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Dealing With Transfiguration Terror

February 11, 2018


New Millennium Church (9 a.m.)

Lakeshore Drive Baptist Church (10:45 a.m.)

February 11, 2018 

(Transfiguration Sunday)


Mark 9:2-9

2 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.


The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each report that Jesus took Peter, James, and John climbed a mountain and that something unforgettable happened while they were atop that mountain that Jesus ordered Peter, James, and John to not disclose with anyone else for weeks.  While they were atop that mountain together, Jesus became noticeably different in appearance.  His clothes became whiter than any bleach could make them.  And there, Peter, James, and John saw and heard the transfigured Jesus engage in conversation with two prophetic All Stars - Moses and Elijah the most famous liberators in the tradition of their people.  After Peter uttered the excited suggestion that they should turn the mountain top into a retreat center and shrine to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke report that a voice from the sky declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him.”  


 Imagine if something like that happened to you.  Do you think you would want to report it as soon as you descended from the mountain?  If that happened today, I suspect Facebook Live posts and Smart Phone videos would go viral of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah with “OMG” messages as soon as Peter, James, and John could issue them.  But it didn’t happen during the age of the Internet and Smartphone.  Jesus could confidently direct Peter, James, and John to not report what they saw and heard.  


And considering what they saw and heard, one can understand why Peter, James, and John would be reluctant to report it.  Imagine the reactions they would receive from the other disciples, their relatives, and even casual acquaintances upon telling them about seeing Jesus’ appearance change, seeing and hearing Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, and hearing a celestial voice.  I can understand they might have concluded that this was something to keep under wraps, lest people think they were deranged. 


Mark’s account of the transfiguration includes the editorial comment that Peter, James, and John were terrified.  We can appreciate that comment yet miss this lesson in it:  God’s liberating and affirming truth may also terrify us.  It may unsettle us.  It may befuddle us.  Not only would an experience like this startle the bravest among us, terrified recollections about events aren’t always persuasive.  Scared memories are not always accurate memories.  


Yet, another reason deserves more than passing mention.  It is this:  God’s liberating and affirming truth to and for us is not for everyone at once!  Everyone else doesn’t need to know what God reveals to us when it happens.  It’s important that we know.  It’s important to remember what we know.  As the character Morpheus said to Neo during one of the Matrix movies after Morpheus had taken Neo to meet the Oracle for the first time, “What the Oracle said was for you.”  


Occasionally, we need time to process what we know.  We need it to settle on us and in us.  We need “to sit in it,” to quote something Dr. Kasey Jones shared one evening during a worship setting at New Millennium several years ago.  We need time and perspective to process what we know.  We don’t need to post it on Facebook.  We don’t need to call a meeting of our best friends.  We don’t need to process it with our crew at the hair salon.  We simply need “to sit in it.”  I’ll say more about this later, but for now I simply emphasize this truth:  God’s liberating, affirming, and sometimes terrifying truth to and for us is not for everyone at once! 


Then too, perhaps Peter’s excited utterance about constructing shrines to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah was no more than that, an excited utterance from someone who didn’t know what else to say.  Even if that was so, Peter’s terrified suggestion presents another lesson to us:  the transfiguration, the disciples’ terror, and Peter’s excited utterance teach us that God shows up!  


God shows up in our lives in ways that are unconventional, and even terrifying.   God shows up uninvited.  God shows up in places we don’t expect.  God shows up away from places we consider sacred.  God shows up on mountain tops and in valleys.  God’s shows up in nature and through beasts of the field.  God shows up as we are going about our business not expecting anything religious or mystical or transformative to happen to us, before us, or that is relevant to us.  God shows up!


When that happens, we’re terrified.  Peter, James, and John didn’t break into a 1st Century Palestinian version of In the Garden, or Come Thou Almighty King.  They were scared.  It wasn’t only the change in the way Jesus looked that scared them.  They weren’t merely scared because Moses and Elijah inexplicably showed up and began chatting with Jesus as if they were long-time acquaintances with kindred spirits.  


I think Peter, James, and John were scared because they overheard the conversation Jesus had with Moses and Elijah.   The Transfiguration account found in Luke’s Gospel reports that Moses and Elijah suddenly “appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).  Several days earlier, Jesus upset Peter, James, John, and the other disciples by saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (see Matthew 16:20-21; Mark 8:30-31; and Luke 9:21-22).  That announcement upset the disciples because they considered Jesus to be a military messiah, not a suffering servant.  The appearance of Moses and Elijah atop the mountain to talk with Jesus about what Jesus had already mentioned to them was terrifying.  They were terrified at the notion that Jesus would not be crowned as a conqueror but would be crucified as a criminal and national security threat.  They were not merely terrified for Jesus.  They were terrified about their own fates.  If Jesus would be captured, tried as a criminal, and put to death, the same fate was possible for his followers, if not certain.  


