Here is a picture of Mt. Sinai where today’s gospel might have taken place. Keep it in mind while I read this by Barbara Brown Taylor:
“It starts with a long climb up a windy mountain in the fading light of day, hunting for a strong place to pray. No talking for once. No wall of words between you and the others. Sit down. You are here to pray, so get on with it. Pray until you are weighed down with sleep.
Pray until it is dark enough to see light through your eyelids where light should not be. You don't really want to open your eyes to see where the light is coming from. Then you look. And there he is: someone you thought you knew really well, standing there pulsing with light, leaking light everywhere. Face like a flame. Clothes dazzling white.
Then, as if that weren't enough, two other people are there with him, all of them standing in that same bright light. Who are they? Can't be. Moses? Elijah? Dead men come back to life. God's own glory, lighting up the night. Now they're leaving. And now Peter's saying something. Tents, he's saying. We need tents.
Before he can finish his thought, there’s a cloud coming in fast that is way more than weather, a terrifying cloud that is also alive. Cutting Peter off. Covering everything up. Smells like a lightning strike. Can't see a thing.
Then a voice from the cloud lifts the hairs on the back of your neck. Fear so fast and primitive, you're bristling like a dog. What's the voice saying? Not "listen to me" but "listen to him." The Son, the Beloved. But listen to what? He's not saying anything. He's shining. Or at least he was. Now he's not. Now it's over. Now what?”
I imagine Christ and his gobsmacked disciples eventually finding their way back down the mountain. Occasionally muttering; “Wow!” Otherwise, there’s just nothing to say about this mind blowing experience.
When Peter sees his friend shining like the sun, flanked on both sides by great, dead men, his response is not to sit in wonder but to get practical, to get busy. It is quite logical that Peter should start looking around for tent building materials because when Moses met up with God in the wilderness, he did so in a tent.
But what about his impulse to turn from the shining glory of God to practical matters? Well, that reminds me of a joke:
A young priest walks into his church and see Jesus Himself coming up to the altar. The priest races next door to his bishop and yells; “I just saw Jesus coming up the aisle at church! What should I do?” The Bishop immediately thunders: “For God’s sake, look busy!””
Peter thought he needed to get busy instead of just sitting in awe and wonder. But God interrupts Peter’s tent building plans by showing up in the form of a powerful, frightening cloud. There are so many references to God coming in a cloud in the Hebrew Bible. When Moses gets the law of God on Mt. Sinai, the entire mountain is enclosed in a cloud for days. When the people of Israel are in the desert, God leads them as a cloud by day and fire by night. In 1 Kings, when Solomon dedicates the Temple in Jerusalem, a dense cloud fills up that huge place so that the priests can’t even see what they are doing. So Peter knows that he is in the presence of God when he sees that cloud.
It’s interesting to me that the cloud is thick and obscuring. It’s impossible to see God, it’s hard to even think when in such a dense, swirling mist. This is how I sometimes feel in our bible studies as we try to penetrate the thick cloud of God’s word. You know, there is a strong tendency to try to demystify these mysteries. We apply all of the tools we have to try to nail down the truth. We pray that God will help us in our efforts to unravel these ancient stories. We use maps and lots of books and we talk and talk.
The reason I love our bible study though, is that we often get lost in the thick, mysterious cloud of these ancient words. And this is what we do: a big shrug. Who knows? Why did Jesus say this? What does this parable really mean? Why, why, why? And this is what is important: we give ourselves permission to stay with the ‘why’. We don’t have to use a Christian decoder ring to put everything into a tidy package. We wonder why, and then we sit in that wonder.
Way too often, while doing sermon research, I read hard, cold articles breaking down God’s majestic word into easily digestible pieces: This represents that, this means this, here are the fact, just the facts. No mystery, no wonder.
So what if the point of the obscuring cloud is not to decode the cloud but to enter into that thick mist? The cloud exemplifies the mystery that is God. We enter into communion with God in the cloud through prayer. Our gospel today starts with Jesus and his friends going up a mountain to pray and look what comes of that.
That priest in my little joke got bad advice when he was told that the answer to encountering Jesus was to look busy. When we chose busy-ness in our lives, we take away time for prayer. What if we enter the cloud of unknowing and just listen for what God has to say?
I want to learn how to sit in that thick cloud with God and accept that I can’t possibly understand his mystery. I’ve started a new prayer discipline and I invite you all to join me. I have been sitting quietly in prayer for ten minutes every day. In that small amount of time, I don’t read or listen or watch or move, I just sit and be with God. More importantly, I listen for God in my silence. Will you try this with me in the coming week? Will you see what God makes of having quiet time to spend with you?
We hear this sometimes: “Don’t just stand there, do something.” Today, instead, I say: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Be still. Give thanks. Praise. Listen. Amen.