Thursday, December 15, 2005

High and Low (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 20)

[This post continues a long-suspended series about looking at Jesus from a fresh perspective. To do that, I'm using Eugene Peterson's fresh, vivid translation/paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.]

Matthew 17

This chapter moves Jesus and His disciples from an intense high to a humdrum low.

1. Less than a week after telling His closest followers that He was bound for Jerusalem, where He would be killed and then rise again, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the peak of a high mountain. (Matthew 17:1-3)

2. For reasons easy to imagine, even for those of us who are so unimaginative that we need people like filmmakers and video game designers to do our imagining for us, high places were often used in the ancient world for memorials, shrines, or altars to deities. By going higher up, they seemed to feel, they got closer to the objects of their worship.

In Old Testament times, God's people were frequently upbraided for providing for the worship of deities other than the one true God of the universe, the God revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, on the "high places" of their country. The prophet Elijah was emphatic that the impulse toward syncretism, the attempt to make all spiritual approaches similar and to make all gods equal to God Himself, must be eliminated from Israel. He and other prophets said that these altars to false gods should be pulled down!

The high places were also where God met His people.
  • It was on Mount Sinai that God gave Moses, his face aglow with the fire of God's presence, the Ten Commandments.
  • At Mount Carmel, during his contest with the false prophets of Baal, Elijah built an altar which, after he'd flooded it with water, God consumed with the fire of His holiness.
  • It was on Mount Zion that the Temple was built.
  • When the waters of the great flood had subsided, Noah, his family, and the animals on board their ship came to rest on Mount Ararat, where Noah worshiped God.
High places were great places for intimate encounters with the mighty God of all!

3. Jesus was a wise leader, which I guess you'd expect of God-in-the-flesh. His modus operandi was to spend some time with crowds of people, more time with the twelve close followers who would later be called apostles (sent ones), and the most time with three key leaders: Peter, James, and John.

Interestingly, we have more material critical of these three disciples than of any of Jesus' other first followers--with the possible exception of Thomas in John 11 and John 20; yet, these guys emerge are clearly the ones Jesus sees as being the leaders of the others, the ones in whom He invests the most time and energy.

4. While on the top of the mountain, as Peterson renders it:
His [Jesus'] appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from His face. His clothes were filled with light. Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with Him.
Jesus' dazzling appearance suggests His connection to or sameness with the God Who was so bright that the Old Testament said that, with the exception of Moses, Israel's greatest leader, no one could look at Him and live. The light of God denoted His perfection and purity, His total "otherness," to paraphrase a description of God from the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich.

5. How Peter, James, and John knew that the men with whom Jesus was speaking were Moses and Elijah isn't conveyed. But the significance of these two figures speaking with Jesus is clear. The people of Jesus' day often referred to the Bible they had--our Old Testament today--simply as "the Law and the Prophets." Jesus, in fact, claimed that His coming fulfilled all that was written in "the Law and the Prophets."

Moses and Elijah represented these two strands of Biblical tradition. Moses had been entrusted by God with the Law, the Ten Commandments, as we noted earlier. Elijah was considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the one who, some said, would appear to point others to the coming Messiah.

In essence, the coming of these two at this moment represented a kind of anointing of Jesus.

6. Peterson's translation then says:
Peter broke in, "Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain--one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?'

While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: 'This is My Son, marked by My love, focus of My delight. Listen to Him."
Peter wants to do what all religious folks are inclined to do, I suppose. Instead of savoring the moment or looking for what God might be telling them in such special moments with God, they want to capture the moment. Unintentionally, these folks want to domesticate, trap, and bottle up God.

But it's good to remember here what is repeatedly said of Aslan, the Christ-figure, in C.S. Lewis' wonderful Chronicles of Narnia novels. As is true of Aslan, God isn't tame, but He is good. We can't control, trap, channel, use, or confine God to mausoleums of stone. He is too big, too free, too beyond us to stand for that!

7. Nonetheless, it's easy to understand how Peter feels, isn't it? If you and I observed something so incredible--what is called the transfiguration of Jesus, we might be afflicted with similar impulses.

