Sometimes I’ve just had enough. Sometimes, I need to get away from it all, turn off the TV with all its disconcerting or even frightening news, turn off my computer, turn off my phone, retreat, close the door and put up a ‘do not disturb’ sign, hike a trail in a remote area, take a break. Sometimes, I even can’t deal with the people I dearly love.
Sometimes, I need a space or a time of sanctuary, a space or time when I can just breathe, pray, recharge my physical, emotional, spiritual battery.
Have you ever felt that way? If not, you must be a totally extraverted type.
I think it’s only natural that we need these spaces and times of sanctuary. There is so much going on in our lives, we have to deal with so many different things on a day-to-day basis. We are overwhelmed by so many issues around us and in the world. We experience sensory overload each and every day. Sometimes we seem to give and give and give, be it care or help or attention, until we feel depleted. Then it’s time to push the reset button. ‘Put on your oxygen mask before assisting others’ – there’s some wisdom in that.
Even Jesus wasn’t immune against feeling overwhelmed. There are many instances in the gospel stories when Jesus retreats, gets away from it all, to pray and to recharge his battery. A human being, after all, can only do so much.
I today’s gospel account, Jesus retreats. ‘Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves,’ we hear. It seems that Jesus needs to get away from it all, and what better place to get away from it all than a mountaintop? Only his closest confidants are invited to join him.
This retreat comes at a turning point in Jesus’ ministry – and, coincidentally or not, this happens about half way through the gospel according to Matthew. For months, Jesus has been traveling the Galilean countryside, with occasional forays beyond its borders; preaching, healing, performing miracles, proclaiming and living the kingdom of God come near. But then the focus and the mood shifts. It all starts when some Pharisees and Sadducees ask Jesus for a sign from heaven, basically questioning his authority. Who are you, Jesus?
This must have led to some self-reflection on the part of Jesus, for shortly thereafter, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And then, ‘Who do you say that I am?’
Peter gives a clear and inspired answer, ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.’ But what does this mean?
It seems that Jesus, in reflecting on this question, in reflecting on his identity, in reflecting on who he is, eventually figures out what he has to do. ‘From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ From now on, the way leads to Jerusalem and the cross.
That’s heavy stuff, for Jesus and his followers. Peter, who has just declared Jesus to be the Messiah, can’t take it. He tries to dissuade Jesus from taking this route. ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ And Jesus, who is tempted to give in to Peter’s idea of a Messiah who doesn’t have to suffer and die, rebukes Peter with the famous words, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block for me.’
Consequently Jesus teaches his followers about their need and their responsibility to take up their cross and give their lives away for the sake of God and the sake of others. And shortly after all that, six days later, to be exact, Jesus escapes to the mountain top with Peter, James and John. God rested on the 7th day – and so does Jesus. And who wouldn’t be mentally and spiritually and maybe even physically exhausted after all that?
Up there on the mountaintop, the amazing thing happens: Jesus is transfigured before his disciples’ eyes, his face shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets of the old covenant, appear there with Jesus. Wow! What a spectacle!
What becomes clear up there on the mountain top is that Jesus, son of God, is destined to fulfill the covenant between God and God’s people, is destined for glory – despite or maybe because of the fact that his journey now leads to Jerusalem, suffering and death. Whatever doubts, self-doubts Jesus, the human being, may have had up to this point – God affirms his destiny and identity.
There is a reason why, every year, the story of the transfiguration of Jesus is the last gospel we hear during the season of Epiphany with all its symbolism about light and revelation before Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent – the glory of Christ cannot be separated from him giving his life away for the sake of humanity, for the sake of creation. The story of the transfiguration describes this tension.
Poor Peter once more doesn’t seem to get it. Echoing the sentiment he had when Jesus first announced that he would have to suffer and die, he proclaims, after witnessing this glorious epiphany on the mountaintop, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here.’ It is good for US to be HERE. Far removed from the valley of the shadow of death, far removed from all the issues and struggles of those who live down there. Lord, it is good for us to be here. It almost sounds like a plea, doesn’t it? Oh Lord, let’s stay here. Let’s build some dwellings, let’s get settled here. Another temptation for Jesus, the Christ.
This time, the rebuke doesn’t come from Jesus, but from heaven: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ Listen to him! When the disciples hear THIS, they are overcome by fear. Isn’t it interesting? All the supernatural stuff that happened before, Jesus shining, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, doesn’t have that effect on them. And maybe it’s not even God’s booming voice that frightens them, but the message itself. Listen to him! Do what he says! Follow him. Down this mountain. To Jerusalem and the cross.
Any illusion Peter and James and John may have had up to this point – that it is possible to stay up there on the mountaintop, and bask in the eternal glory of Christ without any sacrifice – is destroyed. They know where Jesus intends to go. This is frightening.
However, Jesus then gently touches them. “Get up – and do not be afraid.” I think this is such a beautiful scene – Jesus touching his friends. There is no reason to fear. What you’ve experienced up here is real. Hang on to that.
And they come down the mountain, back to where life is happening with all its joys and sorrows and annoyances. And they are barely down in the valley again, when Jesus is accosted by a man who is pleading for help for his epileptic son. ‘I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ And I wonder if Jesus has second thoughts that moment about not staying on the mountaintop, for he is quite exasperated and says to his disciples: ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?’ And he heals the boy himself.
After the retreat, after the affirmation, after the glimpse of eternal glory, Jesus has to face the reality of human experience and suffering once more. This is his ministry, this is what he is called to do.
Who are we? What is our identity? Our call is to follow Christ.
And: How, good, Lord, to be here – here, in this sanctuary, where we can gather and worship, where we and all who enter our doors can be refreshed and nourished and recharge our battery when life’s getting to us. Here we bask in God’s glory, here we may have our little mountaintop experiences. However, being here is not the goal of our existence as the community of Christ; it is much more like a place from which we then can go back to the valleys of our existence, where joy and sorrow and annoying stuff happens. Here, we are strengthened to be the incarnated body of Christ in the world.
WE are the church, the living, breathing, healing body of Christ, called to be God’s presence in all the valleys of earthly existence, even the valley of the shadow of death. Because we are called to listen to Christ – and to follow in his footsteps. From joy to sorrow, from confidence to struggle, from being served to serving, from life to death – and to life again.
Picture by Niels Smeets on unsplash.com
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