Looking for God in All the Wrong Places
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 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.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved;listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
The season of epiphany marks a new way to understand Jesus. Jesus has been trying to explain the nature of his Messiahship but it was so far outside his disciples expectations that they struggled throughout the gospels to grasp what Jesus meant. In the previous chapter Jesus has asked the disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter famously declares that Jesus is the Messiah. He is different from Elijah, John the Baptist or the prophets; he is the chosen one. Jesus commands him to keep quiet. (It is too soon for Jesus to be publicly announced. It is like trying to tell someone what it is like to be married. Your comments are only understood after the fact—-”Oh, that’s what he meant.”.) Unfortunately, two sentences later, it turned out that Peter was using the right words but he had no conception of what Jesus was trying to teach. It must have been frustrating to Jesus to have spent this long teaching his disciples only to discover that they were stuck on ‘human’ things rather than ‘divine’ things. Even when Jesus had explicitly told the disciples that the messiah must suffer, Peter rejected the concept. The savior was supposed to relieve brokenness and suffering—not experience it.
So in today’s scripture, Jesus tries another way to reveal himself to his disciples. It was important that they see him for who he was. Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a high place where strange things begin to happen. The way the disciples saw Jesus was changed. Jesus did not change but how he was seen was. He was transfigured. Standing in blazing white, Jesus is joined by the pillars of the Hebrew church, Moses and Elijah. Jesus belongs to that august company. That changes the ball game. Now instead of a good quarterback, you learn he is a ringer. Jesus belonged to the Hall of Fame and he was hanging out with the disciples—a pick-up team from the neighborhood. Who knew?
The experience terrified the disciples. Peter wanted to freeze time. He wanted to memorialize the event. He wanted to put new wine in old wineskins. But Jesus did not bring them up the mountain to be memorialized. Jesus wanted the disciples to grasp the radically new concept of messiah. Jesus belonged to a past and he belonged to a tradition but he was moving on. He was bringing something new. Jesus’ Good News was not understood even in that dramatic moment. That is when a cloud forms, and God himself announces: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” But, alas, even after all of this the disciples still do not grasp Jesus’ essential message. In the very next chapter we read: “ he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
In real life, there are many things we cannot truly understand until we’ve seen it or lived it. Who of us could know what it means to be married or to raise children. We might be well read, we might have sought counsel from other people but until you’ve lived with a spouse or parented a child yourself, it is hard to believe the task ahead of time. In the end Jesus’ truth was so counter cultural that teaching, argument, various miracles and God’s own voice could not penetrate the disciples earthly thinking. They were looking for God in all the wrong places. Only after the resurrection when they experienced the risen Lord, and even then, very slowly, did the disciples begin to understand.
We, of course, have the same problem. Peter and the disciples looked for a Messiah who would make their lives better—and Jesus did a lot of that. They wanted healing, freedom from oppression and justice. They wanted blessings, prosperity and a “good life”. Who doesn’t? They looked for God when good things happened and complained about God when “bad” things happened. The Messiah was supposed to fix all of that. So when Jesus healed, cast our demons, welcomed the marginalized, the easy jump is to say—that is where God is. And she is. But there is another half of ordinary life that includes inequity, disregard, loneliness, loss, depression and suffering. Where is the face of God in those circumstances?
It is fairly common to speak of experiencing God on the mountain top. In fact, though few of us have actually had such experiences, implicity, they are the gold standard of epiphanies. But in real life, epiphanies emerged from very different circumstances. Several spoke of periods in their life in which they had no interest in God. Some spoke of times of loss, fear, anger and anxiety, and the slow discovery that God was still with them. Where is the face of God when we are suffering? Where is the face of God when we are lost and uncertain? It is hard to believe that God can be present in the aspects of life that bring so much pain. Seeing the face of God in the whole of life is to see the Holy God that Jesus manifested in the world. Jesus demonstrated the Holiness of the Ordinary. Only when the disciples could see God in their hiking companion could they begin to see where they might find God.
Jesus went up the mountain as a wise and trusted Rabbi. Suddenly the disciples saw him as the Son of God. No sooner than they did so, they went down the mountain with a wise and trusted Rabbi. Only now, they also knew he was holy. They still could not grasp how fully the holy penetrated and included every aspect of life. Jesus continued to be frustrated by their inability to understand. Much later they could more fully understand. But a new seed, a new vision, had been created. . Instead of only looking up for God, the disciples could look across the table. The same is true for us. Instead of only embracing the part of life that we like, Jesus embraced all of life. That means there is hope for each of us.
We need to remember the places where we have begun to learn of how God is present. We often call them mountain top experiences but they can occur in any part of our life. When we yearn for the face of God, look to the ordinary. Notice that we ‘backslide’, God is at both ends of the slide. When we lament, notice the ordinary (holy) people who lament with us. When we wonder how God can be present in the midst of false accusation, look to the cross. The transfiguration sets the stage for our Lenten journey. It creates new ways to think about and experience God’s presence.
I believe that is what the disciples were beginning to grasp on that mountain. The same itinerant Rabbi who led them up the mountain led them down. In between, they had an epiphany—a sudden revelation of the divine. The moment they grasped that, everything looked the same—but everything was different. They had the memory and the experience of the holiness of the ordinary. Instead of only looking up for God, the disciples could look across the table. And the same is true for us. Jesus embraced all of life. That means there is hope for each of us. Jesus did not change. How the disciples saw him did. They had been looking for God in all the wrong places.
I will close with a word to the children I offered in another church in another time. When the children gathered, I placed a star on each of their foreheads. I ask them if they felt any different. They said no. Then I told them to look at each other and notice they were all stars. We are all wholly precious and holy in God’s eyes. We often are unable to imagine such grace for ourselves. But we need to treat ourselves and each other the way God sees us. When that happens, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. That’s what Jesus and his disciples lived when they went back down the mountain. And that is the journey we begin again on Ash Wednesday.
We need to trust that God sees us differently. We need to seek to see as God sees. We need to look for God across tables, across aisles and across borders. That is where we find the face of God. Let it be so.