Peter, James, and John’s terrified reaction to what they saw and heard atop the Mount of Transfiguration shows that we are not always comfortable with God’s work in us, with us, and in and with others to whom God reveals God’s purposes.  This is an important truth followers of Jesus should learn and understand.  Not only are we sometimes uncomfortable with God’s work in us, with us, and in and with others; we are sometimes terrified by it.  When – notice I did not say “if” – this happens (meaning that God expresses God in ways that terrify us), I offer the following pastoral observations.


Remember that we’re the terrified ones, not God!  It’s alright to admit that we are terrified by what God reveals.  It isn’t alright to think that God is terrified by revealing it, or by our terrified reactions.  The good news about what I’ll call “transfiguration terror” is that God knows us!  God knows our frail and fragile spirits.  God knows how we can change from firm to feeble.  Even so, God isn’t terrified about revealing God’s Self to us.  God isn’t terrified about trusting us with the revelation of God that terrifies us!  I’m saying something here!  God is willing to gamble on God to do something with us even when the something God plans to do terrifies us, terrifies others, and upsets the way things are set up around us.  God trusts God with us even when we are terrified about what God trusts us to do and be!  Hallelujah!    


Peter, James, and John couldn’t see that when they witnessed the Transfiguration.  The same is often true for us.  We are sometimes so terrified about what God reveals that we can’t trust the truth about the revelation.  And even when we trust the truth, we can be so challenged by our terror that we are unable to walk by faith in God’s purpose.  When this happens, we need to be silent about the transfiguring revelation.  Resist the temptation to publicize the fear.  Sit in it.  Allow God to use time to confirm its truth.  Trust God to send Moses and Elijah-like prophetic forces to confirm the truth for us, to us, and for others to “sit in it.”


This is what Moses and Elijah confirmed for Jesus.  Based on that transfiguring encounter, Jesus trusted God to do something extraordinarily more than Peter, James, and John could imagine.  Based on that transfiguring encounter, Jesus refused to allow the fears of Peter, James, John, and the other disciple to turn him away from Jerusalem and the coming conflict with the forces of fear, greed, and empire that resulted in his crucifixion and death at Calvary.  Based on that transfiguring encounter, Jesus refused to allow terror to become bigger than God in his life.  And Jesus ordered Peter, James, and John to hold their terrified tongues about what they saw and overheard while they traveled with Jesus down the mountain.  


Peter, James, and John were ordered to hold their tongues yet traveled with trembling hearts with Jesus to Jerusalem.  They held their tongues with trembling hearts as Jesus confronted the forces of religious, commercial, political, and cultural empire in Jerusalem.  They held their tongues about what they had seen and heard as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  They held their tongues while Jesus ran crooks from what was supposed to be praying, praising, and preaching ground in the Temple.  They held their tongues, on orders from Jesus, when Mary washed the feet of Jesus the last time he went to Bethany to visit Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.


The terrified threesome held their tongues during the Last Supper.  They held their tongues in Gethsemane.  They held their tongues and Peter lost his faith while Jesus was on trial.  They held their tongues when Jesus went to Calvary.  They held their tongues when he died.  They held their tongues when he was buried.  They held their trembling and terrified tongues.


But there are three accounts of the Transfiguration because Jesus rose!  There are three accounts of the Transfiguration because Transfiguration Terror may be troublesome, but it doesn’t have to be the last word.  The last word is that God shows up in power despite our suffering.  God shows up in strength despite our Transfiguration Terror!  And because the message that God’s shows up was loosed from what had been terrified tongues, we have the message of God’s Transfiguring Presence and God’s Liberating Power in Jesus to follow.   


This is also what faithful followers of Jesus did during the tumultuous period of open and direct challenge to segregation.  Faithful followers of Jesus had to trust God, not their trembling spirits.  They trusted God to be doing something even when others were too afraid to be part of it.  They trusted God to send them away from safe situations into danger zones where brutal forces would threaten and victimize them.  They trusted God to turn success out of their sacrifices.  They trusted the power and purpose and peace of God, and refused to make a god out of their terror about personal safety, financial comfort, and social acceptance.  


Now we are called to live above transfiguration terror and fulfill God’s great purposes of liberation.  Now, oppressive forces threaten God’s creation.  Now self-righteous religionists oppress God’s LGBTQ children.  Now self-serving politicians and capitalists threaten God’s struggling workers, God’s frail elderly people, and God’s children who struggle in places across the world.  And now, God sends us, as God sent Jesus, to confront those forces in the power of unconditional love, unapologetic hospitality, and courageous justice.  


God is sending us to live beyond transfiguration terror.  God is sending us, and God is not terrified.  Let those who have received God’s call to confront the powers of hate, fear, deceit, and greed go forth in boldness.  Let us go confident that God will send prophetic messengers and forces to confirm God’s purpose and call for us.  Let us go expecting God to make a way of success from the obedience of our sacrifice in God’s purpose and call.  


God is able!  God is willing!  God is with us!  And God is not terrified to trust us with God’s mission.  Let’s leave others to wrestle with their own transfiguration terror.  God has liberation stuff involving love, justice, and sacrifice for us to do.  Let’s get busy!  




©Wendell Griffen, 2018