New Testament Reading: Matthew 17: 1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
While it might not be warranted in all cases, a criticism that has been made of megachurches is that in their rush to become marketable they have become like Disneyland. In drawing a comparison between megachurches and Disneyland, one scholar said, “A trip to Disneyland lifts you out of the humdrum of everyday life and into a new but completely artificial environment — one where clean fun, security and continual enjoyment make you cry ‘wow’ to every new thrill. In the same way, the megachurches create cocoons where people can escape from reality and have a good time.” I suppose if we wanted to follow this trend we could turn Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop into a kind of magic mountain ride.
Some of you might recall that I have thing for Minnie Mouse, but before we get caught up in the holy wonders of Disney, let’s go back down the mountain for a minute. Let’s go back to those moments before Jesus gathered Peter, James, and John to make the climb. Let me review what transpired, and as I do so, I might ask that you think of what adjectives you would use to honestly describe Jesus in this scene. Beginning in verse 21 of chapter 16, Jesus for the first time begins to tell the disciples that he will “undergo great suffering…and be killed” before being raised from the dead. Now, this was before any notion of the resurrection as a spectacular event, so instead of getting excited about this, Peter tells Jesus that all this must be stopped. Jesus, however, doesn’t appreciate Peter’s comment as a gesture of goodwill. Instead, he calls Peter Satan and accuses him of being a stumbling block. Jesus won’t have anyone preventing his agony, and he doesn’t stop there. He encourages others to take up their cross and follow him. If Disney had a ride like this, I probably would pass. Rollercoasters, maybe. Crosses, no.
Now, as you listened to Jesus foretell all this suffering and death, I am not sure what adjectives came to your mind but for me the words “morbid” and “harsh” came to mind. It seems sacrilegious to think of Jesus in such terms, so I wonder if I am missing something. Let’s see…Peter seems to be pretty important in this text. I wonder if Peter can give us any clues. I wonder what he would have been thinking before they began their hike up the mountain. I wonder what he would have been thinking when he heard the voice of God. I wonder…hmmmm…I wonder….
[Peter suddenly appears in a pulpit wearing a garment over his head.]
I remember when I was young and foolish. I thought I understood the world. I thought I had seen everything and done everything. You see I was rather full of myself. I must say it was kind of hard not to be. Jesus had just told us that I was to be the rock of the church. He even promised to give me the keys to the kingdom. I tell you I was on top of the world. I was in the prime of my vanity. I was in the full season of my glory. I almost felt sorry for the other the disciples. Poor chaps! There could only be one rock for the church. They were like little pebbles, little specks of sand, next to me, The Rock. But before I could lord it over the others for very long, Jesus knocked me down a few notches.
In fact, he did a bit more than that. He called me Satan. He said I was a stumbling block and that I needed to focus my mind on divine things rather than human things. I remember being quite upset with Jesus about this. I didn’t say it to him in words but I thought it. I couldn’t understand why Jesus had called me Satan. Here he was telling us how he was going to suffer and die, and I thought we should do something to stop it. “Gosh, Jesus,” I said to myself, “all I was trying to do was save your life. You would think that wouldn’t be so bad. What did you expect me to say? Yes, Jesus, why don’t you go ahead and die! We won’t do anything. What a great plan to save humanity! We will just stand around while we watch you get crucified by the Romans. And, then after you die, we’ll follow in your footsteps. We’ll pick up some crosses and go get crucified as well.”
You see, up until this moment, I had been all fired up about the kingdom of God. I thought that this represented the revolution for which we had been waiting, the revolution that would free the Jewish people from Roman rule, the revolution that would save us all, but then it seemed to me that Jesus was instead leading us in a revolution that would kill us all. I thought he was marching us to our own graves. I wanted to know what happened to the message he had been preaching to us about how in the Kingdom of God the last would be first and first would be last. Now, it sounded like the last were going to throw themselves underneath the swords of the first. Before, I had thought that we were going to seize control of the Empire and overthrow it. I thought we were going to be an army of liberation behind our brave new Moses, but now it sounded like Jesus was more of a coward than a fearless leader. He was just going to let them hang him on a tree without giving them a fight.
