Mat17:1-9 Transfiguration Sunday, Feb 26, 2017
Although I haven’t watched any of them, lately it seems there are an increasing number of ads about TV shows dealing with the paranormal. There must be some growing fascination with what lies beyond our senses for these shows to be sold to networks and to be profitable. Although not entirely new to the entertainment world (as much milder versions of these themes were around when I was kid such as “Bewitched, and ‘I Dream of Genie”), the genre is ever expanding, and becoming increasingly darker (as is much in our culture). In a culture that supposedly purports to be “reasonable” and “scientific”, one wouldn’t necessarily deduce that from watching prime-time TV.
A similar longing for the supernatural exists within religion(s) as well. Some Christian Charismatic denominations have this as their primary area of focus and expression. Many of the modern praise choruses cry out for an encounter with the Divine; “Open the eyes of my heart Lord, I want to see you…I want to see you”. I must admit that I have had, and continue to have this longing myself…to encounter the living God in an undeniable, verifiable, and supernatural way.
That’s exactly what happens to Peter, James, and John in today’s gospel text. What began as “another day at the office”, ended in something that would inform them for the rest of their lives (Peter comments about this event in today’s epistle lesson). Let’s recap these paranormal events as they unfold:
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. In hearing the account of Moses and his encounter with the living God, it would seem Matthew is drawing parallels with the Transfiguration of Jesus. In the Bible it is not uncommon to have significant events happen on mountaintops as these two readings attest. As was true of Moses and his encounter with the living God at Mt. Sinai, Peter, James, and John experience a “theophany” (God appearance) as Jesus is illumined with the glory of God.
Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Much speculation has arisen from this verse and the appearance of Moses and Elijah. These are undoubtedly two of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament (OT), and represent much of the OT’s content (Moses with the Law, and Elijah the Prophets…had King David appeared as a representative for the Writings, the OT witness would have been complete). Matthew omits any indication as to the purpose of the ancient visitors, but Luke tells us, “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”. In the early verses of this text there is enough supernatural activity to last an average person a lifetime as Jesus’ person becomes luminescent, and two long gone spiritual giants (Moses had died some 1200 prior and Elijah ascended into heaven in a chariot if fire around 850 BC) are seen to be very much alive and well.
… if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” Although not supernatural in nature, Peter’s response is worth noting. How can this event be captured and immortalized (long before the days of iphone cameras)? I have an idea (thinks Peter), let’s construct a tent/shrine for them…a place where they can live, and we can memorialize this moment forever. In our study of cults and other religions, we discovered that JR Rutherford (then leader of the Watchtower Society/Jehovah’s Witnesses) had a similar idea in building a 10-bedroom mansion in San Diego California back in the early 20th C to house OT dignitaries like; Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, and Isaiah. Apparently, the OT saints never showed up, so rather than let the house sit empty, Judge Rutherford graciously volunteered to use Beth Sarim as his winter home. It’s not uncommon to want to memorialize significant events like the Transfiguration this with a shrine or a temple. What we discover however, is that such events (and the God of such events) are not easily contained in a box, or as the Bing Crosby classic song goes, “don’t fence me in”.
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!” Although being part of Jesus’ inner circle (and for some, the Church’s first pope), Peter, like all of us, has his less than shining moments. We see the first example of this when Peter comes up with
he greatest confession of all time in the previous chapter in Matthew, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The magnificence of this Spirit-led revelation was sullied however when Peter acts as the mouthpiece for Satan only moments later in trying to dissuade Jesus from going to the cross to die. Here again his notions of making dwelling places for Jesus and the OT saints is cut short by the voice of God from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Peter’s brainwave and accompanying speech ended rather abruptly when another started talking.
