Earlier this week I wrote the pastoral letter for the newsletter, I know you haven’t seen it yet, but I wrote it in the midst of that lovely, unseasonably warm weather we were having. It was as if we were being given a glimpse of what’s to come, and sometimes we really need that glimpse, that promise, so we have something to hold onto when things get hard again. We all knew that the unseasonably warm weather wasn’t going to last. I have friends in warmer climes who were posting pictures of cherry trees in bloom, others sharing pictures from beachside vacations, but even if we had this moment of glory, we all knew that we had several more weeks of cold, of mud, of rain, not even the glittering, crystalline images of winter, but the muddy inbetween of not quite spring.
So as I began to struggle with this scripture and how it relates to us, to our time, to current events and how it might be calling us out, or offering reassurance when we most desperately need it, all of this came to mind. The disciples had only recently named Jesus as the messiah, to which he had responded, “you know, that means I’m going to die. Horribly.” Peter immediately said, no! it can’t be! Jesus rebukes him, ‘get behind me Satan.” A little harsh I think, but it did get the point across. Don’t tempt me. If you follow the story you know that Satan has already tempted Jesus with the whole, “be a winner! Make Jerusalem great again!” motif. You can be the next King David! You can have hundreds of wives, dance in the streets, never lose a battle. You can be a winner! Jesus denies him. And when Peter wants to offer the same, ‘but you can’t die, you’re a winner! You’re going to save us all! Restore the kingdom, make everything great again!” narrative, Jesus denies him too.
Poor Peter, it must have been so confusing! Jesus was, by all accounts, really charismatic and powerful, clearly a healer, certainly a leader, wiser than anyone who tries to trip him up, but then he says, “well, you know I’m going to die, like a criminal, totally abject, painful, shameful death.” Of course Peter and the other disciples, let’s not pick on Peter alone, were astonished at this statement. It was unbelievable.
So Jesus invites them on a hike. Just take a walk with me up this mountain. That should have been a warning sign, I suppose. Mountain tops have a reputation in Hebrew scripture; God seems to hang out there often. Perhaps the disciples should have had some awareness of what was to come, but who really is ready for dead men, missing men, or God to appear? Who is ready to see their beloved friend transform into someone glowing and holy?
Now this is one of those scriptures that people want to see as both metaphorical and historically true. We want to see Moses and Elijah showing up as metaphorical symbols of the law and the prophets brought together in Jesus Christ, as the living, Elijah never did die, he was taken to heaven in a flying chariot, and the dead, Moses died and was buried, brought together in Christ. And we want to believe that Jesus was literally transformed, glowing and bright, before the disciples in actual fact. That he ends this episode by telling them to “tell no one” as he often does, doesn’t make it easier for us to discern how much of what we hear and see in this scripture is actual or metaphorical. It is one of those texts that asks us, do you want the facts, or the truth? And we are reminded that the truth of God with us is larger and more fantastic than any literal story could ever contain. God with us, God of God, Very God, is just too amazing to understand. “No one can look upon God and live” but…here we see God, God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, God in the overshadowing cloud, God in the thundering voice. God is present and we and the disciples, live to tell the tale.
God, however, is always present, is always showing up in small and fleeting ways. We are called not only to see God when God manifests in glory, rippling, radiant robes, and shining face, but in all the small and passing ways. The worshipful song of a bird, lost in the trees overhead, the glistening ice coating the tree limbs stretched high above the plains, the dancing electric lines on the telephone poles, whipping back and forth, up and down, God is all around us and so often we miss it. We miss those subtle appearances but this one time, taking the disciples up the mountain God decides to make a big showing up, a great showing forth. And the disciples are appropriately stunned. They want to set up house and stay there, far away from the maddening crowd, from the sick and the needy, but God takes them back down the hill. God insists there be no setting up of permanent shelters, but sends them back into the fray.
God who loves us more than life itself, who gave up life, liberty all of that, for us, that we might live free, full and abundant lives, tells us we cannot stay on the mountain. Oh, we might need to see the mountain, to see the glory of God made large and manifest, because we are so very slow at seeing it in the light shining from the newborn baby calf’s eye, the glittering ice covering our electric lines, the wind whipping through the plains, the delicate destruction of moss or fungi recycling crude fixtures once again. Because we resist seeing God in the midst of all these natural processes and want to see God only in the glory of the moment, all shining and bright, full of glittering gold and power, but God, very God, comes to us in the fallen, the weak, the vulnerable, in the unfortunate and the untimely and it takes practice to see that. It’s not that we can’t, we can and we do, but it takes practice and faith to stop and see God there. Some part of us longs to see God triumphant, conquering, forcing God’s will, shape and form on the world! Ta-da! But God, very God, as we meet in Jesus, resists this temptation and insists on a more vulnerable, tender, and loving way. God, very God, refuses to force God’s self upon us or upon anyone or anything. And God triumphant, leading a chain of the conquered behind him as any conqueror would have done in ancient Roman times, simply refuses to show up.
God is not interested in conquering anyone or anything. God who might shine like love incarnate, more powerful and tender than we can begin to imagine, refuses to be the conquering hero. This moment, on the mountain, with God’s very glory exposed, is a tender moment, shattered by the crude and misunderstanding statements of one who just doesn’t get it, just like we fail to get it so often.
The glory of God shines all around us, tender and full of the most mighty transcendent power, and all too often we fail to get it, because we are looking for something else, someone else, that mighty conquering hero God who will put to shame all who have ever hurt us, and God sees the offer, and refuses it. God sees our invitation to be the conquering hero, to be the triumphant ruler, and refuses it. Yes, God can shine in glory and power. Yes, God is powerful and omniscient beyond our ability to understand, and no God does not use who and what God is over and against us but always for us and even those who have hurt us, who we see as our enemies.
Over the next few weeks as we make that walk towards Golgotha, Christ reminds us that there is more coming. That no matter how dark the valley we are walking through, there is another side. God shows up in so many ways to remind us that no matter how dark or difficult the times may be, there is a bright future ahead, a time of glory. We have this resurrection faith that insists that not even death will have the final word. God tells us that God is here in all the small things, in all of the small graces, seeping into our lives like sea water into the sand, firming everything up. Our invitation is find all those places where God is seeping into our lives, holding us together with love and kindness. May it be so.