…it’s well past Transfiguration Sunday, but we all still need those glimpses of grace. In that vein, a few thoughts on Matthew 17:1-9 and 2 Peter 1:16-19.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.” *** For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
I’ve been facilitating a small group for four college age young women for the last two years. We meet every week, and they share what’s going on in their lives. We talk about where God might be at work. We spend some time in prayer together. And most weeks I bring a passage from the Bible that we read and reflect on. They’re great girls–funny, kind, and they never hesitate to say what they’re thinking. That makes them good friends, but also really good Bible readers. They don’t waste much time trying to say the “right” thing, the pious thing. They just call it like they see it.
Last week I brought them this story from Matthew. On of them read it out loud. She got done, and for several long minutes no one said anything. They didn’t even look up and make eye contact with me. Just stared at their Bibles. It didn’t really feel like a holy pause, like they were contemplating the wonders of this passage. It just felt flat. Finally I said, well, what do you think? Another dead pause. And then one of them spoke up, “What does this have to do with anything?”
It’s a fair question, I think. Maybe some of you felt that way when I finished the reading just now. It seems like there’s some really profound meaning, or something, going on. But what? What is it? The story is so strange, so foreign, almost alien. What does this have to do with anything? With the disciples’ lives? With our lives? What on earth is going on here? And what does it have to do with anything?
This story sticks out in the middle of Matthew, literally raised above its surrounding, up on a mountain. Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up on the mountain to pray and this totally, completely amazing, bizarre, inexplicable thing happens. It was like nothing Peter, James, and John had ever seen. Can you imagine how terrifying it must have been? They fell on their faces. I’m sure we would have too.
Lucky us, we get to read this story as part of the larger story. We have some context to help us make sense of things. We know that Jesus is not just another teacher. He’s no less than God Almighty Incarnate. We can look at this part of the story where, for a moment, Jesus shines with the brightness of a thousand suns, and see that this is just a hint of the countless ways that Jesus is the Light of the world, the light that shines in our darkness, the light that has never been put out.
But Peter, James, and John, bless their hearts. They didn’t know all that yet. They were following their teacher and then out of the clear blue sky comes this glimpse of glory. That’s what this really is, isn’t it? It’s a glimpse, just the briefest glimpse, of the glory of God. One of the commentators I was reading said this story shows Jesus “inside out.”
I really like that. It’s an inside out Jesus that we meet here. All the majesty and power that we’re told is in Christ for just a brief moment is made fully manifest.
We have inside out moments in our lives, too, don’t we? Moments where the curtain’s pulled back, and we come face to face with the reality that lies underneath it all. All of a sudden we realize what’s true, what’s essential, what really matters. Do you know what I mean? What might be examples in our lives of these kinds of inside out glimpses of glory?
They’re not always happy, feel-good occasions. In fact, sometimes they’re in the midst of awfulness. Maybe a car crash, or a medical emergency happens, you brush just a little too close to death, and you know for a few moments in a more intense way that you ever thought possible what matters and what doesn’t. Have you ever had an experience like that? Many people reported a sensation like this in the immediate aftermath of the planes crashing on September 11. The temporary fell away and the essential rose to the top. For a moment, or maybe a day or two, after life gets turned inside out like this, we live by a different light. We have seen a glimpse of a different reality and nothing looks quite the same.
These glimpses of glory can be exceedingly joyful too. Maybe that’s what you’ve experienced. On the day your child was born perhaps. Or maybe you fell in love in a moment like this. Or came to know Christ. Or had a moment of spiritual joy in worship or out under the big, big sky. And in your joy in that moment, you saw the love that from our birth, over and around us lies.
Most often, I think, these inside out moments come in the midst of the every day. You’re commuting to work and the sun breaks forth over the horizon. Dropping a grandchild off at school and they turn back to give you a kiss. Around a table with friends and everything drops away and all that remains is gratitude. In all these times and many more, for the briefest moment the world is turned inside out and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s love at the center–love that’s wilder and mightier than anything we can imagine.
It’s that kind of moment in this story. We see for just a minute a hint of the glory of Jesus, we catch a glimpse of the fullness of the One who we are told is not just a man, but the new Adam, the pioneer and perfector, and not only that, but the Lion and the Lamb, too, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega, our All in All, our Lord and Savior. We catch a glimpse, just a glimpse, during this inside out moment.
Or, Peter, James, and John did, anyway. That’s the trouble with this story, isn’t it? We weren’t there. They were. It sounds like it was amazing. For them. But, this little voice asks, what about us? Is this just one of those stories where you had to be there to get it? And if it is, we’re back to our original question: what does this have to do with anything?
