There’s someone there whom we don’t even notice. We’ve become good at ignoring him, culturally. But he’s stalking there, waiting for his moment. He sweeps in, into the middle of the action – never a part of it, but always there.
He stands far away, but with the way things are today, he can. He might want to join in the celebration, but he can’t; he has her job to do. You’ll see him today during the Super Bowl, and somehow you’ll never even notice he’s there.
He is the photographer, the videographer; they are the people who capture our moments, and who never get to participate in them. They are the living people who are supposed to create artificial things to help augment the rest of our real memories.
Have you ever tried to take pictures at a wedding? Have you ever tried to take video of a kid’s concert? If you do, your memory of the day is never of the wedding or the concert; your memory is forever tinged, literally filtered through the lenses and the viewscreens – because that’s how you saw it. We can become so wrapped up in preserving the moment that we forget to experience it first.
It would be too easy to say that it’s all today’s culture that makes us do this. But it’s not culture – it’s human nature. You see, this is exactly what Peter, the most fleshed-out and normal of Jesus’ disciples, wanted to do in today’s text.
Before we can really get who Peter is and what he was doing, though, we have to first understand who Moses and Elijah were, because their presence in this story is really what makes it go.
Moses, you probably remember, was the person who led the Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt. But he was no one-trick pony. He was the receiver of the 10 Commandments; he saw the Burning Bush and heard the voice of God. Moses was God’s instrument. Four of the first five books of the Bible are largely about him and his story as one of God’s messengers. Those first five books are, collectively, known as the Torah in Hebrew, which means “the Law.” Moses himself, as a person, represents the Law.
Elijah was from a different time, and was probably the most famous of God’s messengers. He was known to perform miracles, like giving a poor widow a jar of flour that would never run out; he brokered peace deals with foreign kings; he healed the sick of their diseases; he spoke wise sayings; he cared for the poor and disenfranchised. He was the greatest and best of God’s prophets. Yes, Elijah himself, as a person, represents all the Prophets.
Now, in Jesus’ day, the whole Bible was made of up the sections of the Bible we now consider the Law and the Prophets. So there’s some nice symbolism in having Jesus meet these two men on a mountaintop. Jesus meets the Law and the Prophets, and stands right beside them on this day.
Beyond symbolism, these would’ve been the most important figures in Jewish history – and Jesus is the culmination of it all. Jesus is clearly set up here as the inheritor of what they’ve been doing. He’s the next great leader, the next person to bring God’s word. And in that moment, surrounded by the greatest figures in history, Jesus’ clothes are transformed – transfigured – to dazzling white.
Meanwhile, Jesus’ friends are standing there, just watching all of this transpire. In this special moment, Peter breaks in and starts yelling about how he wants to build a house. He’s the photographer who starts screaming about how we need a picture RIGHTNOW to capture the moment; and in that second, you feel bad for him. You feel bad because he’s more worried about how he’ll preserve the moment than he is about experiencing the moment in the first place!
This is something we can identify with, I think. We have had those experiences of trying to remember things by capturing them. We know it’s wrong; it’s why we hire photographers for weddings – we don’t want to be the ones trying to preserve the memories of those days; we don’t even want our guests to have to do it, because we want them to actually enjoy the time we have to celebrate.
Peter gets sucked in by this impulse, too. He wants to get carried away with the moment. He wants to make sure that this day is preserved forever, so he wants to build little houses for these great men. Perhaps he even thinks they’ll just stay there, frozen in time.
Peter doesn’t have a cell phone or a video camera. He’s not going to be able to preserve this moment any other way than to do what he knows how to do. Forever, people have been building monuments to great things that happen, and Peter gets in on the action here.
Thankfully, into Peter’s over-enthusiasm, breaks in a voice – the very voice of God. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” says God. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah vanish, and Jesus is left alone. Peter and the others are snapped from their reverie back into reality, to remember that it’s all about Jesus. Right in their time of being carried away with trying to remember, they are completely and utterly humbled by the voice of God, which calls them back to the moment.
We have the misfortune of forgetting that our own lives, too, are about Jesus. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” is a harder thing to do in practice than it is in theory. In theory, we like the idea of the simple teacher who taught us how to live. In practice, giving up all we have for the poor sounds harder; loving our neighbors – all our neighbors – gets to feel a lot different. Repaying someone who treats us violently with quiet dignity and turning the other cheek sounds great… until we remember that it hurt when the first cheek was hit. That’s all out there. Those are all parts of Christ’s story – and we’re actually asked to treat it as more than a story. It’s supposed to be how we live.
The trouble is, we’re not meant to be photographers in the life of Jesus, taking pictures and building commemorative buildings; we’re meant to be the active participants, wondering and marveling at what he says and does, and we’re meant to take those messages out to the world and live them. That’s a lot harder than it sounds; but then we remember that the one who did these things is the selfsame one who was God come to earth. And when we get caught taking a video or wanting to commemorate the moment, we just have to hope to hear the voice of God break into our lives, to remind us that we need to focus back up on Jesus. Our path is right and just because it’s the path that God laid out for us. Let us have the courage to take that path up the mountaintop with Christ, to experience the moment, and to tell the world! Amen.