Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus (Mark 9:2-6)
There was a time before locked doors and high walls when God and humans were peaceful and easy with one another. There was no need for humans to build anything then. The Creator had them covered.
Then Eve and Adam made the choice of self-sufficiency over dependence on God. They quickly found that they didn’t have everything covered. The fearful shame of being discovered in their naked vulnerability led them to make clothing for themselves (Gen 3:7). Exiled from their God-given home, they had to fend for themselves.
It wasn’t long until “sin was lurking at the door” of the jealous Cain implying that housing was necessary, but was no shelter against temptation (Gen 4:7). The first human construction mentioned in Scripture was the ark that God told Noah to build to ride out the flood that was coming to cleanse the world of the corruption and violence that quickly filled it after sin entered (Gen 6:11-122).
Noah survived, and built a tent where he became drunken and dissolute on the fruits of his labor (Gen 9:21). Soon his descendants were building great cities seeking the companionship and protection of each other rather than God (Gen 10:11-12). Their experimentation led to the development of kiln-fired bricks and mortar enabling stronger, taller buildings as monuments to human ingenuity and pride (Gen 11:3-4). God stepped in and scattered the people ending that particular effort in city-building and humanism. Yet, the building effort would be replicated over the ages as humankind sought to establish its self-sufficiency and to shelter against its persistent inadequacies.
In the first eleven chapters of Genesis, the rationale for human construction is laid out: security against who and what the builders fear (“I need to keep a roof over the head of my family”); privacy as a shield from shameful discovery (“Close the door, please. I don’t want you to see me in this condition”); an escape from the problems of living in a sinful world (“I am tired and I just want to go home”); and monuments to human achievement (“My what a lovely home you have! You must be doing very well”).
Please do not think me cynical and jaded. I am not talking about the beauties of art and architecture much of which is intended as a testament to the glory of God. I am the son and grandson of carpenters and home-builders who were godly men who saw their work as God’s provision for their families and as their service to God. My point is that until we lost our home with the God who “does not live in homes made by human hands” we had no need to build (Acts 17:24).
So Peter, James and John are led up the mountain by Jesus to pray. It is a moment like no other. Jesus is transformed in appearance and is clothed in a dazzling white light. Then Moses, the exponent of the law, and Elijah, the prophet who pointed the nation back to God, join Jesus in conversation.
Terror grips the disciples. In their consternation, they forget that Jesus led them to this place and cannot discern that he alone is the light by which the law and the prophecies are illumined. The law holds them accountable and the prophecies convey the will of God with the urgency of fulfilled time. And Jesus? What are they to make of the revelation that their teacher ranks in the company of these ancient saints?
Talk is the typical human reaction to what we fear or can’t understand. Peter gushes, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here, let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Isn’t Peter just like us in trying to turn a prayer meeting into a building project with nary a thought to what God might really want? It is a “Field of Dreams” mentality — “If you build it, he will come.” More than that it is the kind of “let’s take action now, and God will sort it out for us later” or “Get moving and God will catch up with us” presumption that has left the Church split into myriad denominations with a gross oversupply of expensive church buildings and a woeful undersupply of members.
The very salutation, “Teacher,” used by Peter to address the transfigured Jesus has it wrong. The teacher of light is the Light. He’d told them that. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:39-40, 46).
Jesus is not one more teacher or prophet with a perspective to consider. He’s not another reason to raise funds and found an institution, and build state-of-the-art facilities. We love to try to structure him, tailor his message, compare and contrast him with other teachers. Our pride and longing for significance and control are served when we do those things.
God the Father will have none of our spiritual machinations. His cloud overshadows what we think we know so well and have such certainty about. From that cloud comes a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
When the cloud lifts, only Jesus is there. Moses and Elijah are gone, having done their job in turning human eyes to Jesus. What happens next shows the amazing tenderness of Jesus for his fallen children. He comes over to them and touches them, saying, “Get up, and do not be afraid” (Matt 17:7).
He doesn’t need our buildings or even the service of our hands, because he gives us everything (Acts 17:25). The Giver wants receivers. “The Lord longs to be gracious to you” (Isaiah 30:18). The ache in his heart is for the restored relationship with his children.
Peter had glimpsed this before when Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. . . .” (Matt 16:15-18, emphasis added).
I hope you see this. “We are . . . God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9). The Lord our God, Creator of heaven and earth, and everything in them, prizes people, not buildings!
God ever always seeks to make us in his image. Our busy building projects are attempts to make him in our image. That’s not obedience. Obedience heeds the call to “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
That easy yoke means that if we move, we move at Jesus’ lead. The light burden means that his power and wisdom make the task possible. This is where pride and grace collide because if we insist on using our blue prints and our tools even in his service, we are disobedient.
It seems preposterous to our independent, “can-do,” virtuous spirits in a world that applauds self-help initiative, but the greatest test of obedience whether on the mountaintop or during your morning commute on the expressway is this: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who find refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
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The Lord is the strength of his people;