Freweini Mebrahtu is the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year. She works in rural Ethiopia to remove the stigma that occurs when young women begin their menstrual cycle. A stigma that can lead to these girls missing several days of school or dropping out entirely.
She was honored last December at a New York gala, and CNN donated $100,000 to her organization, Dignity Period, to help her continue and expand her work.
Hero of the year!
What a cool idea! Most kids these days probably don’t grow up thinking they will spend their lives helping others stay in school, or the importance of staying in school themselves, for that matter. They start first grade, thinking that someday they’ll be an astronaut, doctor, firefighter, police officer, or the president. Little Susie never seems to want to do database entry or insurance sales. It’s always something more heroic than that.
But it’s not just the kids. An online user poll ranked adult responses to the same “What-do-you-want-to-be” question asked of the kids. The top five things people had wanted to be one day as they began their more mature formation as an adult. Rich, singer, superhero, movie star, and cowboy. And no surprise, dump-truck driver and janitor were featured at the bottom of the rankings list, as honorable as those professions are.
Honorable, but not always admirable.
We learn at an early age that there are people in our world who are more admirable than others, based on our sense of their power, prestige, and potential for greatness.
I bring this up because when Peter sees Jesus – his Jesus, the rabbi he’s chosen to follow – chatting with the two – THE TWO – heroes of his faith, Moses and Elijah, he’s more excited than a groupie at a red carpet event.
Suddenly, everything falls into place for him: Jesus as Hero. Jesus as Messiah. Jesus as the One. Jesus the Anointed.
Peter is ready to proclaim Jesus as Hero of the Year and throw Him a New York gala.
Of course, Peter doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
That’s not me speaking; that’s the Bible. In Luke’s telling of this story, we read: “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ – not knowing what he said” (Luke 9:33).
But let’s not dismiss Peter too quickly. There are a number of different approaches possible with this well-known text, but one that occurred to me after reading Barb’s message from earlier this month is the idea of hero worship being the flip side of idol worship; similar but not identical. For, while Jesus may be the hero, He wants to unveil or unleash the hero in us.
The Heroic Task. In his book Let Story Guide You, author and speaker Donald Miller points out the narrative elements resident in the Scriptures and their connection to people’s imagination both in Jesus’ day and in our present culture. Miller claims that in the story, the strength and greatness of the protagonist are measured by what dreams would potentially die if the hero does not succeed in the task.
In other words, the greatest stories have great heroes with great tasks at hand. Have a heroic task and a person to take it on, and you’ve got a great story.
George Lucas – and, now, Disney – would agree, based on their Star Wars series, which tops the box office with every new release and has rabid fans waiting breathlessly for information about what’s next in the Star Wars universe. In the movies, normal young people who have lost their parents and are raised on a desert planet find that they have incredible force powers, and the fate of the entire universe rests on their shoulders. Great characters with a great task – a story people buy into.
Do a Web search on your local news station’s Web sites and at least one if not all of them will have a spot that features exemplary individuals who stand out in the local community for their service and valor – they’re our “Hometown Heroes.”
With all the hero worship and heroic aspirations, we might be quick to label the trend of self-aggrandizing. They are just people glorifying the celebrity limelight, right? Hey – look at me! Check out my “cape”! Yet, here is where I make a distinction between hero worship and idol worship.
And Peter, to his credit, does the same I believe. For in this text he’s pointing to Jesus: Check out the cape, the Christ Cape! He’s the one! He’s the one with the Heroic Task!
So perhaps our cultic elevation of heroes is saying something deeper about the human soul. What if the human attraction to figures of power and potential and mythic accomplishment is about a desire to be heroes for others, and not just for our own status?
What if God wired or coded some sort of altruistic data string into our DNA that was full of hero-hope as a way of aligning our values with God’s values? What if God wants to awaken that desire in his people? How would God call us to heroism?
Echoes of a Voice. Natural theology and the doctrine of general revelation point to the concept that God has created and mapped the universe with signs that point Godward. Call it a sort of cosmic GPS: God-spotting Providential System. These are signs that all people can read. Signs that won’t save them, but should make them curious about God.
