Let Me Build You Shelter
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 10, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 9: 28-36
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
So there are only a few days where the paraments and my stole are white. White marks the high holy days of the church calendar. The Christmas season is white. Likewise the Easter season is white. Then there are a few less known holy days sprinkled through the year. This morning is one of those. It is Transfiguration Sunday, which marks the Sunday right before the beginning of Lent. This Wednesday we'll get together and begin the season of Lent with a special Ash Wednesday service, following our soup night, come for both 6:30, and then 7:30. Just to give it another plug. Transfiguration is not one of the holy days we look forward to or think about when we are planning the church year. It's not high on our list, for whatever reason. Possibly the reason is that the story is kind of mysterious, and for that reason intimidating. It's hard to get at. It's kind of strange. Let's take the place of the disciples for a second.
If we look at the rest of the chapter heading towards this moment. The disciples have had a whirlwind of experience. I know you could say that for almost every chapter of the gospels. But in this chapter they go out on their own for the first time. They go out and travel to the different villages and "bring good news and cure diseases everywhere." Then they come back to Jesus reporting back, and then they balk at feeding the five thousand because they think for some reason that five loaves and two fishes is nowhere near enough to feed that multitude. Then also in this Chapter Peter makes his big declaration, claiming that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. Then Jesus tells the disciples about his future death and resurrection. And that brings us up to our reading for this morning, the Transfiguration story, which we celebrate this morning. This story is the center piece of the chapter because after it the whirlwind continues, with the disciples failing to heal a demoniac because of their "little faith" and they close it all out with an argument over which of them is the greatest. This isn't the best chapter in Luke's gospel for the performance of the disciples. It seems like the achieve alot, but each time the follow up their achievement, for lack of a better term with something that shows that they are hopelessly clueless.
I understand where they are coming from. As miraculous as the healings and the mass feedings are, as intense as coming to the knowledge of, who Christ is, and what his mission will be, would be for them, none of that compares with the strange details of this story. So some time goes by, and Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain to pray. Then all of a sudden, while he is praying, his face changes, and his clothes turn white. Dazzling white, the NRSV calls it. The Greek word for it is the same used to describe the color of lightning, so it's not the kind of white that reflects light, but the kind that produces light. Here is one of the places where I wish there was more detail. I'm glad to hear about the whiteness of the white, but wouldn't you like to hear more about how Jesus' face changed? How did his face change? What about it changed? The NRSV says the "appearance" changed, and again something is lost in translation, the Greek word is often translated as "form" or "shape" or "figure." I guess that's more clear than appearance, but still really vague.
It's from this we get the idea of transfiguring, which I found in my studies this week is a word that exists only from this story. Typically in English when we use transform or metamorphosis, rather than transfigure. The only other place the word is used is somewhat new to culture with the coming of JK Rowling's Harry Potter franchise. It seems that at Hogwarts, all the students need to take "Transfiguration" where they work on spell that change the shape of things, for instance changing a pen into a cup, or the like.
But still it's very vague, and the vagueness seems to add to the mystery, as if that were needed, because it only gets weirder as we continue. The next thing you know Jesus, Peter, James, and John aren't alone. All of a sudden they saw "two men, Moses and Elijah talking to him." Again the details are vague. Here wouldn't you like some dialogue? Wouldn't you like a better account of what Moses, Jesus, and Elijah were saying? Something, some banter between old friends, something. You know like Moses saying, "Hey nice mountain, it's alot easier to suddenly appear, climbing Sinai was tough, and by the way good job bringing your disciples with you, you never know what trouble they are going to get in while your away." Jesus saying, "Yeah tell me about it." Then Elijah piping in again and again always telling Jesus to speak up. . . ha ha ha, (pretty proud of that one). . . You see Elijah is the one listening for God and only getting the still small voice. . . But seriously, don't you think what they said would be important? Inquiring minds want to know. All we get is, "they were speaking about his departure, that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem." So basically all we get is that they are in on the plan. They are in the know. There is some connection from the New and Old Testament after all.
