It’s a parenthesis moment. An odd bit of business, stuck in the middle of the story.
Jesus has been quite busy dealing with people’s problems and teaching the disciples how to function, and then, all of a sudden, we are atop the mountain where none of the regular crowd is.
No, there are only Jesus and Peter and James and John.
Scratch that. There are Jesus and Peter and James and John and Moses and Elijah.
No, wait a minute…scratch Moses and Elijah. Back to just Jesus and Peter and James and John.
Why would the evangelist Matthew stick this story in the midst of Jesus’ interactions with regular folks?
God the father, Moses, Elijah…definitely not regular folks.
If this were a novel and we were reviewing it, we’d say “Hmmm, continuity issue here. He hasn’t transitioned between one scene and the next very smoothly.”
But of course, it isn’t a novel, it’s the gospel. Gospel doesn’t always flow smoothly from one thing to the next. Often, and for no obvious reason, there is a break in the flow of the action.
What do we know?
Jesus has to get away from it all. He’s tired. Tired of explaining it all when it is so very difficult to explain. Tired of healing when there are so many who need healing. Tired of the inexorable walk toward Jerusalem and what will await him there. He goes up to the top of the mountain to pray, because praying is how Jesus recharges his batteries. He brings a couple of the disciples with him, because even when you need some time alone, you also need a couple of trusted companions who have your back.
Consider it, if you will, a little spring break in Cancun, only instead of being on the beach drinking Coronas, they are up on the mountain, breathing the thin, crisp air and praying. And Peter and James and John are the wingmen.
Now anyone who has gone on a Spring Break trip knows that stuff always happens when you’re on break that you couldn’t predict. For most people, the stuff that happens is generally unmemorable, sometimes problematic.
But since Jesus is Jesus, and he’s up on the mountain and not at Senor Frog’s, there are no shots of tequila, no parasailing off the beach. No, there is something very different.
They pray. They sit. They wait. No margaritas are consumed. No Coronas with the wedge of lime in the neck of the bottle. Just prayer and beautiful silence and no demands. A spring break for the Son of Man, following a different pattern than the ones we hear about in the news.
Prayer and silence and no demands.
And the stuff happens that you couldn’t predict. At least we can assume that Peter and James and John couldn’t predict it.
Jesus is changed – his face shines like the sun. His clothing is glowing white. He is flanked by the greatest of the prophets of the ancient way, Moses and Elijah. They are talking, as if they were merely standing on line at the ticket counter. And the brightness is shocking. Talk about the ultimate makeover! Jesus is no longer the guy the disciples have been traveling with, a special rabbi, of course, but so human, too.
But now he is anything but a regular guy, their road trip leader. Now he is something more. He is in the company of those who carried God’s message. He is now clearly something very different. And then comes the voice: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"
I wonder what that voice sounded like?
Would it sound like the voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush? (Exodus 3:4) In that quiet spot, high on a hill, a voice Moses could not ignore? Perhaps not a loud voice, but a strangely compelling one.
Would it sound like the voice Elijah heard when he was hiding out in the cave? (1Kings 19:12) What drew Elijah out of the cave was not a thunderous booming, but what the King James translation calls a “still small voice,” and the New Revised Version calls “utter silence.” Elijah knew that was God. And the voice was called hQ")d: hm'îm'D> ((demamah lakah) : a gentle murmuring, a scant whisper.
Such a voice…a susurrus, a mere whisper, not a booming deep shout, but a voice so overwhelming, that Peter and James and John fall to the ground and hide their eyes. A bright cloud, not a picture of an enormous old man in white with the long beard, just a cloud so bright that the disciples’ eyes must be covered from the shock…and then the affirmation: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"
And then….nothing. Quiet. The still air, chilling them to the bone. And Jesus, their rabbi, their teacher. Just touching them on the shoulder, saying “Get up. Spring break is over. Time to go down and get to work.
“Remember, what happens on the mountain stays on the mountain.”
But just like Spring Break, just like a trip to Las Vegas or even Tunica, what happens on the mountain rarely stays on the mountain, particularly when what happens is so shocking and game-changing, so transformative.
We know what happened up there because Matthew wrote about it, and Peter wrote about it in the letter we read this morning.
What happened on Jesus’ Spring Break – that moment when God gave the disciples a glimpse of who this rabbi really was – was not kept secret. When they finally understood who Jesus was, they couldn’t keep it to themselves. What happened on the mountain didn’t stay on the mountain. It couldn’t. Despite Jesus’ words in the moment, it was never intended to stay on the mountain.
I’ve been spending the past several days away, in something that was a cross between a spring break, a series of classes, a brainstorming session, a retreat, and a hen party. It wasn’t on a mountain, it was on a cruise ship. No, none of us started shining brightly like the sun, although some of us got pretty sunburned. There was no guest appearance from Moses or Elijah, or even from Elvis, although there was a Filipino lounge singer who did a good imitation of him…Elvis, that is.
Just a gathering of disciples, trying to figure out how best to share the Word and to live the Word faithfully and creatively.
Sometimes Spring Break isn’t as dramatic as Jesus’ trip up the mountain.
Sometimes it is just a chance to stop, breathe, listen for God’s voice in the silence, and regroup.
Sometimes it isn’t a big change, a transfiguration. Sometimes it is just a time to look at the work through a fresh lens, in a different time zone.
For me as your priest, it was this past week.
For us as Christians, it will be this season of Lent. Starting on Wednesday, we will enter into a season of break. Our Spring Break will be Lent. We will stop, breathe, listen, pray, try to hear God’s voice, that murmuring under the noise around us, that word or words that change us. We will imagine God’s plans for us as individuals and as a community of faith.
And in the process of listening and looking and imagining, we will be transformed in this Lenten season. Not quite transfigured…that was Jesus’ momentary transformation into divine radiance…but transformed, changed.
Spring break. The climbing of a mountain, the boarding onto a cruise ship, the marking of a season of penitential reflection: they are all the same at their heart. We separate ourselves from the everyday and go to a place in the world or in our hearts where we can be transformed, so that, forty days later, we can truly celebrate the One whose transfiguration is made most glorious on Easter Sunday.
Our spring break, this Lenten season, beckons us. Time to climb up. Time to pray. Time to ask for the whisper of what we might become, if we are brave.
Time to break, and be broken open, so that God can fill our hearts in ways we cannot even imagine.
Be broken open. Be refilled. Be renewed. It is time for Lent, and the break from the old into the new.
Copyright 2011 The Rev. Mary Brennan Thorpe