Well, friends, this is where the passage from 2 Peter is of great help. Or it was to me. I hope it will be to you as well. It’s just three verses, so I’ll read it again so it’s fresh in our minds. The author of 2 Peter, speaking for his whole community, writes,
“16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. 19So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
I like that he starts out with just total honesty. You may think this story sounds like a “cleverly devised myth,” but it’s not. In fact, he says, we were eyewitnesses. We were there.
But here’s the thing. Here’s what’s so, so helpful to us all these years later as we try to figure out what this story has to do with our lives. The author almost certainly wasn’t there. This letter that we call 2 Peter is one of the latest writings in the New Testament. It was probably written somewhere in the neighborhood 120 years after Jesus died, sometime in the middle of the second century. The author wasn’t Peter, who was actually there for this glimpse of glory. The author was probably a follower of Peter living a generation or maybe even two generations later.
But it said, right there that the author was an eyewitness. It said, “we ourselves heard this voice while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
So, what are we going to make of that? One option, of course, and I’m sure you’ve thought of this, is to say, well, he made it up. But that robs this text of its power, its ability to speak into our lives, and I think there’s another option, one that speaks directly to us who also follow Christ and who also were not there.
The person who wrote this has claimed the story of Christ as his own story. By faith the author is able to say that story of those disciples, that story, is my story. Christians have done this over and over in the centuries since Christ’s death. This is part of what it means to be a Christian, to be re-made in Christ’s image, to join with a communion of saints in the body of Christ. It is to say, that story is my story. To say, I was there.
We all do this every year at Christmas. We celebrate the birth of Jesus several thousand years ago. But we also, as insane as it sounds, say Christ is born today. In our midst. In our world. In our hearts. Christ is born. The story becomes our story.
Maybe the best modern example of saying this is my story, I was there, comes to us from our black sisters and brothers who, when they were enslaved, learned the stories of the Hebrew slaves under Pharoah. And the cry of Moses became their own cry, let my people go. By faith, the story of the Exodus was no longer a story from long ago, a “cleverly devised myth” as the author of 2 Peter would put it. No, no, in Christ they too came to know the God who led the people out of Egypt and they lived by the light of that promised freedom.
And that’s, ultimately, what this has to do with our lives. It’s about seeing by the light of Christ. The author of 2 Peter is saying that the strange, strange story of Jesus’ transfiguration has become his story. He sees by that light now. He has gotten a glimpse of the world turned inside out. He says it didn’t just happen to Peter and James and John; it happened to us too. We have seen the light and heard the voice. We have had a glimpse of the glory that lies just behind, or underneath, or inside of the reality we normally encounter. And that light, the light of God’s love incarnate, has changed everything. It is what I’m going to cling to. It’s the lamp in the dark that will light the way.
So think back to those inside out moments we thought about a few minutes ago. Where have you caught a glimpse of this glory? How might this story of the ultimate inside out moment be your story? How does it illuminate the glimpses of glory you’ve had in your life? And how can Christ’s light as we see it here, as we see it in our own lives, become the light by which you live, the light that you yourself shine forth to the world?
Because, ultimately that’s what this is about. That’s the answer to our question–what does this story have to do with anything. It’s about finding our way in the dark. It’s about what light are we going to live by as we travel this road.
We, like the disciples, are somewhere between the mountain of the transfiguration and the fulfillment of it all. We’re making our way, trying to figure out how we’re going to play the hand we’ve been dealt, how we’ll face the day today, how we’ll work toward a future for our children. We fumble around in the dark trying to figure out how to love the people around us, how to cope with our own shortcomings, how to love kindness, how to do justice, how to walk humbly with our God. And none of it is particularly easy, or clear… it’s a lot of stumbling around in the dark and trying to help each other out.
In the midst of that dark, we cling to the good news we’ve received. God so loved this world. There is a light in the darkness, that will never, ever go out. God’s love incarnate is that light. That light is with us, even now. Every great once in a while we catch a glimpse of that blinding, shining radiance. In the baptism of a beloved child of God we hear an echo of God’s voice. As we gather around this table we are met by Christ and we see not humble grape juice and bread but a great table with a feast where there is room for all. As we sing the songs of our faith, or join together to pray, or attend to the story which is, by God’s grace, our story. In all these times, and in times we’d never guess, we catch glimpses of the glory that waits for us all.
Friends, be attentive to those glimpses. Watch for them. Look for them. Trust them. Attend to them, as to a lamp in the darkness. They will light your way until the dawn breaks and the morning star rises.Sarah Wiles Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA 03/06/2011