A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
February 19, 2012
Peter is always the rash one, the stick-his-foot-in-his-mouth one, the do-now-ask-forgiveness-later one. His bravery is a great quality, really, but it also gets him in a lot of trouble. He’s the only disciple to ever walk on water. He’s also the only disciple to nearly drown. He’s the only disciple to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he over does it and Jesus has to reattach a soldier’s ear. Peter is the only disciple to declare his loyalty loud and clear at the Last Supper, but before the rooster crows, Peter has already broken his promise three times. He is the first disciple to call Jesus Messiah, but that conversation takes a sharp turn for the worse, ending with Jesus calling Peter “Satan,” which, needless to say, snuffs out Peter’s short flame of glory in a hurry.
Peter is the guy in class who can’t sit still, who won’t shut up, who see-saws wildly from really high to really low, and yet he has these flashes of brilliance that amaze everyone. He probably needed Ritalin, but he met Jesus instead, and since we don’t know much about Peter pre-discipleship, it is not clear whether a large dose of the Messiah calmed him down or wound him up all the more. He certainly keeps the Gospel stories entertaining, but more than that, he keeps them human. He lives big and he falls hard, but whether he is standing tall preaching up a storm or on his knees begging for help and forgiveness, he is all about Jesus from either posture. He is the kind of friend you can barely live with, but you could never live without. His loyalty is of the ferocious, untamable sort—running to and fro ahead of the pack, convinced he knows the way. But when he strays too far, he’s never too proud to return.
And so it is no wonder—no wonder at all—that when Jesus is transfigured into a shimmering blaze of white and Moses and Elijah appear suddenly as if they hadn’t been hundreds of years in the grave, Peter is the one who opens his big mouth. The others are stunned speechless with terror, but of course, Peter tries to say something when things blow up too big for words before their eyes. Of course it is Peter.
“Rabbi! Uh . . . (clears throat) . . . . um, it is good for us to be here. Let us put us put up three shelters! One for you, of course, one for Moses and one for Elijah!”
Whoever recorded this story felt embarrassed for Peter, so they wrote in a parenthetical statement to explain: “He didn’t know what to say, poor guy, because they were so terrified.”
The other disciples were terrified too, but Peter is the only one who doesn’t know how to keep quiet when he is bewildered. Poor Peter. How embarrassing. He and James and John are privy to an epiphany, which is a fancy word for God’s glory on display, and all Peter can think to do is build tents as if Moses and Elijah had come back from the grave to roast s’mores with Jesus over a campfire.
But really, if you think it about, Peter’s suggestion isn’t all that unnatural. Way back when God’s presence showed up in the wilderness for the Israelites, for example, the people built God a tabernacle, which, really, was a giant tent in which God could dwell among them, and God’s people have more or less continued this tradition ever since. God makes his presence known; we build him a tabernacle, a temple, a synagogue, a church. It’s fairly standard practice, really.
So Peter’s suggestion may have been sensible after all. The text doesn’t really say why Peter wants to build the shelters, but I imagine Peter was familiar with the Old Testament and with the tabernacle. So when he uses the word “shelter,” I suspect he is not thinking about tents that would shelter the three holy men from the elements.
Because when I read the Old Testament, I get the sense that the people of Israel needed the Tabernacle to shelter them from God, whose glory was so great it would singe their very skin off if they got too close. God was among them, but proximity to God was not a thing to be played with. The tent folds of the tabernacle enclosed the Holy of Holies like the glass at the zoo encloses the lion, as if to say, “You can look, not touch.” If you wanted to leave the tabernacle with your limbs intact, you didn’t dare stick a single appendage behind that big curtain where the ferocious glory of God resided.
I suspect the Transfiguration was a little like coming across a lion in the wild, no glass barrier between you. Up on the mountainside, Peter, James, and John get a glimpse of just how divine this human, Jesus, really is, and immediately Peter wants to cover the glory with a tent. Maybe he knows the shining whiteness is beautiful enough to burn him. Maybe he knows how dirty and unworthy he is. Maybe he realizes how dangerous it is that he should bear witness, like staring wide-eyed into direct sunlight. Maybe his suggestion to build tents is less of a foolish foible and more like an adrenaline rush of self-protective genius.
No one gives him time to start construction, but immediately, a cloud drops from heaven and shelters them all, like a fog to shield their eyesight and a vapory coat of armor to guard their bodies. The voice they hear confirms what their eyes have seen—this man, transfigured before them, is the very Son of God.
The disciples shake off their stupor and see that suddenly everything looks back to normal . . . and yet, nothing will ever be the same. The shine is no longer visible; the deceased prophets have disappeared; the mountain looks like a mountain; amazingly the grass is still green, not singed. But nothing at all is the same as it was before—not really.
Because the Son of God is now on earth as a human, and forever after the lines separating God from humanity are ripped asunder and the realms of heaven and earth are irrevocably mingled, such that earth will never be the same, and, I dare say, neither will heaven. God does not in anyway diminish as God, and we humans stay human, but something opens up between the two, such that the veil in the temple will rip in two on its own accord to dramatically express in symbol what cannot be captured with words.
You see, practical and sensible as it was, building tents would have been all wrong. The cloud eventually descends to protect them, but not before they see and survive what they see, as if God has made a way at last for people to handle fire. In his day, Moses had to hide in the cleft of a rock when God’s glory passed by. Peter, James, and John has been walking side by side with Jesus for months and it is not until now that they realize how precarious that might have been. The tabernacle-building people of God standing bare—not so much as a tent fold or even a fig leaf to hide their humanness and yet they are not consumed. James and John are too bewildered to move, but Peter thinks he knows what to do. He’s just about to scavenge the mountainside for sticks and leaves for a makeshift lean-to at the very least, until the very voice of God silences him. There on that mountainside, Peter’s impulse to act is stilled and his instinct to find some shelter is challenged; God’s voice begs him listen. A new communion between God and humanity has been opened, and the scurrying, hurrying, bustling Peter is brought to a halt. The loquacious disciple learns to listen. Something so magnificent as the outpouring of heaven is worthy of nothing less than our stillness.
No one else would really notice until later, at the Resurrection, that God had collided with the world in this awesome way. But Peter, James, and John have a sneak preview to carry in their hearts through the terrible season of suffering that is to follow. They walk down the mountain as if in a daze—how odd to think that the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down and altered forever, yet The Change remains imperceptible to the average passerby. The disciples have the urge to shout out an announcement to everyone they meet: “It’s all different now!! By God, it’s all different.” But Jesus tells them to keep silent for now, which is probably just as well, because how could they ever explain what happened?
In the days to come, they will start to doubt if it really even happened at all. That strange moment on the mountainside will feel like a dream. But even in the darkness, Peter feels certain there is still a glare in his eye, leftover from the Shining of God.