Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Prophetic Trek Up The Mountain

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John 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 dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Matthew 17:1-9

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978)

This is the 2nd time Jesus climbs the mountain in Matthew's Gospel. The 1st time, Jesus calls his disciples to a more tenacious following of the Law of Moses: "you have heard it said, but I say to you..." (Mt 5-7). This time, Jesus and his closest advisors (Peter, James, John) are joined by Moses himself, along with the prophet Elijah, who is introduced earlier in Matthew's Gospel as being played out in the tragically short life of John the Baptist (Mt 11:14), as well as a rumor going around Israel that Jesus himself is Elijah come-back-to-earth (Mt 16:14). The Moses/Elijah motif locates Jesus in the continuing story of God's redemption of the world & recalls his earlier proclamation that God is fulfilling both the Law (Moses) & the Prophets (Elijah) through his own life and teaching.

Immediately preceding this trek up the mountain, Jesus delivers the bad news to his disciples that he, quite soon, he will "undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed." Peter will have none of it, rebuking Jesus that this is no way to be a king. Jesus rebukes back, calling Peter "Satan," and telling his disciples that they all, like him, must be willing to die for their convictions. As the late theologian James McClendon told his seminary students over and over: "There should have been 13 crosses (on Good Friday)."

Jesus' death wish is enunciated in this 2nd trek up the mountain as Jesus takes on the apocalyptic appearance and dress of the ancient martyrs (see Revelation 3, 4 & 6). This bleached white robe and heavenly glimmer reflect all those who lost their lives in their courageous confrontation with empire.

Like Moses on Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35), the glow-in-the-dark Jesus is overshadowed by a bright cloud with a triumphant voice (Exodus 24). These words, directed at the 3 disciples, echo the exact same heavenly proclamation at Jesus' baptism (Mt 3:17), a citing of one of the Suffering Servant episodes in Isaiah 42 & the messianic song in Psalm 2: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased..." Jesus is a different kind of leader for a different kind of Movement: he is the Servant King. His reign is going to look a lot different than Caesar's. These disciples better listen up.

The disciples, scared shitless lying on the ground in fetal position, are healed by Jesus' "touch," just like so many others (lepers, blind men, the hemorrhaging woman, etc) in Matthew's Gospel. This salvation comes only by listening to the Voice that calls us to listen to Jesus' teaching, which Matthew's Gospel places in five different sections throughout the Gospel (again, subverting the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known as the "book of Moses").

As the somber, shell-shocked disciples saunter down the mountain, Jesus reminds them (yet again!) "that Elijah (John the Baptist) has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands." This is to be expected with every prophetic ministry.

Ultimately, Christians scripted by this "transfiguration" episode in Matthew have a choice this weekend: will we expend our time, energy & resources on worshipping the radiant Jesus or on following his rugged Way to the cross? Unfortunately, far too many North American churches, through song & sermon, will obsess about the former and sideline the latter. The very first Christians were called members of "the Way" because confessing that 'Jesus is Lord' meant dangerously pledging allegiance to a lifestyle of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable...all the Way to the cross.

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