Lenten Journey: Let's Make Tents Here!
Before you read this chapter, I would recommend you do the following:
Take three deep breaths to center yourself for the journey ahead. Take time to pray by saying, “God, help me understand what you have prepared for me today.”
Read the Scripture slowly. See if there is any word or phrase that caught your attention. Read it with questions such as, Why Peter said what he said? did Jesus do this? What can I learn from today’s reading?
Scripture Reading: Matthew 17:1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 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.’ 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. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 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.’
“Lord, let me make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” Peter barked out these words. The other two disciples looked at each other, their mouths dropped open, unsure if it was appropriate to speak in that holy moment. Perhaps they were thinking, “How on earth do you think you could speak with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah right now? Can’t you just be quiet for a moment?” The truth is, Peter didn’t even know what he was saying. Overwhelmed and awed by the vision, he just felt a strong urge to say something, and those words just came out of his mouth. So, perhaps that was really his unfiltered heart’s desire at that moment - he just wanted to do something for his master!
After all, Peter was a doer. He had a bad reputation for being impatient, reckless, and overstepping because of that. When he saw Jesus walking on the water, he was the one who asked, “Let me walk on the water too!” When he saw something awesome, he wanted to make sure he had a part in it. When Jesus was about to be arrested at Gethsemane, Peter took out a sword and cut off an ear of a servant. That was a clumsy and meaningless attack initiated by his temper, although his intention was to protect Jesus. When the disciples heard that Jesus had resurrected, Peter and John were the first ones to run to the tomb (John 20), although John outran Peter. Peter was the type of guy who could not just sit down and do nothing. He was always the first one to react and do something. The problem was that he was not always the one who had the best reaction.
I can totally relate to Peter. I am usually a hardworking overachiever. I feel alive when there are a lot of things to do, and when many entrusted tasks are before me. So sometimes, I take on extra works on top of my regular pastoral duties. The decision to study Japanese is a good example. No one asked me to do so. I just made this “work” for myself and declared that I was going to try to preach in Japanese in three years. Now I know that it is a reckless dream, although I am having a lot of fun learning the language. One problem with this tendency is that sometimes I do things because I want to hear compliments. I love to hear, “I don’t know how you do all the things you do” or “we appreciate you for doing all the things you do.” I guess it’s not such a serious problem to seek approval from others if my hard work brings some positive impact on the people I serve. However, I know it is a problem for me because often I fail to do all the things I promised to do on time or get frustrated when the quality of my work doesn’t meet my own expectations. My biggest fear is to fail others and hence fail God.
So, I have sympathy for Peter. It was the moment maybe he was waiting for his whole life. He abandoned his job, family, and everything to follow Jesus. He saw many miracles of Jesus, but from time to time, he could not help but have doubts. “Is he really the One we’ve been waiting for? Is he really going to save me and my people?” And he just witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus. He was talking to the two greatest ancestors: Moses and Elijah, which represent the Torah and the Prophets. Perhaps he thought he just found the door to heaven! What else should he be waiting for now? He had to get to work. He was so ready to run down the mountain and bring up all the materials, tools, and workers needed to build three dwellings if only Jesus said yes. He just wanted to please his master. Ultimately, he was going to make God happy with his action!
However, his enthusiasm was overshadowed by a bright cloud and a gentle voice in it which said, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” There are at least two lessons Peter needed to learn from this voice. One is that there was nothing Peter needed to do to make God pleased. Sometimes we think we need to fulfill certain conditions to be able to earn God’s favor. We misunderstand Jesus’ teaching and think when we do almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, we accumulate our treasure in heaven as if heaven were a physical location. All the good works we do are just a reaction to God’s unconditional love and grace. God so loved us first and hence came to us first. There is nothing we need to do to please God and earn his favor.
So, the second lesson is that what’s more important than doing many things for God is simply being in God’s presence and listening. “Listen to him!” That’s it. Our prayer should be “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and not “let your will be done by my works for you.” Do you see the danger of the latter type of prayer? It is that we may let our ego and agenda become a stumbling block when God is making the way.
I am not praising complacency over a hardworking spirit, laziness over diligence in doing God’s work. We should be salt and light in the world. We should be constantly working for the Kingdom of God on earth, for a just and peaceful society. However, the point is that our works have to be fueled by unconditional God’s love and propelled by the Word of God we find in the midst of thick clouds. I know sometimes it is really hard to discern God’s will. Sometimes life is so complicated and precarious, and we desire assurance. We want to work hard based on a strong conviction that this is the right thing to do and get the reward we deserve. We wish our life journey would be as simple as that. Yet, God speaks in the clouds. Sometimes in the storm, sometimes in the gentle breeze, and often in the most unexpected way, God speaks to us. That is why we need to practice the spirituality of listening.
To be honest, this is the hardest spiritual practice for me. As a preacher, I always hunger for the words to deliver. My temptation is to try to find God’s words for others. Often, I think more about what “they” need to listen to, instead of what I need to listen to. During this week, I would humbly invite you to practice this simplest yet hardest spiritual practice with me: Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. He could be speaking to you through the wind and rain. Maybe you could hear him speaking through the wildflowers on the street. In the most unexpected way, one of your neighbors, colleagues, and youngest family members would become the little Jesus to deliver an important message you need to hear. Perhaps you could hear his voice from the cry of the suffering people in Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, or Iran. Let us listen.
Have you ever had the kind of “mountain top experience” that made you think, “This is so awesome, I wish I could stay here forever”? What was that experience like?
How do you listen to God’s voice in your life journey?
What do you need to practice to listen to the Spirit speaking to you better? Is there anything you need to quiet down to be able to listen to God?