Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
This day concludes the period of ordinary time preceding Lent, which begins this year on March 1. In some parts of the Northern Hemisphere, there will still be snow on the ground, and it will be the dead of winter. Quite a powerful ambience for talking about blazing light, cloth as white as any fuller, i.e. Clorox could bleach, and the shining presence of Christ on the Mount, as he converses with Moses and Elijah, who represent all of salvation history until Christ. The import of this text is found in the command of God to the three disciples, the inner circle, gathered with Jesus on the mountaintop: “Listen to him!”. I often think this is about a bright snowy day in my native Colorado or about a very bright beach in my mother’s native home of Hawaii. This is the moment when you suddenly full see who and what Jesus is.
I can remember plenty of vacation trips where there was a strong temptation NOT to return home! It is this idealistic temptation that prompts Peter’s suggestion that they put up three tents, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Who would want to depart from such an electrifying presence? Yet vacations are a respite that gives us a clearer perspective on the rest of our lives. Just so, the experience of the transfiguration was given to the disciples to equip them for lives of service; to put into perspective the meaning of their call, their vocation. It was not an end in itself.
There is an interesting tension between the monastic movement’s desire to retreat from public life in order to contemplate the holy, and the Reformed Movements commitment to service in the public arena. There is nothing new about this tension. The life of the hermit has always tempted, but it has its costs as well as benefits. There is focus, but loneliness. Some have preferred this formula to the stress of life in post-modern, post-industrial society.
It is at this moment we get let into the “Messianic Secret”.
The so-called “Messianic secret” (vs. 9) helps us understand that Jesus had a game plan, a particular schedule or program, by which he was carrying out his ministry of preaching the kingdom, or reign, of God’s love and justice. Only as people were able to examine his entire life, with its sacrifice on the cross, and the affirmation of God in the resurrection appearances, could they look back upon his life and see its true meaning. To begin to proclaim Christ in his glory during his lifetime was pre-emptive of his plan. So he asks his inner circle to keep quiet about this vision until after his resurrection. This is comparable to a church governing board working on a plan for ministry, and not wanting to talk much about it with the congregation until it is well-thought-out. Sometimes, only when something is ready for implementation, or even until after it has happened, will people truly understand and not raise crippling or delaying objections. The mystery of leadership involves a keen sense of timing.
As soon as Peter makes his headstrong suggestion that they all just camp out on the mountaintop forever, the vision begins to unravel. As if there were not already enough brightness in this scene, a “bright cloud overshadowed them,” and a voice spoke from the beyond (vs. 5), clearly implying that Peter had gotten things out of whack and needed correction right away! Sometimes in the heat of excitement, we make suggestions or decisions which, on reflection, are distorted in their import, miss the whole point, and would send us off in the entirely wrong direction! Peter is a master of the “blurt out” (remember his earlier rash scolding of Jesus for suggesting he had to go to Jerusalem to die, Matthew 16:21-23). Most of us can identify with Peter, who boldly suggests what others are too reticent to say! His honesty is refreshing and lends and authenticity to Matthew’s portrait of his character.
Have you ever missed the point of meeting or conversation entirely? Do you ever have another agenda running in your head than the one speaking to you has in mind? Do you ever use pretext out of context to get your way? Clearly, it was not the purpose of this experience to tempt the disciples to abandon their ministry to live on a secluded mountaintop, alluring though that may be. Clearly, God’s intention was to demonstrate that the ministry of Jesus was of one cloth with all of salvation history to that point, symbolized in the Law and the Prophets, represented by Moses and Elijah. Any contemporary Jewish audience would have understood that immediately, but the shorthand symbolism of Moses and Elijah may be lost on post-modern Gentiles. So it will have to be briefly explained.
Jesus’ ministry must be seen in the larger context of the unity of God’s purpose, or we miss the universal import of its power. It is not unusual for post-modern people to lack a historical sense or reference. North American youth particularly are noted for their ignorance of larger historical time frames. It will be helpful for the preacher to explain the nature of the Hebrew scriptures and 1st century Jewish conceptions of their tradition as summed up in the term “the Law and the Prophets.” Explaining what the “Bible” was to Jesus and his contemporaries is important in understanding the triad in view in the Transfiguration.
The unusual glory described in this story contrasts with the deeply human picture of Jesus and his travails with his opponents up to that time in Matthew’s gospel. It is not necessary to get into discussions about whether this was a “real” or visionary experience (Jesus himself refers to it as a vision in Matthew 17:9; the underlying Greek word orama means either simply “something seen,” or denotes, in the New Testament context, a supernatural vision meant as a divine communication, but distinct from a dream). In any event, this was a mystical experience meant to confirm Jesus’s sonship, his continuity with the past, and his glory.
