Make a New Normal

Following through confusion

a photo of a person at the top of a snow-capped mountain
a photo of a person at the top of a snow-capped mountain
Photo by Katie McBroom on Unsplash

The gospel of listening
Epiphany Last B  |  Mark 9:2-9

The main character this week doesn’t seem to be Jesus or Peter or a disembodied heavenly voice. The main character of this gospel story is confusion. And its costar:  fear.

And what we struggle with, even in the reading of this, is how to actually follow Jesus when things are rough.

Like, say, in the midst of a budget deficit. An election year. Or personal stuff going on in our lives.

There are times (and it might be now) that we feel confused. Scared. Angry. Outraged. Or hopeless, separated, lonely. And junk just happens and we don’t know how to respond to it. Because we think there is a right thing to do here.

That feeling—of confusion and not knowing what to do in it—is the centerpiece of our story. And it’s why we, like Peter, won’t even know why we get it wrong.

So let’s dig in.

The Action

The action of the story is crazypants. There’s no reason it should make sense to us. Jesus brings three disciples up a mountain. Jesus’s clothes and appearance changes then two dead guys appear. Peter tries to figure out what he’s supposed to be doing here (there’s gotta be something!), offering to build some dwellings. Because, I guess, they’re going to be there awhile?

And then a voice comes booming 

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

These things have to be connected, right? The dazzling clothes, the appearing prophets, Peter’s hasty suggestion, and the voice of God telling the disciples to listen. It almost makes sense to us.

And with all of that action, there is little doubt that we would try to make sense of it. That we are like Peter, thinking there’s a thing here for us to do. Because we know that feeling. When things are going crazy and you’re standing there—uncomfortable that you’re not moving. Chaos is around you and you think it’s a problem that you’re chill.

I had this weird feeling back in college. Because my parents were still together. Nobody I knew had two parents on their only marriage. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me. What can I do to match this chaos?

Sometimes our attempt to do in the midst of confusion is genuinely that ridiculous. We make neutralizing our anxiety the purpose, rather than keeping the purpose our purpose: following and listening to Jesus. 

Where the confusion starts

If we expand our vision out, we can see where that confusion comes from. 

And why “Listen to him!” is the message they struggle to understand.

Verse two actually begins 

“Six days later…”

Or, to put it another way, On the seventh day…

Six days ago, Jesus predicted his death, Peter tried to stop him, and Jesus called him Satan.

Jesus is flipping their vision of a Messiah on them—even as they have just come to realize that is what he is. Their whole lives, a Messiah was thought to be the next great national, militaristic leader, as the true heir of the great king David. And Jesus says to them that Rome will kill him.

This is a shock to their vision of everything. And it sets them into a cloud of deep confusion. So Peter’s confusion on what to do isn’t just  a case of “what’s the right thing to do here?” He’s no longer sure what the right thing to do is in general.

And this confusion afflicts the disciples down the mountain, who are, at the same moment, unable to heal someone they could have just a week ago.

All of this confusion comes, not from Jesus, but from their own expectations. And their unwillingness to adapt to what Jesus is saying. They want to keep believing what they believe before Jesus opens his mouth.

A week ago, following Jesus made sense. Now, even though not a thing about the act of healing has changed—they succumb to confusion rather than listen to him.

Sabbath Now

It is no accident that these events would happen six days later. For what is the seventh day? That’s right, Sabbath.

And what is Sabbath? It is the day of rest and prayer. A time when all of the world’s expectations on you are shut off completely. To the point that you aren’t even allowed to cook stuff because that’s too much like work. And we do this so we may encounter the holy without the influence of the world impeding that relationship.

How does Peter’s response sound for the Sabbath? Let’s build stuff, Jesus!

And what did Jesus say back in chapter 3, when he healed a man’s withered hand at the synagogue on the Sabbath?

“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

Jesus answers his own question by healing the man.

Because the answer is actually not complicated. Are we attuned to God? 

We know that the question we like to ask is “what am I supposed to do here?” A variation of “What is right/good?” But Jesus keeps saying You already know what is good!

Are we taking our Sabbath time to align ourselves with God? If not, why would we think we could even know what is right?

Isn’t this what we’re wrestling with all the time?

Our disrupting confusion

When we zoom out even wider, we can see the whole arc of Jesus’s story with the disciples as building them up and then giving them the chance to see what it means. And when they leave the classroom, their nerves get in the way. 

We totally relate to this, don’t we? And we’re supposed to. We are all Peter.

But the story also shows us what confusion does and doesn’t do. It feels like it’s real. And we really don’t feel like we know the right thing a lot of the time. 

And yet it only appears real. Anxiety is real, but that doesn’t mean what we’re anxious about is real. Anxiety makes us feel like we’re going to die—when nothing is threatening us. That people will laugh at us, when nobody actually will.

All of this confusion blocking the disciples is fear. Fear about the mission, their future, and the very nature of their faith tradition.

But none of that is actually on the table for them in that moment! It may be in their future. But it isn’t their present. But they are letting it disrupt and destroy their present. That’s what fear of the future does — it distracts us now.

Jesus called them to heal people. Period. And now they can’t. Period.

The confusion isn’t just keeping them from doing anything, it is keeping them from listening to Jesus. The Messiah. The one who has already shown them what the Kin-dom is. And how they relate to it. He has already communicated this!

The message is obvious, isn’t it?

Listen to Jesus. That’s it.

Listen to Jesus and not the amorphous nonsense pretending to be the main character in our lives. The one tempting us to find the right thing to do on the Sabbath or to solve our problems in ways that don’t involve sacrifice.

The tempting voice that says we ought to focus on ourselves or punish the stupid.

Or perhaps the most tempting—to surround ourselves with confusion, fear, sadness, and to wear it like a security blanket. Asking what the right thing to do is while knowing there is nothing to do on the Sabbath but be. Listening to Jesus. And loving, healing, and hoping the Kin-dom here.

Believe me, I know this temptation! To be stuck in indecision. Or to seek clarity in decisiveness. Trying to wash the clouds of confusion away with a self-help book or professional degree. But that isn’t listening to Jesus.

Listening takes time and patience. It is a practice of hope and commitment. It takes coming to church and being with people. It means laughing at terrible jokes and crying at bad news because you let other people in.

It is about letting Jesus reveal truth, not seeking it from CEOs.

So at this point, if you are still asking 

“What then are we supposed to do?” in spite of that being the Tempter’s question for the confused, trust the voice of God:

“Listen to him!”

For he has spoken many, many, many times about our path. 

Repent, believe, and proclaim the Good News
Turn away from sin and toward God.
Do not be afraid.
Love. With faith.
Feed the hungry and heal the sick.
Sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him.
Trust. Pray. Sabbath. Hope.
Love God and your neighbor as yourself.

Hear it. And keep listening.