Mark 9: 1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with him. 5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) 7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” 12 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? 13 But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” 14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. 16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. 17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” 19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” 29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
What is the most courageous word in the English language? For that honor I would nominate the word “nevertheless.” It’s made up of three words, “never,” “the,” and “less.” But my computer’s spell checker assures me that together, they constitute one word. For an example of how this word, “nevertheless” can be so courageous: on the news this week was the story of a 6 year old boy, Tommy Morissey, who was born with only one arm. Nevertheless, he wanted to golf, he learned to golf, he loves golf, and has become a killer golfer. He swings with only his one arm; nevertheless, he doesn’t miss a shot up to 50 yards out. We’ll be seeing more of him in the pros, I bet.
Also on the news this week was body camera video of police officers in the Washington, DC, area, running up to a car that was on fire after a crash. They had no idea how soon the flames might reach the gas tank and it would go off like a bomb, engulfing them in a big ball of liquid fire. Nevertheless, they ran in, got the car open and rescued the man who was trapped inside, just in time.
Typically, on Transfiguration Sunday, we stop reading the Bible at verse 9 and the story about the revealing of Jesus’ eternal, pre-existent glory, as the Divine Son of the Triune God. And that’s quite true, I believe. But sometimes, when we read the gospels, we should stop and ask ourselves, not only, “What does this story, or this teaching, tell us?” We should also ask ourselves, “What does this story tell us in relation to the one that came before it, and the one that follows?” In other words, “Why does this event or this teaching immediately follow the one before, or why does it precede the next?” That’s especially true today, when the inspiring and illuminating event on the Mount of Transfiguration is immediately followed by the account of frustration, failure and foibles in the Valley of human need, of Befuddlement and Frustration, when the disciples could not deliver a demonized boy, and were instead embroiled in arguments with the teachers of the law. Those two events are meant to be read and considered together, I believe. Put them together, and God and the gospels seem to be saying something that sounds like, “nevertheless.” Together, they also recommend also that we take a stance of “nevertheless” to our own struggles, failures, foibles and befuddlements.
There are three “neverthelesses” in these two stories (if you’re following the sermon outline): The first “nevertheless” is in the very nature and person of Jesus. On that mountaintop, the disciples receive this inspiring, illuminating revelation of Jesus in his divine, eternal, pre-existent glory. And then they come down with him to the valley, where they experience him in his humanity; he tells them that he will die, and they witness his very human fatigue and exasperation as he says to his disciples, “O, unbelieving generation, how long must I put up with you?” Jesus is revealed on the mountaintop as the eternal, pre-existent Son of the Holy Trinity; nevertheless, he is also revealed in the valley of frustration as fully human like us, in every way except sin.
That “nevertheless” is very important: we major in Jesus’ humanity and forget his divinity at great risk to our faith. Because if to us he is only human, or only some sort of special super-human, but not the incarnate presence, power and person of God, at some point we’ll wonder why we should even bother to believe him or to follow him in all the things he taught and did. We Christians already do enough picking and choosing among his teachings and example as it is. Downplay the divine nature which the three disciples saw atop the mount of Transfiguration, and that’s a license to do even more trimming and thinning of our trust in him, and our obedience to him.
It also takes away the awesome wonder of the fact that the supreme God would condescend so far and so beautifully as to accompany us in even our joys and our sufferings, our life and even our death. Then Christmas means no more than George Washington’s birthday. Anyone’s God can be big and grand and distant. Nevertheless, a God who would make himself so small as to be one of us is the biggest and grandest God of all.
But downplay and deny Jesus’ humanity, and we’ll wonder why we’re even expected to follow him. How can we mere mortals even be expected to obey Jesus if he did what he did so easily because, after all, he’s divine! If he’s only God in human guise? If so, then what Jesus taught and did no mere mortal could ever be even asked to do, because whatever he did was only God, putting on a performance in human shape, projected from heaven, supposedly.
To follow Jesus, to even want to follow Jesus, we must keep both sides of this “nevertheless” together: that Christ is fully human, like us, and fully divine. I don’t know how that mysterious “nevertheless” works. I just know that Christ must be fully divine if he is to be our SAVIOR; Nevertheless, He must also be fully human if he is to be OUR savior. Again, the first “nevertheless” in today’s combined gospel readings is the wonderful union of God and humanity in Jesus.
