The God Box – a sermon on Matthew 17:1-9 for Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-9Alexandr_Ivanov_015

“It is good…” Peter says when he sees the face of Jesus change before his very eyes. It shone like the sun; his clothes began to dazzle, bright white. People appear out of thin air and start talking to Jesus, and Peter says, “It is good.” I’m not so sure I would have gone to “good” first, personally. I think I would have jumped straight to the fear the disciples moved to when the voice of God spoke on the mountaintop, but Peter knew it was good.

To him it was like a celebration of a tradition come to completion. Moses met God on a mountaintop where, shrouded in clouds, he met the glory of God. Elijah heard God’s voice in the sheer silence on a mountain. The mountains are where the heroes of faith go to meet God. It’s where they go to have their mission and authority confirmed. It’s where they go so that we know who they are and who has sent them, and where they go to find their strength and purpose for what comes next.  Father John Aurelio, Catholic priest, pastor, author, and master storyteller, gets into Peter’s head better than I do, writing imaginatively:

“When they reached the mountaintop, Jesus with his arms extended was dancing and laughing and calling out to Elijah to carry him home.  The wind was blowing and the dust he kicked up swirled around him like a great cloud.  The sun blazed behind him so that they had to squint to see him.  ‘I have never seen him like this,’ Peter said to John.  ‘Nor I, isn’t it wonderful?’  John and James took Jesus by the hand and they circled and danced together.”

For Peter, and likely James and John, too, this experience on the mountaintop is an experience of rapturous delight. They are taken out of the day-to-day and lifted into another space altogether, a holy space, a liminal space somewhere between heaven and earth, and for these moments it all feels just right. Their faith makes sense and is truer than true.

Do you have a moment like this somewhere in your memory bank? A moment when faith felt so good, made so much sense, seemed so undeniable that you just wanted to bottle it up for eternity?  Have there been times in your life when faith in God felt like a divine party where you found yourself dancing around and around with Jesus until you collapsed with pure joyful exhaustion?  Was it when you first felt God’s unconditional love for you?  Was it at the birth of your child or grandchild?  Was it when you knew you


A mountaintop climb with my eldest – Montreat, NC, July 2015


were doing what God was equipping you to do in the church, in your family, at work, in the community, or around the world?  Was it when you saw a ministry close to your heart touch the lives and faiths of others?  Was it when you felt the love of God in the hand and face of a friend or stranger reaching at a time of great need?

No matter what kind of times you are in right now, whether you are living in your highest high or your lowest low, I hope you can at least remember a time when you have experienced this kind of pure joy with God.  A time when you felt closer to God than to anything else in the world.  A time when you knew what it meant to be blessed by the presence of Jesus.  I would guess that most of us wouldn’t even be here if we hadn’t had some kind of glimpse of an experience like this that has kept us coming back looking for more, or we at least think one is possible – a chance to bask in the glory of God knowing that all is good.

And yet like Peter we also know that this life of faith and discipleship is not all good all the time.  Remember how our reading this morning started with the phrase “six days later?”  That’s one of the problems with reading any Bible passage really.  They build on what came before and lay the foundation for what comes next.  Well, just before Jesus takes his friends up the mountain came the story of Peter’s great confession of Jesus as “the Messiah, the son of the living God,” and Jesus’ revelation of how he must suffer and be killed and rise again.

Suffer and die?  That’s not the story they were likely expecting.  That’s not how they expected God’s anointed one would save the people.  That’s also not good news for his closest followers.  If they are completely selfless there is their friend and Lord to worry about, but if they’re normal they’re probably shaking in their sandals.  If he’s dangerous enough to get himself killed, he might be dangerous enough to get us in a heap of trouble, too.  The disciples had to be fearful when they were told how Jesus’ service and ministry is shortly going to turn into a sacrifice.

For all the time that faith is good and comforting, faith can also be a scary endeavor.  We yearn to be close to God, to follow Jesus faithfully, to feel the Spirit’s presence and action in our life, but when it happens it leaves us in trembling piles of fear.  There are times when this thing called faith doesn’t seem so good, when it seems to leave us with more questions and discomfort than we started with, when following Jesus is difficult and intimacy with God is scary.  When hearing God’s voice and seeing Christ’s glory isn’t all we hoped that it would be.  We are easily intimidated when we realizes that being close to God means exposing all that we are, the good and the bad, to the one who loves us even when we don’t love ourselves.

