February 23, 2020 | Pastor Kelli Schmit
Changes are unpleasant and in-between times are hard. When you graduate school but the next chapter hasn’t officially started. When you’re engaged but months away from the wedding. The boxes are packed but you haven’t moved. The dust has settled on your retirement yet the next adventure hasn’t presented itself. Waiting for the next thing, that you know is surely coming but it’s not happening yet, is incredibly difficult.
The people in our first reading from Exodus had forty years of waiting during this kind in-between time. Moses and the Israelites have fled Pharaoh’s oppressive rule in Egypt. After narrowly escaping through the Red Sea they are now they are wandering in the wilderness. They fear that they will die in the desert, either of hunger or dehydration. They complain to Moses and Aaron, saying, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we […] at our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Did you catch that? They’d rather eat as a slave under Pharaoh than be hungry and free. Change is that difficult. Life in Egypt was terrible but at least it was familiar. The draw to what is comfortable and known is awfully alluring. God provides manna, quail, and water from a rock. The Israelites fill their bellies and continue on their way, wandering through the wilderness, maybe a little aimless, searching for where they are to go. It is at this point when God calls Moses up a cloud covered mountain to give God’s people instructions for how they are to live. How they are to be as a people in this in-between time and upon their arrival.
The parallels between our Moses story and the story of Jesus’ transfiguration are rather obvious. We see Moses and mountains, clouds and divine pronouncements.
It’s a time of people figuring out what to do in this in-between time
A week after Jesus tells the disciples he must suffer and be killed and on the third day be raised, a claim which Peter begged to not come true, resulting in Jesus calling him Satan, a week after this whole exchange, Jesus takes Peter up a mountain, along with brothers James and John. Before their very eyes they see his clothing become dazzling white, foreshadowing the dazzling clothes of the angel at the empty tomb. If that wasn’t enough, the embodied representations of all the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, are suddenly there with them, just chatting away with Jesus.
Understandably flustered, Peter offers to start a construction project. While he is still speaking, a cloud overshadows them. Chatty, impulsive Peter often gets a bad rap, but even God has to interrupt him today. While it’s easy to bag on Peter, one scholar had a much more sympathetic take on him.
He didn’t offer to build dwelling places in an attempt to contain or control the divine moment or to avoid going back down into the valley. He just couldn’t understand or comprehend what was happening before him.
When we can’t wrap our mind around what is happening right before us, we default to something we do know. Peter doesn’t know why or how Jesus is suddenly dazzling white, but he does know that it’s polite to give people a place to rest. If my grandmother would have been there, she probably would have offered to make them something to eat.
But poor Peter…the physical appearance of his friend, teacher, and leader has inexplicably changed, great figureheads from the past have just popped up on the scene, they’re surrounded by an omnipresent cloud, and a divine voice is giving instructions from the shadows. The disembodied voice repeats the baptismal formula.
This is God’s Son, the Beloved, and that we are to listen to him
We are to listen to him when he says that the poor in spirit are blessed, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven. We are to listen to him when he rejects dehumanizing and objectifying women. We are to perk up our ears when he teaches us to pray, beginning with the words, “Our Father in heaven.” He told us to do to others as we want them to do to us.
He told the ill that they were clean and the infirm to take their beds and go home. He warned us that the status quo is killing us and that he came to divide us from it. He talked about how God showers grace and understanding on all people, not just a select few. He told us stories about how the kingdom of God grows and takes shape in unbounded and inconceivable ways.
Peter can’t wrap his brain around what is happening…it’s just too much. But if this can happen, then maybe the rest of what Jesus said is true. He also said that he must die, but also be raised in three days. That couldn’t possibly be true, could it? Then again, an outdoor chat with a dazzling Jesus along with Moses and Elijah couldn’t possibly be true either, but it is.
In response to the whole scene – the shining clothes, the figureheads, the cloud, the voice – in response to the whole thing, the disciples’ knees buckle. They collapse to the ground in fear. They are told to listen to Jesus, and what’s the very next thing he says? “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” Again, foreshadowing his own resurrection, Jesus invites them to arise.
This encouragement isn’t from an impressive and authoritative yet distant and detached voice, this comforting guidance comes a familiar source, from the kind eyes looking in theirs, from the steading hand on their shoulder. Jesus is close. He is near to them. He touches them, grounds them, stabilizes them when the earth has fallen out from under them and their brains can’t compute what their eyes are seeing. He promises them that they have no need to be afraid. He is there. He is with them. Don’t be afraid.
And with this, the disciples are thrust into a time of waiting. They don’t know what’s coming next but they do remember what Jesus said was coming. They’re in the midst of this in-between time, waiting on the cusp for something to happen. To paraphrase Audrey West, the disciples will listen to his parables, fall asleep when instructed to stay awake, and watch their friend and leader be arrested. But it won’t be the end of the story. They’re still in the in-between time.
Jesus is with us when we don’t know what to do and don’t know what’s coming next. God is with us when we’re out of Egypt but not yet in the promised land. God is with us through tumultuous times when everything is chaotic and we’re bored waiting on the cusp of something to happen. And Jesus joins us as we wait during in-between times and says, “Get up, don’t be afraid. I’m here with you.”