It’s good to escape. It’s better to live in the place where others go to escape. Still, there are times when I wish for nothing but to escape from the place where the southeast goes to escape. Life is difficult and denominations implode. There’s simply too much to keep in the air and something is bound to drop—it’s usually the second child. And if life's not difficult, then it’s monotonous. Here's another day that will feel just like yesterday and if this toddler yells, “Get me a drink!” one more time, then I’m getting a second mortgage at the Motel 8.
I get away, if only to a coffee shop or for a run through the forest, to regain clarity about what I should be doing and then, summon the energy to do it. I search for transcendent moments beyond the routine of cooking and writing, temper tantrums and e-mailing, evening news and social media. I escape because I know that there is more—depth, an interruption to the hum drum, salvation. And if I can’t find salvation here, then I’d better go find where it’s hiding.
Jesus and the disciples needed to get away from time to time. Death was imminent in this particular moment. Jesus had recently taught them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering ‘at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day.’ At best, Jesus turned out to be lousy Messiah. At worst, he’s a liar and a fraud.
Peter loses his temper and says, “God, forbid it.”
Jesus rebukes him.
It’s time to get away.
Six days later, Matthew writes, James, John, and Peter are walking up this mountain in sweat-saturated robes. Their feet are pounding the ground, knees wobbling. It’s the perfect time for a walk. If the disciples can summit this mountain, then they might also summit whatever waits for them at the bottom.
Mountain trails are sympathetic metaphors for our lives. The trail’s curves are as treacherous as our own winding and meandering. Unforeseen obstacles appear and require improvisation. There is breathlessness from either exhaustion or beauty. Maybe both. The summit is visible, but there’s always another switchback. The pain is therapeutic. One day we must see the promised land, so we keep putting one foot in front of the other.
At the top of Mount Tabor things get weird, which is polite for trippy. The disciples have either foraged some bad mushrooms or God’s presence is revealed. There is a dazzling light. Garments are as white as snow. The veil between heaven and earth is pulled back. Time stops. There is silence. Moses and Elijah appear next to Jesus. Is this hallucination? Most dream dictionaries concur that Moses is standing in for the Jewish law and Elijah is representing the prophets. And Jesus fulfills both.
“It’s good to be here,” says Peter who has since been named ‘Captain Obvious.’ “Let’s put up some shacks. This moment doesn’t have to end. We can stay here.”
Have you ever tried to capture a moment? It’s futile. Moments can’t be contained any more than a picture can capture your mother’s smell and presence. That piece of frozen cake in your freezer will not capture your wedding day. Or, the vile full of water from the Jordan River will not give you back the moment when your feet sunk into the mud at the riverbank. All moments, especially the holiest ones, will eventually come to an end.
A cloud rolls in with a thunder before Peter even finishes his sentence. A voice booms from the heavens saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” The dazzling clouds rolled out as quickly as they rolled in and they were left in darkness and fear. Listen to him—even the parts about the suffering.
The church’s word for what happened to Moses and Jesus is not tripping. It’s transfiguration, or metamorphosis in Greek, which means to change into something more beautiful. The caterpillar was actually a butterfly, but no one could make it out. In other words, the disciples saw what was there all along, but was obscured by fear and ignorance and busyness.
Now, many of us have experienced something like this—well, maybe not dazzling light, ghosts, and voices from heaven. But we’ve had moments become transfigured and time becomes different, other-worldly, even. Time’s relentless marching stops for a cigarette break. And something becomes holy.
“Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw a backyard cedar transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the the grass with lights in it, utterly focused. It was less like seeing then being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. ….I have since only very rarely seen the tree with lights in it. The vision comes and goes, but I live for it, for the moment where the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
There’s a key to interpret this story, one that’s so well-hidden that it’s hardly noticed. Matthew’s first verse: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” All of this took place on the seventh day. Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor on the Sabbath day. And when Peter says, “It’s good,” he very well could be talking about the seventh day of creation, Sabbath, a day that’s not only good, but it’s so good that it’s holy.
In the creation story, God brings light, hangs the stars in the sky, the creeping things are creeping, the flying things are flying. God picks up dirt and blows into it to form humankind. It’s this beautiful poem. Finally, God rests on the seventh day. Not because God is tired, but because God’s intention is enchantment.
Humans are so self-absorbed that we think we’re climax of God’s creation, when God turns to us and says, ‘All I have is yours.’ But the final brushstroke of creation wasn’t Adam and Eve; it was God’s rest on Sabbath. Creation isn’t about us. It’s about Sabbath--resting, delighting, enjoying, being.
If heaven is to come to earth, then it will start with Sabbath. This is the day when time and eternity touch; a mystical moment where time changes. Time is not running out, nor is it standing still. It’s different. It’s transfigured—infused with eternity. The past, present, and future are simultaneously wrapped inside of one another. The ‘eternal now’ is tangible. The beauty underneath all things peeks out of the rubble.
We make a mistake when we say that Sabbath is about escape. Sabbath is about freedom. It’s learning to submerge yourself in life—deeply. All of it. God didn’t create Sabbath to escape creation. But God created Sabbath to dwell with it—the pain and the glory. Transcendence and difficulty. Suffering and ecstasy. To see the reality of the world and not run away, but embrace it for the sake of truth and justice.
Sabbath is God's slow transfiguration of the world.
Do you think you can live in the world a little differently? At least for a day, or until it becomes the rhythm of your life?
The disciples longed to escape from the pressures of life, the difficulties of following a Rabbi who was walking the road to the cross. Who wouldn’t? It’s good to get away. Vacations are great. But the problem with escaping is that it can be misused as an opiate. It dulls the symptoms, but won’t cure the disease.
The same world was waiting for the disciples at the bottom of the mountain. There, at the foot of the mountain, a grieving father was looking for healing for his deeply ill child. And that father is waiting to see a transfiguration of his child. Further down the road, there was a cross and a tomb.
Is God present there, too? Can there be transfiguration?
Jesus didn’t give the disciples escape. Jesus gave them Sabbath, which is another way of saying 'intentional living.' Jesus was teaching them to see the world as it is—both hard and beautiful. God is transfigured on the highest mountains, but God will also emptied into the world’s worst hells. And the disciples were about to discover that the same Jesus they saw on the mountain shining in glory, will be the same Jesus on the cross.
And here’s even more surprising news: even the crucified Christ can be transfigured.
I wonder what beauty surrounds you. I wonder what pain surrounds you. I wonder if God is transfiguring both. Now, if someone is causing you consistent pain and suffering, then you should get away. This isn’t about martyrdom. Don’t misunderstand me. But generally speaking, Christians are not a people who run away from another’s pain. We’re a people of Sabbath, who believe that there is light everywhere and in everyone waiting to be revealed, if we just hang in there.
The world was broken, but God didn’t leave. God put on skin. And so we empty ourselves into the world, as Christ was emptied into us, because we believe that there is no pain that is beyond transfiguration.
Can we look deeply into the face of a screaming child and see that he’s not possessed, but hungry—for attention, rest, food? Can we look at the disfigured hands in the nursing home and not run away, but remain present in her pain and beauty? Can we look at the divisiveness that threatens to tear apart a denomination and stand alongside God’s people until there is transfiguration? Can we walk with others toward the cross and experience humanity’s worst evils, and wait for a God who doesn't let death become the end of the sentence?
Will we fight together for transfiguration? Or, do we just escape?