Up — and Then Down 02/11/18 (Transfiguration)

Up – and Then Down 
Text: Mark 9:2-10
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
February 11, 2018 ~ Transfiguration

It’s funny what happens to us when we think we know a story but force ourselves to slow down and really examine it.

For example, late in the fall semester of my final year of Divinity School, I was meeting with Professor Ellen Aiken to talk about what I had thus far written of my senior thesis. An examination of narratives of conversion, I began my study with a brief description of the Christian conversion story par excellence: Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. I wrote about the blinding light, the loud voice, and Saul (soon to be Paul) falling off his horse.

Professor Aiken complimented me on the work I had done so far, and then asked me ever-so-gently, “Now, in the Bible, where’s the bit about the horse?”

Appalled that I may have made a scriptural error – in the company of one of Harvard Divinity School’s New Testament scholars, no less! – I scrambled through the text of Acts 9, trying to find it. Lo and behold, there was no horse in the story. I felt like a fraud. What business did I have going into the Christian ministry if I was busy putting horses in stories where they did not belong?

Professor Aiken soothed my shame by telling me that I was not the first to imagine Paul falling off his horse on that fated day. Indeed, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus has been depicted in countless paintings over the centuries, complete with the rearing, yet thoroughly imagined, horse. And she assured me that my mistake didn’t disqualify me for the ministry, although it might serve as a reminder about what happens to us when we think we know a story and don’t really examine it. It’s a lesson I’m still learning, I’m afraid.

Today’s story, which we call the Transfiguration, is one we encounter not once, but twice every year: once on the last Sunday of Epiphany (which is today), and once on its own feast day in August. It’s easy to imagine we know just what’s happening and what it all means. But do we, really? Are there some imaginary horses hiding in the story we tell ourselves?

Let’s start at the beginning.

The disciples have been surrounded by throngs of people for days. Undoubtedly the smells of salty air and too many bodies have filled their nostrils in the heat of the day; the cries of pain mixed with pleas for help have filled their ears well into the night. They’ve tried to comprehend the parables Jesus has related and they’ve attempted to make sense of the miracles he’s performed. From the shore of the Sea of Galilee to the synagogue in Capernaum; from Peter’s home and back to the seashore; through fields of grain to the country of the Gerasenes: they’ve walked untold numbers of miles, and presumably their backs ache, their feet are blistered, their senses are flooded, and their minds are overwhelmed. It’s safe to imagine that they are, in a word, tired.

So I suspect that it is with some relief that Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up a mountain, away from the crowds and the noise and the smells, away even from the other disciples, to a place of quiet and solitude. Just as they are catching their breath from the strenuous climb – it was, after all, a high mountain – just as they are inhaling the fresh, cool air and enjoying the peacefulness, something indescribable occurs. Jesus’ dirty, worn-out clothes become dazzling white.

There are no words to adequately describe what they saw. As one scholar has said, “The language of the passage is more allusive than referential, its mode more intuitive than logical. It communicates in visual and auditory terms a fleeting perception of the eternal splendor, an elusive awareness of the divine presence.” [1]

I just want to say that again. “A fleeting perception of the eternal splendor, an elusive awareness of the divine presence.” A moment ago their teacher stood before them as he has stood before them for so many days already; now he stands there suffused with glory, radiating God. Moreover, Moses and Elijah are suddenly there as well, those two ancient patriarchs of the Jewish religion and culture. The three disciples are keenly and abruptly aware that God is right there on the mountain with them.

James and John say nothing in the face of this blazing mystery; Peter, on the other hand, stammers, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

You know, I always assumed that Peter was messing up again. I always heard his response to the vision and inwardly sighed, “Oh, Peter. You missed the point again. You get a glimpse of the divinity of Jesus and you want to tame it, contain it. You want to put God in a box and keep the lid on it.”

Except: that explanation of Peter’s impulse to construct a couple of tents is, as it were, a horse of my own imagining. There is absolutely no indication that Peter wanted to contain God, that Peter wanted to hoard Jesus for himself, that Peter hoped to remain on that mountaintop in some kind of spiritual ecstasy and let the rest of the world take care of itself.

