Exodus 24:12-18 | Psalm 2 | 2 Peter 1:16-21 | Matthew 17:1-9
You are walking…up a mountain…with Jesus.
He’s ahead of you. The heal of his left sandal is almost worn through. His feet are caked in mud and filth from walking throughout Galilee, into Phoenicia, Decapolis, and Caesarea Philippi, and then back to Galilee. The edges of his cloak are frayed. His dark skin is even darker from the dirt and campfire smoke that’s collected on it over the past few days or weeks, you’ve lost count of how many days it’s been since you slept in a warm bed.
But you do know how many days it’s been since that conversation. It’s been six days since Jesus asked you who people said he was, and then he asked you who you thought he was. When he asked you, you didn’t even think, if you had you wouldn’t have said it, but the words just burst out of you: “You are the Christ! The Son of the Living God!” The other disciples couldn’t believe you’d said it out loud, even though they’d all been thinking it for some time now.
And then he looked at you and you knew it was true, and he said those wonderful words, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
But then, almost immediately, he started talking nonsense. He started saying that he was going to be killed and then raised from the dead. You tried to talk some sense into him. To be honest, you started to wonder if maybe you’d spoken too soon. Maybe he wasn’t the Messiah. How could he be? Either he is, and he won’t die. Or he isn’t and then he might die. But he couldn’t be the Messiah and die. “God forbid it, Lord!” You had said, “This must never happen to you.”
His response still haunts you. “Get behind me, Satan!” He called you Satan.
But that was six days ago.
Now you are walking up a mountain with Jesus, and James and John. You can tell something special is about to happen. You could read it on His face. Good things happen on mountains. Mountains are the border between heaven and earth. You can’t help thinking of the stories you’ve known since you were a child, for as long as you can remember. You know them so well they’re a part of you.
You can’t help but think of Moses, ascending the mountain to receive the law, where he met God in a cloud and spent 40 days on the mountain. You can’t help thinking of the second time he met God on the mountain and the glory of the LORD was transferred to him, so that his face shown when he returned. Is that where you’re going now? Will you meet God on the mountain?
But then you look at Jesus again, with his tattered clothes, his worn out sandals. You can smell his scent. He smells like any other human. Sometimes he smells worse. And you doubt once more. Is this really the Messiah? Were you right 6 days ago?
You’ve been in your own head so much, you hardly realized that you’ve reached the top of the mountain. You begin to look around. Where’s God? Where’s the cloud? Everything looks the same. Then you catch sight of Jesus again, and he’s…changing.
It’s him, but he’s beginning to glow. His face is getting brighter and brighter. You can’t even look at it anymore. It’s like staring into the sun. Is this what Moses’ face looked like? It’s not so wonderful in real life. It’s…terrifying. You look down at his garments, the ones that were torn and dirty. Now they’re dazzling. Even they are difficult to look at, though not near so bright as his face.
You look to the left of Jesus, maybe you can glimpse him through your periphery, but your eyes lock onto something – someone – who wasn’t there before. You know who it is beyond a shadow of a doubt. You don’t know how you know, but you know – it’s Moses. And you look to the right of Jesus, and in the same way you knew it was Moses on the left, you know that Elijah is to the right. Jesus is talking with them, but the language is other-worldly, like this whole experience, you can’t make out what they’re saying.
And then you realize. This is it. This is the kingdom Jesus talked about 6 days ago. You almost forgot, you were so upset by him talking about his death (now a distant memory, an impossibility), and calling you Satan, you forgot that he ended that bizarre conversation with the statement: “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” This is that moment. Jesus’ kingdom – God’s kingdom – has come to earth. It’s here to stay. This is the day all of Israel has hoped for. The end of trouble and sorrow and sickness. The end of Roman occupation, the end of war and violence. There will be no more death. Death will be a thing of the past.
All your doubts are waylaid. This is God. This is who you’d secretly hoped Jesus would be. This is the God you want, not the one who 6 days ago said he was going to die.
And you think to yourself, “I never want to leave this place.” Let’s stay here! Let’s build a city on the mountain top. Let’s create a home for Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah to live. Let’s contain them, and we’ll live with them. We’ll get used to this bright light. We’ll begin to shine like Moses! Forget the world below.
And once again, as is your habit, you speak without a second thought. The words burst forth once more, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But before the words are out of your mouth you’re enveloped in a cloud, and you hear a voice you’ve heard before, terrifying as it was the first time, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The thunder of that voice rattles you to your core. You drop to the ground. You see James and John, just silhouettes in the cloud, fall as well.
You close your eyes tight.
There is nothing but silence. You hear nothing. You keep your eyes closed and see nothing.
And then…there is a touch. Soft, gentle. And you hear the old, familiar voice of Jesus, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
You look up at him, the one who was transfigured before your very eyes only moments ago. He has bent down and is looking at you with kindness. He’s back to the way he was. His skin is dirty, his clothes are frayed. Those sandals so worn and ugly. “It’s time to go back down,” he says.
