Road to Restoration
Mark 9:2–13 NIV
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 Jesus.
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.”
This is an odd scene. Even for Peter, who had been right there with Jesus for quite a while and had seen some pretty weird things. Mark tells us in parentheses that even Peter doesn’t know what to make of this one. And so if this is odd for Peter and the other disciples who were with Jesus, how much more for you and I who are centuries removed and reading about it. Why this scene? What is God up to by revealing this episode to be written down and included in the Bible today?
First of all, the original audience of Mark’s gospel would have made an immediate connection with this story. The early Christians who were from the Jewish background knew their Old Testament scriptures very well. And this is a story that has an immediate reference to the Old Testament. It comes from Exodus 24.
We’ve been hinting all along in this series on the meaning of the cross that there is a connection between what Jesus did on the cross and what God did with the Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. After all, we have noted several times now that Jesus chooses the Passover feast as the time for his sacrifice on the cross. This is not an accident or coincidence. Jesus does this on purpose. And here again in this story of the transfiguration we see another very direct reference to the time of Moses and the exodus of God’s people from slavery in Egypt.
Exodus 24 records an event which occurs after the Israelites go out from Egypt. Their journey first takes them to mount Sinai. This is the place where God gives them the law—which includes the ten commandments written on the stone tablets. Chapter 24 is where Moses first goes up the mountain to receive the word of the Lord. Let me share just a few details of that passage to help connect some dots from there to the passage we are looking at today in Mark.
Moses is instructed by God to go up a tall mountain and take with him three other companions—Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. Once he is on the mountain the glory of the Lord is revealed for all there to see. And God’s presence comes down in the form of a cloud and covers them. The voice of the Lord is heard as loud as thunder. Moses stays on the mountain forty days. And when he finally does come back down to the Israelite camp at the base of the mountain—this is ten chapters later in Exodus 34—he enters the camp and his face is radiant and glowing from being in the presence of God.
Fast forward to the gospel of Mark and this story of the transfiguration. Jesus takes three companions up a tall mountain. God’s glory is revealed. His presence descends as a cloud. His voice speaks. And Jesus is radiant and glowing. For those to whom Mark is writing this story he intends for the readers to immediately make this connection. What’s going on here? Oh, that’s simple. This is a reenactment of Exodus 24. Whatever is taking place here on this mountain is supposed to connect our attention back to what God was doing with his people back in Exodus.
The people who remember the Old Testament story of Moses would make that connection. Oh yeah, that's all about the time when God sent Moses to be the one who would lead God's people in their rescue. Mark is connecting the dots for his readers. This event with Jesus and his transfiguration is meant to signal God's rescue of his people. Just as God had done so many years earlier with the people of Israel in Egypt through Moses, now God is doing it again for all people in all times through Jesus.
Then on the way down the mountain another curious conversation takes place, which Mark records for us. The disciples ask Jesus why Elijah must come first. This is an understanding about the Messiah that comes from the Old Testament prophet of Malachi. Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament. And this prophecy comes from the very last words of that book. So for the Jewish people, these are the very final words of their ‘Bible.’
Malachi 4:5–6 NIV
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
Jewish tradition held that Elijah would reappear before God’s promised Messiah would come. Jesus answers the disciples by saying that Elijah has already come. And Jesus says that Elijah has done his work of preparation for the Messiah by restoring all things. Let’s unpack this a little bit. Who is Elijah? And what is this restoration that he has brought?
According to the gospels it is the cousin of Jesus, John the Baptist, who prepares the way for Jesus. John fulfils the prophetic role of Elijah in preparing the way for Jesus. And what was it that John the baptist did? Very simply put, John called the people of Israel to repentance. Repentance is a word that means turn around. John was calling the people to turn their hearts back to God. That was John’s message for the world. Turn your heart back to God because the Messiah who brings his salvation is on the way. Rescue is coming, turn to God and be ready for it. But Jesus also shares that the message of restoration that John brought was largely missed and rejected by the Hebrew people. And here Jesus also connects his own suffering and rejection to the suffering and rejection of John.
Mark 9:12–13 NIV
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? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.”
What’s going on here? Jesus is making a point. He is highlighting the nature of the kingdom and the nature of the restoration that his rescue is bringing. And he is highlighting for his disciples that most people are missing it. It is passing them right by. It is not because they are unaware of the scripture. It is not because they have no idea there is even supposed to be a Messiah from God. They miss it because they were expecting something completely different than what Jesus brought.
The first place we see this is with Peter’s fumbling comment on the mountain while Moses and Elijah are there. Because he doesn’t know what else to say, he offers to put up three tents. What is this about? Some commentators have suggested that Peter suggests tents as a reference to the ancient tabernacle tent. Maybe he wants to create a place of worship here on this mountain. I don’t buy that. It was only one chapter earlier that Peter confesses Jesus as Lord and Messiah. And here in this moment he goes back to addressing Jesus as rabbi—teacher. I don’t think his intention here is worship.