There is a second “nevertheless,” and it is built into the landscape of today’s story. It has to do with altitude, or geography. Jesus and the disciples go from the mountaintop of illumination and inspiration down into the valley of befuddlement and frustration, up to their ears in human weakness, bondage and need. Can any of us not identify with that journey? It’s as though we are being told to prepare to live in two address and the journey in between. Most of the time we spend down below in the valleys of life, trying to deal with the curve balls that life throws us: the choices of some of our children, the needs of elderly family members, the changes in our own health, trying to find hope amid the growing rudeness and crudeness of media and politics.
But that’s not the whole story of our lives, I hope. What about the times when the spiritual dust settles briefly, low-hanging emotional clouds break for a moment, and we catch a brief glimpse of the divine goodness, glory and grace that are always there for us, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen? Those are occasional visits we are given to make to the mountaintop of illumination and inspiration.
Perhaps we had such a mountaintop moment of illumination and inspiration when a particular Bible passage suddenly seemed to reach up from the page and shake us with comfort and conviction. Or a particular hymn or a song. For me, it was the first time I ever heard the hymn, “When I Survey.” For some young Mennonites in South Dakota, it’s during that last evening campfire session of the summer senior high week at Swan Lake Camp, out on the wide open prairie, under the sky that stretches all the way to next Tuesday, that a mountaintop moment of inspiration and illumination sometimes occurs. Even though there are absolutely no physical mountains in that part of South Dakota. It’s so flat, sometimes, after a heavy rain, the nearby James River flows upstream.
But there’s something about having had a week together, getting to know each other, starting to feel safe emotionally with each other, having become honest and vulnerable with each other, having worshiped, prayed and played together, and yes, having worked through some conflicts too, that makes some of the campers ready and open for the veil to lift and for God’s eternal grace, glory and goodness to shine through, even if only for a moment.
When I served there one week as an adult counselor, I was surprised that last night by some campers’ confession of sin, as well as the professions of love and forgiveness for each other. There were tears of repentance and relief, breakthroughs of the “grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” It was easy to believe in Jesus then, even, in a way, to see his glory among us. For many of us here, Drift Creek Camp has been a place of similar encounter with the divine glory, where God met many of us with mountaintop moments of inspiration and illumination.
And then the youth all went back home from Swan Lake the next morning, back to the long, enduring complications of their routine lives and their sometimes awkward relationships with each other and their parents, back to all the befuddling dilemmas of school and society. Then it was harder to believe, even, harder to see Jesus in the midst of all our busy-ness and befuddlement. Harder even to believe that what happened around the campfire that night was not just some sort of religious groupthink, just the power of suggestion. If some of our frustrations here in the valley of befuddlement are with ourselves, it’s easy also to believe the Accuser of the brethren, when he says, “Even if such grace and goodness were real for others, why would it happen to you? What did you ever do to deserve such grace?”
That’s when we must reach for the word “nevertheless.” In such times we must have at least the faith to say, “Yes, everyday life is way less inspiring and more complicated than what I experienced under the stars and with my friends at camp. Nevertheless, I believe that this valley of befuddlement is only my temporary address. My permanent home is on that mountaintop of illumination and inspiration, when the vision of my spirit shall be endlessly enraptured and enthralled with the contemplation of that glorious union of love between God and humanity, that is Jesus’ identity, and which is my destiny, and that of all those who love his appearing.
And no, I am not deserving of such mountaintop moments, nor of such a glorious eternal destiny. No one is. Nevertheless, that destiny is assured on the basis of God’s merits and mercies, not our own. And I will not let Satan, the Accuser and the Confuser, take from me the memories of those moments of glory, grace and goodness, nor will I let him take from me that hope, nor that longing for more. So again, the second “nevertheless” in Mark chapter 9 is a weapon of spiritual self-defense in between the mountaintops and the valleys of life. We may spend most of our time in the valley of human need and struggle; nevertheless, the mountaintop of glory is our permanent address.
The third “nevertheless” is expressed so beautifully by the father of the demonized child, when he tells Jesus, “I believe, but heal my unbelief.” Now that’s an honest-to-God prayer: I believe; nevertheless, I have doubts. Or, I have doubts; nevertheless, I believe. Or I’m trying to believe. I dare to believe. The third “nevertheless” in the sermon outline is the one we experience between our belief and unbelief, our faith and our fears. Christian faith bears a strong element of “nevertheless” because, here in what often seems like the valley of frustration and befuddlement, it can be hard at times to see if God is at work fulfilling his promises, or where.
Before our baptisms, we had to answer the question, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” And “Do you accept Jesus as your savior and Lord?” I heartily recommend the answer, “Yes.” But maybe we should also ask, “How much do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” Do you believe enough to throw your lot in with him and seek to follow him, or are you waiting for more of your questions to be answered?” If so, don’t wait too long; most of the answers come after we commit, not before. And even those answers are only partial this side of eternity. NEVERTHELESS, do we believe enough to move ahead with baptism, and to see what God does next with that?”
