  Just as later, on the Emmaus road, Jesus, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, explained to two other disciples the Scriptures concerning himself, so here on the mountain the awe-struck disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with their longed-for Messiah, God’s anointed Servant-King, resplendent and shining with divine glory - King Jesus in all his Majesty. 

 

And what were they talking about?  They were talking about his death - which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.  This is the compass that orientates the great map we have in the Jewish Bible, the OT as of the New.  The summit of divine achievement accomplished in the man Christ Jesus is his death on the cross in order to save his people - all people - from their sins; and with them the whole groaning creation.  Through his terrible suffering and death, “giving his life a ransom for many”,  Christ proved his sovereign power over sin and death and hell. His cross was his royal throne, ironically acknowledged by the title Pilate insisted it should bear:  Jesus of Nazareth.  The King of the Jews.  And not of the Jews only but of all peoples, of all nations, of all the earth, of all creation.   In him the kingdom of God has come, is coming and will come in all its glory, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

We have the map - the story of God in the Scriptures. The cross of Jesus is the compass that points unerringly to

            The great love of God revealed in the Son,

            Who came to this earth to redeem everyone.  (Daniel T. Niles HP 45)

 

And he is not the God of the dead but of the living!  Moses and Elijah had passed from this world long centuries ago, but were - are - alive in the presence of Jesus.  Jesus had spoken of the certainty of his resurrection on the third day. Indeed John, recalling his raising of Lazarus from the dead, recorded his gracious words of ultimate hope and joy:

 

“I am the resurrection and the life…Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die…” (John 11. 25,26)

 

The evidence of his Lordship over all life and death itself is there for us to read now, both in the Old Scriptures and in the record of what he said and did in the New.  It is there in the gospels and in the continuing story of his kingly rule in the hearts and witness of all who love him down the age

 

Is this how we see Jesus today?  Do we use the Scriptures day by day to get an ever clearer view of our Saviour and Sovereign Lord?  Do we see how all Scripture finds its meaning and fulfilment in Jesus, the Eternal Word, who became a human being and dwelt among us, of whom John wrote:

 

We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

Prayer and the Bible:  these are our windows into the realm of the divine - heaven come to earth in the person of Jesus, God with us, Emmanuel.

 

So - Stop….and Look…………..and Listen!

 

Up on the mountain in the glorious presence of Jesus transfigured, the three disciples were dumbfounded. Only Peter blurted out something about building three shelters…… Dear Peter, so often opening his mouth and putting his foot in it!

 

While Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love;  with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him”.  When the disciples heard this they fell to the ground, terrified.  When the bright cloud lifted from the mountain, Jesus came and touched them.  “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”  When they looked up they saw no-one but Jesus.  (Matthew 17.5-8)

Only after the resurrection of Jesus would their terror be finally replaced by joy, for then they would know and believe that God had raised his beloved Son.  Into their locked upper room on the evening of the first Easter Sunday - perhaps while Peter and James and John were for the first time telling the others of their mountain-top experience - Jesus came and said to them:

 

This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24.44)

 

What now do we see? What do we now hear?  As the great story unfolds towards Ascension and Pentecost the disciples - and we - hear him say

 

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20.21,22)

 

So let us pray in the words of the hymn we shall also sing:   (H&P 777)

 

O Breath of life, come sweeping through us,   

  revive your church with life and power;           

O Breath of life, come, cleanse, renew us,         

  and fit your church to meet this hour.                

 

O Wind of God, come bend us, break us,

  till humbly we confess our need;

then in your tenderness remake us,

  revive, restore; for this we plead.

 

O Breath of love, come, breathe within us,

  renewing thought and will and heart;

Come, love of Christ, afresh to win us,

  revive your church in every part.    Amen.                       Bessie Porter Head (1850-1936)

 

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