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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly 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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I’m struck with the ironic juxtaposition of verse 5 and verse 6, both of which take place after Peter has arguably had the most overwhelming, shocking experience of his entire life so far. In verse 5, Peter launches into what sounds like a confident speech to Jesus, like he’s put on his construction foreman helmet to outline his concrete plan for action: ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
And yet, just after Peter’s announcement that he knows exactly how to address this outrageous mountaintop situation, Mark tells us Peter’s inner reality, that “he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Peter did not know what to say, and yet he decided to just start talking anyway. Peter was terrified, and yet he decided to pretend that he was absolutely sure of himself and in control. Peter had just experienced utter disorientation in the presence of a wild, untamed God who turns Jesus into a blaze of light and surrounds him with prophets long passed away. And in the face of it all, Peter cannot stop himself from literally trying to put God in a box, 3 boxes to be exact: one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for God incarnate.
If you haven’t felt disoriented, completely overwhelmed, or terrified in the last year, then it is possible that you managed to sleep through the entirety of 2020. As we approach the one year mark of the great shutdown, we remember the whiplash of carefully washing hands and bumping elbows one Sunday to downloading something called Zoom on our devices the next so we could see each other’s faces for our first day of online worship, March 15th. Last year, so many of our jobs were turned upside down. We witnessed the greatest reckoning with white supremacy for decades as streets filled with protesters. Those things that were normal – hugs, gatherings, singing with other voices, sharing a meal – were torn from us with no telling when they will return. In the last year especially, Jesus has taken on forms in our lives that confound, confuse, and mystify us in this strange, shaken up world, and sometimes we don’t know what to say. We too feel terrified of where it is all going.
And if we find ourselves acting a bit like Peter, I’m just going to say that this is simply an admission that we, too, are human. Our profound and at times downright painful upside-down-ness during this time can sometimes drive us into frenzied action to relieve the dissonance we feel. There is so much we cannot control, but that doesn’t stop us from taking out our need to control on the people we love. We get frustrated as we learn about the long, slow, rest-of-our-lives nature of anti-racism work when what we desperately want was for racial justice to be a clear, 3-step process with a map that won’t leave us with so many complicated questions. Humans, as a rule, do not enjoy disorientation. A loud, dissonant chord hangs in the air, and if you are like me and Peter, you will do just about anything to resolve it.
But I wonder what would happen if we let that dissonant chord really sing during this season, instead of smothering our experience of disorientation with all kinds of controlling habits, and talking right through the discomfort of silence. What would happen if we stopped trying to put God in our ready-made containers of control? Perhaps we would realize that God cannot be limited to our boxed up worlds, but rather shows us Her very presence in disorientation. It is notable that God’s presence in this passage comes in a cloud, a cloud that overshadows, a cloud that obscures vision, a cloud that makes left and right and up and down suddenly impossible to discern.
This is good news for those of us who feel lost in a cloud of disorientation right now. For blessed are you when you are overshadowed with overwhelm – God is with you. Blessed are you when you cannot see clearly through the cloud – God is with you. Blessed are you when you’ve finally given up trying to find the “right” way to go – God is with you. In the very places we thought God had abandoned us to our own devices, God is ever near. In the bewildering moments when we are sure we’ll never feel grounded again, God has drawn close.
If God is this near to us in the cloud of chaos, what are we to do when we finally lay down our mad attempts to box God up in our small ideas of what Her presence looks like? Our text tells us loud and clear: “…from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” What is Jesus saying to you about this time of disorientation? Listen to him! Whose voice is now coming through more clearly now that the usual voices have fallen silent? Listen to them! What are you being invited to let go of as the shock and terror of it all cause you to loosen that blessed grip of yours? Listen to him! It will not be a word that makes you comfortable, but it will be a word that transforms you, and leads you deeper into the life of God.
You might remember Pastor Dexter mentioning some weeks ago that our newest TV show obsession is a reality series called “Alone”, that sends professional survivalists out into complete wildernesses like Siberia, the Arctic Circle, and Vancouver Island, Canada. We’ve learned that there are essentially two kinds of people on this show. There are those who throw their energy into controlling the land, waters, and skies around them. They brag to their camera about how their simple plan to move as little as possible will guarantee them a win because they’ll outsmart their environment by not spending too many precious calories. They cuss and scream at the tangles of brush and heavy branches that slap them around as they try to plow an angry path through a rainforest floor. These folx seem to either go home right away, defeated and resentful, or they complain and suffer the whole way through, even as they are surrounded by some of the most stunning scenes in our world. They tried to pound the untamed wild around them into some little boxes they could consume and control, and they usually miss the gift right in front of them.
But then there’s the second type of person and they are the ones who humbly let those same lands, waters, and skies stop them in their tracks and transform their entire way of being. When it becomes clear that fishing won’t get them the food they need, they get curious about what treasures the land might have to offer. When the deep pangs of loneliness consume them, they allow themselves to weep on camera with vulnerability and utter tenderness. And when their body just cannot take one more day of eating seaweed, limpets, and yes, slugs, they listen deeply to this body of theirs and call the rescue team to go home because this place has already given them its fullness, it has transformed them, and no amount of prize money can be more valuable than how they have been changed irrevocably on the journey. They have been enveloped in disorientation and they let that presence carry them to a place they have never been before, a place that liberates the deepest part of who they are.
We are in a clouded wilderness indeed, dear ones, we have been for a while, and we will be for some time yet. May you remember today that in the haze of this moment, you are enfolded on all sides by the presence of our God who will never leave you nor forsake you. Put down the hammer and nails that build boxes for God, and instead open your ears to hear Jesus speaking to you in the midst of the cloud. May this space of disorientation become for you a living prayer as poet Mary Oliver has defined it, not “a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”(“Praying,” Mary Oliver) Amen.