By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 14, 2021
Mark 9:2–9 (ESV)
2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. 9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is one of the stories that captures my imagination. Every time I read these words I seem to be transported to a different place. I want us to take that transport today. I want us to imagine ourselves on that mountain. I want us to imagine this so that we can better understand prayer.
Over the past few years, I have mentioned the holy rhythm of Jesus’s life. The first aspect of his holy rhythm is that he made it his custom to worship with the community. Corporate worship in some form is important. We as human beings need human interaction. Our minds need interaction with others to challenge our perspectives, to check our ignorance, and to encourage our emotional and spiritual lives. The act of worship assists in this human interaction, but it contributes something else to our human existence. When we enter worship, when we join in songs of praise, in prayer, and in contemplation of scripture we enter an aspect of God’s kingdom. Our Christian brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Church have a unique perspective to worship, they speak of worship in a way that when we enter the place of worship we step out of the world and into the kingdom of God. The world is left behind, and we enter a bubble outside confines of time and space. When we worship, we enter a place where all that worship in all human time worship together as one. I do not necessarily agree or disagree with this perspective, but I find it intriguing, because there are times where worship does seem to draw us into a place where all our stresses and concerns seem to fade away and time is no longer a concern.
Jesu shows us, he encourages us to make worship with others a holy habit. The next aspect of Jesus’s Holy Rhythm of life is that he would often withdraw to isolated place to pray. Prayer is the place where the aspects of worship are incorporated into our daily lives. Prayer is the aspect of the rhythm where we develop intimacy with God.
Pray, from my perspective is the most important aspect of the Christian life. It is central to everything we do. We can gather in worship, but without prayer that gathering is simply a social event. It is through prayer that worship is filled with power. And this power is available not only in worship with other, but also when we personally withdraw to those isolated places personally. Jesus withdrew to an isolated place to pray. He went up to a high mountain, with some of his closest friends and together they prayed.
We often struggle with prayer. For some of us we think of this time as being a period we set aside to offer our petitions to God. We beg God to perform some miracle in our lives so that we can pass a test, or that healing might come to someone we love. Maybe we are praying that we find love, especially since it is Valentine’s Day today. Prayer is more than asking for things, because God is more than a spiritual vending machine. Prayer is a conversation. Prayer is a discussion. Prayer is that place where we meet God face to face.
Jesus and his closest friends when up on a mountain and there they prayed. Have you ever wondered why he chose those three? Have you ever wondered why when all the disciples desired to know how to pray like Jesus, he only chose three to join him in that place?
Last week we discussed the miracle of healing that Jesus performed for Peter’s mother-in-law. I mentioned that she was healed for a reason. She was given that grace so that she could participate in her way in the kingdom. Healing comes not because we desire it, but those miraculous events only occur when the influence of the Kingdom will be greater with it than without. In our minds we would always say that the kingdom would always have greater benefit with the miraculous so why do we not see more signs and wonders?
We struggle with this. We and many who have left the faith wonder why a loving God would allow such terrible things to happen all around us. How can good come from evil? How can God’s kingdom gain influence when children even today are sold into lives of slavery? How can God’s kingdom advance when nations in our history commit genocide? How can God’s kingdom advance when societies are built on lies and exploitation? How can God’s influence advance when we see more harm than good? We need the miraculous!
I imagine that these same ideas were running through the minds of the disciples when they were on that mountain. Throughout Jesus’s ministry he would heal some and then tell them to be quiet about it. When everyone wanted to just proclaim it from the rooftops. Yet Jesus often acted as if nothing out of the ordinary occurred. He lifted the mother-in-law up out of the bed of fever, and she began to get the meal prepared. The disciples were confused about this. I imagine they wondered why. I imagine that it caused them to question things, because from their perspective these amazing things should be shared.
Shortly after a period of ministry, where Jesus would perform the miracles, we get so excited about, Jesus would go off alone to pray. And after these sessions of prayer, he and his disciples would leave that community and travel to another location. Which, I again imagine, confuses the disciples. Why leave when we are just beginning get some major support here?
Jesus is on that mountain, and he begins to pray. The disciples pray as well. These three disciples would become the three that have the greatest influence in the future of the church. Peter, whom history and tradition regards as the first leader of the church, and James was often regarded as his side kick. And John, the youngest of the disciples, was the disciple whose only influence was the teachings of Jesus became the disciple who has influenced us the most because his telling of the gospel of Christ is often seen as the one filled with the most divine love and grace.
