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The Rhythm of it All

 

 Mark 9:2-29

 

The human heart fills up with blood, expanding as it fills.  Then it contracts, sending blood throughout the body.         A second later it happens again.  Blood is gathered into the heart, blood is expelled from the heart, over and over. With some people, however, the heartbeat becomes irregular.  The rhythm is upset. These people have a lopsided pulse. Their condition is known as arrhythmia. Plainly their heart needs medical attention.

There’s a heartbeat of a different kind that regulates the Christian life. There’s a normal pulse that indicates a healthy balance between input and output.  And in the Christian life as well, arrhythmia points to an irregularity. Arrhythmia here should be checked out too.

The truth is, most of us tend to suffer somewhat from arrhythmia in the Christian life. Some of us are doers. We emphasise output. We are eager to fix the world, and invariably find ourselves unable to turn down any request for assistance. In fact, we don’t even have to wait for a request.  Any suggestion that we might pause and take stock we dismiss as indifference or laziness or heartlessness.

On the other hand, some of us are contemplatives.  We emphasise input. We meditate. We ponder.  We cultivate inwardness. We are more concerned with what is going on in the recesses of our hearts and heads than with what is happening in the wider world.  But both these conditions are arrhythmic; both indicate an irregularity in the Christian life.

As we reacquaint ourselves once more with the story of the Transfiguration we shall hear the regular, rhythmic heartbeat of discipleship. And hearing it in the old, old story, we shall find, by God’s grace, that our own heartbeat has been normalised; our own heartbeat is corrected by the master himself, just as he first corrected the heartbeat of the apostles before us.

 

I:         Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain with him.  Right away our ears should perk up.  Having been exposed to scripture for decades we should know that mountains, in scripture, are the venue of revelation: Mount Sinai, Mount Carmel, Mount Zion , the Mount of Olives, the “hill” of Calvary ”, “The Sermon on the Mount.”         “Mountain” always points to God’s self-disclosure and the change within those who are beneficiaries of it.  As soon as we hear that Jesus has taken Peter, James and John with him up a mountain, we know that an epiphany is occurring whose truth and reality will stamp itself indelibly upon these men and upon all, like us, who receive their witness and therein find the same epiphany occurring again. While the three men are with Jesus on the mountain, Jesus shines before them with a luminosity they can neither explain nor forget.  He is highlighted in such a way as to leave them knowing that he is the effectual presence of God. They are startled yet also satisfied; taken aback yet also contented.         They know that once more, on this mountain, they are standing on holy ground not because of anything about the ground but rather because of him who has shone before them.

All of us have had similar experiences at the level of the merely creaturely, the merely human. There must be, there has to be, some situation where the human love that spouse or friend or child or parent has poured over you for years suddenly staggers you, overwhelms you in one way or another and leaves you “spaced”, as teenagers like to say.         You are startled that anyone should love you that much; startled even more that this person in particular, who knows you inside out, should love you that intensely and intentionally, that freely and forgivingly.  As startled as you are, however, you aren’t the slightest bit sceptical or suspicious. You simply glory in the glow of someone’s all-enveloping love for you.

There mustbe, there has to be, some situation where truth has broken in on you. It broke in on you like a wave breaking on the beach and running up the shore. Before it all receded, and your surprise with it, it soaked into you.         The fact that it was hidden within you; the fact that no one else was aware of what had happened; the fact that the truth that now seized your mind and heart you didn’t have words enough to articulate; none of this diminished in any way your conviction and the difference it made to you from that day.

There must be, there has to be, some situation in which Jesus Christ ceased to be a problem or a perplexity or the occasion of more questions than answers.  He loomed before you as bedrock reality on which you could stand and from which you could gain perspective on the mirages and deceptions that had beset you and kept you off-balance, confused and nervous.  As startled as you were, however, you weren’t frightened.  In fact this time your shock was also the end of your fear.

Usually we say little about such occasions.  We don’t want to appear a religious “spouter” or worse, a religious exhibitionist. We don’t want to appear as tasteless as those who blab marital intimacies at a cocktail party. Still, we know that something has established itself so deep within us that words will never do justice to it. Words will never do justice to it, to be sure, but some words, at least, come much closer than others to doing justice to it; such as the matchless words of Charles Wesley:

O disclose thy lovely face,

Quicken all my drooping powers;

Gasps my fainting soul for grace

As a thirsty land for showers:

Haste, my Lord, no more delay!

