Human beings have an ambivalent relationship with large quantities of water—that is, any amount larger than what a bathtub can hold. As Spring approaches the upper Midwest, with the ever-present threat of flooding, we are even more acutely aware of this ambivalence! Under the proper circumstances, we enjoy being on water and in water.
But we also realize that it can cause great harm, and even kill us, quickly and without warning. So, in our more organized and safety-conscious swimming areas, we employ lifeguards. When we swim under a lifeguard's gaze, we expect and are reasonably confident that if we get in over our head, or get a cramp, and are thereby put at risk, the combination of the lifeguard's desire to help us, and his or her abilityto help us, and our willingness to cooperate in being helped, will result in our being rescued from the peril we find ourselves in.
Desire + ability + cooperation = deliverance.
Or, to express it theologically, making God the lifeguard: God's love + God's power + our faith = protection from whatever it is that might harm us. God will keep me from getting the flu, or God will get me that job I need, and if he doesn't, it must be that my faith wasn't strong enough or I didn't pray the right way, or ... something.
Don't we sometimes hang on to rather childish views of God? We make him out to be something on the order of a Saturday morning cartoon super-hero, who, because he is all powerful and all-virtuous, will see that we really need to win the lottery, and that, after we take care of our need, we’ll put the money to really worthwhile uses—unlike all those others who merely want to win the lottery and would just use the money selfishly. After all, I love God, God loves me, and the Bible says that those who love God are destined to live with him in heavenly glory, and, well . . . let's just get on with it, Lord! Why mess around any longer with all these annoying details of life—like friends who disappoint us and family members who betray us and bodies that get old and fat and wrinkled and politicians than lie to us and thieves that rob us and interminable wars that drop bombs on homes and schools and wedding receptions. Let's just forget about this suffering business and get on to the main event.
About a year from now, the Winter Olympics will be held once again. I can’t say that I particularly enjoy participating in winter sports, but for some reason I really like watching the Winter Olympics. One of the sidebar human interest stories I like has to do with the participation of athletes from countries we don’t normally associate with winter sports. Now, maybe they’ve tightened the rules so that this doesn’t happen anymore, but most of these winter athletes from climates where a cold front means having to put on a sweater when the sun goes down are usually the entire “team” from their respective countries, and generally finish last or near last in their events. Some of them had never even competed prior to their appearance at the Olympics. All they've have to do was scrape together the finances for a round-trip ticket, and there they are, shoulder to shoulder with those who have dedicated major chunks of their lives to earning the right to appear on the same ice or ski slope or luge run. They have sought to participate in the glory of Olympic competition with a minimum of personal investment.
If you will make a leap with me from the Winter Olympics to an unidentified mountain in first century Palestine, I will suggest that the holy apostles Peter, James, and John have something in common with Sri Lankan speed skaters and Brazilian bobsledders, and with us... in those moments when we want God be a celestial lifeguard or superhero, and just get us out of all this trivial suffering and take us directly to the heavenly banquet, where, during the after-dinner awards presentation, we'll finally get that golden crown. Peter and James and John are on top of the mountain, and Jesus is mysteriously transfigured, revealing the very glory of heaven, and Moses and Elijah—two of the superheroes of Israel's history—show up as well, and, to top it all off, the voice of God himself booms from on high. The poor disciples think, “Hey, we're rubbing elbows with some pretty impressive company; this calls for a celebration. Jesus, how ‘bout we build monuments for you and your two guests, and maybe, down the road, we can charge admission, get a T-shirt concession, sell the movie rights—you know, this could really help out your cause.”
They didn't get it.
They didn't get it. Peter and James and John were like athletes from the land of sun competing in sports from the land of ice. They didn't quite understand what was going on, and what their place was in it. Their befuddlement was not because Jesus hadn’t tried to clue them in to what was happening. Just before climbing the mountain, Jesus had said, point blank, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again.”
And, of course, after they got down from the mountain, back into the real world, that's precisely what happened. Jesus was nailed to a cross by the bad guys and there was no lifeguard or superhero to rescue him. Daddy didn’t make it all better. And two of the three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration abandoned him when he most needed a friend.
But there on the mountaintop, with Jesus’ clothing shining more brightly than any cold water detergent with bleach could ever make it, the disciples thought, “This is it! We've arrived! The glory of God has been revealed and pretty soon it’ll flow down this mountain and fill the valley and everyone will see what we see and know what we know. The kingdom has come. All that talk about suffering and dying—well, I didn’t hear him say that, did you?”
Are you blessed to find yourself on a mountaintop in your life today? Take care that you don’t start thinking and acting like the kingdom has come for you, that you've arrived.
In your journey through life, are you currently exploring the valley of the shadow of death, the valley of fear, the valley of anger, the valley of despair? I will not trivialize your suffering by telling you to “cheer up, this too shall pass.” But I will suggest that your position in the valley is the best possible vantage point from which to perceive the meaning of the mountain. What Peter and James and John did not “get”, what you and I often don't “get” when we’re on top of the mountain, is that the glory of the mountaintop can only be understood in the light of...suffering. The splendor of Jesus’ transfiguration is empty apart from the agony of his death on the cross. So if you're in the valley, look up at the cross, and see that you're in good company.
And don't be envious of those who are on the mountaintop. You, after all, can see what they can't. You can see that the light show up on that mountain is not the main event, the coming of the kingdom. It’s just a sneak preview. Only from your position close to the cross can you see that beyond and through the cross is glory and splendor that makes the light of the Transfiguration look like a forty watt bulb!
If you're on the mountain, enjoy it! And take strength from the experience, because the valley still lies ahead of you.
At the winter olympics, there may yet be a Moroccan ski jumper or two, who only first saw a pair of skis last month, and who yet put on the uniform and march into the stadium for the opening ceremonies. But in the kingdom of heaven, the only path to lasting glory leads through the valley of the cross. There's no getting around it, there's only getting through it. The beginning of Lent closes in on us now, a season when, as a community, we walk that way more intentionally and more intensely. We do so in the hope that we will thereby be enabled to grow beyond a childish conception of God as a lifeguard superhero who is there to “make it all better”, to a mature relationship with a God who has became one of us, who suffered with us and for us, suffering which alone gives meaning to the glory which we also share with him.