One of the chief issues in the political debate of in any year in the United States General Election is the issue of authenticity. In the election year of 2020, it is very obvious one side thinks they truly represent all the people, while accusing the other side of all kinds of shenanigans. Who is the real representative of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the American people? Without getting into partisan politics, the preacher can ask rhetorical question that all Christians have struggled with: what is authentic faith, authentic witness, authentic Christian life? The story of the transfiguration suggests that the more we strive to hold on to the religious experience, the more it eludes us, because religion is not the point. The experience is given to equip us for servanthood.
17:1. Every word is from Mark 9:2 except “his brother,” which is added by Matthew. The addition is not only for biographical information, but also to remind the reader that the community of disciples is a family of brothers and sisters (12:46–50; cf. 18:35; 19:29, 28:10, as well as 7:3–5; 18:15; 23:8; 25:40, where the NRSV obscures the connection by translating ἀδελφοί [adelphoi “brothers and sisters”] in a variety of ways: “neighbors,” “members of the church,” “students,” “members of the family”). The Markan “inner circle” Peter/James/John appears here for the first time in Matthew (cf. also 26:37). Since “Son of David” is an important Christological title for Matthew, he may regard these three as analogous to King David’s inner circle of three (2 Sam 23:8, 18–23). If so, it would be another example of the redefinition of kingship accomplished by Jesus, for David’s three were renowned for violence, as was David himself, while the disciples are called to give their lives for others, as does the Son of David.
Such precise chronological data as “after six days” is unique prior to the passion story. In Mark, it may be related to the preceding “after three days.” Matthew has eliminated this connection by changing the preceding expression but not this one, thereby making this into an additional element in his Moses typology (from Exod 24:16, see Reflections below). The unnamed mountain corresponds to 5:1 and 28:16. To attempt to identify it (as in pilgrimages and Christian tourism of the Holy Land) is to confuse theology with geography.
17:2. “Transfigured” is literally “metamorphosed” (μεταμορφόομαι metamorphoomai, “to undergo a metamorphosis”). In the disciples’ “vision” (17:9), Jesus glows with a transcendent glory reserved for heavenly beings, an anticipatory revelation of Jesus as belonging to the divine world (cf. 13:43; 28:3 for Matthean connotations). In Jewish tradition, this radiance was attributed to Adam, Abraham, and many others. The divine passive implies that the visionary transformation represents the act of God, who makes the revelation to the disciples (cf. 16:17). Matthew specifically adds that Jesus’ face shone, another explicit allusion to Moses (cf. Exod 34:29–35; 2 Cor 3:18; Rev 1:16).
17:3. By portraying Moses, Elijah, and Jesus as talking together in a scene of transcendent glory, Matthew confirms his view that Jesus is in continuity with and the fulfillment of God’s work as represented by the OT. However, the pairing of Moses and Elijah does not specifically symbolize for Matthew the Scripture as a whole, the written “Law and the Prophets,” since nothing here relates Moses to the Torah, nor did Elijah, who is not for Matthew the typical prophet, write anything preserved as Scripture. Moses and Elijah are here paired because they were both prophets who were initially rejected by the people but vindicated by God, both were advocates of the covenant and the Torah, both worked miracles, and both were considered by first-century Judaism to be transcendent figures who did not die but were taken directly to heaven. They thus represent the heavenly world of divine vindication, the world to which, from Matthew’s post-Easter perspective, Jesus also belongs. The fact that they were “speaking with” Jesus is another echo of Exod 34:35.
17:4–8. As in the preceding scene (16:13–20), Peter responds to the revelation, but here his lack of understanding as portrayed in Mark is somewhat alleviated (Mark 9:6 is omitted: “For he did not know what to say …”), and he speaks as a believer (Matthew’s “Lord” for Mark’s “Rabbi”). Peter speaks more respectfully than in Mark (“if you wish” added to Mark), but still without complete insight, like the people in general, still placing Jesus in the category of the prophets (17:4 = 16:14). Peter’s proposal to build three “tents” (σκηναί skēnai; also “tabernacles,” “huts”) has been variously understood; the same word is used for ordinary tents, for the tabernacle, and for the temporary huts built at the Festival of Booths. Since some Jewish traditions associated the future advent of the kingdom of God over all the nations with the Feast of Booths (cf. Zech 14:9, 16), some understanding of the kingdom may lurk in the background of this saying, but if so, this was missed by Matthew despite his concentration on the theme of the kingdom. Rather, for Matthew, σκηνή (skēnē) connotes the tabernacle and Temple where the Shekinah, the fiery cloud that symbolized the continuing presence of God among the people, dwelt over the ark of the covenant. Matthew presents a threefold response to Peter’s proposal:
(1) The heavenly cloud of God’s presence appears, as on the tabernacle of Moses’ day and the later Temple. As of old, the heavenly voice comes from the cloud, and the God who had previously spoken on Mount Sinai only to Moses speaks directly to them. The heavenly voice speaks in exactly the same words as at the baptism (see 3:17), confirming the identity and mission of Jesus declared there, and confirming the confession Peter himself had made in the preceding scene (16:16).
