by Ryan Grove
"And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only." Matthew 17:1-8
I grew up camping. A couple times a year, we would break out the sleeping bags and tents, the coolers, the folding chairs, and head into the Colorado mountains to live outside for a few days, on purpose. There is something comforting about falling asleep in a tent, something reassuring. The smallness and the closeness of the walls. The trapped heat of a sleeping bag on a cold night. The wind and rain buffeting the nylon, creating a wash of quiet sounds.
When I was 15, I went backpacking with the youth group. We started our trek at about 12,000 feet, and ended up camping at 12,800 feet. The air was thin and cold, even in June. Above timber line, the vegetation was sparse. As the sun set, the stars came out, and absolutely blew us away. More stars than I had ever seen, or have seen since. The sky was cloudy with clusters of galaxies and nebulas, and bright with the swirls of the milky way and pinpricks of constellations.
My youth pastor asked if we would like to forgo tents and sleep under the stars, and I was the only person to volunteer. So the two of us slept out under the stars. As our tiny bodies perched under the infinite expanse of space, a fear crept into my mind. Not something tangible, or even conscious. Something deeper, and more profound. The wind froze my naked face, and one hundred billion (100,000,000,000) galaxies, each filled with one hundred billion stars, loomed above, pressing me down into the rock. The brutal insignificance of my life clicked into cold focus. The unavoidable vulnerability of human life unrolled before my eyes. And in that moment, I understood why people prefer to sleep in tents.
Peter discovers a similar revelation as he watches Jesus scale up a mountain in Matthew 17. Peter watches, as Jesus begins to glow and shine, and Jesus' robes are transformed into a blinding, brilliant white. As the space around Jesus begins to reflect his glory, time also starts to get weird. Moses, and Elijah, men dead a thousand years, shimmer and appear next to Jesus. Not ghosts, or spirits, or apparitions, but men with flesh and bones.
The transfiguration. A moment that reveals the majesty of Jesus' divinity. And Peter witnesses it all, and is faced with his own vulnerability. It is one thing to proclaim that Jesus is God, and it is another thing entirely to see that Jesus is God. Like me, attempting to sleep while staring up and into the infinity of space, Peter decides that he would prefer the safety of a tent. This is all a little much. And so he offers to make Jesus a tent, a tabernacle. A place where Jesus can be worshiped, adored, but also contextualized and contained. Peter would prefer Jesus stay small, confined, and remain knowable, relatable. If Peter can keep Jesus in a tent, away on a mountaintop, he is free from the existential crisis, free from the reality that he is teeny tiny, and Jesus is infinite, free from his own mortality and immorality, free from the life changing, world shattering, knowledge that he stands in the presence of the God that makes presence possible. If Peter can put Jesus in a tent, then Peter can remain unchanged, safe, and the center of his own existence.
When I first started to attend youth group, sometime during my freshman year of high school, I brought my iPod and headphones. One of the other kids asked what I was listening to, and with pride and no sense of irony whatsoever, I said something obscure and edgy. He looked at me with a flick of his bangs, and he asked, "Oh...is that secular?" Merriam Webster defines secular as "of or relating to the worldly." A neat trick we have to draw a line between what is considered 'religious' and what is considered 'not religious', or secular. A slight of hand that attempts to place God, and religion, and all that other junk neatly in a tent, that we can walk away from, that we can distance ourselves from. Life is a lot easier, and less vulnerable, when we know exactly what is 'Christian' and what is not, when we know exactly where God is at work, and more importantly, where God is not at work. Life is simpler when we keep our God on the mountain, where we can worship him, and adore him, and contain him; and also keep certain things down in the valley, unchanged and hidden, keep some things secular.
Jesus does not respond to Peter's question, and instead, a thunderous voice calls down from the heavens, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Peter realizes his mistake: the glory of Jesus Christ will not fit in a tent. Peter falls on his face, in terror and awe, and categories begin to collapse in his mind. This God is not just the God of the Jews, this is the God of all space and all time. This man is not just a prophet, he is the Son of God, king of all kings. There is no place, or time, or person that exists beyond his rule. Every scrap of space, every forgotten second, every star and every galaxy, sits at the foot of Jesus' throne. He will not be contained, or controlled, or kept on a mountain. This man molded the stars with his palms, and drew the ocean's boundaries with a finger tip. This man inhales and exhales life into the universe, and he will not reside in a tent. And as Peter lays with his face in the dirt, in terror for his life and for his soul, Jesus walks over, bends down and places a hand on his back. “Rise, and have no fear." In the midst of the power, and might, and glory of God, and as space and time bend to his will and proclaim his divinity, Jesus, at the center of it all, comforts Peter. Even though Peter is small, and vulnerable, and scared, Jesus loves him, and bends down to stroke his back.
And that is the power of the transfiguration. As big, as it is small, and as mighty, as it is humble, the moment of transfiguration slices through our futile attempts to keep Jesus out, or to keep him in. We cannot hide, and cannot hide from him. There is nowhere that Jesus is not in control. There is no room for God's absence. From each of the 100 billion galaxies to the individual hairs on your head, Jesus is king. In Jesus' incredible power, and in Jesus' hallowing and self-giving love, he proclaims and claims all things for his name and for his kingdom. All things are his, and to him all things will turn, on heaven and on earth, both seen and unseen, for ever and ever. Amen.