Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
SERMON – “Nobody Puts Jesus in a Box!” (Notes from sermon preached at Hillside Christian Church on March 6, 2011)
In this morning’s lectionary text, we are presented with Matthew’s rendition of the Transfiguration. It’s an odd story, both in terms of what it paints for us and in the way that it ends as quickly as it begins.
Here’s a quick recap of the story:
Jesus takes Peter, James and John (his trusted three, or the three stooges, depending on the day) up a mountain. Jesus is turned inside out: the divine radiance inside of him bursts forth, captivating and frightening his trio of disciples. Moses and Elijah show up for a chat and Peter interrupts the three saviors to suggest that he build them each a dwelling, presumably so that they can stay on the mountain…indefinitely. God interrupts Peter with simple instructions: “This is my beloved son. LISTEN to him!” And then, when the fearful three look up from the dust, it’s simply Jesus standing with them on the mountain. Presto, chango… and back to normal. On the way back down the mountain, Jesus tells Peter and the two J’s not to talk about what happened, and they don’t. It’s not spoken of again throughout the rest of the gospel.
Now, there’s a LOT that we could talk about in this passage. It is filled with tidbits and examples of the big three aspects of scripture: human culture, human nature and the active presence of God. If we hit at the cultural side of things, we could spend hours talking about the importance of holy mountains in both the Bible and other religious texts, or we could talk about the link between this passage and the Jewish Festival of Booths. We could really dig into the presence of Moses and Elijah – and the reasons why each are considered saviors of the Jewish people. All are worthy topics.
But this morning, I’m most interested in the tension that exists between human nature and God’s activity and presence in the world.
Usually, when preachers talk about “human nature”, we’re pointing out huge sinful behaviors – the really radical stuff that is obviously at odds with the Kin-dom of God. There’s none of that nonsense going on in this morning’s text. Instead, we’ve got something different, something smaller – something that isn’t always a sin but is absolutely a part of the reality we call “human nature”.
In this morning’s text, we’ve got the desire to keep things where we can see them, the yearning for things to remain the same.
This time, the culprit is Peter. As you’ll recall, while radiant transfigured Jesus is chewing the fat with Moses and Elijah, Peter butts in and offers to build a dwelling for each of them, right there on top of the mountain.
It sounds like a thoughtful offer, albeit an odd one. I can almost hear Peter saying it: “Oh Shiny Ones, let me be of assistance! I’ll make a booth for each of you right here, to protect you from the elements. Time will no longer matter – you’ll be able to talk here as long as you like… forever, even! It will…”
But before Peter can finish his speech, God Most High cuts him off. Have you ever been interrupted by God? Usually when someone interrupts me, I get a little irritated…but when God cuts you off, you can’t help but be quiet. At least, that was the case for Peter. One moment he’s being oh so helpful, and the next, he’s face down in the dirt listening to God speak:
God politely ignores Peter’s suggestion to make “dwellings” for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Apparently, God also ignores the presence of Moses and Elijah. Instead, God gives Peter and the two J’s some pretty basic instructions: “Jesus is my son, my beloved. I’m pleased with him (he brings me pleasure). LISTEN TO HIM.” And then, just like that, God is “gone”.
With an incident like that, it’s reasonable to ask: what the heck is going on here?
This is what I see happening in the story: Jesus has just been transfigured. He’s been turned inside out so that his most trusted disciples can see all of him – the divine as well as the human. They’ve been given an opportunity to take him in, to steep in the totality of Jesus in all of his complexity – in all of his paradoxical nature (God and Human, all rolled into one)…but rather than being still so that it could sink in, Peter does what so many of us often do: he jumps into action and tries to contain the situation. Faced with something glorious but unexpected, he tries to put Jesus in a box – perhaps so that he can keep things from changing again.
In a way, it reminds me of the movie “Dirty Dancing”. There’s a character, “Baby”, who is on the right trajectory to live up to her father’s rigid expectations. She’s going to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or a member of the peace corps. But on holiday, something new is revealed about Baby. It turns out that she can dance. I mean, she can REALLY dance. But her father doesn’t want her to dance – sure, part of that has to do with his disapproval for the guy who’s been teaching/dating her – but the core issue is that daddy doesn’t want to see his daughter in a different light. In a way, Baby’s been transfigured – and she’s glorious. But her dad doesn’t want her to change any more than she already has. So puts a kabash on the whole thing, and sticks her in the corner at the final dinner and dance show of the summer. But Johnny (her teacher/boyfriend) won’t have it. He strides in, takes Baby by the hand and says that famous line: “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” And then Baby gets up on the stage and dances so beautifully that even her father is forced to admit that she is more than what he’d thought.
Back in our Matthew text, when the Creator interrupts Peter, it’s like God is saying “Nobody puts Jesus in the corner.” Or, in this case, nobody puts Jesus in a box.
Peter knew Jesus well – perhaps better than anyone else of the time. But even he didn’t know all of Jesus – even he couldn’t contain him with preconceived notions of who or what he should be. Yet, we fall into the trap so frequently. Conservatives, Liberals, Fundamentalists, Progressives…whatever labels we’ve applied to ourselves – sometimes we get so wrapped up in making Jesus fit in our “boxes” that we forget to listen to him.
No matter the issue (abortion, taxes, worship style, and so on), we want to be the ones who are right about Christ, and we want others to know he’s on our side of the argument.
At the end of the day, Jesus challenges each one of us, albeit in different ways. If we listen first and argue later, if we sit still and steep in his wholeness, we may end up so challenged and so moved that we also become transfigured. Heck, we might even forget to argue altogether.
As we move towards this year’s Lenten journey, let us open our eyes, ears, hearts and minds so that we can listen to Jesus – instead of forcing him into yet another box.