Matthew 17:1-9 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. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 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!" 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." 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."
There are lots of sayings out there that people claim are in the Bible that aren’t. And lots of those sayings actually run in pretty much the opposite direction of what the gospel proclaims. Maybe you’ve heard some, like, “God helps those who help themselves” or “To thine own self be true” or “This too shall pass.” None of these sayings are actually Biblical, but because our society gives them so much weight – or maybe because they sound so old and formal with all those “thees” “thines” and “shalls” – but whatever the reason we often times throw those statements around in conversation and assume we’re quoting Scripture. Another saying like this is the old favorite, “seeing is believing.” Lots of people throw that statement around like it’s a no-brainer.
And if we aren’t careful, the Transfiguration story that we just heard could read right along with it - seeing is believing. We could hear the story and think: yup! The disciples needed a little faith booster so Jesus went all sparkly and God spoke down from a thundercloud and that’s how we know Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Amen. Hallelujah. End of story.
But let’s look closer at the text. In order to really see where the focus of this text lies, I like to picture it like I’m a film director laying out the camera shots. Here’s how I’d direct this: The scene opens, it’s morning. Jesus calls Peter, James and John to get up and follow him. They look confused – but at this point confusion is pretty much par for the course when you’re a disciple of Jesus. He leads them hiking up to a mountain and as they’re climbing they start to get excited – these guys are good students of Torah and they know that big things happen on mountain tops. (In case you are not a good student of Torah – let me fill you in: BIG THINGS happen on mountain tops. Think Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the 10 commandments, - you get the picture.) So now we are up on the top of this mountain and suddenly we see a bright light wash over the disciples faces and they look stunned. The camera turns and we see Jesus, who has now transformed – there is white light all around him. His face – just like Moses’ face shown in the presence of God – here Jesus’ face is shining like the sun! His clothes are a dazzling white. Matthew doesn’t say it but in Mark’s gospel, which was written earlier than Matthew’s – in Mark’s gospel the Greek literally says Jesus’ clothes are “radiant, and so white that no washerwoman on earth could ever get them that white.” And you just have to imagine that when Mark is telling this story to those early churches, there are some washerwomen in the congregation – transfixed by this story that claims the divinity of something so beyond the reach of their dry, well-washed and calloused hands.
But back to our movie - the disciples are seeing all of this. The camera holds on their faces. And they are truly amazed. And in this moment maybe we could get away with saying, “seeing is believing,” and call it a day. But then Peter just has to open his mouth.
Peter steps forward – he’s still so in awe, so excited – he really sees it! He gets it! But what does he really see? “Lord,” he says, “it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here” – three tents – “one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Now I have a lot of sympathy for Peter. Folks who know me know that I really like clarity. I like logical thinking. I like to label and classify and take huge amounts of information and make it all make sense in my head. I think to think, “I’ve seen this before. This is not new. I get it! Really, I get it. This is x, y, or z.” And I have found that for the most part this is a very effective way of living in our world. But those of us to seek clarity above all things know that in doing so we run a constant risk of being totally and completely wrong.
And the story makes it pretty clear that Peter’s idea – making three little tents to house three holy people – is wrong. But interestingly, or frustratingly, the story doesn’t tell us what was wrong with it. Many scholars think Peter is wrong here because he is equating Jesus’ divinity with the same level of divinity as Moses and Elijah. In this scenario, the Transfiguration is a story that puts a good patch of distance between Christianity and the Judaism it is springing from. Others read Peter’s mistake here as his desire to dwell forever on the top of the mountain. His desire to pitch tents, set-up camp, get nice and comfy in this holiest of holy moments, and never have to come back down to earth.
All we have to go on is what God says next. Because the next thing that happens is that “suddenly a bright cloud overshadows them” and we hear God’s voice booming out, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” And at that the disciples crumple into the dirt in fear and trembling.
What was that?
The truth is that was a lot. The truth is that we can spend the rest of our lives trying to unpack all the meaning in that story. And the truth is I hope that you will. But today I want to focus on what the disciples saw – the movie as it ran from their perspective. Because I think there is a nugget in here that has to do with what we see, how we see, and I’d like for us to dig into that together.