(2) Although three transcendent figures are present, the heavenly voice charges the disciples to hear Jesus. As in the Shema (Deut 6:4), “hear” carries its OT connotation of “obey” and is the same command given with regard to the “prophet like Moses” whom God would send (Deut 18:15; cf. 13:57). The disciples fall on their faces in fearful response to the theophany, as in Exod 34:30; Dan 10:9; and Hab 3:2 LXX.
(3) Jesus comes to them (only here and 28:18 in Matthew, another parallel between this scene and the resurrection appearances) and touches them, and they see no one but “Jesus himself alone.” To focus all attention on Jesus and to distinguish him from Moses and Elijah, who have now disappeared, Matthew has added “himself” (αὐτός autos) and subtly rewritten Mark so that the word alone might stand here as the emphatic closing word of the scene. The heavenly visitors depart, but Jesus stays—Jesus alone. Without heavenly companions, without heavenly glory, he is the “tabernacle” (skēnē), the reality of God’s abiding presence with us (cf. 1:23; 28:20). The disciples descend from the mountain into the mundane world of suffering and mission, accompanied by Jesus, God with us.
17:9. “Coming down the mountain” corresponds to going up the mountain in 17:1 and rounds off vv. 1–9 as a complete scene. Jesus’ calling the event a “vision” (only so in Matthew) does not for Matthew connote the modern contrast between subjective experience and objective reality, which reduces the event to the disciples’ subjectivity, for he raises no questions about the reality of the event. Rather, the designation “vision” relates the event to the visionary apocalyptic tradition, as has 16:17 (cf. Dan 8:16–17; 10:9–12, 16–19). The mention of Easter as the terminus is not an expression of the messianic secret, as in Mark, but has the effect of relating the vision to the Easter experiences (28:3–7; 28:16, 18–19) and indicates that it can only be understood from the post-Easter perspective of the Matthean readers, who are called to identify themselves with the disciples in the story.
(Boring, M. E. The Gospel of Matthew. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible [1994–2004, Nashville] Vol. 8, pp. 363–364)
For modern readers, the story of the transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most difficult in the New Testament. It has the form of a historical narrative, but its content is so otherworldly that it is hard for us to accept its historicity. Some have tried to find a historical kernel in the account by citing reports that the faces of mystics caught up in an intense experience of the divine are sometimes transformed by a luminous glow. Such an explanation does not take us very far in understanding this remarkable story.
Whether we reject the story as the product of pious imagination or, by the willing suspension of disbelief, accept all its details as historical, the fact remains that the story points us to mystery, a mystery beyond the reach of historical reconstruction or scientific verification. Employing the appropriate canons of historiography, researchers can talk about Jesus of Nazareth as an itinerant prophet and healer who fell afoul of Roman justice and was crucified as a royal pretender. None of this tells us anything of the mystery of Jesus’ person as it was experienced by the community that grew up around him. This story attempts to draw us into that super historical mystery.
Matthew refers to what occurred on the mountain as a “vision” (v. 9). By this, of course, he does not mean to collapse the event into an inner “psychological” experience, since four persons are presented as independent witnesses. What is meant is that the “seeing” is not a natural function of ordinary human eyes but is God-given; God grants the disciples the power to see what otherwise would have been invisible to mortal perception (see Acts 7:31, where the same word is used of Moses’ “sight” of the burning bush).
The “high mountain” has traditionally been identified as Mount Tabor in southern Galilee, a hill that rises only a few hundred feet above the surrounding plain. The high mountain symbolizes the border zone between earth and heaven, between the material and the spiritual.
It is erroneous to interpret the transfiguration of Jesus as a manifestation of his deity. The story was certainly understood in this way by later Christians who had the benefit of the doctrine of the incarnation, but there is no clear evidence in his Gospel that Matthew was aware of this profound doctrine. To use technical terms, this is not a theophany (a manifestation of a god or of God) but a Christophany (a manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah). This is indicated by several features of the story. First, it is reported that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun”; but this is precisely the same language that has already been used to describe the righteous who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (13:43). Jesus is presented not as non-human but as a transformed human who will be the pioneer and perfecter of those who will share his heavenly existence (cf. Heb. 2:10; 12:2). Second, in the “vision” Jesus is totally passive; he says nothing and does nothing. Such passivity ill suits a theophany. Finally, if Jesus were here presented as God (worse yet, as a “second god”), the appropriate response of the disciples would have been abject terror. This reaction occurs, rather, after the veiled theophany of verse 5. Instead, Peter speaks to Jesus as he would in normal circumstances. His proposal to build three booths, while not necessarily putting Moses and Elijah on the same level as Jesus, suggests that all three are “heavenly” human beings. According to 2 Kings 2:11, Elijah was carried to heaven before he suffered mortal death. Jewish tradition ascribed a similar fate to Moses. Jesus is represented as belonging with them because God will exalt him to heaven by resurrection (16:21; 17:9).
