Title: Our God comes
Text: Mk 9:2-9
Date: Feb 19, 2012
Author: Matt Elia
Our God comes, the Psalmist says, and does not keep silence.
This is my beloved son, shouts a darkness in the clouds, listen to him.
Our God comes—and does not keep silence.
This is my son—listen to him.
Several Saturdays ago, I walked around Carrboro for the first time. My wife Casey and I, joined by Katie and Isaac Villegas, poked around inside a few dusty antique stores, wandered through the hordes of what appeared to be fairly wealthy hippies, and then decided to purchase ice cream from the Weaver Street Market. Following a lengthy deliberation, we chose Maple View Farms mint chocolate chip ice cream, paid for it and sat outside on a sunny bench to eat it together. Then, we browsed the shelves of a record shop, where Isaac found a book he liked and bought it.
Then, we cut across a deserted parking lot behind a bank, on our way back to the car, and I kneeled to tie my shoe. When I looked up, Isaac’s clothes had become dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to us Elijah with Moses, in Carrboro, who were talking with Isaac. Then I made what I thought was a helpful suggestion: “Pastor, it is good for us to be here; let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” I had said this because I did not know what else to say, for we were all terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed the parking lot, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when we looked around, we saw no one with us anymore, but just Isaac. As we got into the car, Isaac got really awkward about the whole thing, and insisted we not tell anyone about what had happened. We rode home in silence, all of us feeling strange and uncomfortable.
We read the transfiguration story today and can scarcely find the truth in it. We know on the front end, of course, who Jesus is. We have grasped his secret. Indeed, we already possess the knowledge about him which this event was supposed to reveal. And so, we can only smile to one another as Peter fumbles around, stammering and thrusting his suggestions forward into the tense silence, not really ‘getting it’, at least not in the way that—to borrow the popular phrase of our scientists—accords with what we now know. But imagine instead it is your friend, or as I have done here, your pastor, who—with no warning whatsoever—is unveiled to have been carrying a secret in your midst all along. It is not a surprise, but a shock. The feeling of violation is perfect. It is that sense of normal expectations being blatantly violated which I meant to bring out with my story of the Carrboro transfiguration. The one with whom you eat ice cream and make fun of hippies, this same one consorts with Israel’s dead heroes, glowing. You had never seen this in him before, but now you can see nothing else.
And yet, the main point I’d like to consider today, is that it’s not merely the case that you can never see him the same way from this point forward, but that you cannot regard yourself in the same way ever again. For all his new glowing strangeness, you know that your friend is a human being like you—the child of a woman, one who sleeps and goes to the bathroom and sneezes—and because your friend is fundamentally like you, his being radically different cannot have nothing to do with you. Instead, it suggests that you must no longer be the same. Maybe you are even radically different as well. In this sense, although we affirm that it is the absolute uniqueness of Jesus which is revealed on the mountain, could we really say that anything remains “un-transfigured” after such an event? When a real, living man is transfigured in this world, our world—can anything else in it remain the same? What if, by recognizing this disturbance of the identity of Jesus, we cannot escape a disturbance of our own?
This question, I am suggesting, is another way of saying that on transfiguration Sunday, we are confronted with an unveiling, a disclosure of two distinct relationships. The first is the relation between Israel’s God and the man Jesus. On the mountain, their full communion becomes clear. This boy of Mary’s, as the storm cloud announces, is none other than the beloved son of God. But the second concerns the relationship between this man Jesus and all the rest of us. What is the nature of this second relation?
Our God comes, yes—and does not keep silence.
This is my beloved son, sure—now listen to him.
This refrain speaks not only of the first relation—that Israel’s God has come in the form of his son Jesus—but of a specific possibility for the second relation, the one between God and us. This possibility is, in short, speaking, listening—the breaking of silence—a living, ongoing conversation between God and her people. In Jesus Christ, God does not keep silence. Listen to him. Hear him. The relationship between God and us, therefore, is not only law, but language—discourse, dialogue, exchange. A living God addresses us, and thus, we know that we are a people addressable by a living God.