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, Faith is not the certainty nor the sight of all that lies ahead. He said, “Faith is taking the first step up, when you can’t see the rest of the staircase.” So the third “nevertheless” in Mark chapter 9 is the one spoken so honestly by the father of the demonized boy, about his belief and his unbelief. He confessed to his doubts; nevertheless he had enough faith to seek the help of Jesus. In fact, confessing his doubt to Jesus was itself an act of great faith: faith that Jesus would not reject him nor abandon him for his honest admission of doubts.
So, what do we do with and about these three “nevertheless-es?” How do we sojourn among them? I say “sojourn” because, again, life in the valley of “nevertheless” is not our permanent address. The mountaintop of the glowing and glorious union of God and humanity, when our faith shall be sight, is our permanent address. Or shall be.
The first thing is to remember, but not remain. Jesus wanted his disciples ever to remember what they had seen of his glory on that mountaintop. But he did not accept Peter’s call to remain and build memorials and monuments to that blessed vision, and so dwell on it. If they’d done that, can’t you just see Peter, James and John putting up signs on the hillsides pointing to those booths on the mountaintop of Transfiguration, charging admission, building an interpretive center, putting in a restaurant and gift shop, with wax figures of Moses and Elijah and plaster casts of their footprints, and giving tours and talks on the hour? For tips, of course?
Meanwhile, people in the valley below would still be suffering sickness, oppression both political and demonic, despair and doubt.
No, spiritual monuments and memorials too often and too easily become monopolies, and then mausoleums, of the Spirit. Once the mountaintop moment was over, Jesus led the three disciples down into the valley of human need because he had come to start a living movement, not to build dead monuments; the kingdom of God movement. The disciples would often remember that blessed vision of Jesus’ glory, especially to sustain themselves in times of suffering and opposition. But they were not to remain there, dwell upon it, and monopolize it, to the expense of their ministry in the Valley of human need. So let’s remember with gratitude the gifts, the glimpses and insights into the goodness, grace and glory, that we have been given in our lives. But we can’t remain in them. Follow Jesus down as well as up, down in witness and service into the Valley of human need
The second thing to do with all our “nevertheless-es” shows up at both the beginning and the end of the combined story: prayer. The story begins on that lonely mountaintop, a place where the devout would go to pray, that the moment of Christ’s transfiguration occurred. Again, at the end of today’s Gospel reading, prayer is mentioned more overtly, in answer to the disciples’ question: “Why could we not expel this demon?”
Why? Because you weren’t praying! Instead, you were enmeshed in fruitless argument with the teachers of the law, when you would have done better to talk with the Giver of the Law. Nothing happened in the valley, when the disciples neglected to pray. But, Oh, what happened on that mountaintop, when Jesus presented himself to his heavenly Father in prayer. Then the divine lightning of inspiration and illumination struck. Think about that next time we “just say little prayer”: there are no “little prayers,” not when we’re actually presenting ourselves like lightning rods to the power at the heart of the universe.
That’s not exactly recommended for the faint at heart.
Now, honestly, almost never does anything magical or mystical happen to me whenever I pray. But I do notice that sometimes, later on, a word from the Scriptures, or a hymn, or something spoken by someone in passing, gives me a jolt of recognition, or encouragement, or correction, and I may sense something of Jesus in that moment. As Henri Nouwen said, “Whenever I pray, coincidences happen; and whenever I don’t pray, they don’t happen.” That’s much less immediate and much more subtle and muted a response to prayer than what the disciples experienced on that mountaintop of transfiguration. But maybe it’s all the divine lightning I can handle in my current mortal state without frying all my spiritual circuits.
Nevertheless, the glory which the three disciples saw on that mountaintop is still our destiny and our identity. And somehow, that glory is being shaped and prepared and revealed already in us through all the trusting and the loving and the worshiping and the praying we do down here in the valley of human need, among the troubles and the tumult of human befuddlement and frustration. As the Apostle wrote, “… our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Nevertheless, the unseen eternal truth about Jesus was seen on that mountaintop long ago. Treasure that vision, believe what it says about Jesus and about ourselves, if we are to find the strength and stamina to follow Jesus through our complicated lives in the valley of desperate human need, our own and that of others. Because Jesus is just as present and as powerful down here, in the dark and dusty valley of human need, confusion and bondage, as he was on the clear mountaintop of illumination and inspiration.