Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Power of Fierce Beauty

Luke 9:28-36
February 10, 2013
William G. Carter

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

            A man I know lives near Glacier National Park. I don’t know if you have ever been there, but it is an extraordinary region in the Rocky Mountains of Montana. The main road is a zig-zag highway going up and over the mountains, called the Going to Sun Road. When you get off the slightly beaten path, the alpine landscape provides adventurous hiking and beautiful landscapes.

            My friend hikes there regularly, often taking family and visitors. On one particular hike, he and his wife were joined by their son and daughter-in-law, another friend, and her two-year-old son. They walked for a couple of hours and reached the destination, a pristine mountain lake fed by glaciers. They stood at the lakeshore admiring the five waterfalls cascading off the mountain face. They listened to and watched a couple of varied thrushes sing and flit. It stuck them all as holy ground. They stood to admire the splendor.

            Just then my friend noticed some movement about three hundred feet up the lakeshore. He looked through his binoculars to see a big mama grizzly bear and her cub. They splashed playfully through the water. He passed around the binoculars and everybody had a good look. Then Amy, his daughter-in-law, who was five months pregnant and particularly aware of the fragility of life, said, “I want to get out of here.” So they got out. It was holy ground, but it was dangerous ground.[1] It was a beautiful place, it was a fierce place, all at the same time.

            I think about his description when I hear the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus climbs a mountain with the three men of his inner circle, Peter, James and John. It begins as a place for prayer. It is a holy place. But as Jesus prays, something indescribable happens. He begins to shine with the brightness of the sun. His face changes. His dusty tunic starts to glow in dazzling light.

            It is a strange story, an unusual story. It is not the kind of thing that happens much in the Gospels, if only because appears to look so normal. He fits in with the townspeople. He is not taller or shorter. There is no sign that he is better looking than anybody else, or that he walked around with a halo over his head. Jesus is a human being. But in this moment, he is also something else. All the accounts agree it is a moment of fierce beauty, a moment both holy and dangerous.

            Luke the storyteller is teaching us something about the nature of spiritual experience. He does not explain this story and thus explain it away. Neither does he try to contain it. It is Simon Peter who tries to mark the moment. “Master, let’s document this place with a monument. Let’s set up a holy shrine. Let’s take this rare event and try to keep it with a little plaque that says Something Happened Here.” But the Gospel writer says he was clueless, that Peter did not understand the words on his own lips. It was the kind of moment that must stay untamed. It points us to the power at the heart of all life, a power that cannot be managed, forced, or predicted. God was there, in all glory and mystery. And it was a fierce beauty indeed.

These moments can come. I don’t know how frequently they happen inside churches, but plenty of people have had such moments in the wilds outside. Nature reveals a kind of power, often seductive and brutal at the same time. A snowstorm comes and it looks so pretty; and it can hurt you. The wind can blow and the trees start to sway and dance; and one of those graceful timbers can knock down a house.

I remember backpacking in the Adirondacks as a young teen, coming around the trail bend on Upper Wolfjaw Mountain. An open vista took my breath away. It was the first time I can ever remember gasping. There they were, most of the high peaks of that mountain range spread out before me. It was beautiful, stirringly beautiful, and there was no guard rail – just a twelve-hundred foot drop, about three feet ahead along the slippery trail. It was beautiful and it was frightening. I can still feel the visceral emotion of awe. Awe tastes like fear.

That seems to be what was stirring in Peter, James, and John. Jesus with his dirty tunic is suddenly glowing like he is on fire. In an instant, Moses and Elijah appear, both of them long dead, now alive. Moses bears the Law, the Torah. Elijah is the greatest of the Prophets. The entire religious history of the Jews is present in that moment. The space-time continuum is breached. No wonder Peter sputters for something to say.

Just then, the cloud of God’s Presence rolls over them. The mist is so close that it sticks to their skin. And the Voice that called all creation into existence said, “This is my Chosen One. This is my child. Listen to him!” The sound of that Voice vibrated through their bones.

And then it was over. Just like that.