The significance of the three booths is uncertain. Because the word translated “booth” is also used to describe the wilderness tabernacle where God resided in the midst of Israel, it is possible that the three tabernacles are proposed by Peter as a means of prolonging the heavenly presence of Moses and Elijah with the transfigured Jesus. Perhaps this detail is intended to suggest that Peter wants to rejoice in the “heavenly Jesus” rather than go to Jerusalem to watch his master suffer a painful death.
In any event, the primary function of Peter’s statement is to exhibit that humans cannot comprehend the scene without divine help. Peter’s voice is silenced by the utterance from the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (v. 5). Just as the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism announced that Jesus was God’s Son (the Messiah) in advance of his public ministry, so now, following Peter’s confession, the voice from the cloud confirms that Jesus is what Peter has declared him to be. Since it also follows the first passion prediction, however, it does far more: it confirms that Jesus is what he said he is, namely, a suffering Messiah. The clause “with whom I am well pleased,” although repeated verbatim from 3:17, now gains additional significance. God is pleased with Jesus’ obedient acceptance of his suffering role.
To the statement of the baptismal voice is added another clause: “listen to him.” The ultimate significance of Jesus’ role as teacher is now confirmed from heaven with words reminiscent of Deut. 18:15: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among you, from your brethren—him shall you heed.” Here as elsewhere in the First Gospel, Jesus is presented as the one who is like Moses but vastly superior (see comments on 5:1).
It is debated whether the command “Listen to him” refers to the passion announcement or to Jesus’ ethical teaching. It would probably not have occurred to Matthew to make such a distinction. Jesus’ teaching concerns God’s will for him and for his followers. His ethical instruction can thus not be divorced from his understanding of the necessity of suffering. Loving one’s enemies despite ill-treatment is a creative use of suffering in obedience to God’s will.
What is most significant about the statement of the heavenly voice, and particularly of its addition, is that here as in the Old Testament generally word is given priority over vision. Mystical experience of heavenly reality in the form of visual images has its place, but a very healthy emphasis is placed upon God’s will as communicated through word. Seeing Jesus transfigured has value only if it leads the disciples to listen obediently to his divinely authorized teaching.
As they descend the mountain Jesus instructs the three disciples not to report the vision until he has been raised from the dead. This reminder of the forthcoming death of the Messiah prompts the disciples to raise an issue that probably became a point of contention between Jewish-Christian missionaries and synagogue leaders. Since Scripture clearly teaches that Elijah will come before the end and “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:5–6), how can Jesus be the end-time Messiah, since Elijah has not come to “restore all things”? Verse 11is best understood not as a promise but simply as a restatement of what is said in Malachi, in preparation for Jesus’ radical reinterpretation: “Yes, Malachi does say that Elijah will come and restore all things, but I say to you.…” The New Testament writers are not squeamish about acknowledging that God must sometimes adjust promises to circumstances. Human sin may necessitate a “midcourse adjustment” in God’s grand plan. Just as Mal. 3:1 is radically revised at Matt. 11:10, so now the prophet’s final statement is subjected to drastic revision: Elijah has indeed come, but he did not restore all things because human sin did away with him.
The point of this paragraph is not to prepare for Jewish-Christian polemics but to serve with the passion announcement of 16:21 as a framework for the transfiguration narrative. The “heavenly” Jesus is the Messiah whose violent fate has been prefigured by John the Baptist. (For the earlier equation of John the Baptist with Elijah, see comments on 11:7–19.)
It may be of symbolic significance to Matthew that the three apostles—Peter, James, and John—reappear together with Jesus only in Gethsemane, where their master wrestles with his fate. Those who witness his heavenly glory must also witness his earthly agony. If his followers wish to share his future glory, they must be prepared to participate in his suffering.1(Hare, D. R. A. Matthew [1993, Louisville, KY] pp. 198–201)
Let us first look at the scene where this time of glory came to Jesus and his three chosen disciples. There is a tradition which connects the transfiguration with Mount Tabor, but that is unlikely. The top of Mount Tabor was an armed fortress and a great castle; it seems almost impossible that the transfiguration could have happened on a mountain which was a fortress. Much more likely, the scene of the transfiguration was Mount Hermon. Hermon was fourteen miles from Caesarea Philippi. Hermon is 9,400 feet high, 11,000 feet above the level of the Jordan valley—so high that it can actually be seen from the Dead Sea, at the other end of Palestine, more than 100 miles away.
It cannot have been on the very summit of the mountain that this happened. The mountain is too high for that. The nineteenth-century naturalist Canon H. B. Tristram, who explored the Bible lands, tells how he and his party ascended it. They were able to ride practically to the top, and the ride took five hours. Activity is not easy on so high a summit. Tristram says: ‘We spent a great part of the day on the summit but were before long painfully affected by the rarity of the atmosphere.’