Rather, a shelter would be an invitation to stay. Even though Peter is fumbling around in his words, I think he is after something that would capture this moment and not let it go. Moses and Elijah are perhaps the two most legendary prophets in Israel’s history. This is the reunion tour of all reunions. It’s as though John Lennon suddenly reappeared together with Paul McCartney. We’re getting that band back together. It’s time for all the greatest hits to go out on tour.
Peter—along with just about every other Hebrew person—was ready to be rid of Roman occupation. Peter—and everybody else—was looking for a Messiah who would act like king David and lead the people to military conquest against their enemies. Peter thought restoration meant a restoration of the nation of Israel to once again be number one in the world; just like it was in the days of king David and king Solomon.
So Peter may be thinking, this is it! It’s happening. All the legendary greats are back together. Let’s not let this moment go. Let’s not miss the opportunity to kick it off right here and now.
Peter needs a correction. He does not understand the kind of restoration Jesus is beginning.
The second place we see this misunderstanding is in the other disciples. It’s not in the passage we are looking at here today. But the passages in Mark surrounding this story suggest that the disciples need a correction in their understanding of the Messiah as well. In fact, it is just a little further down in Mark 9 where we see the disciples arguing about which one of them is the greatest. They still think they are following a Messiah who would set up a regime of power. And they think that because they are all followers of Jesus they will gain places of power and authority as well.
The kind of restoration they were expecting wasn’t going to happen. That’s not why Jesus came. And because they were all so focused on the wrong thing, they were also all missing the real restoration that Jesus was bringing. They needed correction.
What about us today? Even though you and I have the advantage of knowing how the gospel story ends, do we still have the tendency to miss the point? Are we looking for another Messiah? Are we expecting Jesus to do something for us and for our world today that he never intended to do?
The disciples and others among the Hebrew people were looking for power and authority. They were looking for control over other people and other forces in their world. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Was this such a bad thing? Maybe this kind of power and this kind of authority would let them rule in ways that could actually promote the ways of God. If Israel could push off the oppression of Rome, then they could live according to the ways of scripture. They could enforce God’s rule again.
Sometimes those of us in the church can fall this way too. We find ourselves wanting to take the power and authority so that we can overthrow anyone or anything in society that stops us from enacting the kind of rule that we think God would want. Several decades ago Jerry Falwell established a political movement called the Moral Majority. The aim of this group was to support political candidates and political agendas that would endorse something of a biblical character. And is this wrong? After all, don’t we in the reformed tradition strongly encourage engagement with this world? We certainly do. Like the disciples of long ago, maybe we see opportunities to enforce our view of God’s will by our own power and with our own authority. We want to capture that moment and hang on to it. The point is not to bring restoration in our world by inviting other people into a relationship with Jesus. Rather, it seems that the point is to bring restoration in our world by forcing society to follow our rules whether they want to or not.
This kind of strong-arm, authoritarian approach to restoration is exactly what the disciples were looking for from Jesus. Peter and his companions who witness the Transfiguration misinterpret the event to be exactly that. Let’s be honest; we would love for God’s restoration of our world to be like that too. But this is not the kind of restoration that Jesus brings. Subsequently, we are left with a new problem. If all our attempts to powerfully control some kind of societal restoration end up falling short, then what else can we do? What’s the alternative?
A recent book by Rod Dreher called The Benedict Option suggests that this country has fallen to a place of such moral decay that the only thing left anymore for Christians to do is withdraw and isolate. Dreher calls for the church in Western culture to prepare for surviving in a society of complete moral collapse in much the same way that Noah prepared to survive the flood. He calls for the church and Christian community to become something like the ark that Noah used to survive the flood. This book is has been on the New York Times best seller list. This idea actually has a following among those who profess to be Christians. But it’s wrong.
When we in the church today associate our idea of restoration with agendas that depend on power, and authority, and control; when our idea of restoration in this world depends on being the ones in charge of society who make the rules; then we—just like the disciples—look for a Messiah that God never intended. Likewise, if we circle the wagons, isolate ourselves, and think that maybe we can just ride out the storm, then we also look for a Messiah that God never intended. And maybe—like the disciples—we miss the real point of restoration.
What does all this teach us today? On this journey to the cross we have seen several occasions in which Jesus challenges some of our assumptions. Today Jesus challenges his disciples on what it means for God to restore all things through the cross. And that challenge comes to us today as well.
