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A Lesson in Glory and Earthquakes

March 5, 2011

Exodus 24:12-18   Matthew 17: 1-9

“This is my beloved Son, listen to him”

Every year prior to Lent, we read of this vision that is recorded in Matthew and Mark. A vision in which a few of the disciples see Jesus as a shining figure alongside the great figures of the past Moses and Elijah. Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah representing the prophets feature in this shining tableaux alongside Jesus in a kind of pantheon of glory. And Peter gets excited with the grandness of it all. Somehow when you put things together like that. It’s like drawing a timeline of history, or coming up with a grand theory of the universe, it seems fitting, it makes sense of everything (or seems to). Jesus is part of the scheme of things. So Peter wants to build monuments, or booths or dwellings. It is a little unclear what the Greek word exactly means. But somehow this grand vision needs to be set in concrete for Peter, so generations of tourists in the future can come by and remember this great event, perhaps worship at the three shrines.

There is a timelessness to this experience up on the mountain and Peter wants to perpetuate that timelessness, to capture it, to make it the focus of future piety and veneration. He wants us to be interested in this experience, to make a religious resource of it, perhaps, for all time.

But the voice from God doesn’t. The gospel writers don’t.

Peter in his excitement is missing the point again. Whatever the point of the vision, it’s not the vision itself.

Imagine this. A small group of people who arrive at the entrance to the Grand Canyon viewing platform and see a beautiful sign saying GRAND CANYON THIS WAY. And they are so taken by the sign they spend a good half hour admiring the sign and its beautiful handiwork and its great choice of color contrast. They end up going away not seeing the Grand Canyon but talking forever about the quality of the sign. They set up university courses on the structure of the Grand Canyon sign, and they deconstruct it and discuss how it might be manipulating viewers, or why it might have sharp edges on it, or the reason it has a frame or doesn’t have a frame…

The Transfiguration is a self-effacing event.

Peter can’t see what the sign is pointing to… it’s a constant theme in the gospels. He can’t see because the person the sign is pointing to leads by serving and serves by dying, and it makes no sense to him. For Peter it amounts to weakness and not power, it is hopeless. So Peter is delighted when he sees visions of greatness. He immediately wants to sentimentalize the event for all to see.

So the voice in the cloud interrupts proceedings, with what amounts to a rebuke “This is the beloved, my Son; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” It is as if the divine voice understands their aesthetic sensibilities, knows they love special effects, knows they are going to be distracted, so needs to remind them about what’s real, what matters, what the sign is pointing to, where the real glory of God lies, rather than just the pointers to glory. It is life that matters… in particular the life that is being lived out in front of them and about to reach its consummation in brutal death. That’s what matters.

Peter’s response is like those people arriving at the entrance to the Grand Canyon, who, let us imagine, instead of leaving decide to build a little sign next to the big sign with an arrow pointing to the big sign. And their second sign says “Beautiful sign”.

It’s like people who come to church looking for a religious experience…and perhaps they find it, but the voice says ‘this is my beloved Son, listen to him’. Or people who go out into the mountains or the bush in search of a religious experience, and perhaps they find it, but the voice says, ‘this is my beloved Son, listen to him.’ Or people who look at earthquakes and see a religious experience, an act of God, but the voice says ‘this is my beloved Son, listen to him.’

Faith is about life… about the life of God in history… about following, about listening to God’s life, and if special moments become a focus in themselves, even a substitute for faith we have a problem.

Whatever role these special moments might play, they are not the Grand Canyon which comes like a mighty fault line though history, breaking it open and reestablishing it on a new footing. Jesus is the Grand Canyon in the middle of history, and we are so tempted to admire the attractive (but less demanding) signs.

Peter has a lesson in the true glory of God… he gets it wrong. I am reminded of the fact that one of the ancient figures in his vision, Elijah, once had a similar lesson.

Elijah, you might recall, got caught up in a contest with the god’s. It was a my-god-is-bigger-than-your-god affair with the prophets of Baal doing their best to show off their skills at sacrifice. Elijah, the representative of Israel’s god, Yahweh, comes in at the last, in good hero fashion, and blows the opponents away with an almighty inferno. The hoped for rain arrives. Elijah directs a great slaughter of the prophets of Baal and then runs from the scene feeling miserable. And then the story has a kind of self-critiquing quality. Elijah is depressed. It says “He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors”. A fascinating moment of repentance… he sees the paganism of his ancestors in his own behaviour. And then we are told of Elijah’s lesson in glory. He meets with God.

“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence”

And in the silence, God asks ‘What are you doing here Elijah?’ As for Peter, so for Elijah, the true glory of God is not in the special effects. God is not in the earthquake.

Where is God, then? “This is the beloved, my Son… listen to him.” There is a human earthquake, a spiritual earthquake (God in human history) which is leaving nothing the same, which interrupts all of history in the life of Jesus. This is God’s earthquake. This is God’s ‘grand canyon’ in the middle of the world. This is the good news in the midst of all our disasters and our physical earthquakes. This is the elephant in the room.

This is the still small voice that doesn’t beat up the baddies or excite us into a frenzy, but sets us free to give ourselves away as Jesus did.

I don’t need to labour the point about where God might be in the Christchurch earthquake… We’ve all seen the human face of the grief and loss, the sheer brutality of death, even the death of infants, and for so many, the work of a lifetime demolished. We’ve also heard stories of those whose lives demonstrate the shape of the life of the beloved Son – the beloved Son who is not dead, but still at work behind the scenes, even now. And for that we continue to give thanks.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. ann permalink
    March 5, 2011 1:30 pm

    Great post. It is fascinating how easy it is to get stuck in just wanting the experience, but not for God to change us at a deep level which means a real change in attitude and behaviour. I wonder of ‘death of the flesh’ can mean death the ego which always wants to be entertained and adored.

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