Friday, February 27, 2009

It's Lent-- Listen!

Scripture portions for the Last Sunday in Epiphany include II Kings 2:1-12; II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9.

Last Sunday, Tamara Adkins told us a spine-tingling story about getting lost in a tough neighborhood in Nairobi, a nineteen-year-old missionary on her own who took the wrong bus and got off only to find herself terrified. It was then that a little boy took her by the hand and guided her to the church where she had intended to go, pulling her for what seemed like hours through crowds and away from bad characters. At the church door, Tamara’s colleagues swarmed around her—and when she turned to thank the little boy, he was no longer there. She couldn’t prove to them her story. She couldn’t prove her claim to have been rescued by that child. Her presence was the only proof she could offer.

Today, Peter and James and John get proof. Proof that just days before, Peter was right when he answered Jesus’s question, “But who do you say that I am?” by responding, “You are the Messiah.”

Peter, James, and John see proof that he is. This whole adventure on the mountaintop is for the benefit of these three disciples, the inner core of the gang that can’t shoot straight, the ringleaders of the dirty dozen whom Jesus is slowly transfiguring into his apostolic team.

Notice how St. Mark relishes that luminous theme of extravagant privilege lavished on these three Galileans. It’s in the language of his story: Jesus leads this little trio apart, by themselves; he is changed before them; there appear unto them Elijah and Moses; the numinous cloud overshadows them.

Right from the start, we have a religion of divine presence where two or three are gathered in his name, a religion that announces the status of “beloved” to each person, one by one. And when from a flock of a hundred one strays and gets lost, the Good Shepherd of this religion leaves the ninety-nine secure ones to sing hymns and drink coffee while he searches the hillsides and ravines for the missing one who’s out there terrified by the coyotes.

Peter, James, and John are privileged with proof. Now the question is, What will they make of it? Jesus burns with his native phosphorescence, God catches divine breath and wonders, “Will they get it?” And do they? We’ll see…

“Mĕtamǒrphǒthē,” to change one’s form. That’s what gets translated “transfigured”. Meta-morphed (isn’t it intriguing how much Greek we know?), transformed from normal human appearance to a glory that belongs to his final and ultimate exaltation to heaven. A fast-forward for these disciples, a stunning glimpse of the final state of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

In this story we hear the belief of the earliest Christians that they too—we, too—will be clothed like this when he comes again in glory. A lovely example is at II Corinthians 3:17. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

And suddenly they are not alone. Contemporary Jewish belief held that certain prominent Old Testament worthies would appear at the end of this world and play a part in the culmination of history. Moses and Elijah are seen on this mountaintop, talking with Jesus. Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah, representing the Prophets, testify to Jesus being the Christ who fulfills both, and so is God’s agent for meta-morphing the whole of creation to fulfill the mind of its maker.

Moses and Elijah represent also the wild and freeing love of God that shows itself in God pitching his tent with his people. All those forty years in the wilderness, Moses led the Hebrew people, guided by Yahweh their Savior God who signaled his appearance by day in a cloud and by night in a pillar of fire. Elijah, as we heard in our first reading, was like lightning in the hand of God out in the country between Bethel and Jericho. Both men on this mountain with Jesus signal that what is soon to happen in the passion and resurrection of the Christ outshines, out-thrills, out-tingles the spine by comparison to the mighty deeds of God in times past.

Picture yourself in the shabby sandals of Peter, James, and John, fishermen. What kind of a day are you having?

Peter, old Rocky, proposes a modest building project. Now, I’ve thought before this that these three disciples were trying to capture the glory of the moment, enshrining what had just blown them away. That is a human tendency, isn’t it? Every town square and city center worldwide contain shrines, religious, civic, patriotic, sometimes very much about the egos and legacies of the builders and patrons.

But I have fresh evidence that it pays to read the commentary. When I did this week, I was reminded that each year, our Jewish friends and neighbors observe the Feast of Sukkoth, also known as the Feast of Booths, or the Feast of Tabernacles. One of three primary pilgrim festivals in the year, this one commemorates the foundational experience of ancient Israel: those forty years of wilderness wanderings when God pitched his tent with his people, when Moses set aside a sacred tent to house the ark of the covenant and to be a meeting-place with Yahweh. Jews build booths or huts to represent those temporary dwellings, and camp-out in them for the three days of Sukkoth, entertain in them, relive in them the wild freeing love of God.

Peter, James, and John offer to build three booths, three Sukkoth huts, their hands-on awkward but sincere attempt to say, “We get it! At least part of it…

Now see what happens next. A cloud overshadows them. Catch what this represents: A numinous cloud moving in over a mountaintop. Yes, the cloud cinches the story.

I believe we have to hear a mighty celestial cough, a clearing of the divine throat. “AHEM. Now hear this: You have my Son, the Beloved. Getting just part of this epiphany isn’t enough! Get it all: Listen to him! He is my dwelling place so that I may dwell in you…”

And suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

Only Jesus.

Set on the path of his most creative engagements with the sufferings of his people and his time, opening onto his own full and final offering of himself. And Peter, James, John, and the rest of their circle, ever-widening over the centuries to include you and me, must learn from him how to engage the sufferings of this present time in such a way that they shall not be worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

It sounds to me as if we’re being invited into Lent.

Don’t be in a rush to build Lenten disciplines. Prefer time with only Jesus. Listen to him, and put yourself and invest your time where you can do your best listening.