4 min. to read.
This is the 12th day of Lent. I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus, then journaling on his reflection and the scripture’s he’s selected. I’ll be posting daily (or near-daily) meditations that emerge from this.
The scripture for today is Matthew 17:1-9, the stunning event we call the Transfiguration.
Jesus takes James and John on a mountain hike. Arriving at the summit, Jesus is suddenly transfigured, glowing white as the sun. Moses and Elijah appear, and the three of them chat. Overwhelmed, Peter suggests that maybe they should build a shelter for each of them. Just then, a cloud covers everything, and God says, “This is my son, the beloved one. Listen to him.” As Jesus leads the disciples back down the mountain, he begins a long walk that ultimately ends in Jerusalem with his death.
The disciples never understand this–not before the resurrection. When Jesus talks about his upcoming torture and death, they think he’s speaking in parables. “What could he possibly mean,” They ask. Peter chastises him for saying something so dark. Two disciples pull Jesus aside and ask for the most prominent cabinet positions in the new regime, revealing the nature of what they expect to happen once they arrive in Jerusalem. They never really listen to Jesus.
Zahnd points out that when Moses and Elijah appear, it’s not just a reunion with two famous Bible characters everyone thought were dead. Moses and Elijah represent something much bigger than themselves. Elijah is the quintessential Hebrew prophet, and Moses is the law-giver. The law and the prophets. That phrase had come to be a stand-in when referring to scripture. Jesus was in high company on that mountain. Even so, when the cloud disappears, the only one left is Jesus, and the words echoing in the ears of the disciples were, “Listen to him.” Listen to him.
Listen to him alone.
Lent is a season that invites us to introspection and asks whether there are things we might release or give up that are getting in the way of our encounter with Jesus. In the gospel narrative, the disciples could not hear Jesus clearly because they had a powerful pre-existing expectation of what the Messiah would be like. They knew the Messiah would come with power. The Messiah would run out the Roman occupiers and overturn the corrupt religious leaders. This expectation was so strong that it filtered what they heard Jesus saying and made it impossible for them to really hear. Their expectations were getting in the way of their encounter with Jesus.
As I reflect on my own life, I wonder what other voices, influences, or expectations I might be tempted to “build a shelter for” so I can keep them right there alongside Jesus, giving them equal influence in my life? I wonder what pre-existing expectations I hold that make it hard for me to hear Jesus’ words to me? Am I so committed to my ideas about economics, social structure, or politics that I cannot hear Jesus? Am I so deeply enmeshed in a cultural worldview that I can’t hear Jesus? Is my pride and commitment to my nation so strong that it impedes my ability to hear and follow Jesus? Am I so attached to my own identity story that I can’t hear Jesus?
These attachments are particularly powerful when they are about God. Theology can be a wonderful exploration of the character of God and motivation to holiness. But it can also easily be a set of blinders that keep us from seeing God work in ways we don’t expect. Our preconceptions of how the Spirit will work can be the very thing that makes us confident the Spirit isn’t at work in our lives or churches.
Sometimes when we read scripture, we see how clueless the disciples seem and shake our heads, but the thing about these powerful expectations is that when we’re in the middle of them, we cannot see for ourselves how much we are not seeing. It happened to the people who got to walk with Jesus in person. It can happen to us too.
Lent invites us to let go of our pre-existing expectations of God. This way is life.