SCRIPTURE – Mark 9:2-10 – After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
Glimpses of God
Feb. 19, 2012
I was a very inquisitive young lad growing up. I had this thirst for knowledge which was so strong that it could be annoying. I remember one time when my mom, stepfather, and I were driving around Washington D.C., I peppered him with all kinds of questions about the monuments and presidents and American history. Finally, he turned around and shouted, “Do you do anything besides ask questions?” And I said, “What’s wrong with questions?” At which point he jumped from the moving car.
This natural curiosity is probably what led me into my first career of journalism. I had questions, I wanted answers, and I expected that every question had an answer. Journalism was fulfilling for me because I was getting paid to ask questions and to search until I find the answers. That’s about the time I started getting seriously involved in church, and a whole new realm of question-asking was opened up to me, especially when it came to the Bible. Here were all these wonderful stories and characters and teachings, and they were just waiting to be studied and analyzed and questioned. I assumed the answers to all my questions about faith were in there, just waiting to be discovered.
That’s one of the things I enjoy most about preaching. I love taking a biblical passage and diving into it, swimming around in the context and the metaphors and the author’s mindset. And most of the Bible lends itself to this kind of investigation, which is called exegesis. I love exegeting a passage and then sharing the results with you in the sermon. I enjoy exploring the background and the meaning of the original languages and seeing what emerges from that process. Sometimes I even feel like I understand it!
But then, there are other passages in the Bible that drive the journalist in me crazy, because there are no answers to be discovered, and trying to perform exegesis is like trying to dig a hole to China with a plastic spoon. These passages teach me that not every word in scripture exists to provide an answer. I once spend a year leading a Bible study on the book of Revelation, and nothing will cure you of your desire to understand the Bible faster than studying Revelation! Our motto in that group was, “Ultimately, we just don’t know.”
Today’s scripture is one of those perplexing passages. It is a story that is meant to be experienced, not picked apart. We are witnessing worship, and worship is simply a time to be still in the presence of God, not critique and analyze. But the journalist in me has trouble with that. I’m not good with scriptures that don’t provide answers. I want to pin this down and put it under a microscope, capture whatever truth is has for me, not let this moment pass before I extract something useful from it. What does it mean that Jesus was transfigured? What really happened up on that mountain?
In that respects, I’m a lot like Peter. Thank God for Peter! Peter gives me someone in the Bible to whom I can really relate, because Peter’s faith is almost as mercurial and as imperfect as mine. Peter must have been a journalist at some point in his life, because he also has a strong curiosity. Remember, he’s the one who ventured out of the boat and tried to walk on water to meet Jesus. On this mountain top, an extraordinary event was unfolding, and Peter, who was the vice president in charge of doing something, had to do something. Peter is never at a loss for words, and even when he is at a loss for words, that doesn’t stop him from saying something.
Upon seeing the transfiguration and the appearance of Elijah and Moses, a spectacular sight which would render most people speechless, Peter pipes up and says, “It is good for us to be here. So let’s capture the moment by building some dwellings so we can stay here a little while longer.” Although Peter’s words feel like an interruption to this holy moment, I can’t say that I blame him. After all, Jesus has been predicting his death, and this will end up being the last trip up the mountain before Jesus and the disciples start their descent to Jerusalem. The next mountain they will climb will be Golgotha, so Peter wants to make this moment last as long as possible.
James and John and Peter are about to get a glimpse of something extraordinary. They’re going to get a sneak peek at the end of the book, where Jesus will be revealed in all his glory. In the Celtic tradition, these moments are called the “thin places,” experiences in which the veil between heaven and earth is made see-through for just a moment. In the Hebrew Scriptures it’s called the Shekinah, the radiance of God shining through into this dark world. I think about my wedding day, the birth of my children, the day of my ordination, my grandfather’s funeral. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that in this life we see God as if we are seeing through a glass dimly. Thin places are moments when God takes out the Windex, and for just a fleeting moment we see the world as God created it to be. These are divine moments, they are moments that defy classification or description, and they are simply breath-taking. And we don’t want to let them go.
