A Misplaced Resurrection

A Misplaced Resurrection

Robert P. Hoch

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore, MD 21201

February 23, 2020

Matthew 17:1-9
1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then 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.” 5While 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!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9As 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.”

I know it. I so know. I’m in the know.

That’s what we say to one another, in so many words. I know and I’m in the know. Kenya Hara, a Japanese designer, author of, Ex-Formation (a play on the word, information) says the phrase, “I know, I know” is our mantra. Masters of the world, we insist, we know or will know very soon. Our obsession with knowing and being in the know. All our communication narrowed to this measure, what we know. Communication, says Hara, isn’t only about saying what we know and that we’re in the know — it could also be about pointing to the mystery in every life.

Sometimes our knowing ways create obstacles to deeper understanding. On Wednesday, I was on my way to our Theology on Tap group — we are studying Paul’s Letter to the Galatians — and just happened to meet one of our neighbors on the street. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I asked if he wanted to join our study. He laughed. “Oh, I don’t do spontaneous these days. . . .”

And I said, “Lord, don’t I know it!”

The only purpose of communication, so far as we know, is to know, or to prove that we are in the know. Our intellectual climate feeds into our way of talking with one another. Your conversation partner says, A, B, and C, and you say, I know. Actually, you interrupt your partner in the middle of her sentence, as she is saying, A, B — she hasn’t quite got to C — and you say, I know. I know. I so know what you mean — I haven’t heard what you were saying, but that’s not important, I want you to know that I know it already, and — you guessed it — I’m in the know.

And then we add information to affirm or extend or reinforce what we know and that we are in the know. I guess that’s okay, to say I know and I’m in the know. But our age builds monuments to this kind of thing. We build monuments to what we imagine we know, what we have grasped. We build our tribes, political and ethnic, on the basis of what we imagine we know.

And maybe that’s why Jesus’ presence on the mountain suggests that maybe knowing isn’t everything. While Jesus isn’t opposed to communication that tends toward knowledge — after all, he’s been our teacher for many chapters in Matthew — maybe it would be fair to say that the transfiguration was not the knowing wink, but the unknowing befuddlement occasioned by awe, the sense of awe before something larger than even our best ideas.

Today’s text suggests that we do not know Jesus or the bit we know about Jesus, is probably too partial, too settled. Jesus unsettles our monument-making instincts with the restless wonder of those who have been once touched by awe and can never forget it. It becomes their true north, or that wobble which keeps them a little off-center from what we take as center.

So maybe we want to be with the disciples on that mountain, to look at Jesus’ face, see him transformed. Our first instinct is to say, I know. Maybe that’s Peter’s intent. Peter almost interrupts this holy gaggle between Elijah, Moses, and Jesus. He blurts it out, “I know! Let’s build something here, a monument for posterity, showing that we knew, and that we were in the know.”

What he knew at that moment struck him as amazing. And he wanted a container for that moment, that wonder. But here’s the rub: Peter, James, and John are all three knocked off their feet, in the presence of an incredible brightness, a heavenly voice. Maybe the story of transfiguration is code for how we, as people of faith, meet the God we didn’t know, the God we didn’t imagine, the God we didn’t grasp.

A God who was not content to let us doze off on top of a mountain, comforted by what we knew and that we were in the know, and instead, led us off the mountain, still a bit unsteady on our feet, blinking our eyes, into the valley below.

Let’s take a closer look at the text. Among scholars there’s no consensus about the genre of the story of transfiguration or its basic significance. Four theories try to account for the text, and most take the question of its historicity — did it actually happen? — as their primary point of departure.

So, first, some say it did happen. It recounts a historical event in the life of Jesus. They might point to how important this story was — it appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They might point to Peter, who is included among the three disciples Jesus brings with him. Peter refers specifically to this moment in his letter, 2 Peter, as a confirmation of Jesus and all who would call him Lord and Christ. Like the resurrection, the writers share a consensus that it happened.

A second group says, well, it’s symbolic. Matthew’s narrator freely calls to mind the story of Moses going up the mountain; Moses, like Jesus, brought three others with him, just as Jesus does. God speaks to Moses just as God speaks to Jesus. There’s a cloud in the ancient story; there is a cloud in this story. It’s symbolic, Jesus doing the same thing that Moses did.

A third strain of thought suggests it’s a vision, note the almost dreamy, surreal quality of the text, the way Jesus’ face is portrayed as shining, his clothing radiant, and the way the disciples are stricken, almost as you might expect in a vision quest. It’s mystical.
A fourth view reads it as a foretaste of resurrection — a misplaced resurrection, a resurrection in Matthew 17 to give us a taste of things to come in Matthew 27.

