“Look up,” my wife says to our 15-year-old when he can’t get his nose out of YouTube videos, but some days we need to say it to ourselves and each other as well. Look up from your phone and see the natural world, the people around you, or the chores that need to be done right now.
This past Sunday I turned off my Twitter notifications and gave myself a break. It might seem strange to consider this a form of looking up, since I’ve been conscientious for half a dozen years about curating a feed that brings me varied viewpoints about the news and the world. But I needed to mute collective anxiety for a minute and pay attention to something else. Instead of falling down the rabbit hole of Twitter replies, I needed to look up.
Looking up was key in the heroic life of Harriet Tubman. Her father taught her to look for the North star, a great skill for developing a sense of direction that would be life-saving for her and for the enslaved people she would liberate as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.* Looking up and finding the star gave her literal direction, a way to find a route by night, but it also represented her faith that God would make a way out of what seemed like no way to escape.
Nicodemus made his way to Jesus in the night because he feared showing his curiosity in public. Maybe he had too much to lose, or wanted to protect those who depended on him. It’s clear from their conversation in John 3 that he has only a partial understanding of what Jesus is doing and who Jesus is. My friend Mary Beth uses the email signature “John 3:17 – Look it up!” as a counter against exclusionary interpretations of John 3:16, and I have unpacked the contrast in past sermons. But if I were preaching this week, I would be paying attention to the rest of the passage, particularly this.
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
“I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?” (Psalm 121:1) We know better than to literalize this poetic expression, and yet there have been so many things that I needed to look up to see!
Look up from your phone, your work, and your singular point of view. Look up from your fears, your preferences, and your prejudices. Look up – for a wider view, a broader perspective, a more dimensional prospect of what God wants you, wants us, to do and be.
I was a very little girl when my mother and grandmother took me to see The Sound of Music. My love for Julie Andrews led to a drastic haircut, and my love for everything else Von Trapp made me the most patient five-year-old imaginable as I sat listening to my mother read from the real story of the family, written by the real Maria. At the end of the first chapter, trying to find her courage after meeting all the children, she looks at the view of the familiar mountains around Salzburg, Austria, and remembers the opening verse of Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
When I was in high school, my family traveled to Salzburg, and we looked up to those same breath-taking mountains, their ancient peaks covered with snow. Maria grew up in and loved the mountains, and she read that Psalm verse as a declarative statement; she looked up to the hills, because she believed her help was coming from them. In the hills, in the mountains, she experienced the presence of God.
It’s an ancient idea, that we can get closer to God on a mountaintop, but that’s not the only way to read the Psalm verse. Modern translations like the Revised and New Revised Standard Versions and the Common English Bible end the phrase with a question mark.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?”
The assurance comes in the next verse:
Our help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.
We all have words we carry along with us because they helped us in the past, expressions or verses or quotations that seem to sum things up just the right way. Our grandparents learned them by heart, but we don’t memorize on purpose so much nowadays. We’re more likely to see quotes laid over images passed around on Facebook or re-pinned on Pinterest. If we read them enough, maybe they stick in our heads.
In my head, I hear a lot of scripture, especially the Psalms, in the King James Version of my childhood, this one just like Maria’s translation from the German.
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
I grew up and went to college and got married and had a family, and everywhere I went, I took that copy of “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” with me. Now tattered by love, it sits on the bookcase I turn to most often, just behind my desk. It is full of incidents where misunderstood language plays a part. The family comes to America on a concert tour and has trouble understanding the customs and slang and regional accents. As a little child, I didn’t get all the humor of those stories, but I remembered the things important to a child: the children proposed to her for their father; part of their house in Vermont collapsed; when the Captain was dying, they sat around his bed singing.
And I remembered the Psalm, quoted in the movie version, too, before they go over the Alps to safety.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills —
My daughter reminds me that every time we see the movie, I tell her they misinterpret that verse. Where is the question mark?
No question marks later in the Psalm, though, none at all.
The verses of this Psalm, in their Hebrew form, would have been well-known to Nicodemus, a Pharisee. In a primarily oral culture, he formed part of the minority who could read the Holy Scriptures. On the night he went to visit Jesus, he needed all his sources of courage. His peers already had a grudge against Jesus, who in the previous chapter announced his arrival in Jerusalem by turning over the tables in the Temple and accusing the religious leaders of turning his Father’s house into a marketplace. It’s important to note that in John’s gospel, unlike the other three, this happens early in Jesus’ ministry rather than in the days before his arrest and crucifixion. It is the opening round of Jesus’ conflict with those in authority. That includes Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus by night and in secret, not only concerned that his compatriots will find out, but also likely wondering whether Jesus will welcome him.