Listen again:

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.

In this particular story, Peter isn’t confused; he isn’t slow; he isn’t dim-witted. He isn’t greedy or selfish. He is terrified. What Peter and the other disciples are feeling is not surprise. It isn’t shock. It isn’t, as one person has said, “fear of the sort that might be heroically overcome in an adventure story, but terror of the sort evoked by horror movies.” [2]

In his terror, Peter doesn’t know what to do or say, so he says what is apparently the first thing that comes into his head. But God knows what to say in the face of that fear. Out of a cloud that has arrived from nowhere comes the voice of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved!”

And friends, here we have another one of the horses I seem to be gathering in my stable. I always thought God was annoyed with Peter for this mistake. I always thought God spoke with aggravation or even anger. In other words, I always heard more than what is present in the text. I heard God saying, “Stop what you’re doing! This is my Son – stop babbling, stop doing stupid stuff, and listen to him!”

But you know what? That judgment, that condemnation: it isn’t there. The horse of judgment is my preferred steed, it turns out. Hunted by the demon of perfectionism, I see judgment all over the place – even when it simply isn’t there.

I hear hoofbeats.

But there are no horses in this story. There is no judgment; no condemnation. Do you know what is here?

What’s here in the story of the Transfiguration, amidst the vision of leaders of old and a blinding light show, is a declaration of love, a proclamation of identity, and an invitation.

First, the declaration of love. “This is my Son, the Beloved,” says God. This statement does not express dissatisfaction or frustration with Peter; in fact, it has nothing to do with Peter at all. It is purely a pronouncement: “I, God, love Jesus.”

Next, the proclamation of identity: Jesus is the Beloved Son. God and Jesus are connected in a relationship of deep and abiding love. Love is what defines them; indeed, it is who they are. The God of Peter and James and John, and our God, is a God who above all else loves.

Finally, the invitation: “Listen to him.”

Which leads to the question: what does Jesus say with his words?

Follow me.
Come to me.
Pray with me.
Wait with me.
Be not afraid.
The Kingdom of God is here, among you.

What does Jesus say with his actions?

All will be fed.
All shall be healed.
There is enough.
Justice and mercy are the marks of the Kingdom of God.
They are already rolling down like waters.

In everything Jesus says and does is the message: love is the point. Are we listening?

So this story – the story as it actually is, not the story I thought was there – leads me to wonder: What are the imagined horses that keep us from hearing God’s word of love in Jesus our Christ? For me, it’s often perfectionism, as I mentioned a moment ago. I’m so afraid that I’m too imperfect, too confused, too slow of heart and reluctant of mind for God to possibly love me wholeheartedly.

For others of you, perhaps overwork or addiction or cynicism or sorrow or pain prevent you from hearing the truth of the Gospel: that God is love, and that God loves you, loves me, loves our neighbors, and yes, loves our enemies.

It’s right there, in all that Jesus says and does: the Good News that God is love. It’s right there, throughout our Scriptures, and made plain in the Gospel of John in a way that we all know but perhaps have trouble believing: that God so loved the world that God sent God’s only begotten Son.” So loved the world.

Judgment. Aggravation. Frustration. Impatience. Those are human qualities. God is love.

And every now and then God leads us up mountains where we experience the joy of an awareness of God’s presence; where we experience the miracle of healing and the renewal of hope; where we get a foretaste of the kingdom where justice and mercy reign.

And, as Jesus did with the disciples, God goes down from the mountain with us, into the valleys of our pain, the pits of our despair, the darkness of our confusion, the ache of our doubts.

Friends, this week we will head into Lent, a time when we many of us give something up as a spiritual discipline. I wonder, what would it be like to give up those things that prevent us from receiving God’s love? Maybe these next six weeks offer us an opportunity to identify the imaginary horses that we ride into Scripture, and then send them out to pasture. Maybe we can use this time to be stunned by the glory of God, to be overwhelmed by the love that goes with us up the mountains of glorious encounter with the divine and then down with us into the sometimes dark valleys of our lives.

That would, indeed, be an experience worthy of awe and praise. May it be so, for each and every one of us.

Thanks be to God.

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