There is a beautiful Christmas song, written by Wihla Hutson in 1951 that paints beautiful word pictures of how children see Jesus. It begins,
Some Children see Him lily white, the Baby Jesus born this night. Some Children see Him lily white, with tresses soft and fair. That certainly is true for me. When I was young I had a bible with pictures of all the great characters of the bible; Moses on the Mountain, holding the 10 commandments, Elijah, going up to heaven in a flaming chariot, and of course Jesus.
The picture I remember is the scene in which parents are bringing their children to Jesus so that he could bless them. In spite of the protests of the disciples who try to prevent them, out of ignorance of what Jesus was all about, Jesus did bless them. The picture I remember shows Jesus lifting up one child in his arms as other children and their parents crowd around.
They looked like me – like us. All the children and their parents were Caucasian. As a matter of fact, so was Jesus. “Some children see him lily white.” I sure did.
Jesus in my skin: nice, but dangerous
But that’s OK. In fact that song celebrates a truth that is wonderful and deep. But also dangerous. It is true and even essentially true to think of Jesus as one who knows me, speaks my language, understands me like a native, at a level that an immigrant will never achieve. In that sense, Jesus looks like me. And everyone is invited to know that truth, all over the world.
But it is dangerous. Picturing Jesus like me, in my skin, and speaking my language is only a whisker away from a cliff edge of disaster; the tragedy of seeing the Jesus that “suits me” instead of the Jesus that is.
Perhaps it is tempting to scoff at poor Peter as we read this text – he is famous, of course, for being rash, impulsive, and often wrong. But as we look at this text together, let us enter the story just as he did – as someone who is trying to follow Jesus, seeing him through the only eyes he has, the eyes of his own history and culture, and their hopes and dreams. Let us put ourselves in his shoes – or sandals – and then see if our image of Jesus changes as his did.
Eight days after these sayings…
So, to the story: It begins
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
No story begins, “eight days after these sayings”- obviously we are jumping into a story-in-progress. And clearly, those sayings are absolutely important for the story we are in – so we will return to those sayings in a minute.
What is happening eight days after those important sayings? Picture it: Jesus takes his core leadership team, Peter, John and James, and teaches them by modeling, by example, what they need the most, to make it as disciples: he teaches them the habit of prayer: connecting with God.
They climb up to the top of a nearby mountain – of course they do, because that culture pictured God as “up,” so the higher up you were, the closer to heaven you were. So up there on the mountain, like Moses and Elijah before them, they went to seek God.
I love the way Luke tells this: first we get to see what Peter, John and James saw, and only later do we find out that they had been so sleepy they nearly missed it. There is that moment just before sleep finally enfolds you that you drift somewhere in between the real world and a dream state. It is in that moment of almost asleep-ness that they see it: Jesus changes before their eyes. They had been used to seeing him one way, now they seem him another way.
“the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
He used to look just like one of them – same middle-eastern skin tone, same Galilee style clothing – like one of the fishing boys; no more! Now they see an entirely different Jesus – and he is not like them at all! He is somewhat like Moses, shining as he came out of the cloud of the presence of God, down Mount Sinai, but even more so. More like that mysterious, “Son of Man” from the apocalyptic visions of the book of Daniel – the one that receives a Kingdom from God, the Ancient of Days!
In fact the only word that describes how he looked now is the very word reserved for God himself: “glory”!
How do you describe this? Suddenly they see Moses and Elijah there also, and quickly a cloud, just like the one on Mt. Sinai envelopes them, and it utterly terrified Peter, John and James!
What do we do when we experience something extraordinary and new? We humans always first try to understand it by fitting it into what we have already known and experienced before. Peter, John and James have just been overwhelmed with a direct experience of the glory that belongs only to God. What should a good Jewish boy do?
Glory is for tabernacles
Well, they all knew that in the days of Moses, the glory of God was present in the holy of holies, the very center of the tabernacle – which was actually a tent-shrine that they made, at God’s direction, that could travel with them through the wilderness.
That experience of 40 years of wilderness in which God’s presence was with them in that tabernacle-tent was the basis of their annual festival called the festival of booths, or tabernacles. Every year the people were to make for themselves little temporary shelters called tabernacles, or booths out of branches and palm leaves, and live in them for seven days to commemorate their time of wilderness wanderings.
This word “tabernacle” or “booth” or “dwelling” is exactly the word that Peter used on that mountain, in that moment of overwhelming glory, as he suggested his idea of an appropriate response to this experience.
33 Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings (booths, tabernacles), one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.
This is exactly what you would expect if you were seeing Jesus the old way, as perhaps, another great prophet of Israel, like Moses or Elijah – one who had been in the very presence of God and lived to talk about it. Build a tabernacle shrine! “Of course! That’s what we do: that suits us to a tee.”
But this way of looking at Jesus, in our skin, as one of us, as chapter 20 in our history is unacceptably near-sighted.
In this mysterious, cloud-filled moment, suddenly a voice, like the voice from the cloud at Sinai, thunders – not even allowing Peter to finish his misguided proposal:
34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
This is the point of this experience of the Transfiguration: God himself speaks again, as he had spoken to Moses and Elijah, but now he says something new: God announces that Jesus must never be seen as simply one among many – even as another special one among a few notables of the past. Instead: now see Jesus in an entirely new way, blazing in glory. Now see him as God’s Son.
See Him, Hear Him
And do what? Build a shrine at which to worship him? No! Rather, “Listen to him.” “Hear him” – just like Israel’s central creed says, which begins, “Hear Israel, the Lord you God, the Lord is One.” So now the creed is “Hear him!” What Jesus says, he says not as one of the boys might say, what he says, he says as God’s chosen Son. What he says is now our central focus.
So now we see why this story began “eight days after these sayings.” We go back to those sayings, and we hear things that do not necessarily suit us. We hear him say, in the verses just before this story,
Luke 9:23-25 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
How do we see Jesus? “Some children see him lily white,” like us. That is good – he does speak our language; he knows us inside and out. But he is also not like us. He is God’s Chosen Son, and when we see him in glory, we must hear him.
He does not speak words that leave us where we are, as comfortable, middle class caucasians. He speaks words of sacrifice and denial of self. He speaks words that challenge every culture and every ideology, every value system and every tradition. (How does sacrifice and self-denial sound to our culture today, on Valentines Day – does that fit the Hollywood notion of love and relationships? Quite the opposite!)
No, we will not build booths or tabernacles to make another shrine as our culture taught us to do. We will go back down the mountain with Jesus, now that we see him as he is. We will listen to what he says. We will go with him as he confronts evil that holds people in bondage. We will hear him teaching about the ethics of neighboring – even to Samaritans, even to lepers, even to the outcast and the despised.
“Some children see him lily white.” But some disciples saw him dazzling white, with the authority of God to command our obedience. This is the moment to be utterly overwhelmed. We will be the people who hear him, and submit to him, whether it is what our culture has prepared us to do with Jesus’ words, or not.
Some Children see Him
Wihla Hutson, 1951
Some Children see Him lily white,
the Baby Jesus born this night.
Some Children see Him lily white,
with tresses soft and fair.
Some Children see Him bronzed and brown,
the Lord of heav’n to earth some down;
Some Children see Him bronzed and brown,
with dark and heavy hair.
Some Children see Him almond eyed,
this Saviour whom we kneel beside,
Some Children see him almond eyed, with skin of yellow hue.
Some Children see him dark as they,
sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray;
Some Children see Him dark as they,
and ah! They love Him too!
The Children in each different place
will see the Baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heav’nly grace,
and filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing,
and with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the Infant King,
’tis love that’s born tonight!