Have you ever had one of those moments when you look at someone you have known for years and suddenly you see them in a completely different light? It’s like you’re suddenly seeing them as they really are for the first time, and although the intensity of that insight may only last a minute, you’ll never be able to see them in quite the same old way again. And sometimes you can never see anything else in quite the same old way again either.
Peter, James and John thought they knew Jesus. He was their rabbi after all, their friend. They had seen him cast out demons and heal the sick. They had traveled with him and eaten with him. They even knew Jesus wasn’t like other men. So when he brought them up to the mountain top, I bet Peter and the brothers thought they had some idea of what might happen. Jesus might tell them something new or show them another miracle. But nothing prepared them for what they did see.
They saw a glimpse of the divinity of Christ. This man that they had eaten with, traveled with and lived with became transformed into a being of shining light. And they are scared out of their wits. This isn’t the man they thought he was. This isn’t just their teacher. This isn’t just a prophet. Jesus is something else entirely.
Peter is so scared that he begins babbling. He offers to make dwellings, tabernacles to contain this glory for he doesn’t know what else to do. The text even says “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”
Terror isn’t something we associate with Christ very often. Goodness and kindness and gentleness yes. Scary no. So why are the disciples so afraid? Because they saw Jesus as God for a moment when before they only thought of Jesus as man.
One of my favorite books as a child was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. For those of you not familiar with Lewis’ work, the central figure is Aslan – the Christ figure for the world the children find themselves in. In it the Beaver family explains Aslan to the children.
“Is—is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” Mr. Beaver said sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
When we actually get down to it – on some level God is really scary. God is so much larger – so much more powerful than we can possibly understand. Peter, James and John get a glimpse of the otherness of God in this passage and they are terrified.
Think of it like this. A group of ants get together and have decided that they understand humanity. They have it worked out that this big shoe thing is all that humanity is. And yeah, the shoe is something they respect because it is so much bigger than them, but they become accustomed to seeing feet. Then all of a sudden a hand shows up. Fear doesn’t really cover the mental shift that causes.
Deuteronomy 10.12 says So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
God requires fear from us. It is the first of the list we are given. Is this the cowering fear of the boogey man? The fear that we play with in movies and with scary stories? Is that why the disciples are terrified on the mountain top? That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when we look at all of the passages where angels tell us “Do not be afraid, for God is with you.”
I think it is something different – something closer to the fear that comes with total awe. It’s hard for us to get real awe these days I think. We have become an embittered culture – used to not being shocked or startled by anything or anyone anymore. Our leaders, our celebrities, our priests have all been shown to be people – just like us. We don’t hold them in awe anymore, so it is hard for us to understand what awesome really is. It has become a trivial word.
A few years ago, I was privileged enough to go on a behind the scenes tour of the zoo, a great time for me, I can assure you. But the most amazing part of the night was when I had the chance to see the tigers in their back area. Because it was the end of the night and I was enjoying a long conversation with one of the keepers, I got to sit a foot and a half away from a full-grown male tiger. The eyes he looked at me with were large and golden and so other that it nearly took my breath away. This was a creature of power and might and beauty whose thoughts I could never understand, and I began to get a hint of what real Awe is like.
Awe is an overwhelming feeling of wonder or admiration; a feeling of fear and reverence. Awe is an entirely appropriate word for what the three on the mountain felt. Overpowering fear and reverence for this man who was their rabbi. Who was their friend. They hear the voice of God claiming Christ as the Son. They see long dead prophets speaking with Christ. They see him transformed. And they are filled with wonder and reverence and fear.
Then the moment passes. Jesus is all they see, standing on the mountain top just like he always was again. He is the rabbi and friend they thought they knew once more and he warns them not to tell anyone of what happened.
I wonder how their relationship changed after that mountain top moment. After all, Jesus told them not to speak about it. Did they try to go back to what it had been? Did they sometimes talk about it to each other?
See, I think it is important to remember Jesus as the man. As the teacher and healer and friend. As the good, kind and gentle person. That is an important part of our faith. Jesus was fully human.
But Jesus was fully God and it is important to remember the truly awesome part of the Christ. In previous centuries I think we focused too much on the divinity of Jesus and scorned all things human. This is a mistake because there is value in a God who has been fully human. Who has eaten with us, walked with us and laughed with us.
Now though, I think we have over corrected and focus on Jesus as a man to the exclusion of Jesus the divine. The Kevin Smith movie Dogma begins with the Catholic Church unveiling the Buddy Christ – a blue eyed smiling figure giving a thumbs-up to the world. While this may be a parody of real life I think there is a grain of truth to the image. We like to think about Christ as a smiling figure that approves of us whole heartedly.
But Jesus is so much more than a smiling, good natured friend. Jesus is divine, which means that Christ transcends the problems of this world. This means that God is bigger than all the troubles we lift up. Bigger than the global economy. Bigger than war and poverty and hatred. Jesus’ divinity, the Jesus of the mountain top means that we can come to Christ even at our darkest and be comforted.
What we are called to do as Christians is to hold both Christ as both human and divine in balance. One without the other is incomplete, but it is hard to balance them. Peter, James and John had to walk that tightrope. They walked with Jesus the man, but they remembered the Jesus on the mountaintop.
As we go out into the world, we need to remember that though Jesus is walking with us, and knows what we are going through, Jesus is also on the mountaintop, shining with the Glory of the Lord. Amen.
Rev. Cara Milne Gee
February 22, 2009