2Six days later Jesus took Peter, James and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, 3and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. 4Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. 5Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines - one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.
7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” 8Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead.
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
What a familiar scene. We tell this story every year, pulled from one of the three gospels. Each time we see the same thing happening, Jesus goes up with either his elite disciples or his special needs disciples, depending on one’s interpretation. Every time These great historical figures appear with Jesus, every time Jesus is shown to be God’s son. Every time, every time, every time, Peter sticks his foot in his mouth.
I asked my dear friend John what he thought of this passage, and he gave me a playful grin and quoted Peter, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here.” What a totally silly thing for Peter to say, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here,” it’s almost as though he’s congratulating Jesus for having the foresight to bring some people up there to know what to do when Moses and Elijah show up to, as my generation would say, “Hang Out.”
Peter’s statement is a perfect blend of humility and arrogance. He’s been pulled aside for the opportunity to see Jesus doing something that reveals that he is God, and he knows he’s not worthy of standing alongside the great prophets and the Messiah on this mountain. That’s his humility. He is profoundly uncomfortable with seeing God as God.
With good reason, I mean, if one ever encounters God and is left comfortable, one has a rather small God. The God Peter, James, and John encounter is quite large, and the three of them are terrified.
Now, this is not to say that one cannot be comforted by God, that’s something different. Those who have encountered God in times of strife and indeed frequently comforted, but they are never left with a charge that the world is going alright, don’t worry about changing anything, we’ve arrived at our destination so don’t do anything, just get comfortable.
So Peter finds a way to ease his discomfort with encountering God in a classic way. Looking busy. Doesn’t really matter what, so long as it’s something of which God would approve. So we imagine Peter looking around so the big boss won’t find him just standing there, and he says, “Let’s make three shrines - one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But if you’re building a shrine, you’re near the moment, not in the moment. Peter can’t stand it, so he decides he’d rather be close to Jesus than with Jesus.
Clergy are guilty of this all the time, we find ways to distance ourselves from the very God we serve in the name of “organization”, or of “flow of worship,” and because we’re already looking to the next thing we have to lead in the bulletin, we miss what’s happening right in front of us.
One of the Pastors with whom I have worked closely over the years preached a brilliant sermon on listening for the still, small voice of God, and how important it is to sit in silence, reverently experiencing what God has for us without trying to fill time and space with our own contributions. The time came for the anthem, which was also about God’s voice speaking in the silence rather than our busyness, at the conclusion of which the music leader paused to allow the room to grow silent, and sit in that uncomfortable place. The Pastor, looking ahead to the next thing, started the Doxology on his own, keeping the service moving.
What a totally Peter thing to do. Got to do something because I just can’t handle what God is doing. So Peter opens his mouth, even though he doesn’t know what to say, and offers to do something, because he doesn’t know what to do.
We just saw something really amazing happen. We just saw our great historical heroes of faith standing alongside Jesus. We don’t know how to respond, but we think we have to so we start talking just to fill the space inside our own heads where we should be silenced by the awe of the situation.
We find all sorts of ways of distancing ourselves from what God is doing, even the way we approach the Bible, the unique and authoritative witness to the Word of God, can distance us from God if we approach it on a purely intellectual level. I can entertain a thought without being changed by it, I can read how it ought to be without feeling like I should make it that way. I can see Jesus in these pages without being crucified with him. We can together watch God do amazing things and wrap it up in a blanket of “context” and never have to be challenged by the parts with which I disagree. I can read a commentary or two and get answers to the problems I have with the text and don’t have to actually wrestle with what the Spirit is trying to do inside of me, inside of us, and I can stand before God with a stupid look on my face and say, “Rabbi it is good that we are here, Let us build three shrines - one for you, one for Elijah, and one for Moses.” So that I don’t have to just watch God be God, because a true encounter with God will change me and I am absolutely terrified of that change.
“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”
Don’t you know, Peter, what’s going on here? Don’t you know that you’re dealing with your Lord? Do you really want to run off and try to get a little work done? “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”
Why are you talking when you could be listen to the very Son of God who has come here to save the whole world from itself? Why are you trying to build a shrine when you can watch the author of creation re-write your sinful reality into something that is whole again?
And Peter is silenced. He had not only seen that Jesus is indeed the Christ, but he has heard the LORD speaking to him and his terror is replaced with wonder.
Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. A season when we do not say Hallelujah, but sit in silence, remembering Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. Confessing our sins and waiting for an Assurance of Pardon that for those forty days is withheld. The transfiguration we witness today is when we are silenced with awe for what God has done in our lives, transforming us when we’d rather change the subject. This transfiguration changes everything, and “Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.”
A huge part of the Gospel is God bridging what separates us from God, and this story is an example of exactly that. Peter finds a way to distance himself from God under the guise of serving Jesus, and God refuses to be kept at bay. God will not be kept at a safe distance, whether we would do that by building shrines on a mountaintop, by hiding from our calling, by anticipating what might come next, or by cloaking the gospel with facts and figures. God strips us whatever it is we would put in God’s way and leaves us, on a mountaintop, with Jesus.
I’ve already said that my tendency is to keep God at arms length by thinking abstractly about God, and when I tend to really encounter God, it’s an emotional moment, not a thoughtful one. I’m not willing to make the leap that thinking about God is a bad thing, but only loving God with my mind is only giving me a very small piece of what God wants to be for me.
So like Peter, I find myself silenced in the presence of God.
Because when God reveals Godself, there’s a reason that the first thing said is “Do not be afraid.” When we hear the word of the Lord, it consumes us and wipes away all of the pretense and shrine-building we can throw at it. It leaves us with only our Lord, once we get out of our own way and allow ourselves to be in that moment rather than veiling it, we can be with God, and be filled with a wholeness that we cannot imagine. Because in that moment, all of our fear is swept away, replaced with the assurance that we are standing in the presence of God’s Son, whom God dearly loves.
Peter is silent after being given that command, as are the other disciples. They stand in the presence of the transfigured Jesus for an unknown length of time, participating in what God is doing in their lives, not anticipating what the needs of those before them will be. “Rabbi, it’s good that we are here.” But not for the reasons we think, it’s good that we are here because you have chosen to share yourself with us.
God has chosen to share himself with us, and it’s an intimate moment that should be kept private, not out of shame, but because moments when God silences us should be cherished. I think this is why Christ tells the disciples to keep their experiences to themselves until after his resurrection. I don’t think it’s any kind of Messianic secret, I think it’s a recognition that something amazing has happened, but that the moment has passed, and we cannot relive it or recreate it in any way that does it justice. We can only wait for the next time that God reveals herself to us, and do our best to take part in what is happening around us.
For now we’re headed off the mountain, and we’re preparing to walk out into the Wilderness on Wednesday. There will be a time for Hosannas and Hallelujahs, and there will be a time when we no longer think that we need to protect ourselves from our awesome God. There will be a time when we see our Lord’s transfiguration and know that we can see him not because he is different but because we ourselves have been transformed. There will be a time when all of creation hears the voice from heaven affirming that Christ is the Lord. There will be a time when God will enter every trembling heart and set them free from our own brokenness. There will be a time when even the stones will shout. But for now, we have to leave behind the things that hold us back, because God is doing something truly amazing in each of us. A work of redemption and re-creation that will, like the disciples on top of the mountain, leave us with nothing to say.
And I am confident that we have faith enough in our risen Lord to be silenced...
Because we know that God’s voice is worth listening for.