“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! … Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”
These prophetic words of Martin Luther King were spoken the night before he was assassinated back in 1968. His desire to live a long life is something very natural, but he was sane enough to know that he might never get there as he was living in very dangerous times. He also realised that there are more important issues at stake. He had climbed the mountain, he had seen the other side and he knew that the real goal in life was for his people to reach the Promised Land. This was of far greater import than any personal desire of his own.
Today Jesus climbs the mountain and also gets a view of the other side. His decision to climb cannot be separated from the prediction of his passion and death a few days earlier. “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” What a chilling statement! I’m sure Jesus too would have loved to live a long and full life, but like Martin Luther King, he also knew there were more important issues to consider.
I’m sure Jesus thought long and hard before telling his friends this difficult news and the negative impact it would have on them. They had come to believe that Jesus was the promised one who would drive out the Romans once and for all and redeem Israel from all foreign occupation. They had witnessed his miracles, his authority, his authenticity and his genuine passion for all God’s people. Yes, they had pinned their hopes on him but now, with this prediction of his passion and death, everything seemed to fall apart. Their dream was shattered.
It is not surprising then that Jesus needed space, as did his disciples, and what better place away from it all than on a mountain. Mountains have always been privileged places to meet God. Think of Moses and Elijah who had their most intimate encounters with God on a mountain. Mountains allow us the freedom and perspective to take a deeper look at life and be more open to God’s way of seeing things. For Luke mountains are ideal for prayer and he doesn’t hesitate to say that Jesus went up the mountain with his three disciples to pray.
The most telling point of the transfiguration story is the centrality of Jesus. The disciples, however, are a bit slow on the uptake. They may have been overawed by the appearance of Moses and Elijah, two greats from the Old Testament, and so did not immediately realise that it is only Jesus’ face that is transformed. Peter didn’t get it and so he says to Jesus: “Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah”. This means that Peter is putting Jesus on the same plane and at the same level as the two great biblical figures. Each one is to have his booth. For Peter, Jesus doesn’t yet occupy a central and absolute place in his heart.
Then God’s voice comes to the rescue, correcting him and revealing Jesus’ true identity: “This is my Son, the Chosen One”, the one who has his face transfigured. He mustn’t be confused with Moses or Elijah, whose faces are darkened. “Listen to him!” and to no one else. His Word is the only decisive one. Only Jesus is left on the mountain. Moses and Elijah have departed the scene.
I’m thinking of the three disciples. What a roller coaster of a week it has been for them. To begin with they were on a high, proud to be disciples of Jesus as they confidently pinned their hopes on him. Then came the real absurd downer that Jesus will soon come to a cruel death. And then their hopes are raised again with the transfiguration where their eyes are opened anew as they come to realise who Jesus really is. Up to now they had known Jesus as an inspiring teacher, a compassionate preacher, a miracle worker and a friend of the poor. He is of course all of these, but now on the mountain they realise he is much more. He is the One who comes from the Father, the One who was prepared for by the prophets, the One who stands at the centre of history. Jesus belongs to a much bigger world, a world big enough to contain the mystery of his death and resurrection and see it as a passage back to his heavenly Father. Only prayer can reveal and make sense of these great mysteries.
Today the transfiguration calls on all of us to expand our religious horizons. In our confused and dangerous world, where absurdities abound and we feel out of control, we need to climb our own mountain of prayer to find that space where God can reach us and we can listen to his Son. Only Jesus can lead us through all our difficulties and teach us that there are more important matters than even a long and full life. Only he can show us the way back to the Father, give us a view of the Promised Land and, with Martin Luther King, behold the coming of the glory of the Lord.
Sunday, February 21, 2016