This discipleship is hard work, because it can be so difficult to see Jesus and stay faithful in the midst of the harsh realities of life.  Bank accounts may dwindle as medical bills pile up.  Marriages become rocky and sometimes even fail.  A spouse lingers on the threshold between this world and the next. Loved ones, even children, are lost to us, and we don’t know how to cope with their absences.  Other times we hear God’s call coming at a time when following means uncertainty about employment or going where Jesus goes means leaving some of our own desires behind.  We want our faith to be a sort of immunity against the challenges and tragedies that life hands out, but sometimes it seems to be more of a promise that struggles will come.

This is why, like Peter, when it is so good, we, too want to build dwellings for Jesus so we can stay and enjoy the celebration forever.  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to dwell in the divine mountaintop party forever?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just exist continually in those moments when we have never been more sure of God’s love?

However, those tents of celebration we long to build quickly turn into boxes of confinement.  They become not just places to dwell in the glorious presence of God and the saints, but places where we can control who God is and how God interacts with us.  Our well-intentioned dwellings become boxes for God to live in and stay in, where faith is easy, comforting, and doesn’t threaten the lives we’ve built or the habits we have developed. We think if we can just keep Jesus contained in this compartmentalized place in our life – a beautiful room on Sunday morning, the quiet of the house before bed, the still morning with a cup of coffee in our favorite chair – he won’t get to meddling in the rest of it, like our family finances, our thoughts about the affairs of the world, how we spend our free time.  It’s not that we aren’t trying to be faithful; it’s not that we don’t want to be close to Jesus.  It’s that we want to limit where we go with Jesus, or where Jesus goes with us.

But Jesus doesn’t like to stay put. How many of us here have played with one of those old fashioned Jack in the Box toys?  You know the one where you stuff the clown on a spring down inside a box and push the lid closed on top of him?  It’s not always easy, but withJack-in-the-box some struggle we can usually push and tuck every bit of that clown inside so that you can’t even tell he’s in there.  And then we start turning the crank.  The music starts, the tension builds (literally and figuratively), until POP that clown just bursts out of the box.  He has been designed to come out, and every time, as the game progresses and the music moves forward, he jumps out, just as he was made to do.

No matter how hard we try, nor how much we desire it, Jesus won’t stay in our boxes either.  God’s design is for him to be God-with-us not “God-somewhere-kind-of-close so we can pull him out just when we want.”  In Matthew, God bursts out with voice to remind Peter who Jesus is, “This is my son, the beloved.”  Jesus is God’s son, who came with God’s purposes, not ours.  This is God’s son, who came with God’s desires, not ours.  This is God’s son, who cares for ALL of God’s world, not just our little corner within it.  God cannot and will not stay in a box that is kept in my house, my heart, or my church because God’s vision is so much bigger than my own.

To try to keep God in the tents of our joyful moments and our nostalgic memories is to deny that God was also present, is also present, and will always be present in our difficult realities and our broken world. It is an attempt to fit our experiences into a false dichotomy of times we were blessed and times we weren’t when in reality we are blessed with the presence and touch of Christ whether we recognize it in the moment or not. Staying on the mountaintop is a way to avoid the truth that Christ isn’t only present in the glorious shining moments, but he is also here for, sometimes even leading us into, the conflicts and pain of the world, the betrayals and the denials. For if he isn’t in the midst of these parts of life how can he ever transform them? How will he ever redeem them with his touch?

That’s why the disciples can’t stay on the mountain. That’s why we can’t be satisfied with our secluded mountaintop moments. Because Jesus isn’t confined to them. Instead, he willingly, purposefully, steadfastly walks into the full range of human emotions and experiences, blessing every corner of life with his presence and touch.

We have to follow him. We have to walk into even the messiness of life, not bragging about the things we have seen, the forgiveness we recognize, the freedom we have been granted, the glimpse of the divine that has been revealed, but showing how all of that has transformed our lives and sharing the source of our joy with the world. Demonstrating mercy to those who live for vengeance. Reaching out to those who are pushed into isolation. Giving grace to those who seek revenge. Welcoming those who are terrified of rejection. Offering hope to a world that lives in fear. We have to follow him and touch the world in his name.

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