Get the Beans Out of Your Ears!
Grace United Methodist Church
March 6, 2011
Matthew 17: 1-9 (NIV)
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
For the past several weeks, we have been working through the greatest concentration of Jesus’ teachings, those that come to us in the Sermon on the Mount. The gospels are full of Jesus’ teachings, his parables, stories of his healings, and his encounters with sinners and outcasts. We struggle in the face of Jesus’ teachings. We marvel regularly at his miraculous healings. We ponder his parables and are challenged by their meaning and significance for our lives. Through the gospels, we learn about Jesus; not just what he taught or who he healed, we also learn who Jesus is. Certainly, we learn about Jesus as he travels around Galilee and interacts with the crowds that surround him. But I think we learn the most about Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, in just a few stories of the very significant points of his life; his birth, his baptism, his death and resurrection. And like that moment at his baptism, here in the transfiguration, the voice of God again identifies his very Son in our midst.
Here in the midst of his journeys around Galilee, Jesus pauses for a respite it seems. We can imagine he wanted a break from it all, and so he rallies Peter, James, and John, and suggests a hike up a nearby mountain to just get away. So off they go; tradition suggests they either climbed up Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon. Both are large, round hills in the Galilean countryside that offer stunning views of Galilee. Indeed, the four men might have climbed the Mount with the hopes of catching a great view or maybe a beautiful sunset. But instead what they get is an incredible revelation. Suddenly, as if to confirm Peter’s earlier testimony, “You are the Messiah,” the followers have a powerful encounter with God, and Jesus is revealed as much more than a rabbi, or healer, or simple prophet.
Just as we have the stories of Jesus’ ministry to help understand the values of God’s Kingdom, the gospel writers give us the significant stories of Jesus’ life to help us understand that Jesus is God’s own Son, the Messiah, present to inaugurate God’s new covenant, and to begin to establish God’s Kingdom on earth. The transfiguration is one such story; a pause in the midst of Jesus’ ministry so that God can make clear once again that this is “THE ONE!” Now, before we get too far into considering exactly what happened as Jesus climbed the mountaintop with Peter, James, and John, I think it’s important for us to understand exactly what a “transfiguration” is. In the religious sense, which as far as I know is the only way this word is used, transfiguration is “a momentary transformation of a person into someone having the aspect of the divine.” So, Matthew tells us, Jesus “was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” I think it’s quite clear that for this moment, without any doubt, Jesus transformed into one having the aspect of the divine.
Except for Jesus it’s more than just “having the aspect,” Jesus was divine. Jesus is God himself, God incarnate, and as he heads towards Jerusalem and the final days of his life, God is trying once again to make sure his followers understand just exactly who Jesus is! In case we have forgotten, in case we are still wondering exactly who this Jesus guy is, in case we haven’t quite figured it out on our own yet, God is saying to us, “Listen! Get the beans out of your ears! This isn’t just the next great prophet, this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
I have a lot of memories from my school band experience. And, of course, you all are now thinking I’m about to launch into a crazy story that begins with that now famous line, “This one time, at band camp.” Don’t worry, I’m not going there! But I have very vivid memories of my junior high band director, who also happened to be my private trombone instructor, rhetorically asking our band class if we had beans in our ears. Now, that wasn’t a compliment. When Mr. Pendley asked us that question, or told us “to get the beans out of” our ears, it meant we weren’t listening and he was tired of having to repeat himself.
Now, certainly, God is not tired of having to repeat himself. But as Matthew’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration unfolds, we get a very clear sense that God is sending his people the message that this is what they have been waiting for, this is what they are looking for, this is the long-awaited King! And how often have we longed for an encounter with our King? It seems most times that God’s presence is anything but obvious for most of us. How often have we hoped and prayed for an opportunity to stand in the presence of Jesus Christ? We all wonder, “Where is God?” Where is God in the tornadoes, or hurricanes, or tsunamis? Where is God in the brutality of war, or the political corruption that just seems to run rampant? Where is God in our personal grief that never makes it to the headlines? Where is God in the everyday dreariness of our lives? Don’t we all pray for a clear revelation of Jesus Christ in our lives?!? We all wish we could have an experience like Peter, James, and John had. If only God would appear to us in an unmistakable way, leaving no doubt that God was behind the experience. Even if this vision of God were terrifying, it would be worth it, just to know God was there.
Yet, as much as we long for a dramatic display of God’s power and presence, the simple fact of the matter is that most of us will not ever receive one, at least not the way we imagine it. We must learn to build our faith on the evidence of God’s presence that we do have. We have to look for God’s presence in what appears to be something ordinary. If we cannot understand how God is present in a world full of violence, maybe we can see God in the people of quiet courage who try to make peace in the midst of war, gang violence, or genocide. If we cannot find God in a world with tornadoes, and hurricanes, and tsunamis, maybe we can see God in the people who reach out in love to those who have lost everything. If we cannot find God in a world where children die of cancer, maybe we can see God in the courage those children often show. If we cannot see God because of our own individual pain, maybe we can find God in those who care for us and keep our hopes up. These experiences are not clear and unmistakable evidence of God among us, but they can be a kind of transfiguration for us. In these experiences and so many others, we can see God’s grace and power shining through the darkness of the world.
My brother-in-law, Jim, is currently in medical school. A few months ago, my sister called me. Jim had spent a few weeks on the pediatric rotation at the hospital. Like all med students, he had worked long hours and encountered countless young patients. In the midst of that time, Jim worked with babies who were diagnosed with terminal illnesses. He watched helplessly as children died. Lindsay and Jim looked at their own new baby and wondered how God was present when these innocent little children were overcome by illness, and disease, and death. So they called Ken and me. Though Lindsay and Jim were hoping for some profound, spiritual insight, they didn’t really get it from us. These are the questions we all ask, and there are no good answers. We all want to know God is there when we are walking through the deep, dark valleys; but most of the time, we don’t encounter God the way Peter, James, and John did on that mountain in Galilee.
The only answer is that we learn to live in faith. We have to get the beans out of our ears and the blinders off of our eyes, and we have to look for God in our lives. When we can find God in the little things, it is easier to trust that God is there in the big things. In the transfiguration, we have a very clear statement from God that in Jesus Christ we can find all that we are looking for. Here is the one who can teach us. Here is the one acquainted with our grief. Here is the healer who can beat even death. Here is our Savior, the Savior of the world.
Christ is in our midst, every single day. We do encounter Jesus as we live our lives. When we are celebrating, when we are perplexed, when we are sick, when we are grieving, Jesus is there with us. After that amazing moment of transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared and the voice of God was heard from a cloud, the disciples dropped to the ground trembling and terrified. And as they shook in amazement and fear, Jesus reached down and touched them. He said to the three men, “Do not be afraid.” This is the way God comes into the world; not in an unbelievably brilliant cloud of mystery, not only a voice thundering from heaven, but also a human hand laid upon a shoulder and simple words of comfort.
The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe. We also cannot escape Emmanuel among us. God will find us in our homes and in our workplaces. God will find us when our hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and even when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. We have only to see God in our midst; to hear his calm voice in the midst of life.