If you could find your voice, if you were brave enough, you’d scream in his face. “No! No! No!” You’d throw a tantrum. “This can’t be. Please let us stay up here. Call them back! Call Moses and Elijah back! Change back! I don’t want this Jesus, with his calloused hands and his worn out sandals. I want the Jesus who shines so bright I can’t look at him. I want to stay in the cloud. Don’t send us back down the mountainside. Do you remember what happened to Moses? Aaron had created a golden calf while he was gone. Don’t send us back down, where we’ll find an innocent boy possessed by a demon, and we’ll see the other disciples failing to cast it out. Don’t send us back to that place where the demonic is so clearly winning. Don’t send us back to the place where death still reigns.
“I saw you! You changed. It was here. The kingdom was here. Why are we going back down the mountain?”
You can see in Jesus’ eyes that he knows your thoughts. You’ve seen that look so many times before. But he doesn’t say anything. He simply smiles and lifts himself up, and begins taking steps, one after the other in those worn out sandals, down the mountain.
As you follow him, you are filled with grief. And, as if to compound that grief, Jesus says, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” This is too much too take. The mountain top is behind you, and Jesus is once more speaking of his death. What happened? What was that all about? What was the point?
A thought keeps troubling you, though, as you walk: the words of the Parent. The words you heard today, on the mountain, in the cloud, were almost word-for-word the same as the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”
That means that the Jesus who you see walking ahead of you, the one who was baptized by John, is the same one who shone like the sun only moments ago. The one who was immersed in the cloud was the same one who was immersed in the waters of the Jordan. The one who was plunged to the depths is the same one who was transfigured on the mountain top. The one with the frayed clothes is the same one whose garments dazzled. Both are Jesus. Both are God’s Son, the Beloved.
You begin to realize that Jesus did not change on the mountain top in the sense that he became something other than what he already was. Instead, it was as if a veil was pulled back for a moment. The Jesus who eats and drinks with you, and falls asleep in your fishing boat is the same Jesus who shines like the sun. He is not either/or. He is both.
You realize that Jesus has been and always will be both. He will continue to be the one who you can know and who will know you. One who will come to you in your moment of fear, will reach out and touch you, and say “Do not be afraid,” but he will also always be one who is utterly unknowable, incomprehensible, the one you can’t even look at. He will be the one on the cross, and he will be the one who rose on the third day. Both. Never either/or. And both are the beloved Son of God.
How we understand Jesus, who we make him out to be in our mind, will always be a challenge. We are constantly torn between the human Jesus and the transcendent Christ. We usually find ourselves falling more strongly on one side or the other, both have their appeal.
The human Jesus, the one with worn in sandals and frayed clothing, roots our faith and our God in history. It informs how we inhabit this world. The particularity of the person Jesus is a constant challenge to those who would prefer a spiritual savior over a Palestinian Jew who was born poor and illegitimate, became a refugee, disrupted political and religious institutions, and was eventually killed as an enemy of the state. The human Jesus demands that we take humans seriously, that we see the crucified one in the crucified of today – those who are unjustly killed, imprisoned, or persecuted.
At the same time, the human Jesus is limited on his own. The human Jesus’ particularity makes it seem as if he is bound by time more than that he chose to enter time. It makes it seem like maybe there was a time when he was not, instead of him being with God in the beginning – that he was the very agent of creation. The human Jesus can only speak to us as an example, a historical teacher with some very good lessons, but nothing more.
We need the Christ. The one who was with God and was God. According to Colossians, the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…[in whom] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created in him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” We need this Christ.
There are problems with only accepting “the Christ” without the human Jesus, as well, though. If we reduce Jesus to simply the Christ of the transfiguration, we will find ourselves abstracting him, removing him from context. Jesus becomes a vague spiritual entity – sitting at the right hand of God somewhere, shining, holding the world together. Yes, we can have a “personal relationship” with him, but this Christ struggles to go beyond that. He’s lost in the ether. He can give us the warm fuzzies, or convict our conscience, but he’s lost his ability to take hold of us. He’s become simply an idea. A good idea, but an idea nonetheless.
We need Jesus + Christ. We need both. We need the God of particularity who transcended that particularity to reach out and touch all of us: male, female; Jew, Gentile; 1st century, 21st century.
Jesus + Christ cannot be either/or. He must always be both.
And that Jesus is hard to pin down. It’s hard to make a dwelling place for him. It’s hard to contain him. He’ll always surprise us. When we think we finally understand him, he’ll shock us again. When we try to domesticate him, his face will shine like the sun, and we’ll find ourselves dropping to the ground in dismay. When we think he is too far above us, too unknowable, he’ll reach out and bring us in with the words, “Do not be afraid” – with hands rough and calloused, a face shining like the sun.