So it was that on the day when Jesus asked James, John, and me to hike up the mountain with him, I felt like staying home. I didn’t feel like going through all that work of climbing up some mountain. I thought to myself, “What good was this going to do us anyway?” I was of the opinion that we should have been preaching the good news to as many people as possible. We should have been in the big cities. We should have been touring the country. I couldn’t understand why Jesus would want to go up to the middle of nowhere with just a handful of disciples. It seemed like a waste of time to me. But by that point I was so dejected about Jesus’ plan that I finally decided it didn’t make any difference what we did. We were all going to die anyway. I figured I might as well be Satan if that was what was going to happen to us. Being a stumbling block didn’t seem like such a bad idea if that was our goal.
I was right in the middle of complaining to myself about everything and imagining that I would give Jesus a piece of my mind when all of the sudden I looked at Jesus, and I swear I thought he was on fire. I even told James to go get some water because Jesus was starting to look like a human candle with his face all aglow. But then I saw Moses and Elijah standing there next to him, and they were there talking as if nothing was wrong. I remember being a bit star-struck. Two of the greatest prophets ever were talking with Jesus. I began to think that Jesus might not be such a coward after all. I knew how those two had gone against what everyone else was saying and doing when people were worshipping idols and such. It was then that my heart began to change, and I wasn’t so mad at Jesus anymore. I asked him if he wanted me to mark the ground as holy by setting up three tents, one for each of them.
Then, I noticed out of nowhere that something like a thick mist had surrounded us. I couldn’t see anything in front of me or behind me, and then I heard the voice, and I knew right away that it had to be God. Immediately, I became afraid. I thought God would be angry with me for all of the thoughts I was having about Jesus and how I was doubting him. As soon as I heard the voice, I hit the ground. I am not sure why I thought I could avoid the wrath of God by doing that, but it was there on the ground that I heard the voice say that Jesus was God’s beloved son, that God was happy with everything Jesus was doing. All this just made me feel even more guilty for disagreeing with Jesus, so when God then instructed us to listen to Jesus, I practically screamed, “Yes, Lord.”
After the voice had left, Jesus came through the disappearing mist and touched us. He asked us to stand up and not to be afraid. I was relieved to know that God wasn’t going to strike us down. As I stood up, that’s when one of the greatest moments of my life occurred. It’s hard to describe, but as I stood, my lungs took in the mountain air, and as the fog lifted I saw the world as I had never seen it before. I could see for miles and the world seemed to have a life and a vitality I had never seen before. From there on the mountain, everything looked different. I could hardly believe that I had been complaining about the hike earlier. But the truth was that earlier I had been shaken by all that Jesus had said about his coming death. The idea of his death was too much for me. I resisted it. It seemed to take all the color out of life, but there on the mountaintop everything had changed, everything looked different. I saw for the first time that death is part of the landscape just as the mountains and the seas and the fields are all part of the landscape. I could see that the landscape was vast, that it contained both sorrows and joys, valleys and mountains. I could see it all, and I realized that no matter where we go in life and in death we are wrapped in the love of God just as that cloud had wrapped itself around us on that mountain.
I then realized that occasionally in life we have to climb up the sides of steep mountains, but occasionally we also have moments at the top where we can look back from where we have come and where we can look forward to what lies ahead, and we can realize that it is all part of the same landscape, that all the world is a temple where mountains kneel in prayer and where clouds tell us of the love of God. There on that mountain I discovered magic, but it wasn’t the magic of make-believe. It was the magic of love, love as that of a parent for a child. This kind of magic is not the kind that lifts us from reality. It is the kind that sinks us deeper into it as our hearts remain tied to a love that transcends it all, even in death. Amen.