Charlie Sheen. The man is a walking train wreck. In case you’ve somehow managed to miss this story, Mr. Sheen went on a few drug-induced benders recently, causing the hiatus of his sitcom. That would have been enough for media attention, but he’s gone on an unashamed, I’m a winner, you’re just jealous, viral media crazy-blitz.
Everyone makes mistakes, but most of us don’t go and crow about it on talk radio the next day, and then on Good Morning America, and then on the Today Show, and then on CNN, and then an interview with that most respected of all world news outlets, TMZ. And just when you think it’s over, he says something even crazier, like: “I’m an F-18, bro.” Or “These resentments, they are the rocket fuel that lives in the tip of my saber.” Yes, you heard that right. Resentments are the rocket fuel that lives in the tip of Charlie Sheen’s saber. Train wreck, in slow motion, with instant replay.
So here’s the big question of the day. What do Charlie Sheen and Jesus Christ have in common? I’m no Letterman, so I could only come up with a Top Five. (Many thank to Jerry Donovan for his help!)
5. Jesus creates miraculous amounts of alcohol; Charlie consumes miraculous amounts of alcohol.
4. Both speak in metaphors difficult to translate into English.
3. Jesus makes great wine. Charlie just whines.
2. Neither sees anything wrong with hanging out with hookers.
1. One of them is God’s gift to the world, the other thinks he is.
Kidding aside, I think Jesus and Charlie do have something in common. We have a problem, us 21st century Christians. We read this book, and we love it so much, and we respect the people in it so much that we have a hard time identifying with them. All great literature is about identifying with the character. You recognize yourself in Tom Sawyer or Atticus Finch. They’re complete fiction, yet you see something in them that you want to be. Great fiction is the lie that tells the truth.
So look at our text today, the transfiguration. Who are the characters in the scene? Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John. Six characters, and we identify with none of them. Jesus walked on water. Moses walked through the Red Sea. Elijah called down fire from the sky. What did you do last week? I got stuck in three inches of slush! I can’t compete with these guys.
It reminds me, in a small way, of how we deify celebrities. We put them up on a pedestal, as if they were role models. They’re not role models. They’re pretty people who are good pretending to be someone they’re not. Which is good, because that’s pretty much what we expect them to do 24/7.
No falls off a pedestal. We put them up there, and then we rip it out from under them. It feels good to have someone to look up to, someone to follow. It frees us from the responsibility of defining ourselves. As good as that feels, it feels so much better to look down on them afterward. It proves that you’re a better person. “I may be messed up, but I’m no Charlie Sheen.”
It’s never really about them; they’re just the backdrop for our story. They are the measuring stick we use to inspire or comfort ourselves. We forget… well that’s not really accurate, we willfully choose to ignore, that they’re human.
Back to our text. Why are Moses and Elijah in this story? The short answer is that Moses represents the Law and Elijah the prophets. Together, they symbolize the entire Old Testament. Remember, Jesus didn’t come to break the Old Testament. He loves his Hebrew Scriptures. He wants to fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures. Moses and Elijah need to be here to show the continuation of their work in his ministry. But I think there’s more to it than that. They’re here on this mountaintop for a reason. Both of these men have stood on the mountaintop.
Moses stood on Mount Sinai, and received the tablets of the law. The cloud descended on the mountaintop. God spoke from the cloud, and thunder rolled down toward the people. When Moses came down, his face glowed with reflected glory, and they were so terrified they made him cover his face.
Elijah stood on Mount Carmel. He faced down 450 prophets of Baal. God answered his prayer with a fire so hot that it burnt the wood, the offering, the water, the stones, and scorched the earth. When he came down off that mountain he ran ahead of the king’s chariot all the way to Jezreel.
They’ve been on the mountaintop, not just once, but twice. Moses stood on Mount Nebo, and looked down into the Holy Land. He looked down on the promised land of God, the land he had spent 40 years of his life seeking, and he knew he would never make it. He made a stupid, arrogant mistake, and this was the price. He could see the Holy Land, but never go in.
Elijah stood on Mount Horeb. Well, stood isn’t really the right word. He cowered. He hid… in a cave. The man who faced down 450 prophets ran and hid when Jezebel’s messenger delivered her death threat. When God asked him what he was doing, he complained. Then God revealed himself not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but the still small voice. And the voice said, “What are you doing, here?” And he complained again in exactly the same words. He learned nothing.
We’ve studied Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount over the last few weeks. Matthew intentionally parallels the story of Jesus with the story of Moses so that the Sermon on the Mount echoes the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. If that was the first mountaintop, the victorious mountaintop, then what is this?
We Christians are sometimes so careful to deify Jesus that we forget, or we willfully choose to ignore, that he was human. Perhaps Moses and Elijah were there because he needed them to be. He needed to see what was coming as part of a larger story, the story of faith, the story of deliverance not from all suffering, but through and out the other side. You see this confirmed on the Mount of Olives when Jesus cries, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” You hear it confirmed on the hill of Golgotha, when Jesus cries, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was fully human.
But he must have learned something from these two. Or perhaps they reminded him of something he already knew. Because he follows “Let this cup pass from me” with “Not my will, but yours be done.” And he follows “Why have you forsaken me” with “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
If you ever wondered what was the right thing to do. If you ever knew the right thing to do and wondered if you had the strength to do it, then you have something in common with Jesus. If after all that, you went and did it anyway, if you made God’s will a reality in this place, forgetting the cost, for the sake of your brothers and sisters, then I’d say you share a family resemblance. You and Jesus have something in common.
These heroes of faith are not porcelain statues to be observed from afar. They are human beings just like us. The word Christian does not mean Christ follower. It means little Christ. As he is for us, we are to be for others, even for Charlie Sheen.
Benediction: You may have noticed I left someone out. Three someones, actually. What about Peter, James, and John? Why are they in the story? First, they teach us that Jesus is not one among many. You don’t build three equal houses and put Jesus in one. God says, “This is my son. Listen to him.” And second, try as we might, we can’t stay on the mountaintop. All we can do is hold onto what we learned there and take it with us into the valley of everyday life. May God meet you on the mountaintop and walk with you through the valley and out the other side. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God forever, amen.