Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tabernacles on the Mountain, and Service Here Below

The sermon at church this morning was about the Transfiguration.  In Mark 9, Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up a high mountain, and Jesus becomes transfigured before the three disciples.  Jesus’ clothes becoming shining, and Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus.  Peter suggests that the disciples make three tabernacles—-one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  V 6 says that Peter did not know what to say and that the three disciples were afraid.  A cloud overshadows them, and a voice from heaven proclaims that Jesus is God’s son and exhorts the three disciples to listen to Jesus.  Then, the only ones there are the three disciples and Jesus.  The disciples ask Jesus questions, and, when they come down the mountain, there is a child who is demon-possessed and needs Jesus’ help.

The most interesting part of this sermon was when my pastor was offering explanations for why Peter wanted to build tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  That is what I try to do when I am studying the Bible: I seek explanations for certain details in the text.  The pastor presented a few explanations.  One is that Peter was hoping to start the fulfillment of Zechariah 14, which foretells that nations will observe the Feast of Tabernacles in the time of the Messiah.  I liked this explanation because it was tying the New Testament with the Hebrew Bible.  I am not entirely convinced by it, however, because the Feast of Tabernacles was supposed to take place in Jerusalem, whereas the Transfiguration occurred in Galilee.  I also think that this explanation contradicts the spiritual lesson that the pastor was drawing from the Transfiguration story: that we cannot just stay on the mountaintop enjoying our mountaintop spiritual experiences, but we have to come down to the messy world and serve.  But, according to this explanation, Peter did not just want to limit himself to the mountaintop, for he was hoping to start the Feast of Tabernacles on that mountain and for that Feast to spread beyond that to the outside world.

The second explanation was that Peter wanted to keep the mountaintop experience going.  He wanted for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to have tabernacles so that they could stay a while.  That makes some sense, and it coincides with what my pastor believes is the spiritual lesson of the Transfiguration story.  Still, I have a question about it: Does not v 6 say that the three disciples were afraid?  Why, then, would they want for the Transfiguration experience to continue?

Way back when I was in college and was in a Bible study group, I read a commentary’s explanation for Peter’s desire to build tabernacles.  It said that Peter was trying to contain the experience—-to put it in a box.  This is the sort of explanation that can draw glazed or confused looks in a Bible study group, but maybe Peter was trying to bring this exalted sight down a few notches so that it was more comfortable to him.  Or perhaps Peter was trying to be hospitable.

What do I think about the spiritual lesson that we shouldn’t spend too much time on the mountaintop but should try to make a difference in the messy world below?  I have heard this idea before.  I remember even hearing a Jewish homily in which the rabbinic student was drawing this sort of lesson from the Pentateuch.  It reminded me somewhat of Christian homilies I had heard about the Transfiguration, and someone who knew this student told me that was not surprising, for this student was a convert to Judaism from Roman Catholicism.

But what do I think about the spiritual lesson?  Well, part of me does not care for it.  I am the type who can spend the whole day in my study.  More than once during the day, I pray.  I enjoy being alone, away from the judgments and expectations of other people.  When the pastor said that we may like to spend all day with Jesus, not wanting the experience to end, I could identify with that.
But I do believe that I should have some contact with the messy world, a world that does not consistently conform to my desires or expectations, or God’s, for that matter.  I can do that when I go out into social settings.  I can also read about how messy the world is.

As the pastor said, mountaintop experiences are great.  Jesus may have given Peter, James, and John that mountaintop experience to encourage them in the days ahead—-especially after Jesus’ resurrection, when the disciples put together who exactly Jesus was and went forward in mission.  But we should also come down from the mountain and try to make a difference in the messy world here below.  Are mountaintop experiences pointless if they are not motivating us to serve here below?  Not necessarily.  God may give us mountaintop experiences to minister to us and to edify us, because he loves us.  But I do believe that God wants us to care about other people.  That is part of being like God.

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