This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Listen to him.


Luke 9:28-36.
Transfiguration

I.
            Many centuries ago, the church established a 40+ day period of fasting and spiritual preparation leading up to Holy Week.  More recently, churches have been preceding this with a commemoration of Jesus’ transfiguration.
            The transfiguration happens at a pivotal point in the gospel immediately after Peter’s affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus’ promise that he will undergo great suffering, be killed, and be raised from death, and that his disciples are required to lose their lives for his sake.  In other words, the disciples now know that Jesus’ plan is to go to Jerusalem for a final confrontation with the authorities, which he will lose… but then somehow win.
            Just before they start making their way south towards Jerusalem where all this is to happen, Jesus goes up a mountain, Mt. Tabor is the traditional site, to pray.  Usually he prays by himself but this time he invites his three closest disciples to come with him.  They climb the steep mountain; it would have taken at least a couple of hours.
            Mt. Tabor stands-out in the middle of an otherwise relatively flat plain in southern Galilee; it can be seen for miles and the view from the top is spectacular, or so they tell me.
            When they get to the top Jesus begins to pray.  Jews usually prayed standing and that’s probably what Jesus does here.  He faces Jerusalem, pulls his prayer shawl up over his head, and begins to pray in a very soft voice.  Peter, James, and John know the drill and they follow their master’s example. 
            Jesus must have prayed for a long time, because the other three men get drowsy.  But they don’t fall asleep, which is a good thing because during his prayer Luke reports that the appearance of Jesus’ face changes, and his clothes become dazzling white.  He starts to shine with this wild, unearthly light.
            The book of Exodus reports a similar thing happening to Moses, which we just read about in Exodus 34.  Moses was also up on a mountain, Mt. Sinai, where God was giving him the second copy of the Ten Commandments.  When he came down we are told that his face shone with a strange glow, as if some afterglow of God’s holy Light continued to be reflected in his face.  This shining stayed with him so that he even had to wear a veil whenever he was with people, to prevent freaking them out.
            This light of God was too strong, weird, and holy for the people.  They couldn’t handle it.  It was too direct and true.  The Light of God cuts through our illusions and reveals the truth about us.  These are the same people who had only recently debased themselves in the Golden Calf incident.  For their own good, they had to be shielded from Light of God’s Presence.  They could only experience it indirectly, if at all.

II.
            Moses’ veil has ever after represented the separation between God and the people.  It has roughly the same function as the veil in the Temple dividing the more ordinary space from the Holy of Holies.  God is with them; but God also keeps some distance.  There remains a barrier between God and the people.
            The people could handle the word of God coming to them verbally, in words spoken, or inscribed on stone or written on a page.  But they were not strong enough to absorb a direct and visual experience of God, even indirectly in Moses’ face.  And any more immediate encounter with God would have had them annihilated by God’s holiness, goodness, and love.
            The divine light that shines through and from Jesus is the same light that Moses saw.  “God is light,” John would later write.  “And in him is no darkness at all.”  It is like in this experience the veil is pulled aside and the true nature of things, the true nature of Jesus, is revealed.
            In the midst of this dazzling display, the disciples somehow see two men standing there with Jesus, whom they are able to identify as Moses along with the great prophet Elijah. 
            Moses and Elijah are two of the most important figures of the Bible.  Moses delivered the Torah to the people on Mt. Sinai, and led them through the desert for 40 years until they arrived at the edge of the Promised Land.  Elijah was the first of the great prophets whom God set as holy critics of the Kings of Israel and Judah, and who also foretold the coming of the Messiah.  He had his own experiences of God on mountains.  On Mt. Carmel he defeated the prophets of Baal in a contest, and then later the Lord came to him on Mt. Sinai, in that “still, small voice,” to assure him that, however diminished God’s people were, new things were about to happen.   All of these meanings and allusions echo through Luke’s story here.   
            And the disciples overhear these two men talking with Jesus about his departure, which he would accomplish in Jerusalem.  The word Luke uses which is translated “departure” is actually “exodus,” making an explicit connection between what Jesus will do and God’s bringing of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.
              It is clear, then, that Jesus’ destiny is to fulfill the central event in Israel’s life, the event in which their faith was born, the great deliverance of the Israelite slaves from bondage.  And so it will be: when they do get to Jerusalem, Jesus’ final meal, his arrest, execution, and resurrection all happen in the context of the celebration of the Passover holiday.