Belden Lane is a Presbyterian professor at a Catholic university. He wonders out loud: why does a Bible story like this happen on a mountain? What is it about a mountain that makes such moments possible? Is it the fact that they are up in the air, closer to heaven, and heaven doesn’t have so far to touch down? Actually, he says, it’s probably that they are barren places, wild places, locations of great extremity – and whenever we find ourselves in such places in our lives, God can come with great and fearsome power.

He tells of hiking in the red rocks of northern New Mexico, in the high desert of 7000 feet. As he is climbing toward a mesa, he realizes he is lost. It frightens him. He wonders if he told enough people where he intended to hike. He recalls that thunderheads can appear out of nowhere, that flash floods can sweep down without a moment’s notice and could wash him away. The chills went up his spine. He said, “I could die out here and nobody would know it.” Then it happened: a rain storm suddenly blew in, the torrential water pounded down, a swift river formed quickly and Lane took last-minute refuge in a small cave. It was a moment of Biblical proportions, he said, and he had the sense that he was being tested to see what he was made of.

You see, what happens on the mountain does not only reveal something about Jesus; it reveals a good bit more about us. In the apparent indifference of nature, we discover if we are willing to trust God, if we have the character and the faith and the wits to stick it out. And if we do, and if we can, we come down from the mountain changed. We are different people. Exposed, wind-blown, and a bit shaken. Something happens up there that makes a difference down here.

Luke says Jesus conversed with Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet. Only Luke shares the content of the conversation. Jesus spoke with them about his “departure” which would come in Jerusalem. Actually the word “departure” is a poor translation. The better word is “exodus.” They talked about his “exodus.” Moses knows a thing or two about an Exodus – leading the slaves out of Egypt, getting out from under Pharoah’s oppression, relying on God to lead the way so they weren’t buried by the sea. And the Exodus of Jesus is the way he would lead his people out of slavery, get them out from oppression, relying on God to lead them out. He would do this in Jerusalem – on the cross, then busting out of the tomb, granting freedom to those bound by their own human brokenness. The mountaintop Jesus, in all his heavenly splendor, would get himself dirty to set his people free. The beauty of God’s rescuing love would be revealed in the fierceness of death and resurrection.

It reminds me of that little conversation in C. S. Lewis’ children’s book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The children hear about Aslan, the great Christ-Lion who is coming to set his people free. One of them asks a pair of talking beavers from the kingdom, “Is he safe?”

Mr. Beaver says, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

That’s exactly right. Is Jesus Christ safe? Is the Living One, the Chosen One, the One who Speaks Whom We Must Hear – is he safe? Of course not. He will change you. He is not safe. But he’s good. He’s very good. There is no one better. And we see him on the stark, wild mountain in the fierce beauty of his grace.

As for Peter, James, and John, I wonder if they looked at Jesus again in quite the same way. Luke says they didn’t say a word about what they saw. They probably didn’t have the words to describe it. Not then, and certainly not for a while. Before they climbed the mountain, they had seen a great deal. They watched Jesus heal, they saw him preach and teach. On his behalf, they passed out bread and fish to a huge crowd and they took note that everybody had been fed. Right before they climbed the mountain, Peter went so far to declare, “Jesus, you are the Messiah of God!”

But then, before them, he became as bright as the sun. The Voice said, “This is the Chosen One, this is my Son, this is the One to listen to.” This one. Right here. The one right in front of you. He wasn’t safe, but he was good.

Luke says Jesus went right back on the trail: he heals a convulsive boy, he teaches his leaders about humility, he broadened their limited understanding to see there are many on God’s team. Then, when he hears a couple of them wanting to curse and destroy a Samaritan village, he yells at them and says, “Knock it off!” Because he is the One who they saw on the mountain:  

·         God’s Chosen One to cure the captives of disease and desolation
·         God’s Own Child who comes in the deepest humility of heaven
·         God’s Beloved Messiah who gives himself to set his loved ones free

Oh, I know. We have heard plenty about Jesus: the ancient sage, the Jewish rabble-rouser, the woodcutter with the dirty feet. But sometimes we might see him, really see him, and we glimpse so much more. Why, he is beautiful . . . and he is not safe. He could change your life if you invite him to shine in his fierce beauty.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) 131

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