Eyewitnesses of God’s Majesty Transfiguration
2 Peter 1:16-21 Matthew 17:1-9
My mother was born and raised in Missouri (or “Missour-uh”), a state that is apparently proud of its skepticism. If Mom didn’t exactly believe what she was being told, she would say, “I’m from Missouri. You’ll have to show me.” I didn’t exactly understand until I saw their license plates—The Show-Me State!
We are told, “You can’t believe everything you hear.” (Especially true during an election cycle!) You certainly can’t believe everything you read, and sometimes it’s difficult to believe what you do see (especially if you’re from Missour-uh).
I read a story in the January 2013 issue of Guideposts magazine. The author, Dr. Ralph S. Harlow, began by establishing his credibility, referring to his numerous testimonies in courtrooms and, in other ways, making it clear that he was not a “crackpot”! Then he went on to relate an incident that took place when he and his wife were walking through a park. They heard beautiful voices approaching from behind them, growing closer very quickly. When they looked for the source of the voices, they saw a group of angels flying not far above their heads. When the angels had passed out of sight, he asked his wife in a stunned voice, “What did you just see?!” He knew he wasn’t imagining things when she described the exact same thing!
As blessed as he was to have seen this marvelous sight, it put him in a bit of a pickle. How in the world could he tell other people—stable, steady people—about this experience? Would they think he was starting to go—“around the bend”?
In our Scripture readings today, we have the story of Jesus and a few disciples going up onto what is referred to as “The Mount of Transfiguration.” Peter was so awestruck by the event that he started jabbering, “Wow! It’s great to be here! Let’s put up some shelters!” In Mark and Luke, there is a parenthetical statement that Peter was so frightened that he didn’t know what he was saying! But, by the time Peter’s second epistle was written, the voice was more reasonable and calm: “We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” and “we heard the voice from heaven, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Friends, I don’t know if you have ever seen anything quite as astonishing as the Transfiguration, or a flock of angels flying immediately overhead, or even just one angel doing something in your life—but we have experiences like this recorded in our sacred Scriptures and we need to take a serious look at them.
Seeing the Unbelievable
Let’s look first at our human condition. We are hugely aware that there is more “out there” than we can begin to understand—things that we cannot clearly perceive simply because we do not have the capacity to observe them. So we cling to our “Missourian” attitude and pretend there is nothing beyond what we can see, hear, smell, or feel.
As a result, our response to anything Supernatural is usually FEAR. (This is why angels usually begin their message with “Don’t be afraid!”) Something about being in the Presence shakes our self-confidence.
Our Scriptures have plenty of accounts of human encounters with the supernatural. One of my favorites is found in 2 Kings 6. The king of Aram has sent an army to capture Elisha, and when Elisha’s servant saw them, he said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.”
Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha!
Friends, you and I are very much like that servant—and like Peter, James and John. We acknowledge that there are heavenly beings all around, but we certainly don’t expect to SEE any!
On the Mountain
Because they knew the history of their people, the Disciples were aware that Elijah never died, but was taken away by a chariot of fire. And they were familiar with Deuteronomy 34 that says that Moses died, that God buried him, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. But they certainly didn’t expect to see these heroes of ancient times talking face-to-face with their Master! (Their lack of understanding makes perfect sense.)
There was also the issue of the Radiance on the face of Jesus: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Perhaps they remembered from Exodus 34 that, when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, his face was so radiant that he had to wear a veil to keep from scaring the Israelites. Perhaps all these things came to mind on resurrection morning, when an angel of the Lord rolled back the stone in front of the tomb and sat on it. “His appearance was lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.”
Our text from Matthew tells us that Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah. Wouldn’t you love to know what they said to each other? Most scholars agree that heading for Jerusalem was a little bit suicidal, and that perhaps Moses and Elijah were confirming with Jesus both his identity and his direction, and were giving him the encouragement he would need to follow the path to death on the cross. And, indeed, Jesus “set his face for Jerusalem.”
The text tells us that a bright cloud (God) overshadowed them, and a voice interrupts Peter’s babbling. It said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” If there had been even a shadow of a doubt, there was no place for it now. Absolute certainty reigned! The disciples still fell down in fear.
Then Jesus touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Then he instructed them to keep quiet about this vision until he had been raised from the dead.
So it makes sense that Peter writes about this in his second epistle. Now remember, Peter had his ups and downs (and don’t we all?!) He denied Jesus three times, and seems to have lost his bearings during the trial and crucifixion. But Jesus restored him, and gave him opportunities to do great things! So he writes in our text for today, “We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty, and we ourselves heard this voice come from heaven.”
I think that one of the things Peter was trying to say was, “Be attentive to what God is trying to say to you!” He writes, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” From his own experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, he might tell us, “Lay aside your agenda, and listen to God’s Son.” Or he might say, “Open your eyes to things that are beyond the ordinary.”
We can only imagine the effect this experience had on Peter. We do know that he went on to be a central figure in the early church, and was Paul’s partner in bringing the Gospel to Gentiles, opening the doors of the church to “outsiders.” I believe he carried this experience with him the rest of his life.
And what about Dr. Harlow and his wife, Marion (the folks who saw the angels flying past in the park)? He says that his faith took on a fresh perspective, and that he was filled with wonderful hope. It gave him an assurance about the future, as well as a sense of adventure. He writes, “Who can say that the time will not come when, even to those who live here upon earth, the unseen worlds shall no longer be unseen?”
Friends, you and I are surrounded with God’s reality, and we need to be shaken up occasionally, reminded that “those who are with us outnumber those who are against us.” As God opens our eyes to see the amazing things God is doing right in our modern, skeptical world, you and I will be eyewitnesses of God’s majesty. And we’ll be ready to testify to a world that is desperate to experience God’s touch.
Prayer: Open our eyes, Lord. Open our ears. And open our hearts to a world that does not yet see or hear. We ask in the name of Jesus. Amen.