Read Matthew 17:1-9
When I imagine this scene, it’s a little like science fiction. Whenever there is a breach between our reality and God’s presence outside of it I picture a “portal.” In science fiction, it is a doorway that connects two distant locations separated by space-time. Something like Stargate, C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe, or Dr. Who’s police box come to mind. I’ve been convinced of the efficacy in referring to time as the space-time continuum – meaning that time, as we experience it is relative to the space in which we experience it. “What!” You may say, “does that have to do with the Bible, Jesus and the transfiguration?” Well, everything. I’ll probably lose some of you, but I’ll risk it by saying that I believe it is more likely that Moses witnessed a portal in space-time when he saw a bush that seemed to be on fire, but not consumed. I believe it was a portal in space-time through which the shepherds witnessed the angels of heaven heralding the birth of Christ. I think it’s what happened on the mount of the Transfiguration. To fully understand the “I am” that Moses met so long ago we must realize that it was only a long time ago to us. To God it just happened, it is happening, it will happen.
When I imagine the scene, we’ve just read about it’s easy to picture the terror on the faces of the apostles. I see the portal opening in front of Jesus blasting him with heaven’s glory like brilliant back-lighting in a concert or show. Jesus became a silhouette, and then he became the light! The three persons of the Trinity were reunited in the way they were before the incarnation. Jesus’ divine nature is fully visible on earth. I wonder if Peter was mentioned because he was the only one looking. I’d probably be like James and John then, hiding and crippled by amazement and fright. Brave Peter observed as Jesus not only communed with his Father and Spirit, but with Moses and Elijah. I wonder if those men were experiencing the event as they climbed to their mountaintop encounters with God? Could this event have been happening simultaneously from different places in space-time? It’s awesome to wonder about it all. In today’s Old Testament reading Moses walked into the cloud on Mount Sinai, into the presence of God. Could he have walked into the cloud and onto the Mount of the Transfiguration where he witnessed God’s glory and three men he’d never seen before? (Exodus 24:12-18) I wonder if Elijah “. . . out, and [stood] on the mountain before the Lord” and saw God’s glory and three men he’d never seen before? (1 Kings 19:11-18) It’s amazing to realize that the One who created all that is, though entirely apart from it, can manipulate Creation, even the hidden things as He wills.
Peter’s desire to put up booths or tents wasn’t foolish, but it was misguided. He seems to have reasoned that he was witnessing the coming of the Messiah into his fullness of glory and therefore the beginning of his reign. Perhaps Peter figured that God would dwell there in a similar way as God once dwelt in the tent of meeting with Moses. Peter would later realize what the real meaning of the experience was and the true way that God would stay on earth – in the Body of Christ. Therefore, this story helps us better understand who Jesus is. Ultimately that’s what Peter got out of the experience, since he later said, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.”
The Lectionary seems to have cooperated nicely with the Spirt in that this reading falls on the Sunday before we begin the season of Lent. This coming Wednesday, the season of fasting and humble preparation for the observance of Jesus’ passion and resurrection will start. The Bible readings will methodically drive us toward Jerusalem again. We’ll experience the story of our redemption again. We’ll eventually go back to the Garden of Gethsemane where we will witness the inverse of today’s reading. Today Peter, James, and John saw the fullness of Jesus, the Son’s relationship with the Father and Spirit. At Gethsemane Jesus will call out to Peter, James, and John as he suffers the fullest separation from the Father and Spirt as he takes the enormous burden of our Sin upon his shoulders. Jesus will sweat blood and descend to depths that are the total antithesis of the height to which he ascended in the Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John will not respond as they did on the mountaintop – They will sleep. Given the clarity of which Peter spoke of the Transfiguration experience later in his life, it isn’t hard to imagine the depth of his sorrow, grief after failing to support Jesus and even denying him.
What then, do we do with this story? God the Father’s final three words were: “Listen to Jesus.” In that monumental event, God revealed that command to all who were present and when it was all over Jesus remained. Jesus has said, “I am the way, the Truth, and the Life. No one come to the Father EXCEPT by me” (John 14:6). Moses who gave the Law was not the Way. Elijah, of whom the New Testament speaks more often than of any other Old Testament prophet, who worked miracles rivaled only by Jesus’ was not the Way. Jesus is the Way. Remember how in Matthew 10 Jesus sent the apostles out with power to do the same sort of miracles and preached the same kind of Word? Jesus also sends us out. Remember how in Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you.”? He was talking to us. How do we know this? When He had said this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22) This same Spirit is available to us today. Imagine for a moment that Christ has revealed His divine nature to us on the mountaintop and now, like the apostles, He sends us with His authority and power to do His will. If that’s the case, then why are we often afraid of opinions, criticism, government, and otherworldly powers? Are we like Peter, James, and John who, having witnessed His divine authority and grace, sleep (maybe pretend) when He calls out to us?
As you enter the Lenten season, please spend time in quiet prayer and fasting. Seek the Lord, and you will find Him. Having confessed your sin before God and repenting of it, accept the gift of justification through Christ. Having done so then repent of your lack of zeal. Ask God to enliven the Spirit in you so that you can go with God’s power and authority to a community filled with people who need to see God and their best chance is you. Seeing you trust God’s grace when all seems lost; loving unconditionally; being forgiven and forgiving; filled with joy and peace, and loving God with all heart, mind, and soul, even as you love our neighbor will make God and God’s love real. You don’t have to be ashamed of what you’ve been taught to believe. That’s what Peter seems to have said by declaring that the prophets were right – maybe because at least two of them witnessed it with Peter and his friends.