The question as to the nature of Jesus continues to be pondered and debated to this very day. Some say he was a wise teacher or guru and no more. Others like the Jehovah’s Witnesses say he was a created being in the order of Michael the archangel. Muslims think him to be a prophet the likes of Adam, Abraham, and Moses, but lesser than Muhammad. But in the voice of God that comes out of heaven, his identity is proclaimed loud and clear for all to hear and fall to the ground trembling in fear and awe, ”this is My Son!” The response to that proclamation should be self-evident, but if not, God spells it out in no uncertain terms, “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.” The most common response to a theophany in the Bible is that of fear and trembling. Such responses seem to be fitting (and even natural) when in the presence of a holy God. What follows however is perhaps as supernatural as anything in this account so far; Jesus touching these stricken disciples and bidding them to get up and not be afraid. Were it not for that touch, his words, and the action that he would soon complete as he made his way to Calvary and the cross, there would be no getting up from this prostrate position for them or for us. Sin by its very nature separates us from God and brings us low, and without the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross, we would be eternally separated from God. Jesus reaching and touching his disciples is a foretaste of the redemption he would achieve on the cross for those who are struck down in sin, and need to be lifted up.
“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.” Each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) make note of the singularity of “Jesus alone” after the theophany has finished, and the “dust has settled”. The OT saints have returned from whence they first came, the Father’s voice is now silent, and the disciples find themselves with “Jesus only”. That will be their reality until the end of their earthly days and beyond. His earthly parting words to them give assurance that even though he will not be visible to them in the flesh, his real presence in the bread and wine, the written word, and indwelling Holy Spirit would indeed be with them, and with us until the “end of the age”.
The closing words of this supernatural drama seem rather anticlimactic as the disciples and Jesus descend the mountain to carry on with their work-a-day world. Jesus cautions them not to blab this event to others, at least not until after the resurrection. We can image why. Many Jews were already looking to Jesus to be the Donald Trump of the 1st C (without some of the character flaws) and make the nation of Israel great again. They wanted a “rock star” who could wield a large sword, and if they found out that Jesus was infused with supernatural light energy like a Marvel superhero…who knows what the crowds might do. Also, if the disciple’s supernatural encounters are anything like those purported in our day…it’s quite likely the crowds would assume the disciples were a “few cards short of a deck”, or had imaginations that were working in overdrive, and not have believe them anyways. How many people have you told about experiences in your life that defy natural explanation?
It’s hard to know exactly what to do with the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. For those like Peter, James, and John who have had such supernatural encounters (or think they have, for unless there are other witnesses to these events, the passage of time and our own naturalistic worldviews often put into question or negate such encounters), this account might help us both believe, and share these stories with others. Often when people do this with me they pretext such experiences with, “please don’t tell this to anyone else about this”, or “you might think I’m crazy but…”. If you haven’t had such an experience, and you’re still here this morning and still believing in Jesus, then know that you too are blessed by Jesus even in the absence of the supernatural as he says, “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe” Jn 20:29b.
Either way, these events don’t last, and probably won’t sustain our faith very long. It’s pretty telling that after the feeding of the 5000 recorded in all four gospels, the first words of the crowds when encountering Jesus following this supernatural event according to John’s gospel are; “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you?” Those who look to signs and wonders to sustain their faith are often one sign or wonder short of believing.
Eventually they and we all head down the mountain to the more mundane and ordinary. Most of our lives are lived out in the valleys and in the plain. There will be another hill mentioned in the life of Jesus and the disciples as they enter the city of Jerusalem, and the temple mount. In this city built on a hill, the Jewish and Roman leaders and the crowds would turn against Jesus, and sentence him to yet another appointment on a hill outside the city gate, where he would die on an old rugged cross.
Today is the day we close the door on Epiphany, and beginning on Wednesday, enter the season of Lent. Whether we encounter a glowing Jesus, or any other supernatural manifestation, is completely up to the will of God. We all however, encounter the Jesus that touched his disciples, and who (figuratively at least) touches us, and lifts us up from the dust to follow him to the cross…and beyond. Amen