|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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|Once upon a time I
was a teacher of public speaking. And one of the things I tried
to teach my students was organization. At its simplest, every
message has three parts: introduction, body, and
And, in fact, all aspects of life have three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. We don't intentionally construct it that way; that's just the way it is! Hello, Goodby, and whatever comes in between.
And since that is the natural structure of events, we need not concern ourselves with WHETHER we do it, but HOW we do it.
So HOW do we do an introduction? And WHY do we do it the way we do? The classic introduction is to "tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em." And that doesn't take much imagination, so for most of my students it was a good starting point. But I pointed out to them that listeners needed SOME kind of SUBSTANTIAL introduction to give them time to wake up, to get focused, to come to attention. So even if the introduction does little more than kill time, it accomplishes something.
But for some audiences, there is the need to be SHOCKED into attention. Sometimes we need to be grabbed by the throats and shaken. Maybe that's why some pastors march up and down the aisles as they preach. To get the attention of the congregation.
Well, scripture doesn't give us much in the way of clues as to Jesus techniques in this area. He wasn't flamboyant, and he usually got to the heart of the matter in a big hurry.
Of course, maybe the gospel writers weren't paying close enough attention, and missed his introductions.
But I really do believe that Jesus was a very humble person. So how am I to understand the second and third verses of the ninth chapter of the gospel according to Mark:
"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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them."
So all of a sudden, Jesus is a showoff? Well, since the words are "he was transfigured" rather than "he transfigured himself" I have to believe that this was God's doing. This was not an act of human ego. But why did GOD do it? Of course we can find lots of miracles in the Bible, and much evidence of God's power; but I can think of nothing that falls into this category. What functional purpose does the transfiguration achieve? Unless God was trying to get somebody's attention. And wanted to do it very quickly.
This doesn't happen very often in our lives. Or maybe I should speak for myself and say in MY life. My experience is that God sends lots of small subtle signs and makes me WORK at understanding them.
But usually, if you're like me, you tend to ignore the small signs. The only signs you may pay much attention to are the ones that almost beat you over the head, that SHOCK you into attention.
Sometimes folks don't have much difficulty keeping their weight where they want it; so they don't make much use of bathroom scales. But I remember one time, after a long absence from those scales, when I stepped on them and was SHOCKED at what I saw.
So I got off the scales, put my glasses on, and stepped back on them to double-check what I had seen.
Well, Peter and James and John were probably doing double-takes too, when they saw Jesus transfigured. God is working overtime, trying to get their attention. But we might ask, why just these three disciples; why not ALL of them?
And I suspect that these three were in some way the CLOSEST to Jesus. But maybe something else is going on. Maybe PETER is the reason for all this. In the previous chapter Jesus taught about his death and resurrection, and Peter couldn't handle that.
And Jesus rebuked him and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
And for us Christians it's easy to become consumed with human concerns and to lose touch with "divine things."
But usually when that happens, no amount of words are going to change us much. We need to be SHOCKED out of our earthly complacency.
So God has their attention. "And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus."
Now, I guess you could say that after the introduction, this is the body of the message. Except that it should STILL have shocking attention-getting power. After all, Elijah and Moses have been dead for quite some time, so what are THEY doing here?
Now, according to Mark's version, we don't know what was being said, only that they were talking with Jesus. But maybe we don't NEED to know. Maybe that's beside the point. Maybe the point of it all is WHO these three people are.
And let me draw your attention to two verses at the very end of the old testament, in the book of the prophet Malachi.
The fourth and final chapter ends with the sixth verse, but listen to verses four and five: "Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes."
And now, here they are, gathered with Jesus. And their very presence, apart from anything that they may have said, should be message enough for us and for the disciples. It is a message of WHO Jesus is, in the Jewish tradition.
So what do we DO with all this? What is our RESPONSE? Well, the disciples had a response:
"Then 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." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified."
Not only did God get their attention, but he also scared them to death. Have you ever been in a situation where you had no idea what to say or do, so you just babbled away trying to say something appropriate? Then you should be able to empathize with Peter.
Peter did not know what to say. And he might have been better off not saying anything. But he was so nervous and scared that he had to say something. "It is good for us to be here." But is Peter out of touch or what? "Let us make three dwellings." And can't you just hear Jesus words from the previous chapter: "you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
In an article in the Christian Century magazine several years ago, J. Stephen Rhodes wrote, "I vividly remember a seminarian serving a church in a dying town in the Mississippi Delta asking me, "Why have I and my people failed to make our church grow?"
It was numerical growth he had in mind, but it had not dawned on him that his church's decline was inextricably tied to the decline on his town and its farm economy."
Forty years ago, one of the largest churches in Kansas City had more than three thousand members. Well, the building is still there. But it's boarded up. Closed. The CHURCH no longer exists. "It is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings."
We have a major spiritual event taking place, and all Peter can talk about is launching a building program.
Well, maybe that's unfair. After all, scripture does tell us that he was terrified. But look at his RESPONSE to the terror. "Let us make three dwellings." He has set his mind on human things.
And even in the contemporary church I see and hear the same thing happening. When we encounter tough sledding in setting our minds on divine things--and believe me, we always will; read your Bible, if you need evidence--we look for answers by setting our minds on HUMAN things. Elijah--remember him?--in the nineteenth chapter of first Kings discovered that God was not to be found in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in a sound of sheer silence. But today in some churches, silence in worship is considered something to be avoided like the plague.
Non-stop sound is considered not only desirable but necessary, because people growing up in a culture of wall-to-wall sound are unable to handle silence. Setting our minds on human things. "Let us make three dwellings."
Mark continues, "Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my son, the Beloved; listen to him!"
And God seems to be saying, "Now that I have your undivided attention, let me tell you where you should focus it." God didn't have a LOT to say, not a lot of words anyway, but they were enough.
Whenever someone whose knowledge and wisdom I admire greatly tells me what he or she is reading, or recommends a book to me, I can't wait to get my hands on it. When the voice of authority speaks, I listen.
And I think that is true of all of us. Well, in this case the voice of authority is the voice of God speaking about Jesus: "listen to him!"
And maybe THIS is why the transfiguration is so flamboyant. Maybe THIS is why God has terrified the disciples. To get those three words burned into our consciousness: "listen to him!"
Now, what I'm wondering is this: Did Peter understand that? HOW did Peter understand it? How do WE understand it today? You know, there's a lot of stuff in the Bible that can be quite challenging for us because it is NOT what Jesus had to say. Even in the New Testament there are giant chunks of stuff that Paul had to say that I'm not so sure Jesus would have said.
And when God tells us to listen to Jesus, he's putting us to a really severe test when we try to make sense of scripture.
Well, the message is over, and "Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus."
Moses and Elijah are gone. The cloud is gone. Jesus clothes no longer dazzle. And Peter is probably saying to himself, "What could I have been THINKING of, making three dwellings?"
But they're probably also wondering, "What happened?" Did anything happen or was it all just our imagination? And Peter and James and John are probably comparing notes like crazy.
"As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead."
And so it is an experience, at the moment, reserved for only three of the disciples, and to be kept secret until after the resurrection.
But what is the experience for us? Do WE need this kind of experience? I don't think so. Because what might likely happen is that we would respond in the same confused, terrified way that Peter did.
And indeed, I suspect that in the context of the scripture, Peter and his reaction were part of the message. God doesn't want our minds to be set on human things when we respond to him; God wants our minds set on divine things, as we listen to Jesus.
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