The Gospels, the life portraits of Jesus, often encourage you and me to think about what we are asked to leave behind to follow Jesus, and what this Jesus teacher is getting us into. We do not often think of what he might be leading us out of. In her novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver gives us a blindly stubborn Baptist missionary leading his wife and four daughters into the Belgian Congo of the late 1950s. His family makes it clear that all they have left behind is good. But after they have had their assumptions tested, and they are scattered and threatened by revolution, they find that the America they were led out of carries its own hidden dangers. “You learn to love what you have to lose,” says one character, speaking of dangers the family never imagined.
Over and over again Jesus invites us to follow him, and like the missionary’s family, or like the rich young ruler, we so often look at what we will have to let go of. We put our trust in the known and familiar and assume that what lies ahead, the unknown, the unfamiliar, must be too frightening to grasp. We would much rather stay where we are, thank you. As a result, the story of the Transfiguration is often framed as that of Peter urging Jesus that they all stay where they are, where they have enjoyed a “mountaintop experience,” but that unfortunately we all must come down from the mountain and go about our everyday business. In other words, the mountaintop, once experienced, becomes the safely familiar, and we would rather cling to it – understandably so – but we have to be willing to give up all that we hold dear if we want to follow Jesus.
The lesson, the moral, of the Transfiguration, is typically framed as that of the great and noble sacrifice that you and I must make to follow Jesus. But a life that is not centered of the Son of God is a life that is, like the America the missionary family left behind, full of hidden dangers. I suspect that when Jesus grabbed the hands of his disciples, temporarily blinded by the light of the presence of God, and propelled them down the mountain, it was to lead them out of comfortable familiarity, to lead them away from complacency, to lead them away from the temptation to stay right where they were, thank you.
What if the “mountaintop experience” Jesus is leading us away from is not, in truth, the comfort of the familiar and known? What if Jesus is urging us down from the mountain because staying right where we are makes us complacent and closes our hearts and our minds to the unknown path – but that the unknown path is the one on which Jesus urges us to travel?
On the mountaintop, we are told, the disciples’ experience is frankly terrifying, full of ghosts and dark clouds and a light so dazzling that it blinds us. If we’ve been blinded, we need someone like Jesus to lead us down off the mountain and onto a new path.
There are encounters with God that ought to blind us, dazzle us, stop us in our tracks. In our Old Testament reading, we are reminded that when Moses came down off the mountain, he was so transfigured that he had to wear a veil. In our own encounters with God, we can fail to appreciate that such an encounter has transfigured us and that we must be led, light-dazzled, onto a new path.
In her book Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard writes: “The higher Christian churches come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism – as though we know what we’re doing, as though we ourselves were appropriate creatures to have dealings with God. I often think,” she says, “of the set pieces of the liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without getting killed. In high churches they saunter through the liturgy like construction workers along a strand of scaffolding who have forgotten the danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches (think Holiness, Pentecostal or Primitive Baptist) you expect it any minute. Which is the beginning of holiness.”
Peter and the others might just be encountering the beginning of holiness. That is, they are with great reluctance being led out of where they were and into something new. And it is a natural enough impulse to resist that. Peter wants to stay on the mountaintop, where he thinks he knows what the deal is. Transfigured by the encounter, blinded by the light, how can we go down the mountain? If we let Jesus drag us out of familiarity and onto an unknown path, what next?
Have you ever closed your eyes and had someone lead you by the hand? When we can’t see where we are going, we balk and hesitate. We go down from the mountain groping, fumbling, all our senses dis-oriented, and all we know to do is to take the hand of the person in front of us, and take the hand of the person behind us, and start walking. One step at a time, and with optimism, and hope.
What has changed in you and me? Is our eyesight still blurred from our encounter with the Divine? Blinded by the light, holding hands, we make our way toward the coming shadow of Lent, when we will walk together through the valley of the shadow, and appear to find the garden and the betrayal and the cross at the other end. But in truth, we are being led out of darkness and toward a new light.
Jesus, taking us by the hand, is offering an invitation, a suggestion that we attend to the faint glow of the new light, that we pay attention to it, like a lamp shining in a dark place. That light will draw us toward it. Or even draw itself toward us, if need be.
One thing is for sure. In the approaching darkness of Lent, you and I will need all the light we can get. Forty days is a long time to wait for the dawn.
So during the coming season, when we find ourselves blinded, dis-oriented, tempted to stay where we are amid the known and familiar, all we know to do is all we can do, the only way out: take the hand of the person in front of us, and take the hand of the person behind us, and start walking. One step at a time. With optimism, and hope.