One of my favorite authors is David Foster Wallace. He wrote books and short stories and essays and one time he gave a commencement speech for a liberal arts college. And it instantly became one of the greatest speeches ever given in the history of life ever... OK, maybe that’s a bit much – but it is a very powerful speech. And in the speech he tells a parable of two fish. It goes like this: There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?" It’s cute and it gets at one of the biggest traps humans can fall into in life – that God created the heavens and the earth and 3.6 billion years ago life began, and 200,000 years ago the first human-ish being took its first step, civilizations rose and fell. Ages of ice and ages of fire. And then hundreds of thousand of years later here you are. Here we are. Sitting in this church. Trying not to let our minds wander during the sermon. Our chests rising and falling with each breath of air we take. We’re swimming in God’s water but darn it if it isn’t easy to forget.
There are moments when we can see the water, feel the water. In theological terms we call those moments “Revelation.” John Calvin, who is one of our forefathers here in the United Church of Christ, John Calvin used to teach that as Christians what allows us to see a Revelation of God is our study of Scripture. For him Scripture was like a pair of “spectacles” – a pair of glasses that we put on in order to see the world more clearly – in order to see the water. It’s a wonderful image and one that really resonates with me. We tell these stories in order to see the glory of God all around us. As Christians we try to be fish with spectacles, trying hard not to forget that we’re swimming in water.
And it’s in these terms that this story is really speaking to me today. The Transfiguration is less about what Jesus did – becoming shiny and bright – and more about the disciples being able to see HIM clearly. Because what you can’t see from this lectionary selection is that just before this story occurs Jesus gives Simon Peter and the rest of the disciples a quiz – asking them “who do people say the Son of Man is?” In that moment Peter answers – he’s always the first to answer isn’t he? – Peter answers, Ooo! Ooo! Ooo! Teacher, call on me! “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus says, “You got it.” But did he get? Did he really get it? Because up on the mountain – 6 days later - he saw something that he couldn’t understand. Up on the mountain he got it wrong. What happened to those spectacles, Peter? Maybe you need your eyes checked. Maybe you knew about Jesus [head], but you didn’t know about Jesus [heart].
Peter’s mistake shows us that seeing does not lead to believing – because so often our eyes fail us. We’re always looking through dim mirrors. Our prejudices, our constructs, our preconceived notions – they all get in the way of what it right in front of us. All around us.
But do I really need to tell you that? A lot of us know all too well the yearning and desire to see things more clearly. We want those moments of Revelation. We know that there is way too much Peter inside ourselves and not enough God. We know we should be seeing the water, feeling the water, as much as possible and so our own blindness depresses us. We think: “Gosh, I wish God spoke to me. Other people must have way better prayer lives then me, when I pray sometimes it just makes me feel more alone.” Or we think: “I’ve never had one of these over the top – Transfiguration Sunday – God moments. It’s sad to think but maybe I never will.” Or we get more positive with ourselves and we think, “I just really need to climb more mountains. Or walk on more beaches. That will fix everything. If I took up more outdoorsy hobbies or went on more contemplative vacations then I would really be in touch with the Transcendent.” Seeing Revelation in Scripture and then comparing it to our own mundane lives can sometimes just make us depressed or even spiritually jealous. “I need to have more of what she’s having” we think.
Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber says, “I think God is wanting to be known. And my experience of God wanting to be known is much more in the person who is annoying me at the moment rather than in the sunset. I never experience God in camping or trees or nature. I hate nature. God invented takeout and duvets for a reason.” It’s funny, for sure, but I think she’s on to something. Because the story is not over with Peter’s mistake. The story isn’t even over when God speaks from the cloud. The story isn’t over with the disciples overcome by fear, lying in the dirt. The way Matthew tells the story Jesus comes over to where the disciples are crouched. A hand touches their shoulder and familiar voice say, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And they see - we see – Jesus, his face glistening this time with the sweat of his humanity. His clothes dusty from the hike. And he’s alone.
The good news of the Gospels my friends is not that it’s up to us to get our spectacles on straight. It’s not up to us to always get things right. We can climb the highest mountains and still not find what we’re looking for. We may not be any better than anyone else at sensing the water.
But we believe in God that broke through to claim us. We believe in the hand that touches us on the shoulder and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” We believe in Truth that finds us no matter how blind we are. So here’s my one piece of advice to you – if you get one thing out of this sermon, let it be this: stop trying to find – to see - what you’re looking for on top of mountains, and be patient enough to wait for the touch of God’s hand on your shoulder when you find yourself lying in the dirt. Then you will know something so much greater than what you were looking for.