Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 6, 2011

2011.03.06 “A Glimpse of the Glory” – Transfiguration Sunday Matthew 17: 1 – 9


“A Glimpse of the Glory”

Matthew 17: 1 – 9

Transfiguration of the Lord

March 6th, 2011

       “Six days later, three of them saw that glory. Jesus took Peter and the brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light. Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with him.

       Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain — one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”

       While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.”

       When the disciples heard it, they fell flat on their faces, scared to death.  But Jesus came over and touched them. “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.

       Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. “Don’t breathe a word of what you’ve seen. After the Son of Man is raised from the dead, you are free to talk.”

– Matthew 17: 1 – 9

Every now and then, if we pay attention, it happens. The veneer of life peels back, and we experience a moment we never forget.

The poet William Butler Yeats described such an experience that happened to him in a London coffee shop.  In part four of his poem “Vacillation,” the first five lines describe the setting and the last four the experience:

                My fiftieth year had come and gone,

                I sat, a solitary man, in a crowded London shop,

                An open book and an empty cup

                On the marble table top.

                While on the shop and street I gazed,

                My body of a sudden blazed;

                And twenty minutes more or less

                It seemed, so great my happiness,

                That I was blessed and could bless.

My guess is that – at some time or another – almost all of us have had such an experience. We just don’t talk about it.  Perhaps it was in the face of a child, or someone you love, in a sunrise or sunset, or even as you sat alone, maybe even in church.  Likely, such an experience is part of the reason why we are here today.

I have had several such experiences throughout my life, which is – even though I don’t consider myself an easily religious person – why I’m here. The most recent was in January, sitting in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Sitting in that awesome, historic space, hearing the organ play and the ethereal beauty of Gregorian chants, with clouds on incense wafting by, I felt very small under the transcendence of God, and felt very humble and inadequate.

        Such experiences are what the church season of Epiphany has been about: how the glory of God shone through Jesus: at his birth, at his baptism, through the calling of his disciples, and as we have seen over the last five weeks, through his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. 

We end the season of Epiphany with the most dramatic glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus, that mysterious event known as the transfiguration.

In many ways, it is as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels. Jesus takes three of his inner circle – Peter, James, and John – up a mountain to pray. There, as Jesus prayed, his disciples saw a vision of a transformed Jesus, accompanied by two Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah.

Seeing this sight, Peter – overwhelmed – began to babble, like we babble at such times: “This is great, wonderful! Let’s do something, let’s build a shrine – three shrines . . . .” He was cut off mid-sentence by a voice, the same voice heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight.  LISTEN TO HIM.”

      It was as though they had been addressed by the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, except greater.  They fell on their faces, eyes shut, bodies trembling.  Until . . . they felt the touch of a hand: Jesus hand.  And he said what has to be said so often throughout the Bible, at moments like this: “Don’t be afraid.” “When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.”  And down they went from the mountain, back into the valley, sworn to secrecy about what they’d seen by Jesus.

What could such a story possibly mean, especially to us?

We should note that it was an experience, and therefore – like all mystical experiences – not subject to rational explanation. That alone should tell us it is not meant to be sliced and diced, critiqued and analyzed. As religious wisdom goes, “Never argue with an experience.”

Pulp Fiction is a 1994 film, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, about the lives of two hit men, Jules and Vincent.  It’s hardly a religious film, and certainly not for kids, but in one scene, Jules and Vincent are shot at point blank and missed.  Jules thinks it a miracle.    

Jules: Man, I just been sitting here thinking.

Vincent: About what?

Jules: About the miracle we just witnessed.

Vincent: The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence.

Jules: What is a miracle, Vincent?

Vincent: An act of God.

Jules: And what’s an act of God?

Vincent: When, um … God makes the impossible possible … but this

morning I don’t think it qualifies.

Jules: Hey, Vincent, don’t you see? That ____ don’t matter. You’re judging this ____ the wrong way. I mean, it could be that God stopped the bullets, or He changed Coke to Pepsi, He found my ______ car keys. You don’t judge ____ like this based on merit. Now, whether or not what we experienced was an “according to Hoyle” miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God.  God got involved.”

That’s how Jesus’ disciples felt, so often in regard to Jesus’ life, and especially on the Mount of Transfiguration.  That’s how we feel, at such overwhelming moments of our lives.  We may not be able to explain it, but somehow we know “God got involved.”

The second thing it’s important to note, is that when God gets involved, inevitably there is transformation. Certainly Jesus was transformed.  But what about the disciples? Immediately, no, but over the long term, definitely, yes.

Certainly Peter was still talking about it in his Letter:

“We were there for the preview! We saw it with our own eyes: Jesus resplendent with light from God the Father as the voice of Majestic Glory spoke: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of all my delight.” We were there on the holy mountain with him. We heard the voice out of heaven with our very own ears.  We couldn’t be more sure of what we saw and heard — God’s glory, God’s voice.” (2 Peter 1: 16 – 19, The Message)

        Sometimes the transformation is not instant, but slow, almost invisible, but inevitably, when God is involved, transformation occurs. Some of us wish it were a little faster, less glacial; others maybe not so fast, less like lightning strikes.  In this sense, maybe the best measure of how relationship to God is how much we have changed, over times: in belief, in behavior, in how we live in the world.  If we haven’t changed, perhaps we need to ask ourselves “Why?”, because whenever God is involved, transformation inevitably occurs.

For sure, we can’t help but wonder – even though they were forbidden to talk about it – how often that experience not only changed, but sustained Peter, James, and John in the days and weeks ahead, when things when badly for them and later, even worse for Jesus. Surely, no matter how bad things went, based upon what they had seen and experienced on the mountaintop, surely deep in their heart they knew God would not abandon neither Jesus nor them.

It may well be that mountaintop experiences are given to us in life, to prepare us for the valleys ahead, the times when glimpses of glory are few and far between. But because of the glimpses we do experience, when the time comes to walk through the valley of the shadow, we will not fear, for we know God is with us.

United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says that when he talks with pastors undergoing difficult times, so difficult that he says sometimes he doesn’t know how they make it, he asks: “So what keeps you going?”  And Bishop Willimon says inevitably they say: “I can’t give you a reason . . . but there was this experience I had when I was a sophomore in high school . . .” And so it is with us.

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who lived from 1623 to 1662, was brilliant, and even invented a mechanical calculator, an early forerunner of modern computers. But because he was influenced by a spiritual movement within the Catholic Church known as Jensenism, Pascal became deeply religious, and is now less known for his scientific and philosophical work than for his most famous work, his Pensees (Thoughts), a defense of the Christian faith.

Though raised in the heyday of Enlightenment reason, in the time of Voltaire and Descartes, Pascal found reason alone finally inadequate: “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.” He concluded, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know at all.”

On November 23, in 1654, Pascal had a dramatic encounter with God, which became known as “Pascal’s Night of Fire.” It was such a powerful experience, he wrote a memoir of it and sewed it into the liner of his coat. It wasn’t until after his death that people learned this, and realized that what this meant was, everywhere Pascal went, he carried this experience with him, not only in his coat, but in his heart.

        Such an experience that Pascal had, was the kind of experience Jesus’ disciples had there on the Mount of Transfiguration. It is the same kind of experience we have, when we get a glimpse of the glory, which sustains us through the days of our lives.

For us, this ends the season of Epiphany. The time has come to go down from the mountain of glory, and to begin our Lenten journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem, where a cross awaits.

May what we have seen, on the mountaintop and in the light, sustain us, in the valley and in the dark.  Amen.


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