Jesus takes these men to the mountain to pray. While they are praying something remarkable happens. They are transported to a different plain of reality. They climbed the mountain just the four of them, yet now there are six people standing on the mountain. Two others have joined them and they know who these men are. One is Moses and the other is Elijah.
Have you ever wondered how they knew who these men were? This was a time prior to Instagram so it was not like they could pull their photo up instantly. And the artistic renderings at that period of history were not even that well developed and certainly would be lacking for figures of their history that had been centuries away from contemporary life. They knew nothing of their appearance yet they knew them by reputation. Both great men of Israel’s history represented something profound. Moses was the lawgiver and Elijah was the father of the prophets. Moses’s face, history recorded, would glow after he spent time in prayer causing him to wear a veil. And one of the greatest stories of Elijah was when he was praying with his apprentice. God commanded Elijah to take the mantle from his shoulders and lay it on Elisha and once the mantle was passed a chariot of fire came from heaven and carried Elijah to heaven and he did not taste death. And Elisha went on to become an even greater prophet than his master Elijah. Elisha could see beyond the plains of our reality and could see the servants of God working among men and protecting Israel.
These two men that joined Jesus in prayer represent the Law and the Prophets, they represent the entire history and faith of Israel. And they are there with Jesus in that place of prayer. And the future leaders of the church, saw them there. They witnessed how everything they knew was being pulled into the person of Jesus. They saw Jesus for who he was, is, and will be. But they still do not understand.
“Let’s build some tents,” Peter says. Let us just stay here in this place. Yet again they wish to build a central site to base the ministry. And a voice came from the heavens and spoke to the men standing there. “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
I laugh at this. I laugh because it is seriously funny. They are up there praying and they see something profound and they begin to make plans. And God the father basically yells at them. Stop making plans of your own and listen.
When we pray so often, we do all the talking. We say that prayer is a conversation, but how often do we listen? How often do we allow the Spirit of God to direct us into our next steps? We like the disciples want to build tents and churches where we have seen God’s presence but that might not be where God wants us. Just like the miraculous we so desire to see, we fail to grasp that prayer is not for us, but for the kingdom. Prayer is to help us see where God needs us to be. And when we fail to listen, we miss the opportunity to participate in the very things God is calling us toward.
Prayer is important to me. I am one of those people that loves to just sit and pray. That is probably why I love the Friends so much because our historic practices point us to the discipline of prayer and waiting for the Lord to direct our paths. But even I sometimes fail to see and to listen. Prayer is powerful. It is where we converse with God. It is where we do plea for miracles, and it is where we seek inspiration, but at times I do not speak.
Prayer leads us through the valley of Shadows, prayer guides us through the night’s dark journey, and the clouds of unknowing. Prayer gives us strength in our weakness and courage where we once found only fear. But prayer will only lead us if we have the kingdom’s glory in mind, not our own. Prayer is filled with power, but only if we are willing to listen to Him.
Why should we Pray? We pray because we do not always know who or what is about to happen. Today I am going to do something I usually do not do. I am going to let us listen to the power of prayer. I want us each to close our eyes and listen to the words that will be read to us. And we will listen to an account give by a man who lived through one of the hardest and most inhumane periods in human history.
This is a testimony given by a student named Alexei who was sentenced to serve time in a special camp within the Soviet Gulag system. This student and a man named Father Arseny, were accused of fighting within the prison and sentenced to spend two days in special detention. Let us listen to the what Alexei has to say in this recording From the book Father Arseny, 1893-1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father by Vera Bouteneff, produced by THE WAY audiobooks.
(We will listen from the 6:03 mark on the recording)
I know that was long. But prayer is powerful. It connects us to that of God all around us. And it can direct us to the mission God places us in. Father Arseny was just a priest living through a hard time. He lived his life of faith in all he did, and it made an impression. Alexei survived his time in the special camp and later became a priest, because of the life that Father Arseny lived in front of him.
I share this story because it is miraculous, but that is not why Father Arseny prayed. Although he asked for deliverance, he cherished that time because he could pray without worry for two full days. And that time of prayer carried him and Alexei through their trials.
We are here for a reason, and we do not know why or even where we fit. But God is calling us to prayer and action. The last aspect of Jesus’s Holy Rhythm is to serve those in need. He worships, he prays, and he goes out to help those in need.
We at Willow Creek have made this holy rhythm part of who we are. We say that our mission and purpose is Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with other. This is just another way to express worship, prayer, and service. And I urge us all to grab on to that purpose, integrate it into the very core of our lives. And listen to what God is saying to us. Because you might be the ounce of hope someone needs to move them through their day.
Let us now join together in this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, and let us pray and listen.