I’ve been thinking a lot about “Transfiguration,” partly because last Monday was the Feast of the Transfiguration. You can find the Gospel account in Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36. Instead of focusing on Jesus whose “face shone like the sun and his garments became white as light”, I’ve been thinking about the reactions of Peter, James and John who were with Jesus.
At first, they probably thought it was rather special that they were chosen to go with Jesus to pray while the other disciples stayed behind. Maybe they expected some private training in prayer or being a better disciple. Maybe they thought he was going to explain some of his more cryptic comments recently.
However, what happened on the mountain was outside of their experience entirely. They did not get some private prayer mantra. They did not get private disciple lessons. What Peter, James, and John got was a vision of the Glory of God, previously reserved for Moses and Elijah who, lo and behold, were there too!
Imagine for a minute that you are a Galilean fisherman living in first century Palestine under Roman rule. Not too long ago you met Jesus, an itinerant rabbi. There was something about him that warmed your heart and made you leave everything to go with him. No longer can you say ‘I am a fisherman’ because that’s behind you. You do say, “I am Jesus’ disciple,” but you aren’t completely sure what that means. With Jesus and a few other men you’ve been traveling around Galilee. He’s been healing the sick and feeding thousands with a bit of bread and fish. Jesus also sometimes says some pretty astonishing things, and you wish he’d explain them.
Remember, about a week before the Transfiguration, Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” but got rebuked for scolding Jesus who started trying to explain to all the disciples that the Kingdom of God comes at a cost—even the cost of a cross. Jesus had said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Your training in the Torah has, of necessity, been a bit skimpy. The best rabbis gather in Jerusalem, not provincial Galilee. The local rabbi is not the greatest scholar and belabors points when he preaches. Being a fisherman means you haven’t really had much time to sit around discussing the finer points of the Law and Prophets, anyway. Trading with the ‘pagan’ merchants who come to the Sea of Galilee to buy fish for their clients across the empire means that you have been exposed, like it or not, to un-Jewish ideas. Sometimes it is even hard to hold onto your identity as Jewish in the face working and trading and making a living.
You do, however, know about Moses and Elijah. They are the pinnacle of what it means to be a Jew. Moses is the great deliverer and giver of the Law, while Elijah stood up for God against Jezebel and all her priests and later was taken up into heaven by the flaming “chariots Israel and its horsemen’ (2 Kings 2:11-12) Now here you are on this mountain with Jesus and there are Moses and Elijah-long dead, but not dead now. It’s a pretty amazing and awe inspiring event! No wonder Peter again blurts out the first thing that comes to mind, “…if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” I like this image of the Transfiguration because it shows the three disciples adoring the vision rather than flattened to the ground by the event.
The next thing that happens is even more astonishing for the trio of former fishermen. They are surrounded by a cloud and hear “a voice from the cloud…’This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” Probably in that moment they were totally overwhelmed, but later as they thought about it, they would have recognized that it was the same cloud that overshadowed Moses when he received the Law on Mount Sinai and that led the Children of Israel through the wilderness.
Glimpses of God’s Glory make us want to hang onto the moment so it will last. How often do we attend a retreat that is very moving and inspirational and find that it is very hard to ‘come back to earth’ when we get home and find the laundry piled up and the kids squabbling? (You may recall that the same thing happens to Jesus and the three disciples-see Matthew 17:14f)
We are not told if Peter, James and John were different when they came down from the mountain. Perhaps, like Moses of old, their faces shown for a while, too. I am sure that they were transfigured in their hearts. That didn’t make them perfect. Peter, after all, later denies he knew Jesus. The experience, like any transfiguring change, became part of their hearts and souls and the way they lived, if only for brief moments when the event was remembered.
Transfiguration experiences do not have to be as dramatic as seeing Moses and Elijah and hearing a voice from a cloud. Deep insight during a time of prayer, an especially moving worship service, the unexpected beauty of nature, and many other things can all be times when we experience being in the presence of God. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning says, “Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” (Aurora Leigh)
Have you experienced God’s fire or God’s cloud? Have you heard God’s voice? You are blessed. God’s glory is all around. Let’s look for it, instead of just picking blackberries.