The second relationship of the transfiguration is this: we are people who can be spoken to by God! If this seems banal, consider the last time you prayed. If you’re like me, the most profound times of prayer are spent either in the anguish of God’s silence or alternately, in the anguish of God’s speaking. In either case, it is the very possibility of God’s communication, the gospel promise that God speaks, which disrupts the ordinary. Look around. It is people like us to whom the living God speaks. Listen to him. If this still seems fairly straightforward, consider the response of one of Jesus’s closest friends.
Peter, floored by the first relation—that Jesus is one with Israel’s God—has a certain idea of how to handle the second. His is the classic response of piety. We must realize, this is an entirely appropriate response. God has shown up in a decisive way. God is revealed. Jesus is transfigured before us. We need to ensure this can happen again, in the same way, in the same place. This is the project of tent-building, of domesticating God. The point is to pin down the second relation, to secure it inside a knowable place, a site which we can classify, manage, sort out and understand. The project of tent-making, however, is also the response of one who, according to verse 6, “did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Of what were they terrified? Isaac and I struggled with this question when we met together this week. Why would Peter want to build a tent for one of whom he is terrified? Wouldn’t he instead want to be far away? Indeed, fear is the traditional reaction to God’s showing up; but perhaps paradoxically, I think Peter’s response reveals that even as he fears God’s appearing, he is just as deeply afraid that God might leave. God has come. Let’s hold her here. God has drawn close. Let’s make him a tent. We know the secret already. We possess the knowledge. Let us now secure the divine presence for ourselves.
Like all forms of piety, this response is easy to criticize. But again, we must realize how serious and how appropriate Peter’s response is. We are weak people. When we share our prayer requests each week, when we sit here and tell one another about the people we love whose bodies are in pain, whose spirits are cast down, whose lives are in danger, whose futures are doubtful, whose relationships are struggling—when we carry these things with us into our gathered space, who among us does not wish to secure God’s presence in our midst? In a shattered world, who does not wish to assign a place where we know God will show up? Who doesn’t want a tent for Jesus in the center of the room? So what is the problem with the pious project of building the tent?
In desiring the presence of Jesus, it gets the first relation right. But by seeking to secure him as a possession, it misunderstands the second. That is, in constructing for God a tent, the pious one shows that, at the root of it all, he fears we are the sort of people God cannot wait to abandon. That is, I think it is not so much wrong that Peter attempts to make God a dwelling place—as it reveals he has missed the crucial point: In Jesus Christ, God has already made God’s dwelling in their midst. In Jesus Christ, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In Jesus Christ, we behold God’s beloved son. In Jesus Christ, “our God comes.” And thus, in Jesus Christ, God does not hold silence toward us. In Jesus Christ, we are the sort of people who can listen to the living God. We are the very people whom God addresses.
To secure God in one place is to assume we are a people able to compel an unwilling God to stay with us. Instead, God’s address to us in Jesus Christ reveals us to be a people to whom God has already drawn near. A people with whom God freely initiates dialogue, freely speaks, freely loves—despite all our fears. In this sense, we might say, the reason why we do not build a tent for Jesus in the center of the room during our prayer requests, is simply this: At our best, we truly believe that, in God’s becoming human in Jesus, God is already speaking to and thus present with our sick family member, with our troubled friend, even with our enemies in faraway places. In Jesus Christ, our God has come into all these places. In Jesus Christ, we hear God speak into every forgotten space. This is what I meant to get at earlier, when I suggested that if Jesus Christ is transfigured, nothing in the world is not. If the first relationship between Israel’s God and Jesus is revealed in a striking new light, so too is the relationship between Jesus and us.
As we close, we must resist the temptation to imply God was not present, speaking and actively involved in Israel’s life prior to Jesus. To the contrary, we confess that Jesus comes to us strictly as the very fulfillment of Israel’s founding promise: that through the offspring of Abraham, the whole world would be blessed. That through the children of Israel, God would come—Into every place, outrunning all our attempts to tie her to a specific dwelling, not because God wishes to escape us, but just the opposite: God is unwilling that any space in the world remain unchanged, that any corner remain silent, cut off from God’s speaking. And if—as we Mennonites confess—the light of Christ, even God’s own glory, somehow shines in the darkness of the cross, then perhaps all that we are saying today is not just otherworldly comfort, or feel-good nonsense. Instead, maybe it’s the case that even the darkest spaces of our lives cannot escape being transfigured—caught inside the very light of God.