Can you imagine what this would be like for the disciples. All of these parallels fall short, but maybe it was like what I felt like when I was a the final game at Memorial Stadium, and they brought back all the old Orioles one by one. Or maybe it would be like going to see a concert, like Michael Buble, and then out walks Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Dean Martin. Something like that maybe, but not even close, because this is Christ, whom you've dedicated your life to following surrounded by the two biggest prophets from the Old Testament, and the amazing thing is you get the idea that the disciples could barely stay up for it all. They are "weighed down with sleep" but "since they had stayed up, they got to see his glory." Since they stayed up, it makes it seem like it's New Years, and your struggling through to midnight to see the anticlimactic ball drop. I mean come on this is the huge. Moses, Elijah, Jesus! This is the biggest summit of Biblical figures. How about a little bit more enthusiasm from the disciples here, barely staying up, and all we get in description, is a few lines, and only a brief summary of their discussion about Jesus and his departure in Jerusalem.
Hmmm, departure. . . Is that the word you would use to describe what Jesus does in Jerusalem, entering on a Colt, turning the tables on the temple, sharing a last meal with his disciples, being betrayed, arrested, tried, flogged, paraded through town, carrying a cross, crown of thorns on head, nailed to the cross, pierced in the side, death, resurrection on the third day. That truly is some "departure." Calling that a departure is like calling the parting of the Red Sea a wave, calling Noah's Ark a canoe, calling Daniel in the lion's den a cat encounter. Departure, really?
Then I looked it up. You know what the Greek word translated here so weakly as departure is, "Exodus." Now you're talking. Now we've got something here. Now it's all coming together. Yes, Exodus, man bring it home Greek language. Yes that is what Jesus does at Jerusalem. He doesn't just leave, doesn't just depart. He sets free. He leads us out of bondage. He sets the captives free. He lets his people go. He triumphs over those whose hearts have been hardened. Leading the way to the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey, he becomes himself the way, salvation. One of the big important pieces of this story is that we get another really important look at who Jesus is, what exactly he is going to do, and the tradition that Jesus is a part of. Saying here I am, God, setting people free from bondage, again. It is who I am. It is what I do.
This again is Revelation, reflected in the light shining, important aspects of who Jesus is are come to life here on this mountain, and it seems like so many times before and since, human beings can't comprehend what is going on. Not only can they barely keep themselves await, but then Peter pipes up, "Master it is good that we were here." Just what does he mean by this? You can almost see Jesus being hopeful, that Peter gets it. As a teacher, I feel this way all the time. You've just made a great illustration, you think that there is no way they kids could have missed it, and then one raises his hand, and says, "Yeah Mr. Atkinson, that is like. . . " And crestfallen, you come to the realization again that they just really have no clue. Or maybe how I was a minute ago about my Elijah, still, small voice joke. . . So Jesus is hopeful, thinking to himself, yes it is important and good that you were here Peter, hello, that's why I brought you. . .. Maybe he gets it. He is the one who got the last question right anyway. Then Peter says, are you ready for it, "let's build you each a dwelling." Let me build you a shelter. . . And Jesus' face falls, then the cloud appears. Cloud covering the light. . .symbolic. . . yeah I think so.
Why does Peter want to build for them dwellings, shelter. The Greek word again adds some depth to our understanding because the word is the word used for Tabernacle. Hmmm, tabernacle, just like the one the Israelites had in the desert, wandering for forty years. Now, let's think about this for a second. There are two possibilities here, I think, well maybe three, the extra one being that Peter is clueless and not making sense. But the other two are:
1. Peter wants to show off his knowledge of the story. He's heard the word Exodus, he's seen Moses and Elijah, and he's like, okay I'll show them all that I know what's going on. "Hey Jesus it's good that I was here, let's build you all a tabernacle right, right, get it (wink)." Oh I know that student too, the one who knows just enough to get into trouble by trying to sound like he knows it all. It's certainly not out of character. As I said later in the chapter the disciples are posturing over who is the greatest. Why wouldn't that posturing be going on here too? Maybe. .