It was somewhere on the slopes of the beautiful and stately Mount Hermon that the transfiguration happened. It must have happened in the night. Luke tells us that the disciples were weighed down with sleep (Luke 9:32). It was the next day when Jesus and his disciples came back to the plain to find the father of the epileptic boy waiting for them (Luke 9:37). It was some time in the sunset, or the late evening, or the night, that this amazing vision took place.
Why did Jesus go there? Why did he make this expedition to these lonely mountain slopes? Luke gives us the clue. He tells us that Jesus was praying (Luke 9:29).
We must put ourselves, as far as we can, in Jesus’ place. By this time, he was on the way to the cross. Of that he was quite sure; again, and again he told his disciples that it was so. At Caesarea Philippi, we have seen him facing one problem and dealing with one question. We have seen him seeking to find out if there was anyone who had recognized him for who and what he was. We have seen that question triumphantly answered, for Peter had grasped the great fact that Jesus could only be described as the Son of God. But there was an even greater question than that which Jesus had to solve before he set out on the last journey.
He had to make quite sure, sure beyond all doubt, that he was doing what God wished him to do. He had to make certain that it was indeed God’s will that he should go to the cross. Jesus went up Mount Hermon to ask God: ‘Am I doing your will in setting my face to go to Jerusalem?’ Jesus went up Mount Hermon to listen for the voice of God. He would take no step without consulting God. How then could he take the biggest step of all without consulting him? Of everything, Jesus asked one question and only one question: ‘Is it God’s will for me?’ And that is the question he was asking in the loneliness of the slopes of Hermon.
It is one of the supreme differences between Jesus and us that Jesus always asked: ‘What does God wish me to do?’ We nearly always ask: ‘What do I wish to do?’ We often say that the unique characteristic of Jesus was that he was sinless. What do we mean by that? We mean precisely this, that Jesus had no will but the will of God. In Horatius Bonar’s great words, the hymn of the Christian must always be:
Thy way, not mine, O Lord,
However dark it be!
Lead me by thine own hand;
Choose out the path for me.
I dare not choose my lot,
I would not if I might:
Choose thou for me, my God,
So shall I walk aright.
Not mine, not mine the choice
In things or great or small;
Be thou my Guide, my Strength,
My Wisdom and my All.
When Jesus had a problem, he did not seek to solve it only by the power of his own thought; he did not take it to others for human advice; he took it to the lonely place and to God. (Barclay, W. The Gospel of Matthew [2001, Edinburgh] Third Ed., pp. 182–185)
Solving problems is done best with God.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Monasteries/convents and retreat centers have very different purposes. The monastic impulse draws us away from the world toward holiness and God’s numinous presence. The retreat helps us put our lives in order and perspective in order that we may see God at work in the public arena. Both have their allures and their drawbacks. The life of Thomas Merton is a great example of these tensions.
The popularity of “reality shows” on television which feature post-modern city dwellers coping with the rigors of the wilderness or other cultures (Survivor, The Amazing Race) illustrates the allure of getting out of your rut and doing something completely different (of course, the prize money may have something to do with it!). Many people love to watch others doing such things but would be unwilling to so leave their own routine. Nevertheless, there is a great allure to escaping from the perceived drudgery of ordinary life with its ups and downs and uncertainties.
On numerous occasions in my life, I’ve bought the uniform for some sport (cycling, golf, fencing, tennis) without ever actually taking up the sport. My wife teases me about getting the “outfit,” but missing the real thing. Often in life, we want to seem, rather than be. A former pastor of mine had a plaque on his desk saying, “To be, not to seem.” Often, we trade the trappings for the real thing, when we should be seeking authenticity, congruence, honesty.
What ever happened to awe and wonder? Whatever happened to stillness, and contemplation? Many congregations struggle with having made God so user friendly, that God has lost his otherness and splendor and numinous glory. Many are more likely to have had a “Wow!” experience standing at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, or in a huge rock concert in a stadium full of tens of thousands, or in a glimpse of athletic prowess at the Athens Olympic games. It takes more than fancy technology to compete with these. We offer something totally other. Careful planning in worship, careful crafting of sermons, music, visual images and silence may help us recover some of the sense of God’s presence with which corporate worship can be filled. Prayer, planning, and making such quest for the presence of God a priority can have moving results in congregations seeking to reclaim the holy in worship.
Jesus deserves to shine like the sun. But someone once said to me, “Beware of ministers who stand in spotlights.”
Stars give off their own light. Jesus is like a star, with his own intrinsic glory. On the other hand, believers are more like the moon or a mirror. Any glory we have is reflected light. In fact, the Christian life can be thought of as a grateful effort to reflect the glory of God into the lives of others.
During part of the closing ceremonies of the 28th Olympiad of the modern era, which had returned to its roots in Athens, a large, plastic moon floated over the performers. But above the stadium, captured by the television camera’s eye, was the real Moon, bright and full as could be. What a contrast between the genuine moon, and the fake moon hanging from a wire, suspended from the stadium’s open ceiling. A commentator opined “Leave it to the Greeks to plan the closing of the games when the moon is so gloriously full!”