III.
            Peter, James, and John witness all this, and they are dumbfounded.  The correct response here would basically be for them to fall on their faces in awe, wonder, and worship. 
            Unfortunately, Peter chooses instead to open his mouth.  First, as the vision gradually fades, he blurts out: “Master, it is good for us to be here.”  So, while Jesus and Moses and Elijah have been talking about how Jesus will now be going to Jerusalem, Peter is infatuated with this mountain and the experience they have just had.  Jesus is turning his attention to Jerusalem; Peter is still focused on the mountain.  “It is good for us to be here,” he says, as if to say, “and it is not a good idea to go anywhere else, like Jerusalem, for instance.” Jesus has already predicted that they will face death and shame there.  “I know!” says Peter, “Let’s just stay here!”
            We all want to stay in our comfort zone, in the glow of our greatest experiences and achievements.  We all want to remain in our glory days, whenever they were.  We don’t want to go back down into the valley, where there is pain and need.  After this spectacular event on the mountain, they will go back down and the first thing they encounter is a man whose only son is possessed by an evil demon. 
            Who needs that?  Wouldn’t it be better to stay on the mountain and let needy, possessed, and sick people come up to them?  Wouldn’t it be better to build a shrine… no, three shrines! up here?  Then they could tell people all about their experience and they could go down and spread the word.  Wouldn’t that be better?
            The irony here is that, several centuries later, Christians went back to Mt. Tabor.  And what did they do?  They built a commemorative shrine, a big church, which is still there.  We’re so pathetic.  We did this to St. Francis too.  Before he dies he says, “Whatever you do don’t build a big church in my memory; use your money to help the poor.”  His body wasn’t even cold before the building fund got started. 
            Jesus must have just shaken his head when Peter starts going on about this.  He isn’t even done speaking when this mysterious cloud comes over them, terrifying them.  This cloud “overshadows” them, and envelops them like a fog so thick it even blocks out sunlight. 
            The last time we heard this word, “overshadows,” was back in chapter 1, when Gabriel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would come to her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, and she would emerge full of the very life of God; she would be pregnant with God.
            So the disciples are overshadowed by God’s Presence, where they too receive God’s Word, though in a rather different way.  It will not be until much later, but, just as Mary was charged with giving birth to the body of the Messiah, they will bear the message and the Spirit, working through them, to all the world.
           
IV.
            And from this cloud, that is, from all around them they hear a voice that says, “This is my Son, my Chosen: listen to him!”  In other words: Stop listening to the other voices: your egos and your fear and your craving for personal glory.  Stop listening to whatever wants to avoid this very necessary trip to Jerusalem, which is to say, avoid taking up your cross.  Stop listening to whatever wants you to stay on the mountain and build a shrine.  Stop listening to anything or anyone else.  Listen only to the Son, the Chosen of God, Jesus Christ.
            “Jesus Christ, as he is attested in Holy Scripture is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”  Those words from the Barmen Declaration in our Book of Confessions constitute the beginning and the ongoing task of those who follow Jesus.  This is why we have to be in constant, daily, regular interaction with Jesus Christ in the gospels and the rest of the Bible.  We can’t listen if we don’t hear or read it.  “Listen to him” means get at least some piece of the gospels into your consciousness every day. 
            And we all know that listen means obey.  It means follow.
Listening to and following only Jesus is what the Christian life is about.  So the contrast here couldn’t be more stark.  Peter wants to stay in one place and build three booths or shrines.  He wants buildings that commemorate a past event and stay in one place. 
            Jesus, however, is about movement.  He never instructs his disciples to build any physical monument, or any building at all.  Buildings don’t move.  Following him, listening to him, means moving.  It means transformation, we can’t stay in the same place, figuratively or often literally.  There is a reason that the faith was referred to as “the Way” by the earliest adherents.  It was about going somewhere.  It was about going from one kind of life to another, from one way of thinking to another.  It was about being sent, which also implies movement.
            The exodus was also about moving from slavery to freedom, from Pharaoh to Torah, from death to life.  When Jesus fulfills it he will do it by having himself lifted up on a cross, being raised from the dead, and finally ascending into heaven.  This is not a static faith, or even a stable one.  Stability is what empires impose.  But God’s Spirit is in motion and wild, unpredictable and undomesticated, and so is God’s Son and the community he calls and sends into the world.
           
V.
    After they hear this voice, the cloud dissipates, normal daylight returns.  Peter, James, and John look up and see only Jesus.  Moses and Elijah are gone.  Jesus is back in his ordinary form.  What was that?  Was it a dream?
            No.  It was a glimpse into the heart of reality where all is light and charged with God’s Presence.  It was God temporarily lifting the veil that is over all our senses, a veil that limits our perception to a narrow bandwidth.  It was God, revealing what things are really like.  And what things are really like, is light, and beauty, and love.
            It is important that the disciples get this message at this time in their journey with the Lord Jesus.  This is why he invites them to pray with him this time, when usually he prayed alone.  They had to see the true nature of the world, and of him.  They had to have this vision to sustain them as they made their way down to Jerusalem where they would meet all they would meet, where Jesus himself would be arrested and killed.  They had to know in advance that what Jesus really is, is something that cannot be snuffed out by anything, let alone the petty machinations of politicians and priests.
            Jesus gives them a foretaste of resurrection life, revealing the goodness and blessing, the divine Light, which he embodies, at the heart of creation.  And we read this story on this day as well, so we have the same foretaste to sustain us moving forward.  Assuming we will use this time wisely in self-examination, which traditionally has included some kind of self-denial or fasting, spiritual disciplines that have the effect of clearing the mind and purifying the vision, so that when we get to the events of Holy Week, when we get to the seder, and the Maundy Thursday Communion, and the tenebrae, and when we get to the Resurrection Vigil, and the glorious morning of life, we will have a better understanding and a fuller participation in what we are remembering together.
            Because it’s all about this Light, this divine glory, this shining luminescence at the heart of all things.  On this mountaintop, Jesus is showing the disciples and us our true nature and essence, revealing that nothing can ever ultimately hurt or harm us.  We may choose to cherish the darkness and the lies and the pain.  We may choose the familiar and easy Egypt over the challenging wilderness that leads to the Promised Land.  We may choose our usual default responses of fear, anger, and shame.
            But deep within us there is something else to which we always have access: the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus, from which we can never be separated.      
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