Last week we looked at the idea of redemption, and what it means to be redeemed people. We noted last time that redeemed people still carry scars. Even Jesus in his resurrected body carried scars. So we know that even in our redemption we are not made perfectly free from all the various things in this world which have wounded us.
John the Baptist came to prepare the way for Jesus by calling people to repentance—that is, to turn back to God once again. Jesus says that restoration comes through the message John brought. Turning our hearts toward God is a restorative act. Because in turning our hearts toward God, we set a trajectory for our hearts.
Jamie Smith, in his book You Are What You Love notes that we, as people, pattern our habits and rituals around the things we love the most. Smith calls these habits and rituals our cultural liturgies, using worship language to describe the way we set our hearts toward the things in this life to which we dedicate the passions of our hearts.
Restoration happens when we truly turn our hearts toward God. I’m talking about the kind of turning in which the habits an rituals of our hearts also turn. Because when we set the direction of our lives towards God, then our habits and rituals follow. The liturgies of our lives start to flow together with the liturgies of God’s kingdom. Those habits and patterns and rituals to which we dedicate ourselves day after day take a shape that bends toward God when we live in repentance—that is, when we live in ways that turn our hearts toward God. But here is the key. Restoration does not happen simply by learning something new; it is more than enlightenment to a new truth. Restoration does not happen in mere cognitive assent. That’s like discovering the destination on your GPS, and then never asking if you are driving the right way to get there. Once we search out and discover the destination on the map, then we also have to alter course to get there.
In a world which tells us to live for ourselves, we tend to set the patterns and rituals of our hearts to get as much for ourselves as we possibly can—whether that’s money, or possessions, or pleasure. But true restoration happens when we turn the direction of our hearts toward God, and follow in the ways of Jesus. Because this sets our hearts on a trajectory which embraces his restoration of all things.
All this to say something that I think most of us know is true already. Restoration almost always requires some amount of demolition. Maybe you’ve seen those extreme makeover kind of reality shows on cable TV. You know, the kind of shows where people go into some kind of old run-down house and totally transform it into something new and modern and awesome. And it always seems like part of those shows has to involve sledge hammers and crowbars. Sometimes, in fact, the whole house is ripped down with some heavy machinery.
And sometimes the discoveries that are made during restoration can be remarkable. We discover the hideous wallpaper behind the wallpaper behind the wallpaper; which turns a paper-stripping job into days instead of hours. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. We pull ugly nasty carpet to discover beautiful real oak flooring. Either way, restoration means knocking out some walls and working with whatever it is we find underneath.
Now here’s the tricky part about God’s restoration that many of us need to admit. Maybe somewhere inside we all want God’s restoration to look like that new wallpaper that just goes up on top of the old wallpaper. The new paint that goes over the old paint. The fresh layer of shingles over the old worn out shingles. I don’t want God’s restoration of my life to include any demolition. I’d rather not have God come at my heart with a sledge hammer and a crowbar. I still want God’s restoration to be about building up power and control. I don’t want restoration to be about tearing down and exposing all the flaws. Can you just give me a new coat of paint, and skip the demolition? But then it’s not truly restoration.
What else can we say about what real restoration looks like. When we do turn our hearts toward God, what does that look like? What is the result? We know for certain that Jesus does not intend to bring a restoration which overtakes the world by force. So even though we declare that Jesus is the one with power; even though we declare that Jesus is the one with authority; even though we declare that Jesus is the one in control; we also acknowledge that these are not the things that Jesus uses to bring restoration. Rather, Jesus lays aside his power and his authority. Jesus comes to give himself in humble service to others.
Jesus submits himself to the will of the Father to give himself for the world he loves so much. For Jesus, restoration does not depend on what he enforces upon others. Rather, restoration depends on what he can give of himself for others. Because in giving himself for others, Jesus opens the way for others to be received by God when they repent and turn their hearts toward him.
A little further in Mark 9 Jesus tells his disciples that whoever wants to be the greatest must become the least. Whoever wants to be first, must become last. The way of restoration for those who follow Jesus is a way of submitting our own desires and our own preferences. And then we find ourselves in a place where all we have left is to admit before God that restoration begins with me. There is so much in this world that needs restoration from God. But the best place for each one of us to begin is by admitting that it begins with me. I need restoration.
Mother Theresa—now Saint Theresa—dedicated her life to serving the poorest in Calcutta India. She may not have changed the whole world, but she brought restoration to the lives of many in Calcutta. And she did it by submitting herself in service to others.
God’s restoration is not a restoration that comes by force. It does not come by power. It does not come by control. God is almighty and he certainly could do all these things. But instead, God surprises us by bringing his restoration in a completely different kind of way. It is a restoration that comes by humility rather than boastful pride. It comes by selfless generosity rather than forceful taking. It comes by loving service rather than controlling power.