‘No man can step into the same river twice.’ This quote is by Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus who lived in the 5th century BC. What is behind this quote is that Heraclitus observed that everything is in flux, everything is constantly moving and changing. And, of course, a river flows. It is not the same water with the same amount or kind of silt and the same microorganisms that you step into the second time or the third or the 50th. The river may look the same, and that gives us a certain comfort and confidence; the changes are not so obvious that we would have to be wary about them.
But then there are times when a river definitely changes. We just experienced that here in California. Dried out creeks become swelled and swift rivers, spillways become raging waterfalls, there is debris, there is mud, there is unexpected power and chaos. Yes, sometimes in our lives, we experience those radical changes, changes, that take us by surprise, changes, that knock us off our feet, changes that even destroy our world.
And then, of course, a riverbed changes slowly over the centuries, millennia, millions of years. Water finds an easier way to flow with time. In modern times, human beings have interfered with the natural flow of rivers, straightened them, trying to put them in their place – often with catastrophic consequences.
You can’t step into the same river twice. Things change. But then there’s another aspect to that truth as well. ‘No man can step into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man,’ Heraclitus says. It’s not only that things or circumstances change – we, of course, change as well, physically, mentally, spiritually. We are in flux. We are born, we grow, we get old, we die, we rise.
Change is inevitable. We all know, we’ve all experienced it. Now there are different ways we can deal with change. Some changes we just have to deal with, we have no choice – when a beloved person dies, for example, when we get sick, when a child is born into the family. Whenever the change is not a good one and threatens us or society at large, we can – and should – resist.
But how do we deal with change that doesn’t really threaten us, but that causes us to feel uneasy or maybe even afraid, just because we don’t know how it’s going to affect us? We could resist that as well, of course. We can try to create our own little cocoon in which we don’t feel the effects of change too much. We can merely tolerate it, begrudgingly. We can complain about it. But then there is also the option to take a leap of faith and embrace this change, and see it as an opportunity to try and do something new. But in all that, no matter how much we try, things will never be as they were. And sometimes they shouldn’t be as they were. We can’t step into the same river twice.
In our church year, we are on the cusp of going from one church season into the next. There is a change from the Epiphany season, with all its references to the glory of Christ, God’s Son, to the season of Lent, during which we go the long way to the cross with Jesus. And we feel the winds of change in our gospel lessons. We just were on the mountain top with Jesus Christ, as he preached his Sermon on the Mount. And today, we climb a different mountain with him. But in the meantime, many things have happened. Just before Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up to the mountaintop, he announces to his disciples that he must suffer and die. The journey to Jerusalem, the journey to the cross has begun. And it must be a shock for the disciples, those, who dedicated their entire lives to this man, this Rabbi, the Messiah, because they believed in the kingdom of God come near and a revolution of some sorts – maybe there were some among them who expected things to be like in the good old days, when David was still king and Israel was an independent power, the Golden Age of Jewish history. Maybe they hope to step into the same river again. I am quite certain that Jesus’ suffering and death were not what they expected from the Messiah.
So the disciples were just confronted with this truth that would change everything for them – and it is at this point that Jesus takes his most trusted disciples, Peter, James, and John, up to the mountaintop. And there, something amazing happens: Jesus is transfigured before their eyes, his garments are exceedingly bright, they see the Christ’s glory. And there’s more, important figures of Israel’s past appear there with him, Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. Now talk about a huge and surprising change! It’s shock and awe.
The veil is taken from the disciples’ eyes, and they see Jesus for what he truly is: God’s Son, full of glory, the link to the past and the future. However, they have trouble making sense of it all. They can’t make the connection between Jesus’ suffering and death and the glorious moment on the mountaintop. Well, why would have Jesus have to suffer and die if he is the beloved, God’s Son, otherworldly, in all majesty and power and glory? We know it, we’ve heard the whole story about the death and resurrection of Christ and about God’s true power revealed in what the world perceives as weakness. But the disciples don’t have that advantage.
Poor Peter. Just before this mountaintop experience, he was rebuked by Jesus, ‘Satan, get behind me, don’t tempt me’, as he tried to dissuade his master from choosing the path of suffering. Now he wants to build dwellings, tabernacles, monuments to the monumental moment up there on the mountaintop. He wants to freeze the moment, if you will. Preserve the glory of Christ, preserve the good times he’s had with his master, rather than face the future as Jesus predicted it. He wants to create something that lasts. Make the river stop. He means well, yet unwittingly, he tempts Christ again – to forgo suffering and death for the glorious moment. And Peter is rebuked once more, yet this time, the rebuke doesn’t come from Jesus, it comes from the clouds: This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him! Listen – to him.
Listening to Jesus, of course, means to follow Jesus on this new and unexpected trajectory, into an uncertain future. Listening to Jesus means to accept that things will not be as they were. Listening to Jesus means that longing for the good old days, for good times, is futile. God’s future is ahead. Listening to Jesus means to embrace this future. And to trust that God will be there, a constant and faithful presence in all changes.
The disciples are overcome with fear as they hear this, we read, and they fall to the ground. Of course our first instinct is to think they are afraid because of the booming divine voice. But I am wondering if they are not afraid because they grasp the implications of listening to Jesus’ voice. To follow him on the way of suffering and death.
It is a very tender scene as Jesus touches the terrified disciples and encourages them, ‘Get up, and do not be afraid.’ Get up, and do not be afraid. It is time to move, it is time to go back to the valley where life is happening, it is time to continue on the way to Jerusalem. But there is no need to be afraid, for God is present, every step along the way. And so they get up and go, leaving the past, leaving the moment behind, and facing the future. Step into the river, even though it’s not the same.
It is in our human nature to long for the good old days. It is in our human nature to try and somehow recreate the good we once experienced. But if we just try to dwell in the past, we may miss out on experiencing wonderful and new things here and now. To make new connections, to learn something new, to appreciate something we just didn’t know about. To go to new places and take it all in, for the first time. To see God active in different people and unknown situations. To see and feel how the kingdom of heaven is coming near to us today.
And as much as we usually have difficulties accepting changes around us, it is in our nature as God’s children to look toward the future and embrace it, changes and all. To listen to God and to follow, even though the path may be unfamiliar and lead in the opposite direction of where we’re coming from. With Christ and in Christ, we never step into the same river twice. See, God is making all things new, giving us a new life. But in all that, we can be confident that God it with us, being the constant force in a world of change. So get up – and do not be afraid.
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