Consoling Jesus

Sermon for Sunday, March 2, 2014, Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Matthew 17:1-9; Download the Sunday Sermon March 2, 2014 or listen here online:

This morning’s sermon is about our comforting and consoling Jesus.  So often we think of Jesus as one who comforts and consoles us – and he does!  But this morning I am going to preach about our comforting and consoling Jesus, which can be a fruitful step in our spiritual life.  But I don’t want to begin there.  I want to begin, rather, with Edward Albee and his play, “Three Tall Women.”

About twenty years ago I went with a group of brothers from the monastery to a production of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.”  “Three Tall Women” is a story about one woman, really, who is in her early 90’s and lying in a coma.  In her coma Albee imagines her arguing with her 52 year-old self and her 26 year-old self about what was the happiest, or peak, time of her life.  Here, the 52 year-old self weighs in:

What I like most about being where I am – and fifty is a peak – is that there’s a lot I don’t have to go through anymore, and that doesn’t mean closing down – for me, at any rate.  It opens up whole vistas – of decline, of obsolescence, peculiarity, but really interesting!  Standing up here right on top of the middle of it has to be the happiest time.  I mean, it’s the only time you get a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view in all directions. Wow! What a view!

Leaving the theatre after the performance, one of the brothers, exactly 50 at the time, said, “That’s just what it’s like.  Being 50 is like I’m on a mountaintop looking out at my life, and I have a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of every place I’ve ever been.  And I also look ahead to what is coming, my demise and death.”

When I think of this morning’s gospel lesson – the story of about Jesus leading his disciples up the mountain where he was transfigured before them – I am reminded of Albee’s “Three Tall Women.”  I wonder if what the 50 year-old felt was similar to what Jesus felt up on the mountain: he could look back with a 360-degree view of his life; and he could also look ahead to the events of Holy Week and his own death.

I wonder what that was like for Jesus.  I wonder, for example, as Jesus was up there on the mountain with a 360-degree view of his entire life, if he looked back and saw his childhood: his father in the carpentry shop, his mother, much younger and surrounded his young brothers and sisters.   Maybe Jesus remembered himself in the Temple at age 12, listening and asking questions of the teachers there.  Maybe he remembered the time when he realized that he had a special calling and that he would need to leave home to undertake a mission.  Maybe he remembered his last, tearful goodbye to his mother, or walking along the Sea of Galilee to call the disciples, or preaching the sermon on the Mount, or feeding the 5,000, or healing the sick and casting out demons.  And maybe he remembered, too, the increasing hostility from the Jewish authorities, how their animosity grew and grew even into a desire to kill.  And maybe Jesus remembered, too, the moment he realized that, in order to accomplish his mission, he would have to die.

I wonder what it was like for Jesus then to look ahead and see that death was coming.  Maybe Jesus wondered how he would die or how painful it would be.  Maybe he wondered if dying would be lonely, or if he would still be able to hear and take some measure of comfort in the voice of the Father within, or maybe he wondered how difficult his death might be for his mother.

As I imagine Jesus looking out at his life and looking ahead to his death, I wonder if the reason he took his disciples with him up the mountain was in order to help prepare for them his death.  Yes, to prepare them:  Jesus – so thoughtful, so sensitive to their needs – took his disciples up the mountain in order to give them such an experience of consolation, such an overwhelming vision of God’s glory and goodness, that they might be able to bear watching their friend suffer and die.  And also to prepare himself…

Let me explain.  I think Jesus knew that Holy Week was going to call forth all of his resources; Jesus knew this was going to be difficult.  And I think Jesus would want, to help him get through his death, to have disciples who would be there for him, he wanted to know that there were friends nearby who loved him, and maybe the sight of those friends and the knowledge of their love would get him through the humiliation, suffering and pain.   And so he led Peter, James and John up the mountain to prepare them with an experience of glory and consolation so that they might in turn console him in his hour of need.   So often we think of Jesus as one who comforts and consoles us; I wonder if Jesus took his disciples up the mountain to prepare them to comfort and console him.

To be able, not only to let Jesus comfort and console us, but also to comfort and console him, is an important step in the spiritual life.  For if we can comfort and console Jesus, it means that we are developing a relationship with Jesus that is one of mutuality, that we are on our way to the adult friendship that God so desires with us.  When we can comfort Jesus, it means that we are beginning to recognize how much we have to give, how gifted we are and that the world – that God! – needs what we have to offer.   When we can comfort and console Jesus, it means that we are exercising our ability and increasing our capacity to comfort and console others, so that we might better comfort and console those around us.

Today’s story about the Transfiguration is a story about us.  Yes, today’s text is about our own life and is an invitation to take a 360-degree view of who we are, where we’re going and for what purpose; but perhaps more importantly today’s text asks the question of how we might comfort and console Jesus in his time of need.   For we can see from the mountain that Jesus “must go to Jerusalem… and undergo great suffering… and be killed.”

There are two figures of the crucifixion with whom I wish to leave us this morning, and invite us to meditate on them as we begin the season of Lent.  The first is Simon of Cyrene.  Simon is the man whom the Romans soldiers pressed into service to help Jesus carry his cross.  Though the scriptures do not tell us if Simon did so willingly, many extra biblical stories present Simon as sympathetic to Jesus and who tenderly helped Jesus shoulder his burden.  I wonder what it might be like for us to imagine ourselves being Simon, tenderly helping Jesus carry his cross.  The second is Veronica.  Though not in the scriptures, tradition says that a woman named Veronica, moved by the sight of Jesus as he carried his cross, ran up to Jesus to wipe the sweat and blood from his face.  I wonder what it might be like to imagine ourselves as Veronica, moved with pity and running to wipe Jesus’ face.

My sense is that Jesus would very much appreciate our company during Holy Week; our comfort and consolation would mean much to him.  And I wonder what it might be like for us, not just to be comforted and consoled by Christ – which he does – but to imagine ourselves comforting and consoling him.

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