Preached: June 22, 2014 at Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church
Texts: Zechariah 14:16-21; Mark 9:2-9
Can you relate? I can. As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I was surrounded by family. Within just a few minutes from my childhood home, lived both sets of grandparents, many of my aunts and uncles, and more extended family. We were in each other’s houses quite a bit and it was a great deal of fun. One grandmother had a pool, at the other’s we would play horseshoes and cards. But the coolest was my Aunt and Uncle’s house because they had an Atari and a large screen television in their den. I remember playing Pong and Tank Battle on the biggest screen I had seen outside of a movie theater, which I’m sure would pale in comparison to what we have today.
When we visited, the kids spent much of their time in the den, and our parents would go to the kitchen to talk without us. Whenever we needed a parent to arbitrate a negotiation, one of the kids would go to the kitchen passing a room we were not allowed to enter. It was a formal living room with mirrors on the wall to make it look bigger, and what I assume was some fairly expensive furniture, all covered in plastic. Although we visited there fairly frequently, I don’t ever remember anyone spending time in that room. It was always clean and protected, but seldom, if ever, used.
A church I once served had a similar room. It contained some very nice furniture (no plastic), a library with some useful books, and some items and photographs telling the history of the congregation. Though no one every explicitly told me, as the youth pastor I knew the room was off-limits to the youth. Truth be told, for a long time no one used the room except bridal parties prepping for wedding ceremonies. Although it was just off the sanctuary, I would suspect most of those attending worship each Sunday walked by it having no idea what was in there. To the credit of the congregation, the room eventually began to be used by Sunday School classes, small groups, and even a Confirmation Classes—a huge step from where they had been.
These rooms had become shrines. Places deemed sacred, but with no practical use. At some point, their preservation became far more important than what they represented. My aunt and uncle’s formal living room was set up to be a place of connection, where people could have deep conversation, but to the best of my knowledge, it was never used that way. The room in the church was set up to be a comfortable place for people to meet, but for a long time it was not used that way. It was being preserved to look great, but most people went elsewhere when they wanted to connect.
Jesus doesn’t seem very interested in shrines filled with plastic covered furniture, always clean but never used. He is far more interested in something else.
One day, Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, up on a high mountain by themselves, presumably for some quiet time and private teaching. While they are there, something happens to Jesus. He is transformed, the traditional word is transfigured,in front of them. Mark struggles to find words to accurately describe what they saw. Light appeared to be coming from Jesus, and his clothes become whiter than anything the disciples have ever seen before. Moses and Elijah—representatives of the Law and prophets— make an appearance alongside Jesus, and the three of them engage in conversation. This is an amazing moment, a thin place, where our world and God’s Kingdom coming together in a remarkable way. These three disciples got a glimpse into eternity, and some insight into who Jesus truly is.
Peter starts to talk, as he is often want to do, before he knows what to say. He blurts out, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
On the surface, this seems like a great idea. Peter wants to commemorate this event. We do the same thing all the time. We put up plaques, like the one on I-25 to remember the site where a Girl Scout gathering was held, where battles have been won, where our first church buildings once stood, and everywhere George Washington slept. Pastor Bob has told me from his visits to the Holy Land, which several of you will be joining next year, there are these commemorative signs all over the place—telling visitors where Jesus walked, where Peter healed, where Paul preached, and even the traditional site of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor.
As we noted in our Genesis series, there is a long history of this practice dating back to the Old Testament. You may remember that Jacob, after he had his famous dream of the ladder between heaven and earth, stood up the rock he had used as a pillow that night, and poured oil over it to commemorate the place where he felt God was present and he didn’t know it. (Genesis 28:16).
But Peter’s desire to build these shrines, may have another, deeper significance.
The Festival of Booths
The word translated shrines by the CEB is an interesting one. Mark uses the same word that appears in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) for the religious holiday called Sukkoth, the Festival of Booths.
During Sukkoth Israelites commemorate the time of the wilderness wanderings by spending 7 days eating and sometimes sleeping in little huts they build just for the occasion. The holiday serves to remind the people of their nomadic roots, and the great gift of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the permanent land in which they dwelt. In the days of exile and occupation, it would also have served to remind the people of God’s promise to give them the land while they were in the wilderness, and that he will one day return it to them in the Day of the Lord, the day the Messiah would rule.
With Moses on the scene, it is not a stretch to see Peter’s request to build booths as a type of celebration of this festival. On the one hand, he may have just wanted to hang out in this holy place for a week, the length of Sukkoth. But then again, he may have had something else in mind.
Fulfillment of Prophecy
In our Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Zechariah tells of a day to come when all people, from every part of the globe, will come to worship God by celebrating Sukkoth, the Festival of Booths, together with Israel.
Zechariah’s prophecy is dominated by the promise of the “Day of the Lord,” the day of the coming Messiah. Mark, the other Gospel writers, and the rest of the disciples would have known this book of our Old Testament well when they were walking with Jesus, as they did the entire Hebrew Scriptures, and would have related to it well following Jesus’ resurrection. For Zechariah tells us the Messiah will be a humble king—the prophecy we read on Palm Sunday about him coming on a donkey is from Zechariah—who “is rejected (11:8), and eventually is murdered (12:10). His followers are then scattered and confused (13:7-9). Yet on that day, a way of forgiveness will be opened for his people (13:1).” Then as his prophetic book closes, he talks about the ultimate victory of God, who will then be “identified as the King and will rule the whole earth (14:9)” (“Zechariah”).
In this moment of not knowing how to respond and suggesting the building of shrines or booths, Peter is acknowledging that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one who is ushering in the Day of the Lord, the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. Since Jesus has led them up on a high mountain and Moses, the leader of the Wilderness Wanderings, has appeared, Peter seems to conclude that Jesus is ushering in this day prophesied by Zechariah when all people will come to the mount of Jerusalem and worship God as the King and Lord over all the earth.