Based on that knowledge, I think Peter’s response is perfectly human in both its eagerness and in its bone-headedness. Peter sees Jesus, Moses, and Elijah before him and says, “Wow, this is great! I’ve got an idea. Let’s capture the moment.” There’s a scene in the sitcom “Modern Family” where the very type-A personality Claire is trying to get her whole family together for a picture. They’re all dressed in matching white shirts and Claire has organized the picture down to every lock of hair and hand placement. But as each picture is taken, inevitably somebody is blinking, or looking the wrong way, or putting up bunny ears over someone else. Finally, Claire gives up her efforts to control things, the family starts slinging mud on their white shirts, and they end up with a messy, funny, fully authentic family photo. Like Claire, Peter tries to control and organize this holy moment, but God’s voice doesn’t come out of the cloud and say, “You all go stand by that tree so I can take your picture.” The voice says, “Listen to him!” In other words, don’t worry so much about preserving the moment that you miss the moment.
We all do this, don’t we? Our technological age invites this kind of behavior. Leigh and I honeymooned in Florida, and one day we went to the Universal Studios theme park. They had this great new ride there based on the Terminator movies. We stood in line for about an hour, and while waiting, I decided I wanted to videotape the entire ride so that we would remember it. So when we got into place I started the video camera and filmed the entire thing. And now, when I watch that videotape, do you know what I remember? I remember videotaping the ride, but I don’t remember the ride itself.
Like Peter, I wonder if we don’t get so concerned about keeping the moment from passing that we pass the moment. The story of the Transfiguration is meant to be enjoyed, to be wondered about, to be relished with delight rather than picked apart and meticulously interpreted. That same goes for all the precious moments in our lives where God breaks into the mundane and gives us a glimpse of the holy. I wrote about one of those moments in my newsletter column this week, a hospital visit I had with an elderly lady. Where have you seen God in your own lives? What are some thin places you have experienced?
What I’m encouraging is something that I myself have difficulty with: the acceptance and appreciation of the mysteries of life. Christianity is a revealed religion. We learn by what is revealed to us, not by what we think up or discover on our own. That’s what the voice from the cloud tells us: “This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him!” There are times in life where it’s appropriate to ask questions, but then there are other times, transcendent moments that defy explanation, when what we need to do is to listen to what God is saying to us through this experience.
I’m not denouncing the asking of questions and the seeking of explanations, but sometimes the limits of our human intellect demand that we stop seeking answers and instead honor the sacredness of the moment before us, abide in the thin place, bask in the Shekinah. Every once in awhile we are blessed to experience a moment, whether joyous or tragic, that is so God-filled that all we can do is simply be there. And I bet there are more of them than we think, if we have the eyes to see them. Because once we’ve been up the mountain, once we’ve experienced this kind of moment, we won’t come down the same. We begin to see glimpses of God everywhere. They may not be much; they may feel fleeting.
But those holy moments in God’s presence are enough to carry us through the valleys we have yet to walk.
We’re about to walk through one of those valleys, a period of time called Lent, when we take a step back and examine our lives. In doing so, we are made aware once again of our utter humanness, our glaring brokenness, and our desperate need for a Savior. As we prepare to start Lent on this coming Wednesday, let us take this sacred moment that God has given us simply to be in God’s presence.
Here’s my hope for us: Don’t work so hard to preserve the moment that you miss the moment, whether it’s with God or your family or in the act of worship. I believe there are moments all around us where God is being revealed to us, through grandmothers and grandchildren, through sunsets and snowfalls, through songs and prayers and scripture, through the simple act of breaking bread and pouring the cup. Please don’t miss them. Lord, it is good for us to be here! Stop, listen, enjoy, and give thanks.