There’s no consensus. Myself, given the way I’m thinking just now, I’m kind of partial to a misplaced resurrection idea, a resurrection story appearing where it’s not supposed to, or where we didn’t plan for it, or where and among a people who neither knew nor were in the know, so to speak. A misplaced resurrection.

Misplaced indeed! It’s not Easter yet, in case you hadn’t noticed. That may be one reason Jesus says don’t say anything to anyone. The picture isn’t complete, yet.

Here, on this mountain, Jesus is glorified.
There, on another mountain, Jesus will be crucified.

Here, Jesus’ disciples adore him.
There, on Good Friday, they will deny him.

Here, a voice of benediction from heaven.
There a voice of dereliction from the cross.

It will be one and same Jesus.

And yet, we’ve forty days of Lent ahead of us. But if we’ve been doing this for a few years, it can become rote. Get your ashes this Wednesday, get your Palms on Palm Sunday, get your Jesus is Risen/He is Risen indeed on Easter Sunday. But maybe that’s why this text is so important. It unsettles us before it sends us.

Jesus unsettles our monument making instincts with what we don’t know or unseats our confident knowledge that we are in the know with an openness to what might come next, that which we don’t know. Let’s think, first, about what we know.

James K.A. Smith illustrates the phenomenon of what we know this way: “I walk into a room, sit on the chair, and pick up the coffee mug. These phenomena are familiar to me. I have a long history of making sense of them. . . . I come to them with a ‘horizon of expectation’ in which chairs and cups easily fit. I don’t even have to think about it; my grasp of them is automatic. They ‘give’ themselves to me in ways that I can handle.”

But what about an encounter with something like awe or love or ravishing beauty or the startling vastness of everything?

You don’t have to go far away. It’s here. In this place. When we allow that the universe, the world God so loves, the mystery of our own being, the wonder of life, and death, birth — we don’t come to them with a horizon of expectation or if we do, and we’re fortunate, they overwhelm us with something better than our horizons, they make us silly with unknowing.

Why do people weep at weddings? Because of what they know, or because of the majesty of unknowing? Why do people laugh at funerals, even while they mop away tears and blow their noses? Because of what they know about death, the absence of vital signs or is it something else, something more that unmakes the knowledge death, the container of death at that moment?

Maybe Jesus went up mountains with some frequency. I mean, evidently, sometimes he went up with peculiar purpose. But do you ever imagine him just saying, “You all want to go for a hike? How about it? You up to it Peter, James, and John?” Maybe in that way, it was just an ordinary day-hike.

That’s a mountain for my use. My entertainment. And I guess that’s good as far as it goes.

But it might be more. There’s a bench on the Stony Run Trail, just north of here. It doesn’t look like much. It’s not shiny. It’s not much of a monument to anything. It was made for my posterior. No high honors there! It’s a little off the trail, so you might miss it if you weren’t looking. If you did find it, you would discover, tucked into a little cubby hole, a small journal.

If you open it, people write notes to themselves or to the world, or to the stranger about the most important things. In childlike scrawl, someone has asked, Who are you? I am a human. And just in case you’d forgotten what that looks like, they drew picture, a stick-figure, as a reminder. You are more than you know.

Another teenager, I guess, announces that they’re in love with Zach. Zach you’re a very lucky boy!

And then this, dated December 25, 2019, Christmas Day:

“I discovered this bench and book last summer the day before my dad passed away. At the time, I was filled with stress, knowing he was sick, but I didn’t know how close to dying. His loss has changed everything. We all carry sadness deep within us now. I feel it with an intensity and a newness. I will miss him always and love him forever. He guided and mentored me so much. I am so fortunate to have that love. Peace and love to all who find this book. :>”

A book that gives itself to our hands, to our reading eye . . . but occasionally, we see more than the eye can hold.

“A certain kind of blindness,” writes James K. A. Smith, “can be its own epiphany. Some things we can’t see because their plentitude overwhelms us.”

The disciples were still stunned, overcome, overwhelmed. So Jesus, their teacher, came and touched them with a familiar hand, literally, raised them up, and with a familiar voice, a voice they knew, he commanded them: “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one but Jesus.

No one but Jesus.

And perhaps, in some way, Jesus saw them, sees us, as no one else can. More deeply than we know.

Peace and love to all who find this book.