Still, he comes. He trusts in God, who the Psalm tells us will not fall asleep on the job. God will be with us all the time. God will take care of us, protecting us even from the elements.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
We don’t usually think of the moon as something that could strike us. In the King James, the word is “smite!” When would the moon smite us? Then think of Nicodemus, trying to get to Jesus. It could happen when we don’t want to be seen in its reflected light.
And he comes with respect, making the claim that Jesus must be a teacher come from God.
Have you ever played the game where you choose three historical figures you would want to meet at a dinner party? As a good Christian girl, I always felt like I had to say Jesus before Jane Austen, and definitely before Maria Von Trapp, but the truth is I would probably rather meet Jesus by night, with no one else to bear witness if I couldn’t understand what he was saying to me.
Jesus, frustrated by being called merely a teacher, perplexes Nicodemus with the concept of being born from above, and being born of Water and Spirit. He is speaking of the chance for new life in God’s love, but we don’t understand it much better than Nicodemus did. In recent years Christians have grabbed onto the King James translation of the phrase, “born again,” and created a theological concept designed to label people. If you are born again, you’re “in.” If you’re not, you’re “out.”
It’s easy to do that when we only listen to one version, or read only one verse.
Our help cometh from the hills, right?
Our help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Like Nicodemus in the night, we search these scriptures looking for the thing we can understand. When we find it, we breathe deeply, relieved.
For God so loved the world.
We encapsulate it by chapter and verse in signs held up at sporting events, in the eye black on football players, on bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets. Some use it to further divide the “in” and “out” groups. But that all came later in a determined human attempt to make a spiritual truth take a literal form. In that moment, when Nicodemus came seeking the light in the darkness, Jesus didn’t outline how we should pick teams later. He simply said how much God loves everyone.
For God so loved the world that Jesus came to be with us, not to judge the world based on human measurements of belonging and acceptability, but to save the world. God *so* loved the world.
Maybe that’s the part Nicodemus remembered on his way home, keeping to the darkest streets in Jerusalem, hoping no one would notice him.
The Psalm ends with this assurance:
TheLordwill keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
We know God kept him safe that night. Nicodemus appears in John’s gospel twice more, first in chapter 7 where he reminds the other religious leaders that their own law forbids judging a person without hearing his case, and then at the end of chapter 19, where he comes in broad daylight to bring myrrh and aloes needed to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Where does our help come from?
Our help comes from God, who loves the world so much that part of God’s own self came among us in Jesus Christ. God loves us so much that we have been offered new life in the Spirit. God did this not to divide us into teams or set us up for arguments about translations and question marks. God did this out of love for all people – love then and love now.
So write it down on a piece of paper. Commit it to memory. Call it up in your mind in the dark of night. For God *so* loves the world…
(A sermon for Lent 2AMarch 20, 20112 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9)
I don’t do a lot of instant messaging, but there are a few friends I keep up with via Google Chat. We share the news of the day, ponder what to say in our sermons and talk about the weather, our dogs and our children. We use internet shorthand, and we use those little smiley face things, too. One day I realized a friend had sent me a square smiley in response to something I typed that was well-meant, but not so smart. My friend was sending me a “block-head!”
And as I read this week’s gospel lesson, I want to send Peter one of those smiling blockheads. There he is, up on the mystical mountain with his friends and his teacher, in the middle of an amazing spiritual experience: a manifestation of Elijah and Moses, and the transfiguration of Jesus, who is suddenly shining like the sun and dressed in “dazzling white.”
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4, NRSV)
No matter which version of this story I read, no matter which gospel, this is the idea that grabs me. In the midst of all this spooky revelation, and there is more to come, Peter is trying to make it concrete.
How human! How Peter-like! How block-headed!!! And yet who can blame him for wanting to stay where heavenly lightning seems to be striking?
Except that just a moment later he will be cowering on the ground with his friends after hearing the voice of God:
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. (Matthew 17:5-6)
Well, who wouldn’t be? We want a revelation from God, right up until we get one, usually. We’re on the edge of something marvelous, we have a sense that THE TRUTH WILL BE REVEALED, and then we get more than we could have imagined, more than we are prepared to take, to hear, to see, to metabolize.