2. But more likely Peter is falling into the trap that so many of us fall into, and is often familiar in the Bible narrative. We've got some new information, we've got some new knowledge about God, and we want to protect it. We want to protect God. We want to be the one who does it. Look at the Prayer of Preparation. Peter is not the first to want to build a shelter for God. David in 2 Samuel 7, "
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”
Why do we do that? Why do we think we need to protect God, here from the elements, but sometimes it is more, sometimes it's from doubt or secularism or being forgotten? I don't think it comes from any malice. It's just misguided benevolence, blind to the prideful error of it, inherent in human beings it seems. The problem isn't the deed, it's the motivation, and perhaps the motivation is hidden from us because it is so natural to us, so natural to the way we are and the way we see the world and ourselves. What does it mean to be the protector of God, the one who builds the house for God to live in? It's a place of greatness, isn't it, a place of control.
Let me illustrate what I mean. This week in class, we've been reading Medieval Literature in class and every year I show my students the movie Tristan and Isolde because the movie really brings to life for them some of the themes of Medieval Literature in a way they can understand. The loyalty and betrayal of some of the other stories that we read, that they miss, upon seeing it on the big screen begins to make sense. So in that movie, if you aren't familiar with the Tristan and Isolde legend, is a story of star crossed lovers. A young British Knight, Tristan, is thought to be dead and sent across the waves on his floating funeral pyre and finds his way to Ireland, where he is found by the Irish princess and nursed back to health. They fall in love, but know that their love cannot be since Britain and Ireland are at war. He doesn't know she is the princess, she tells him that she is a maid at court. So when the Irish King offers her as the prize at a tournament to divide the British Barons, Tristan wins the tournament, but not for himself, for his Lord, the King of Cornwall, Mark. Mark then marries Isolde and Tristan's loyalty is challenged. Mark doesn't know about all of it, and he is a little self conscious because of Isolde's youth and beauty, and the fact that Mark is missing his hand, having lost it saving Tristan's life when Tristan was just a boy. The loyalty again is important. Mark says to her, "I will do anything to make you happy, what can I do to make you happy?" The irony is that the only thing that would make her happy is something that Mark probably would not do. He doesn't really want her to be happy, he wants her to love him, and he thinks if he can make her happy she will.
Do you see the connection to Peter? He doesn't want to build a shelter for them because he wants them protected, but that he wants to be the one doing it, to show his devotion and prove his worth, so that he can be the one who does it. "Peter did not know what he had said." Just like David, feeling guilty for living in a palace while God lives in a tent. Do you think that any palace you could build, David would be nice enough for God? Really? How arrogant. . . but arrogance born from a real sense of insecurity. Like Mark wanting to earn the love of Isolde, so too is Peter trying to position himself as worthy. The shame of it is this is the way we love, (and if you don't think so watch the Valentine's commercials this week, "Every Kiss begins with Kay" comes to mind), this is the way that fallen human beings love, looking to control and earn and own, and this type of love is toxic because it leads to broken relationships, hatred, and resentment. It plagues the Israelites in the Desert, it plagues the future of David's Kingdom, it plagues the disciples, and it plagues the church throughout its history. We do not need to protect God, we do not need to Shelter God, we do not need to put God in a box, we do not need to sell God, we do not need to do anything, but love God and serve his people, not because we want to be great or worthy, but because we are us, created beloved children. Jesus will teach us about this type of love, the real kind, the kind on which our world was and is made.
God comes in a cloud as if to remind Peter and the rest of us, "This is my son, my chosen, listen to him!" Listen to him! Listen to his words and listen to his deeds because he will show you what love is. So they go down the mountain, and there is a crowd and a boy possessed by a demon, but none of the disciples could cast it out. Jesus says, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?" Good Question.
So we enter Lent this week. The time where people give things up in memory of the fast of Christ in the desert. Let us seek to give up during this Lenten Season our need to earn God's favor, let us give up our old understanding of love, and let us then seek to focus daily ways to serve God, and Christ his beloved Son, not based on our own needs, but on where we hear him call. . . for God calls out to us to "Listen!" For listening is needed to get outside of ourselves. And Christ calls out from the cross, showing us that love is selfless, that love is sacrificial, that love is not about owning and controlling, but in giving up all, even unto your very last breath for the other. Oh so very hard. Loving God give us the grace. May it be so!
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 9:28-36). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.