Come, my Saviour, come away!

When Wesley penned these lines he had in mind verse 13 from chapter 2 of the Song of Solomon:

Arise, my love, my fair one, come away.

The Song of Solomon is a love-poem of undisguised eroticism.  Wesley found the imagery there expressing his longing for his Lord together with that longing fulfilled.  No doubt he had read the Song of Solomon a dozen times per year for years beyond counting, and then one day words written for a different purpose became the vehicle of his heart’s greatest longing and its fulfilment as the lover of all men and women lit up before him.

One Sunday evening in Aberdeen, Scotland (at one time I was a postgraduate student in Aberdeen), I was in an upside-down mood: depressed, miserable, petulant, fed up and frustrated over a professor who had encouraged me for two years to go to Scotland to study under him. Ten days after I had arrived he had left without ever informing me of what he had known for months he was going to do. In my upside-down mood I knew I wouldn’t be any company for Maureen, and so I hopped on a bus and went to a small downtown church tucked away at the end of a narrow, winding street.  The president of the Methodist Conference of Great Britain and Ireland was to speak. I went expecting nothing. “O disclose thy lovely face, quicken all my drooping powers….”   It happened.  And I can’t remember one word of the sermon.

When I was a younger minister I thought that parishioners should be able to take home huge chunks of the sermon week by week.  After all, I had spent many hours working up this material; surely the least they could do was remember it.  Then one day a parishioner questioned me about the sermon I had preached three Sundays ago, and I realised I couldn’t recall the sermon. From that moment I ceased expecting worshippers to be a blotter.  From that moment instead I wanted not information blotted but fire struck. I wanted some aspect of worship, whether prayer or hymn or anthem (although the sermon would do too) to become the event of self-disclosure where Jesus Christ lights up and we are startled and moved yet also contented as truth and love and fathomless profundity steal over us, confirming both him and ourselves in him.

When mediaeval Roman Catholics were visited with such moments they spoke of them in the language of vivid visions.  Such language strikes many people as exaggerated, even grotesque.  When our Protestant foreparents were visited with such moments they spoke of them in the language of poetry (hymns), which language strikes many people as overblown, even saccharine.  But the vision and the poetry aren’t exaggerated at all for those, like Peter, James and John, before whom Jesus Christ has loomed illumined.  No language I speak to my wife or she to me strikes either of us as exaggerated. It would be exaggerated to someone who had never been in love and therefore had never lived in that world. Once we are in love and do live in that world, we know that the most intense love-language falls far short of the heart’s surge.  “O disclose thy lovely face….”   And when our Lord does precisely this?  There are only two responses: say nothing inasmuch as no word is adequate, or say something knowing that every word falls short.

II:         What next? Peter wants to freeze the moment, preserve it before it disappears.  Who doesn’t?  Nevertheless, to try to freeze such a moment is to kill it.  (Frozen fish, we must remember, may be preserved indefinitely but they certainly aren’t alive.) Much as we want to, we can’t seize the moment that has overtaken us, grasp it and try to hang on to it. If we grasp at it, we are grabbing the gift-wrapping when we should be glorying in the gift, for the gift is simply the giver himself.  To try to freeze the moment is to try to prolong the ecstasy when we should be looking to its author.

What’s more, we should always remember that God has something for us beyond ecstasy. When Peter tries to freeze the moment on the mountain, a cloud appears (clouds, in scripture, are a symbol of God’s presence), and out of the cloud a voice comes: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” “Listen”, for the Hebrew mind, always has the force of “obey.”  If we don’t obey we haven’t heard.

Only hours earlier Jesus had told the twelve he would have to suffer. “Can’t be” they had shot back. Undeterred, Jesus had insisted even more persistently that his vocation entailed suffering, and because his did, theirs did too.         He had told them they must deny themselves: self-renunciation was an aspect of discipleship. He had told them they must shoulder their cross; not his, to be sure, but theirs nonetheless, sacrifice being as essential to discipleship as paint to a painter. Their Lord had told them they must never, simply never, be ashamed of him and his truth and his way – not when they were mocked; not when they were slandered; not when they were hammered. Everything that Jesus had shared with them only hours earlier and which they had forgotten already, so intense was their moment of ecstasy; all of this was brought back as ecstasy gave way to sobering voice: “This is the Son I’ve appointed you to hear and heed. Listen to him.”

We can’t freeze the moment of God’s self-disclosure.  We shouldn’t even try. We must rather allow it to lead us to God’s claim on our obedience.