And so I picture them with knees of jelly, those disciples, as they were coming down the mountain, stomachs astir, minds trying desperately to grasp the details that we know someone held onto, because this story became part of our tradition. If I had been among them, I’m sure I would have wanted to tell someone, everyone, about it, to be sure I had not lost my mind! Surely Peter, James and John felt the same way.
But that is not to be, and this is one of the points of this story that scholars perhaps prefer to discuss, because it’s less mystical:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9)
Tell no one. Tell no one. Poor Peter, ready to develop the mountaintop with retreat homes for long-lost prophets! Tell no one.
This had to be hard for Peter, especially when we consider that of all the disciples we hear the most from him. He was clearly a talker, and I think we can feel pretty certain that he transmitted many of the stories we know about Jesus, complete with not-always-brilliant and occasionally-even-blockheaded remarks he made himself. He must have known how to communicate with people, one of those outgoing guys who know how to tell a story other people will remember.
Today’s passage from 2nd Peter is a testimony to the Transfiguration, and the whole book in its original Greek is filled with rhetorical flourishes that scholars doubt would have been part of the language of a Galilean fisherman. Since it is unlikely that Peter would have received a Greek education, we believe the epistles in his name were written to tell his story and give his point of view, likely by a later follower. It was not considered wrong to do that kind of thing in the first century. It was a compliment to the person who could not, for whatever reason, write the story down. And recording Peter’s stories would have seemed the obvious thing to do for a follower who wanted to make the excitement of the Transfiguration both palpable and believable for other Christians.
Because it’s not a story we would be inclined to believe without an eyewitness, is it?
Tell no one. Tell no one.
There are times when I wish something as blindingly obvious as the Transfiguration would happen to me, to reassure me that I am on the right track.
Most of the time our confirmation comes in more muted form: a sense that we have it right, the affirmation of a trusted friend, the assent of a mentor or teacher. In a church community we bring groups of people together to try and sort out what to do next, how to serve God’s purpose in our particular time and place. We practice discernment, a funny combination of conversation and prayer and action, waiting to see what feels right and what does not work.
When we have a big decision to make we want the clouds to part and the heavenly choir to sing and point fingers in the right direction. In the life of a church that sometimes falls to a search committee; they engage in a process that is one part due diligence and one part lightning strike! How do they weigh one against the other?
Well, they tell no one, first of all! And they pray, and so does the rest of the church, trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide them, gently.
But that day on the mountain, God was not gentle. And some moments are too uncanny to be shared right away. They need to be told in their proper time, after they are seasoned in us.
Tell no one, Jesus said, but he added a caveat: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
All the things we know about Jesus would be different without the Resurrection. That moment lay ahead, and it would be the key to understanding everything about him. Peter and James and John got a preview, but even they did not really grasp what had happened, yet. It is only with the perspective of time that the polished version of the story appears, with its graceful language and its certain tone. Peter waited and told no one. And although he had been to that mountain with Jesus and had seen Moses and Elijah, and been knocked to his knees by an awareness of God’s presence, Peter still managed to mess things up, denying his connection to Jesus at the moment of crisis. But he got his right mind back again. When the Resurrection had taken place and the fear of Good Friday was behind him, he told everyone. Then he finally had a chance to make something out of the stories of his time with Jesus. He used them to build not a booth or a shelter, but a church, a community of believers trying to follow in the way of Jesus.
In the end, Peter told everyone, although the telling cost him his life.
Tell everyone. Tell everyone.
“Tell no one” is almost more comfortable, isn’t it?
We are still telling the stories today, reading them and trying to understand them, putting ourselves in the places of the disciples and wondering what it might have been like to walk with Jesus. We puzzle as they did over what Jesus meant, or we shift in discomfort when the obvious meaning asks more from us than we feel prepared to give.
Remember what I said earlier:
There are times when I wish something as blindingly obvious as the Transfiguration would happen to me, to reassure me that I am on the right track.
The trouble is, when we receive that level of certainty, when the truth knocks us to our knees, we can’t run away from it. We have to respond. Our lives will never be the same again. That’s how it is when lightning strikes us.
It worked that way for Peter. Oh, yes, he tried to run away. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t. And hold onto him when you need an example of redemption. He came back from being the worst sort of failure to become the best kind of faithful.
And that is the Good News, my friends. We don’t have to be perfect to share the story of Jesus. Even a blockhead could tell everyone. Amen.