Sometimes extraneous voices are heard, with unintended effects. In my parent’s little country church, with its old wiring, and inexpensive sound system, CB radio signals sometimes got mixed with the minister’s voice. Once, just as the minister had finished his prayer, a voice came over the speaker: “I’ll be down in ten minutes.” The congregation’s uncontrollable laughter almost brought an end to the worship service!
Crooks and con artists like to have their pictures taken with famous personalities, to lend credibility. Politicians sometimes do the same thing, to add weight to their reputations. Restaurant owners hang pictures of famous people who have eaten in their restaurants. Of course, this is a two-edged sword: sometimes fame by association can turn to guilt by association! Who we are seen with says something about who we are, but the message can be ambiguous?
It was a majestic moment! A single NYPD Officer stepping forward onto the Olympic dais and singing “God Bless America!” Those of us watching at home may recall this moment with the aid of videotape. But those in the stadium were eyewitnesses to majesty. President Bush’s tears and the dignified entrance of the American flag from World Trade Center underscored the life-changing power of such majesty. It was as though we were hearing “God Bless America!” for the first time. Each of us has unforgettable moments where we truly hear or see something familiar but somehow it is brand new. Some of them are wondrous like childbirth; some horrific like D-Day or 9/11/01; some joyous like graduations and some embarrassing.
Whether we can put such moments into words or not, such events transform us by their power. These eyewitness moments become the raw stuff of family stories and national myths that define who we are and alter our destiny. Few of us ever get close to a king, president or governor but most of us have been to a mountain where the breath-taking view silenced our inner chatter. Few of us stop our daily routine long enough to notice the simple beauty around us, so genuine majesty has to surprise us in order for us to notice; our scripture lessons today contain such moments of eyewitness accounts of history-changing majesty.
Perhaps you have been in the presence of numerous individuals who have said, “I shouldn’t be here. I don’t know how I survived.” They then muse, “God must have something left for me to do.” Most people who believe this about themselves have a winsome humility about the experience. For what the person comes to recognize is not merely a memory of the event but that they now perceive God’s hand grasping them in the event and they grow silent. A youth gang leader turned minister, numerous POW’s, an Olympic athlete and a firefighter who climbed up a drainpipe to rescue a child come to mind.
No matter how old we get or where we go, there are some voices we never forget. Our parents’ voices provide the deepest continuity of purpose in our memory; so much so that even very elderly people will recognize their mother or father’s voice. Theirs are the voices that wake us from sleep, warn us of danger, praise our initial steps and teach us to laugh. Other voices not nearly so pleasant also contribute to the continuity of our souls: a bitter spouse, a tormenting bully, a President informing us of a ‘day that will live in infamy’ or maintaining ‘I never had sex with that woman – Miss Lewinsky,’ a physician’s assistant telling us ‘bring your husband to your appointment—the doctor wants to speak with you both.’ The memories of all these voices will shape how we hear the voice of God and the voice of Jesus.
“My voice will go with you,” the legendary psychotherapist Milton Erickson used to tell his patients as they were about to conclude their time with him. This is more than the reassuring nostrum of a wise man. This is physiologically true and thus as close to an echo of eternity as our brain is likely to carry. Mark your words today – they carry the rhythm and tone of eternity.
“What other medium can literally take you around the world and anywhere in time within the span of five minutes?” said the conductor of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra one evening. Sitting in the balcony with strangers, I mused to myself, “and we trust you and this orchestra to take us there.” Then this truth dawned on me: the people around me we much like myself: season ticket holders who have held those same seats for years. While much of our lives remain hidden from one another, we share deeply in this one communion of the spirit: traveling the world and the centuries under the steady guidance of master musicians.
