Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The World Below -- Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9
February 26, 2017

            All good things must come to an end. When I was a kid, I hated hearing those words because they usually meant that the fun was about to end. I remember hearing them when we had spent the evening at someone else’s home, at a dinner party or just a party-party. While the adults would talk, we kids would play games. If it was nice outside, we would play out in the yard. If the weather was different, you could find us playing games in another room away from the grown-ups. It always seemed that we had reached the pinnacle of whatever game we were playing, and then we would hear, “Well folks, all good things must come to an end.”
One of the adults would have looked at the clock, and realized that it was getting late. It was a school night or a church night. Folks had to go work the next day. The kids needed to get to bed. The morning was going to be here quicker than we realized, and none of us would be ready for it if we didn’t wrap up the fun and fellowship and go home. The transition from a relaxed evening to the real world was in process. The signal was given. The message was clear. It was time to leave. It was time to say goodbye. All good things must come to an end.
But why? I don’t say that petulantly. I am just asking the question. Why must all good things come to an end?  Now, I do know that life is not made up of just happy moments. I know that happiness is fleeting, and that putting too much of an emphasis on happiness can be actually be detrimental to our emotional, physical and spiritual selves. The cynic in me says that anyone who wants the good times and the good things to go on and on and on is living in a fantasy land. That kind of life is reserved strictly for fairy tales. It’s not real. The real world is what it is. And we all must dwell in it.
Maybe that is what Peter wanted to do up on that mountaintop. Maybe Peter recognized Jesus’ transfiguration as a good thing, as a lovely moment and he, like an early Energizer Bunny, just wanted it to keep going and going and going. That has been a predominant interpretation of Peter’s actions when he was faced with Jesus’ transfiguration; his glorious shining up on that high hill. Peter saw his dazzling rabbi and wanted it to last. Along with this traditional interpretation comes the traditional head shake and tsk tsking at Peter’s impetuousness, rashness and his misunderstanding of who Jesus truly was and what Jesus was truly there to do. I’ve certainly interpreted this story this way, and I’ve done my share of head shaking and finger wagging at Peter. I relate to Peter. I identify with Peter, so it is easy for me to say, “Oh Peter. I understand what you wanted to have happen; but sweetie, you just did not get it.”
Yet I wonder if Peter got it a little bit more than we give him credit for. I’m not saying that he fully understood Jesus’ identity or the fullness of his ministry, teaching and work. It’s clear that Peter, along with the other disciples, did not get that. I don’t think that Peter clearly comprehended what he was seeing either. I do identify with Peter, and I know that I would not have understood the events on that mountaintop. I can’t even claim that I fully understand it now, from the perspective of someone who knows the “rest of the story.”
But I do not believe that Peter was entirely clueless. As I have pointed out in just about every Transfiguration sermon I’ve ever preached, this passage begins with the words, “Six days later.” Six days before this moment on top of the mountain, Jesus asked Peter and the other disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded with a profession of faith. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus responded by telling Peter that he was correct. He was blessed. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He also went on to tell them that being the Messiah, the Son of the living God meant that he would suffer and die and rise again. Peter, being Peter, pulled Jesus to the side and told him to stop saying things like that. He was scaring the others. Jesus rebuked him. “Get behind me, Satan.”
Whatever Peter did or didn’t get, I cannot imagine that the memory of what happened six days earlier had left him by the time they reached the top of the mountain. And even if Peter did not fully understand what it meant to be Messiah or that God would choose to come into the world and suffer, he did live in a time when empires ruled the world. He lived in a time when opposition to the powers that be had dire consequences. He lived in a time when being willing to speak truth to that power, and stick your neck out for what you believed in, often meant that you had your head handed back to you on a silver platter.
Maybe Peter believed Jesus when he said that he would suffer and die. Maybe Peter understood that if Jesus didn’t stop or at least curtail what he was doing and saying, that he could wind up really suffering and really dying. Peter did not grasp the full reality of Jesus – as human and as divine. But surely he had the ability to imagine the trouble Jesus might land in, so perhaps wanting to build those booths or tabernacles was not just a way of staying in that glorious moment, it was also a way to keep Jesus safe.
There on that mountain, Jesus was safe. Peter and James and John were safe. There on that mountain, they were somewhat out of the range of the empire. There was no one for Jesus to anger or offend with the truth that he spoke. If they stayed on that mountain, if they refused to descend to the world below, then the consequences of Jesus’ words and actions could not catch up with him. Maybe Peter just wanted to keep his beloved rabbi safe.
However as one commentator put it, “We cannot keep God safe.”
Six days earlier, Peter could not listen to Jesus’ words about suffering and dying. Six days later, this was still true. Peter jumped in with a plan, but he was interrupted. He was interrupted by God’s voice from the heavens.
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Listen to him!
Peter could not keep Jesus safe. He could not keep him up on that mountain. The world below waited for them. But here is a detail of Matthew’s telling of this story that I have not paid much attention to before; at the sound of God’s voice the disciples fell to the ground in fear. But Jesus came to them and touched them. He laid his hands upon them and told them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Jesus touched them. Jesus was not any different after the transfiguration than he was before. Whatever happened in that moment of shining glory was not so much about Jesus changing into something he was not, as it was about revealing the fullness of who he already was. He may not have been shining anymore, but all of that glory was still there. It was still him. All of that glory was in his touch. Jesus touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
David Lose wrote that the message to “fear not” is the gospel. It is the gospel. It is the message that is repeated over and over again. Do not be afraid. Jesus refused to stay safe. He refused to stay on that mountain where no harm would come to him. He refused to avoid his necessary descent into the world below, and he would not let the disciples avoid it either. But I cannot help but believe that in his touch was some of the glory that had been shining out him only moments before. I cannot help but believe that in that touch, the disciples received renewed courage to face the world below. In that moment Jesus touched them and spoke the good news of the gospel.
“Do not be afraid.”
We are part of the Church, part of Christ’s body in the world. There are no mountaintops where we can stay safe, secluded and shut off from the pain and brokenness of the world below. We are called to be in that world, as surely as Jesus intentionally went back down that mountain and walked the path to the cross. And Jesus’ words to the disciples are the words we are given as well. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
Hear this good news. Hear this gospel. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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