I wonder if he thought the reason Jesus brought James, John, and him up on the mountain was to get the party started, “It’s good that you have brought us here.” In his mind, the three of them were going to be the labor building the booths, facilitating the worldwide celebration ofSukkoth. Little did he know that was not a job for this day, but would be his calling for the rest of his life.
Given this significance of the moment, it is curious that Jesus does not respond. He never even acknowledges what Peter says. Mark simply tells us that after they heard the voice of God, the moment was over. Jesus is back to normal, and Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus seems completely disinterested in Peter’s declaration of him as the messiah (we see Jesus repeatedly do this throughout the gospels), at least in the way Peter understands it at this time. He simply leads them back down the mountain, asking them to keep quiet about what they had just witnessed until the Son of Man has been resurrected.
Down the mountain
Jesus has not come to simply draw people up a mountain to be alone. He has not come to create holy huddles, sacred places where the faithful sit among themselves. In other words, Jesus didn’t come to build shrines. He doesn’t call us to put plastic on the furniture, or to keep out the messy away in order to preserve the beauty of the moment. He did not, we might say today, call the church to build buildings for themselves. Instead he came to call people back down the mountain, so they might be the vehicles for him to infuse the world with his love, grace, and peace. All of that is hard to do if there is a piece of clear plastic between his followers and the rest of the world.
You and I have had mountaintop experiences. We have literally hiked a mountain and felt the presence of God so strongly in that place that we just wanted to stay there forever. We have been on retreats where the worship is so moving, the speakers so inspiring, and the presence of the Holy Spirit so thick, we never want to leave. I have been on mission trips, as the one I am preparing to leave with our high school youth this week, and felt so deeply in my element and in relationship with God, I have wished to feel that way every day. We have come to worship in this place and felt God’s presence with us, and wanted to stay to bask in the glow. We have spent time in our devotions, prayer, and reading, loving what we’re learning, and wanting to bury ourselves in the Bible or devotional book, without every coming up for air.
In essence, we want to treat those moments like Marie, from Everybody Loves Raymond, and my aunt and uncle wanted to protect their furniture—covering it in plastic; isolating it from the rest of the world. It is also the way we are sometimes tempted to view the church—the holy few, safe from the struggles of the world, huddled together waiting to get to heaven. “Oh, Jesus, can’t we stay on this mountaintop forever? Can’t we hang out for a while? Can’t you just usher your Kingdom in right now, since we’re part of it? Let’s build some booths, some shrines.”
Jesus’ answer is quite simply, No! Yes we need to come when he invites us up the mountain for those very special encounters with him, but then it is time to go. We need to follow him back down the mountain and into the work to which he has called us.
“Building followers of Jesus Christ who love and serve God and neighbor”
Traditionally, the church has been very good at coming and encouraging others to come as well. There was a time when we subscribed to what I like to call the Field of Dreams ”build it and they will come” model of discipleship. We are good at coming to church—for Sunday morning worship and Sunday School, for Vacation Bible School, committee meetings, Bible studies, choir rehearsals, Talent Shows, Women’s retreats, and Fat Tuesday Pancake Suppers. All those things are important, but they are only one side of the equation.
The other side is Jesus’ call for us to go, to go down the mountain inspired by what we have seen in those thin moments, those mountaintop experiences. Our call is to be people who are growing in our relationship with Jesus, and sharing that with the whole world.
I am so excited about the vision our Vision Team unveiled in the Fall. After extensive time seeking to understand who we are as the unique gathering of followers of Jesus Christ called Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church, and listening to God’s calling for who we are to be, the team came up with this inspired mission statement: “Building followers of Jesus Christ who love and serve God and neighbor.” I love how that vision recognizes the two-sided nature of discipleship which we have been led of God to build here together.
On the one hand we are called to love God—and so we dedicate ourselves to excellent worship, to educational opportunities that lead us somewhere, to resourcing those connected with our church so they may have daily times of Bible reading and prayer, and to connect Christians to one another so they may encourage one another toward growth in their journey of discipleship. On the other hand, we recognize our call to love our neighbors—and so we have a vision to connect with those outside of our current makeup as a church. We celebrate our connection as individuals and as a body to Tri-Lakes Cares, the Snack Pack Program, the Senior Center, the Health Advocacy Partnership (HAP), and so much more. We are so proud of the work our Emergency Preparedness Group is doing in our area, and we loved celebrating our church picnic with the whole community, offering free food at Limbach Park for any who would come. We also look forward to the day when we have a satellite location, a “mission post” as I like to call it, somewhere closer to 105, where we will meet the needs of all people of the Tri-Lakes region.
As a congregation we acknowledge our need to both come with Jesus up the mountain for times of worship which inspires, strengthens, and encourages us. We must also hear his call to go back down the mountain to share his love in the ordinary places of our lives.
Jesus calls us to take the plastic off the furniture of our hearts, our church home, our resources, our faith, and come down the mountain. We don’t need pristine booths or shrines. What Jesus most desires from us is the dedication of our lives in service to him and to others. Through this we celebrate that Jesus is Lord, that God is King, and that the Holy Spirit is present with us each and every day.
“Humm Vac.” Everybody Loves Raymond. Season 5: Episode 18. Where’s Lunch, Worldwide Pants, and HBO Independent Productions. YouTube.com, 08 November 2008. Web. 18 June 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juLwo_gGptk>.
“Zechariah: Introduction Part IV. Theological Significance.” BibleGateway Resources, Asbury Bible Commentary. BibleGateway.com, n.d. Web. 18 June 2014. <http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/Theological-Significance-1183>.
All scripture quotes are from the Common English Bible, Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible.