Before you read this sermon, try these brain teasers from Forbes Magazine:
Not Getting It
I would like you to pay attention to what just happened in your brain as you tried to answer the previous questions. You knew the answer was right in front of you, but you just couldn’t see it. You were poised on the cusp of getting it, but you weren’t quite there yet.
If that’s how you felt, you’re in good company: St. Peter didn’t get it either.
Peter had been traveling with Jesus for quite a while. He had listened to Jesus’ teaching, seen him heal the sick and feed thousands of hungry people, and he even got to walk on water with Jesus (however briefly).
After all this time, Peter was finally starting to feel like he was getting it. Everybody knew about Jesus the carpenter, Jesus the teacher, and Jesus the healer. Some folks were even starting to talk about Jesus the prophet. But when Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter went out on a limb and said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And that risk paid off, of course: Jesus had publicly hailed him as the blessed receiver of divine revelation, the rock on which the church would be built, and the holder of the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Peter gets it!
But then, not long after that, Jesus had turned around and called Peter “Satan” when he didn’t understand what Jesus was saying about his impending death. Peter doesn’t get it.
We catch up with Peter this morning at a particular moment in his spiritual journey when he’s still on the way. He’s forming a clearer idea of who this Jesus guy really is, but he still doesn’t fully get it. He hasn’t solved the riddle yet, but he feels like he’s getting close, so he’s holding on for dear life. He can’t resist the mystery.
So, Peter wakes up one day and Jesus taps him and two of his buddies on the shoulder and says, “Come with me.” They start to hike up a mountain, but Jesus doesn’t say why. Peter just kind of rolls with it because that’s what he’s used to: Jesus sometimes does weird things without explaining himself. Peter knew to expect that.
But what he didn’t expect was the moment when Jesus started to glow… yes, glow. And I don’t mean some soft, warm mood lighting; I’m talking about full-on Three Mile Island type stuff. Jesus went nuclear. It was brighter than the sun; you couldn’t even look directly at him.
Peter must have thought his eyes were playing tricks on him because, after a moment of squinting into direct sunlight, he thought he saw two other people, standing there next to Jesus. One of them looked like he was carrying a wooden staff and two stone tablets… is that Moses? Impossible, he’s been dead for thousands of years. The other one was wearing a camel-hair shirt with a leather belt… which is how the prophet Elijah was supposed to dress. But again… that’s not possible. They looked like they were having a conversation with Jesus about something, but Peter couldn’t make out the words.
And it was then that Peter started to put the pieces together: Here they were, on a mountain just like the one Moses ascended when he had a conference with God and received the Ten Commandments. Here was Jesus, shining so bright you couldn’t stand to look at him, just like Moses was shining when he came down from Mount Sinai. And, to top it all off, here was Moses himself (and Elijah, the most famous Jewish prophet of all time).
Peter’s mental wheels were spinning, and then it hit him: he knew the answer. He finally got it: Jesus was not just a carpenter, rabbi, healer, prophet, or Messiah… Jesus is the fulfillment of everything God had been bringing the Jewish people toward for thousands of years. God had already led their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt by the hand of Moses and guided them by the prophets. Now, it was time for the next step: Jesus the Messiah was about to join Moses and Elijah as God’s chosen instruments of deliverance for the people of Israel. Now that these ancient heroes had returned, they would surely team up to defeat the forces of evil. And who had God chosen to bear witness to this auspicious occasion? Peter, James, and John.
He couldn’t really see or hear what was going on, but that didn’t matter; he was just glad to be there. He was glad to finally be getting it. The pieces were all starting to fit together.
And Peter, being his usual talkative self, thought that this would be a good moment to say something (because, for him, every moment was a good moment to say something). Peter (God bless him) was very well-intentioned; he just wanted to help. He figured that, if these three heroes were going to plan the liberation of Israel, they would need someplace to do it. So Peter spoke up and offered to build them some shelter, maybe set up a basecamp.
But before he could even get the words out of his mouth, the bottom fell out from underneath him once again. The already dazzling light coming from Jesus seemed to envelope Peter and his friends. They couldn’t tell which way was left or right, much less see anything.
And then a voice. They couldn’t tell where it came from or what it sounded like. It might have been coming from inside their own heads, for all they knew. The voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
And then, just as suddenly as it had started, it was over. There was no more voice, no more light, no more Moses, and no more Elijah. There was only Jesus, the same guy Peter had been following around for years and trying to figure out. And just when he thought he’d finally got it (again), the floor dropped out from under him. Peter collapsed to the ground and was afraid. Yes, he was terrified by the things he had just seen, but he was even more terrified by what it all meant: because he didn’t know. He was leaving this mountaintop visionary experience with even more questions than when he first arrived. That’s not how these things are supposed to work!
Jesus came over and put a hand on his shoulder saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And Peter, not knowing what else to do, did what he always did: he followed his friend.
Peter didn’t get it. To be honest, I find that comforting because we don’t get it either. We always seem to end up walking back down from our mountaintop experiences with more questions than answers.
That’s what the Christian life is really like. We don’t get a lot of neat and tidy answers. We get a person instead: this complicated, enigmatic person named Jesus. We know that he was a working-class Jew from first century Palestine, but there’s something else there too: something that keeps people coming back for more, even after two thousand years.
In Jesus, we experience the great mystery of existence, the ground of being, and the meaning of life. Our theological shorthand for what we experience is divinity. In Jesus, Christians experience the presence of God. How does that work? What does that really mean? We don’t know. Christian faith is not about ‘getting it’ or having the right answers.
Try as we might to understand that mystery, the fact is that we can’t get it into our heads, but it gets into our hearts and transforms us from the inside out.
The moment when we think we’ve got it all figured out and it feels like the answer to life’s great riddle is at hand, we need to watch out: because that’s the moment when God is most likely to drop the floor out from underneath us and leave us lying on the ground, wondering what the heck just happened.
And it is in that very moment that we will find Jesus, our mysterious friend, once again reaching out a hand to us and saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
His call to us is to take that mystery in our heart and the questions in our mind and follow our friend back down the mountain, where the ministry continues and the journey never ends.