But the voice of God the Father tells Peter to knock off the yammering or the impulse to frenzied building and instead, to simply pay heed to Jesus.

8. Peter, James, and John do what only makes sense: They fall on their faces in worship! But Jesus reassures them, touching them, and telling them not to be afraid.

9. In Matthew 17:9, Jesus tells the three not to talk about what they've just witnessed until after "the Son of Man," Jesus' strange third-person appellation for Himself, has been raised from the dead.

Two points here:
  • Jesus swore them to secrecy because it would only be after His death and resurrection that the glory they've just observed in Him would make sense. As the events of Holy Week, when the disappointed masses abruptly moved from hailing Jesus as a king to calling for His execution, prove, people weren't looking for a Savior Who would call them to repent of their sins so that they could receive His forgivenees. They wanted a Savior Who would let them go on ignoring God and neighbor--in other words, who would let them go on sinning, unchallenged--and give them all the glory they could ever want, too. Until people saw Jesus dead and risen, they could never accept His call to repentance and to lives tuned into God.
  • How is it that the disciples seem to consistently miss Jesus' telling them that He will rise from the dead. Mightn't it be because the experience was so foreign to them, as it is to us? It seemed too good to be true and maybe delusional on Jesus' part.
10. On the way down the mountain, in response to their question, Jesus says something very curious about Elijah, intimating that John the Baptizer had fulfilled the prophecy that said Elijah would come back to earth to prepare people to know and follow the Savior. It should be kept in mind that Elijah is one of only two figures in the Old Testament who didn't die, but were simply taken into heaven.

11. From the highs of their mountaintop experience, Jesus, Peter, James, and John move to the valley of everyday experience. A boy is thrown about with seizures by a demon and none of the other nine disciples are able to help. Jesus casts out the demon and the disciples wonder why their efforts proved to be so impotent.

Jesus tells them that if they had only a shred of faith in the big God of all, they could do great things. God can make our gigantic opponents puny!

After this, Jesus reiterates His prophecy: He will go to Jerusalem to be killed and to be raised. Just as the disciples probably didn't dare to believe in a resurrection, they likely also found it difficult to believe that Jesus would actually be killed.

12. Jesus makes clear that even those who put God first are to uphold the authority of government and pay their taxes. (Matthew 17:24-27) For some, this may be the lowest point of the whole chapter.

But surely, one of the clear messages of this whole chapter is that whether in highs or lows, in death or resurrection, the God we know in Jesus Christ is still our God and still available to us!

[Here are links to preceding installments in this series:
Long-Awaited Savior

Scholars from the East

The Freedom to Be Weird

This is a Test

Trusting What You Can't See

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression

Explicating the Beatitudes...and More

Authenticity and Trust

Jesus' Radical Ethics

Friend of the Outcasts...

The Conflict Deepens

Guidelines for Loving the World for Christ
No More Religion!

The Subversive God

Stories About the Kingdom

The Emperor Who Had No Clothes vs. the God Clothed in Humanity

So Much for Being a Milquetoast

Don't Ignore the Obvious]


Charlie said...

Lots of good thinking here, Mark. I especially like your connection between Peter's response, "capturing God" and Aslan not being a "tame lion." As individuals and as a Church, we do have a tendency to want to domesticate God. To smooth over what we consider His rough edges. We emphasize the relational aspects of his nature, we talk about God as our friend, we talk about His love.

These things are true, but sometimes I think they are designed to bring God down to our level, to make Him our size -- to make Him conform to our preconceptions and plans.

Peter's mistake, and he was in shock so I don't fault him too much for his babbling, Peter's mistake was presuming that his plans and instincts were just right for the situation he was in. But what he should have done is humbly shut his mouth and allowed God to lead. He needed to listen, but his first reaction was to speak. That's a lesson I need to learn, too.

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you for your gracious comments. Coming from someone as "well-versed" (borrowing Steve Taylor's old pun) in Scripture as you, they mean a lot!