Desmond Tutu tells about a transfiguration experience that he will never forget. It occurred when apartheid was still in full swing. Tutu and other church leaders were preparing for a meeting with the prime minister of South Africa to discuss the troubles that were destroying their nation. They met at a theological college that had closed down because of the white government’s racist policies. During a break from the proceedings, Tutu walked into the college’s garden for some quiet time. In the midst of the garden was a huge wooden cross. As Tutu looked at the barren cross, he realized that it was winter, a time when the grass was pale and dry, a time when almost no one could imagine that in a few short weeks it would be lush, green, and beautiful again. In a few short weeks, the grass and all the surrounding world would be transfigured. As the archbishop sat there and pondered that, he obtained a new insight into the power of transfiguration, of God’s ability to transform our world. Tutu concluded that transfiguration means that no one and no situation is “untransfigurable.” The time will eventually come when the whole world will be released from its current bondage and brought to share in the glorious liberty that God intends. (Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time [New York: Doubleday, 2004], pp 2-3)
Although many people complain how “boring” church is, the transfiguration reveals that if the true story of our faith is focused on, it is anything but boring. Phil “Steam” Shaw, a British factory worker, invented Extreme Ironing in 1997 to take something that most people consider to be boring and turn it into something adventuresome. Extreme Ironing involves hardy young athletes climbing mountainsides, suspending themselves from bridge girders, or floating down rivers in kayaks, and simultaneously, with the aid of solar- or battery-powered irons, trying to iron the wrinkles from a shirt. (Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger, Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America [New York: HarperCollins, 2004], p 81)
Before we are able to listen to Jesus, or anyone else for that matter, we have to learn to be quiet. A new style of dining is encouraging that skill. According to The Christian Science Monitor (4/22/04), “quiet parties” are a new trend. If you walk into Bollywood, a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, expect the hosts to push their forefingers to their lips and instruct you to be silent. When you sit down, instead of engaging in raucous conversation around the table, diners use pen and paper to communicate with one another. Such restaurants are now spreading throughout the world, with quiet parties available not only in New York, but also in such places as Berlin and Beijing. People are drawn to the quiet parties for a variety of reasons. Some enjoy the emphasis on content over small talk. Others find that they are less shy when they write than when they speak. Still others just enjoy the quirkiness of the whole experience.
A willingness to listen to voices other than our own is an increasingly rare trait these days. The current trend is to tune in only to those voices that echo what we already think. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (8/4/04) did an analysis of Rush Limbaugh fans and Michael Moore fans. Rush Limbaugh, of course, is a conservative radio talk show host whose program is broadcast from coast to coast. Michael Moore is a political liberal who produced the controversial film Fahrenheit 9/11, which was highly critical of President Bush and his policy in Iraq. In a study, the National Annenberg Election Survey found that both men enjoy roughly the same number of fans. The number of people who tune in to Rush Limbaugh in a given week is approximately equal to the number of people who went to see Moore’s movie. That statistic tends to reinforce the common notion that the United States is a divided nation: divided between red states and blue states, Republicans and Democrats. What was most revealing, though, was the survey’s finding when it asked how many people have both listened to Rush Limbaugh and have gone to see Michael Moore’s film. According to their results, only 1/4 of 1% fit into that category. In other words, only 1 out of every 400 people demonstrated a willingness to expose themselves to both that very conservative voice and to that very liberal voice. That statistic tends to indicate the kind of bunker mentality that has taken over in American society. People—whether liberals or conservatives—tend to associate only with members of their like-minded groups. Each group then convinces itself that it possesses the truth about various matters. As a result, each group becomes hesitant to listen to voices from outside its group that differ in some way, assuming that there is no way that what anyone else has to say could possibly be right.
In referring to Elijah and Moses, do we think of them as “heroes” or as “legends?” There is a growing trend today to speak of certain people as legends, while talk about heroes is decidedly on the wane. For instance, when baseball great Ted Williams passed away, the elder President Bush called him “a great hero,” while his son spoke of Williams as being “a baseball legend.” In the newspaper tributes to Williams, “legend” outnumbered “hero” in usage by a ratio of better than five to one. Between the years 1980 and 2000, use of the word “hero” in reference to such people as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig declined by 50%, while the use of the word “legend” doubled during that period. It was not until the 1970s that “legend” was used to refer to someone whose fame was especially long-lived. That shift in usage from “hero” to “legend” may be the media’s way of celebrating its own power—the measure of someone’s greatness today is determined not so much by what they have done but by how long people keep talking about them. After all, there can be unsung heroes, but there are no such things as unsung legends. “Legend” has the effect of blurring the difference between people who deeds truly are memorable and those who become turned into celebrities simply because of the media. (Geoffrey Nunberg, Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times [New York: Public Affairs, 2004], pp 17-19)
Jesus concluded that awesome scene on the mountain with a grim reminder that before his ultimate glory would come, there would first be a time of suffering. As we follow in the way of Jesus and care for others, we also need to be aware that hardships will come upon us even as we try to do what is good. Reuters (7/16/03) reported about a United States Marine who helped to rescue and revive a woman who had nearly drowned on the island of Oahu. The Honolulu Fire Department said that if Quentin Gwynn had not been there and immediately and successfully administered CPR like he did, the 16-year-old youth would have died. When the rescue was completed and the serviceman returned to the place on the beach where he had left his personal belongings, he was dismayed to discover that he had been robbed. Fortunately, that bit of bad news was not the end of the story. When some Hawaiians read about what had happened, they got together and presented that Good Samaritan with a pile of gifts. The public offered him money, meals, free hotel accommodations, and clothing. Gwynn was on only his second day of liberty from his ship when his belongings were taken.
The clouds of incense that fill some churches could be viewed as a variation of the mysterious cloud that descended upon that mountaintop. Many Christians appreciate the use of incense in worship services, experiencing it as a healing, comforting aroma. According to the British newspaper The Independent (8/22/03), however, the Irish government is requiring churches to investigate whether burning incense during worship services might be a violation of the nation’s law against second-hand smoke.
