On Holy Places

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From the Accounts of Matthew and Mark

A day-long hike up into the mountains with the leader of arguably the most important movement to sweep Israel in centuries - just the two brothers and their close business associate - this was a real treat! The three weren't at all sure of the purpose for the strenuous 10,000 foot climb to the top of Mt. Herman, but the stimulating conversations with the Teacher at numerous resting spots along the way were in and of themselves enough to make the trip worthwhile. It wasn't until they sat down together among the rocks at the craggy summit that it began to dawn on them that this would be no ordinary adventure.

The first clue was a shiny reflection they noticed, apparently from the high altitude sun, that gave the Teacher's robe a very brilliant glow. It grew in intensity until the Teacher's whole body, especially his face, was so dazzling bright that the three actually had to shield their eyes. Baffled and unnerved, they drew back to the refuge of some large boulders for some protection from whatever this shining might do. And as if this weren't enough, there was the sudden appearance of two strangers who had somehow made it unseen to the top of the mountain ahead of them - older men, perhaps rabbis, who the Teacher seemed to immediately recognize. The brothers and their friend Peter listened intently to the dialogue that ensued between the Teacher and the strangers, confusing conversation, not at all the surface talk of new acquaintances but more like an exchange between old friends who had not seen each other for a long time. It soon became evident that the old men were not merely senior rabbis Jesus had met through earlier synagogue encounters. These men spoke of God's activity in Jewish history like they had actually lived it. They spoke not as scholars with footnoted and referenced knowledge, but in the first person, as if they themselves had been present at some of Israel's defining events. Strangely, Jesus spoke with such familiarity about these events that one might think he had been there himself.

Peter was first to figure it out. These rabbis had not climbed the mountain early for a meeting with Jesus - these were the very apparitions of the patriarchs Moses and Elijah! It had to be. And Jesus had to be someone with supernatural knowledge to be interacting so naturally with them. Peter and the brothers were witnessing a rare, once-in-an-eon occurrence - another defining moment in Israel's history! This event must be somehow recorded and preserved!

"Let us build three tabernacles, Lord," Peter broke into the conversation. His mind had been whirling, racing through the historical precedents of altars and monuments and shrines erected to honor special people and events. Maybe a large visible stone monument would be most fitting for this monumental occasion. No, an edifice would be better, like a retreat center for those who would make pilgrimages to this holy site. But first things first. Some kind of structures must be built right away to provide shelter for the special guests. And for the Teacher, too, of course. Peter had already begun to scan the rugged terrain for available materials when a fog started moving in. In a matter of moments it had become so thick that Peter and the brothers could hardly make out the forms of Jesus and the two patriarchs, though they were close enough to overhear their conversation. It was then that the most frightening thing took place.

A deep rumbling sound, coming from they could not be sure where, began reverberating all around them. And a voice that seemed to come from all directions at once spoke with unmistakable fidelity: "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!" Peter and the brothers hit the ground and buried their faces in their robe sleeves, terrified that they might be intruding where few mortals had ever survived - in the very presence of Yahweh.

The silence that followed was deafening. Not even the wind whispered a sound. When Peter and the brothers finally dared lift their eyes they were startled to see that everything had returned to normal. The sky was blue and clear, the strangers were gone and the Teacher was standing in front of them as though nothing had ever happened. "Don't tell anyone about this," the Teacher instructed them. "At least not until I'm gone."

Peter was incredulous. Don't tell!? The biggest event to hit Israel since the parting of the Red Sea and He says - "Don't tell"!? This transfiguration, this apparition, should be broadcast immediately to every village and city of the country. This is a miracle of gigantic proportions. It could validate the Teacher as the long awaited Messiah. At the very least, a shrine must be erected to mark this hallowed spot.

"Listen to Him" - the words rushed back into Peter's mind. Yes, maybe he had better listen to Him, he concluded.

Let's not smile a patronizing smile at impetuous Peter. Not yet. Not until we examine the source of our own innate inclination to build monuments for God. Erecting houses for God is a predictable enterprise for religiously oriented people. We get great satisfaction from building churches, whether to serve our own worship needs or for struggling groups of third-world believers we meet on our short-term mission trips. How could anyone question the rightness of building a building dedicated to the worship of God? Would God ever object to the erection of a visible symbol that bears witness to the Lordship of the Messiah? That's what Peter wondered, too.

Assembly places are certainly needed. A thatched house in the village or a rented hall in the city will do for a time but a church, a sacred sanctuary - that's what our imaginations are really drawn to. And not just any edifice will do. Not for long, anyway. We desire a permanent location where sacred symbols can be displayed, a consecrated place, a place we can enter with reverence into the Divine Presence. And if it can have architectural beauty, with spires or steeples or stained glass or great arches and columns, oh my, that is design truly befitting a house of God! I speak not with tongue in cheek here. I have been moved nearly to tears as I have gazed upon the magnificence of cathedrals - especially centuries-old ones in Europe - built as an act of worship and symbolizing God's enduring presence down through human history. So why no sacred shrine on Mt. Hermon?

I can only hypothesize. Perhaps it had something to do with the human need to stake out territory, to establish ownership rights over a piece of ground or a piece of history. Or perhaps it was a corrective to the tendency to anchor and institutionalize Divine encounters, experiences intended to remain immediate, dynamic, mysterious in their flow through human history. Or maybe it was about the inevitability of our egos to become entwined with our mission and the subtle temptation to allow ourselves to be elevated by sacred title and position. Or could it simply have been about not calling certain places sacred when all creation, wherever God's presence is found, is sacred?

The chroniclers give us no clue as to the reasons for the gag order and construction prohibition. We can only assume that Peter did as he was instructed and kept the entire episode to himself until after the Teacher's execution at the hands of a Roman garrison. The story would come out later as part of a growing body of evidence supporting the belief that the Teacher was indeed the Messiah of Israel, risen from the dead but leaving behind precious few physical traces for proof. Most was anecdotal evidence, stories told by people like Peter and the brothers and an assortment of equally unimportant people about how their lives had been transformed by their encounters with Him. In the retelling of these personal accounts, in the invisible wind and fire that ignited the spirits of new believers, in the daily expressions of their care and compassion for one another, the Messiah movement grew in momentum. From house to house, meal by meal the movement spread, out from Jerusalem into Roman empire and beyond. It was a movement of ordinary people, captured by the radical-love teachings of One they believed to be Son of God, that infiltrated the societies of the world with their redemptive message of forgiveness. But somewhere along the way the movement eventually became institutionalized as a religion and, like all world religions, its followers began staking out ground for the building of sacred places.

Bob Lupton

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