The two classic “signs” in the Scriptures are creation and conscience. The natural world points to a Designer (Psalm 19, Romans 1) and the human sense of right and wrong points to a Giver of moral conscience (Romans 2).
In homage to C.S. Lewis’ popularization of these concepts, British theologian N.T. Wright wrote Simply Christian, offering what he calls “echoes of a voice.” The echoes are desires resident in all of humanity which indicate that God has created them with longings. While people can’t actually see the Speaker, they can hear the echo of the things which he has spoken into their souls.
Wright suggests four echoes in our culture: the universal appreciation of beauty, the longing for moral justice, the intrigue with spirituality of all forms and the need for human community.
What if the fascination with heroes – with a person like Freweini Mebrahtu of Dignity Period – the lauding of their abilities and the desire to be like them – is an altruistic “echo” that God has spoken into humanity?
“You were designed for something greater – the greatness of living to love others.”
Jesus Came and Touched Them. Today’s transfiguration text is common to most of us. It’s usually conveyed theologically as a story to demonstrate the deity of Jesus confirmed through his connection with great Jewish prophets and with the Father. But if this were all Matthew was concerned about, he could’ve scrapped a lot of the surrounding details and emphasized the doctrinal highlights: “This is my Son” and a whiter and brighter Messiah.
Clearly Jesus is the hero/protagonist of the passage, but the secondary characters tell a story from the transfiguration mount that we all need to hear.
It was “six days later” (v. 1). Normally that would merely be a literary device of time and place, but as Matthew edits historical events into a written account, he wants us to see this story tightly on the heels of what preceded it. For six days, the disciples were probably talking with Jesus about his last shocking teaching. After foretelling his own death and rebuking Peter for wanting to protect him, Jesus hits it hard with his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
So while that discipleship nugget is still marinating in the stew six days later, Jesus takes the Big Three – Peter, James and John – up a mountain to witness an object lesson that will change their ministry.
Sixteenth-century Italian painter Raphael visually captures so much of the wonder of this event in his Transfiguration. The radiance of the glory of God visibly resting upon Jesus. The prophetic approval of the Jewish heroes Moses and Elijah showed through their posture – hovering below and yet leaning in toward the beaming Christ. The disciples who didn’t ascend the mount that day – roused from their activity in wonder and confusion. And the fear of the Three – sheer prostrate terror felt by men watching a supernatural manifestation of the deity of their rabbi.
But while the transfiguration is focused upon Jesus, the moment is extended to the Three. They hear the message clearly – God loves and approves of the Son. Yet for them, hearing the thundering voice and seeing the blinding Shekinah leaves them trembling. So Jesus takes a moment to extend the Father’s love to his closest friends.
“Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid” (v. 7).
But verse 9 seems odd. Why would Jesus tell the Three to keep what they experienced a secret until after he was dead? The obvious theological thread which runs the whole of the gospels is the messianic secret – the desire to suppress the public fervor about his ministry until the appropriate time. But what if this were also meant to be a moment of grace and wonder and approval … just for them?
As Jesus is leaving His earthly ministry behind, He’s passing the mantle of the kingdom on to His disciples, and namely these Three. What better way to commission them to love the world than by demonstrating that being Beloved means extending love to others?
Which brings us back to the theme: that while Jesus may be the hero, He wants to unveil or unleash the hero in us. Henri Nouwen captures this idea with the pastoral spirit for which we know him: “The basis of all ministry is the experience of God’s unlimited and unlimited acceptance of us as beloved children, and acceptance so full, so total and all-embracing, that it sets us free from our compulsion to be seen, praised and admired, and free for Christ who leads us on the road of service.”
Being a hero in God’s eyes is about being a hero to others.
What we often miss in the transfiguration is that the Beloved is extending love to those whom He sends out to love the world. Perhaps He’s calling out to the hero in each of them – the desire for lowly fishermen and tax collectors to become something greater. Men on a love mission from God himself. Living lives of greatness for the purpose of loving others, not for the sake of being loved by the masses.
What has changed today? Don’t regular people want to know they are loved by their Father? Don’t they want to know how pleased He is with them? Don’t they need to be freed by love in order to love?
God has always engaged people this way – from Abraham on, the people of God are blessed to be a blessing.