A foggy morning at the Church of the Transfiguration at the top of Mount Tabor while visiting there in January 2012; supposed site of the story we hear in today’s gospel text
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. – Mark 9:2-9
On a family vacation a long time ago, when Erica, my oldest daughter, was only three or maybe four years old, we were staying at a hotel that had a big plaza out back, with a number of picnic tables just outside the hotel door, and then some playground equipment, and then a nice, large swimming pool beyond that. One afternoon while we were there, we decided to hit the pool, and after a couple of hours it was time to find something to eat, so we gathered up our things, and we each took one of Erica’s hands, and with her between us, we started walking back to the hotel. As we walked, Lori and I were discussing where we might go to eat, and what we might do after dinner. And all the while, Erica was chattering a mile a minute about something, the way three-year olds do, but we were paying more attention to our own conversation at that moment. As we continued talking, and as we were getting closer to the door, I became slightly aware that there were two boys, maybe high-school age or so, sitting on one of the picnic tables, and they were laughing at something. I didn’t pay any attention to them; Lori and I kept talking, but as we were getting closer to them it became harder not to notice that the kids at the table were laughing, louder and louder; they were doubling over, almost crying from laughing so hard, and I admit that in the moment my mind strayed from our conversation and I wondered what these two kids were laughing at. And it was only then that gradually, my own daughter’s chattering came into focus in my brain, and I heard her going on and on at the top of her lungs, “Hey Mom, hey Dad, look at that guy over there – he’s really fat! Really, really, look at him! He’s so fat he might break that bench! Look! I think that’s the fattest man I ever saw, I mean, he’s really fat!!!”
And sure enough, I looked over, and sitting at another one of the picnic tables was a really, really large man. Between his angry, beet-red face at the one table, and the laughing teenagers at the other, all that my wife and I could do was to grab onto Erica and walk as fast as we could, with her feet barely touching the pavement, until we got inside the hotel doors, where we all collapsed into a pile of simultaneous embarrassment and laughter and scolding her not to say things like that.
In the midst of us focusing on our own priorities and trying to set our own pattern on things, we’d been missing the significance and meaning of what was really going on in the moment.
I think that’s part of the significance of this story of Jesus’ transfiguration, too. Jesus and these three disciples trek up a mountainside to get away from the distractions of daily life and to pray, to meditate, to re-center and refocus their relationship with God, to try to hear God’s word speaking within their hearts. It was something that they did fairly routinely as we read the gospels. But this time was different, with Jesus’ clothes suddenly appearing a dazzling white, radiating, almost glowing. The passage doesn’t really say that he himself starts to radiate, but I imagine that he does, if just from the brightness of his clothing. And all of a sudden Moses and Elijah appear along with him.
It’s a truly incredible scene. We try to imagine it, and we try to understand it, and we try to make some sense out of this completely incomprehensible event. What does it mean? What does it symbolize? Jesus blazing white, Moses and Elijah, the key representatives, the symbols, of the Law and the Prophets of holy scripture, all there together. Just what’s going on here? In the moment, Peter starts trying to put some meaning onto it. He tries to organize and categorize what he’s seeing, trying to put some overlay or a pattern to it; he’s trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. And the pattern that he seems to be using as he tries to apply his own meaning to the scene is that he may be looking at what’s going on and thinking it’s the end of the world. It’s what the Jews called “The Day of the Lord,” the final Judgment Day when the dead will be raised, and God will rule on the physical earth for all eternity. And in trying to make sense out of what he’s seeing in front of his eyes, Peter seems to think he’s standing at ground zero of the beginning of this Day of the Lord, especially because in Jewish religious thought of the time, the Day of the Lord was associated with Sukkot, the Festival of the Booths, where the faithful set up small tentlike structures or booths outside and live inside them, symbolizing the time of the Exodus. It’s a tradition that many Jewish faithful observe today; this year the observance is in late September. Maybe you’ve experienced that if you have some Jewish friends. So Peter starts to blather on and on, saying they could make booths and live there. He goes on talking about this until the voice of God brings him back to focus, telling him to stop all that and to pay attention to Jesus.
In the midst of him focusing on his need to put his own meaning to what was happening, and trying to set his own pattern on things, Peter was missing the significance and meaning of what was really going on in the moment. Maybe this past week you saw the pictures online of the guy sitting on a sailboat during a whale-watching outing who was so wrapped up in staring at his phone and sending a text message that he completely missed the amazing sight of a humpback whale surfacing just a few feet away from him. Peter seems to have been having a similar moment, and God was telling him to stop texting and to pay attention to what was going on in front of him.
And what exactly was going on? Nothing less than Jesus making it absolutely, positively clear that he was God’s chosen, beloved, anointed one; the one in whom God was very pleased. That he was the Christ. Throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus is constantly telling the disciples to not tell people that he’s the Christ, but now, here, in this scene, Jesus is practically an exhibitionist, making the point of who he is in blazing white neon and floodlighting.
It’s easy for us to want to always apply pattern, and reason, and meaning to things so we can understand them. We can put them into neat, manageable boxes and deal with them. But when we try to do the same thing with God – when we try to wring all the incomprehensibility and mystery and wonder out of God; when our rational minds demand to only seek God too decently and in good order; we’re likely closing our hearts and minds to experiencing God in the way that God is trying to speak to us.
Lent is a time when we’re supposed to not be like me and my wife on that vacation; or like the texting guy on the whale watch; or like Peter on the mountaintop. It’s a time when we’re called to put aside our demands for order and pattern, and to be open to God speaking to us in times and ways we’ve been blocking. That’s the reason behind the Wednesday evening services this Lenten season, to create a space for us to do that. That’s the reason why during those services, the chapel will be configured in ways different from the norm, to help break through the established, familiar patterns and to help make us able to hear God in new and unexpected ways.
This Lent, I really hope that we all try to do that. Just as this congregation is in an overall time of transition, let’s allow Lent to be a time of transition within our own hearts, too. Let’s be open to God breaking in and transforming, transfiguring our lives, in ways large and small, healing whatever our particular brokenness might be, speaking to whatever the particular longing is in our own souls. Let’s do that, because just as we’d be wise to pay attention to what a three-year old is trying to say to us, we’d be all the more wise to do the same with God.
Thanks be to God.