Instead of listening only to our own voice, we need to be prepared to take into account the other voices that have a proper claim on our lives. Not only should we give heed to the responsibilities that we owe to God, but we also need to consider what responsibilities we owe to the fellow members of our society. Sometimes we’re so concerned about our own lives—and the exercise of our own personal freedoms—that we might forget about our obligations to those around us. According to Reuters (8/13/02), the British Parliament has been struggling for some time about what to do about the problem of anti-social behavior among its citizenry. The members of parliament perceive that more and more Britons are acting in ways that are not courteous or helpful to those around them. As a result, the governing body is proposing to introduce new legislation to deal with the matter. The new laws, for example, would allow British police to assess an immediate fine against those who are caught being drunk, disorderly, or engaging in threatening behavior. Instead of simply warning the offenders, as the police usually did in the past, the officers would be empowered to collect a 40 or 80 pound fine on the spot. If the offenders do not have that much cash on them, the police will escort them to a nearby ATM so that they can get the funds.
Fear is one of the most common responses when people encounter the holy. But we need to distinguish between the kind of fear that is a sign of reverence and the kind of fear that simply paralyzes us from doing what God commands. This passage in Matthew particularly invites us to consider how we deal with that second kind of fear: “Fear does not seem like the most serious vice in the world. It never made the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. No one ever receives church discipline for being afraid.” (John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], p 118)
God’s voice from the clouds should cause us to ponder what kind of voices we are listening to and paying attention to today. If we watch as much television as all the studies seem to suggest that we do, then we’re turning a large portion of our lives over to voices that aren’t necessarily consistent with the Christian way of life. According to CNN (9/23/03), the Parents’ Television Council studied all prime-time entertainment series during a two-week period in 1998, 2000, and 2002. They found a marked jump in profanity in virtually every network in every time slot. Their study included an analysis of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, WB, and UPN. During the so-called “family hour” of 8-9 p.m., foul language increased 95% from 1998 to 2002. In the same period, profanity rose by 109% during the 9 p.m. hour.
When we truly encounter Jesus’ glory, as those three disciples did at his transfiguration, fear is a natural response: “All of us are born with a set of instinctive fears: of falling, of the dark, of lobsters, of falling on lobsters in the dark, of speaking before a Rotary Club, and of the world: ‘some assembly required’.” (Dave Barry)
There is no telling what messages we fail to hear from God because we refuse to listen: “Before we can hear the Divine Voice we must shut out all other voices, so that we may be able to listen, to discern its faintest whisper. The most precious messages are those which are whispered.” (Mark Rutherford)
Just like Peter felt compelled to speak words to Jesus in the midst of his transfiguration, we also often feel the need to fill our relationship to God with speech: “It is in silence that God is known, and through mysteries that he declares himself.” (Robert Hugh Benson)
In the old Peanuts television specials, the only characters who ever spoke were the children (and Snoopy). Any time an adult had something to say, the person was never seen and the voice was garbled, sounding something like “Wah, wah, wah, wah.” God must have felt like that’s how humanity was hearing the divine voice when it came through the prophets. That’s why God was so intent on telling the disciples to listen to Jesus.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: The Lord is our Absolute Ruler; let the peoples tremble! God sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
People: The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all peoples.
Leader: Let them praise your great and awesome name.
People: Mighty Ruler, lover of justice, You have established equity; You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
All: Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!
Gracious God, You love us, but we do not always love You; You call us to love and aid our neighbor, but we are too wrapped up in our own concerns to heed the call; You shower us with blessings night and day, but we complain of not having enough. We are too often children of darkness rather than children of light. In the silence of this moment we confess these and other sins.
We dare approach You only because You sent your Son to die for us on the cross. Accept our repentant hearts and strengthen them by the indwelling presence of your Spirit. Amen
We call the gifts that we bring “ours,” but we know, O Lord, maker of heaven and earth, that they are really yours. Thus we return them for the use of your church in spreading the gospel. Bless them, as You surely have blessed us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Ever loving God, we thank You that You sent your Son and through signs and wonders convinced those first witnesses on the mountain that your power and glory resided in him. May our lives also be transfigured by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Help us, in all that we think, say, and do, to demonstrate your love. Use us this week in some special way that we will be instruments of that love. We come to You today with our concerns—for our church, community, nation, world, and ourselves. Help us to want only those things which You want, that will upbuild and strengthen others, as well as ourselves. At our work or school, in our homes and community, grant us the energy and perseverance to strive for those things which are honorable, decent, and uplifting. Save us from the fear that so plagues our land—fear of loss of health; fear of terror perpetrated by angry and bitter groups who feel wronged; fear of economic uncertainty; and a thousand more things that we sometimes cannot even name. We pray for our church and nation, that they will seek out your will and walk in your way. We pray for all nations that they will care more for the hungry and the poor and seek ways of peace and not of violence. In the name of him who is Lord of heaven and earth we pray, Amen.