 

III:         Peter, James and John accompany Jesus back down the mountain.  They are returning to the turbulent, treacherous world whose trouble is unrelenting. Immediately they come upon a boy with epilepsy.  A distraught father has brought the boy to them.  The youngster can’t stop convulsing and foaming.  A crowd gathers, crowds always gathering at the gripping spectacle of human distress. In the midst of the boy’s neurological seizure and the crowd’s psychological seizure, a knot of religious hair-splitters is having an argument.

Everyone’s world convulses from time to time.  Families convulse, societies convulse, denominations convulse, and occasionally there’s a convulsion inside us so terrible that we foam. And amidst it all there are perverse people with shrivelled hearts who relish religious strife as they relish nothing else.

The disciples endeavour to do something for the boy and discover that they can’t. Once they have owned their helplessness Jesus comments, “This sort of thing can be driven out only by prayer.” We know he’s right. Of ourselves, what can you and I do for convulsions within and without?   Of ourselves, what can we do for others that doesn’t end up increasing their burden and perplexity and pain?  Only by prayer can all of this be dealt with.

Yet prayer doesn’t mean magical incantation.  It doesn’t mean a religious formula, the mere reciting of which brings sure-fire success. It doesn’t mean “abracadabra” repeated over and over with the name of Jesus tacked on the end to make it “work.”   It means, rather, a patient, disciplined waiting on God.  It means a self-exposure to God as persistent as our self-exposure to human need. It means a sensitivity to the heart of God commensurate with our sensitivity to the heart of our fellow-sufferer.  It means a glad and grateful, non-defensive willingness to be corrected by other Christians who are walking the Way with us.

IV:         As God takes us from mountaintop down to a valley of trouble we mustn’t shirk the crossbearing to which he has appointed us.  Yet our crossbearing must have about it no trace of resentment.

Our faithfulness to Jesus Christ amidst ceaseless turbulence certainly entails self-denial. Yet our self-denial must have about it no trace of sourness or self-righteousness.

In a world that is already riddled with deviousness and deception we must stand by and stand up for that truth which our Lord has planted amidst falsehood. Yet our boldness here must have about it no trace of aggression or arrogance.

To be sure, our activity on behalf of Jesus Christ and his people will always unfold amidst religious strife.  Yet we must exalt our Lord without magnifying fruitless controversy. And of course we must never become so taken up with argument, even edifying discussion, that we fail to see people who are in pain.

It’s only by prayer, says Jesus, that all these distortions and disfigurements can be driven out of us and render us fit instruments of the master’s word and touch. It is only as we betake ourselves to him, to his word, to our fellow-believers that we shall avoid the impotence that the twelve knew in the face of overwhelming human need.

 

When we come back down the mountain, what are we going to find?   We are going to hear the world’s bleating.         (Sheep without a shepherd, Jesus said the people were.)   We are going to hear the religiously argumentative who never quit in any case. But over all of this we are going to hear someone here, and another person there, who cry out to us, “I believe a little.   Won’t you and your congregation help me believe more?”

Those who cry out to us in this manner are those who’ve come to admit that life can’t be domesticated.  They used to think that life could be tamed, and now they see it can’t. They used to think that only neurotics and weaklings were fragile; now they see that fragility is the human lot. They used to think that any reflection on death was morbid; now they know that life is short and death is sure.

Sometimes these people begin with a request of us, sometimes with a bitter accusation, sometimes with a grope as they try to grasp anything that will stop their spinning and quell their nausea.  Often they begin with a perplexity which, on account of their pain, has moved from their head (perplexities in the head are harmless) to their heart (perplexities in the heart are distressing.)  At this point they look to us and say, “I do have some struggling faith; can’t you help it grow?”   This is what we find when we come down the mountain.
The pulse of the Christian life should be like the pulse in the body: rhythmic. It becomes arrhythmic as soon as we neglect any aspect of the Christian life, thereby rendering our discipleship lopsided.  In fact it’s not difficult to keep it rhythmic.  It’s just a matter of going up and down the mountain, up into moments of our Lord’s self-disclosure, glorious and satisfying at once, then back down with him into a world whose pain makes it writhe – doing this over and over until that day, says Charles Wesley, when our Lord’s ultimate self-disclosure obliterates all pain, and all God’s people are forever lost in wonder, love and praise.

 

                                                                                              Victor Shepherd                           

February 2007