Updated: Mar 5, 2022
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN.
Some of you here this morning might be familiar with the Ray Bradbury short story, “The Crowd.” The main character in the story, named Joe, is involved in a car accident late at night in a deserted part of a city. He is seriously, but not critically, injured, and as he waits for an ambulance Joe is puzzled by the fact that a crowd of onlookers has suddenly materialized seemingly out of thin air. After Joe leaves the hospital he happens upon another car accident, and is startled to see the same people standing in the crowd that were at the scene of his own accident. Joe begins examining newspaper photographs of other car accidents and realizes that the same people keep turning up. He becomes obsessed with trying to figure out who the people in the crowd are, the answer to which comes in a plot twist at the end of the story.
What Joe does in this story is to recognize suddenly something that has been in front of him and everyone else all along. A similar event happens in our gospel reading today, when Peter, John, and James witness Christ’s glory—a glory that has been present with them from the beginning. The season of Epiphany focuses on the manifestation of Christ to the world. First we have the physical manifestation of his birth at Christmas. Then Jesus’ symbolic manifestation to the Gentiles occurs with the visit of the wise men at Epiphany. Christ is further manifested to be God’s son when a voice from heaven speaks following his baptism. Jesus is also manifested as a miracle worker at the wedding in Cana, and as the messiah during his sermon in Nazareth. And now, today, we reach the final Sunday after the Epiphany and once again God speaks from heaven, this time to the three disciples.
The miracle of the transfiguration occurs at a pivotal point midway through the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (John omits it, but includes a line that might allude to it [1:14].) It occurs eight days after Peter has publicly proclaimed Jesus to be “[t]he Messiah of God” (Luke 9:20), the first indication that the disciples have begun to grasp who Jesus truly is. It also is the occasion when Jesus first speaks of his coming passion and death, a prediction that the disciples fail to understand or accept. Shortly after the transfiguration Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem (9:51), and begins the slow march to his crucifixion. There will not be another manifestation of Christ’s glory until his resurrection.
The way that the three disciples react to the miracle of the transfiguration is interesting. Peter, John, and James accompany Jesus up the mountain. Perhaps the hike was strenuous and lasted all day or maybe the disciples are out of shape because Luke says they “were weighed down with sleep,” when they were at the summit. Unlike in the Garden of Gethsemane, on this occasion the disciples did not nod off during the ensuing events. When Jesus’ appearance changes, and Moses and Elijah appear, the disciples get caught up in the moment. Peter, becoming tongue-tied in the presence of these divine celebrities and wanting to capture the moment forever, suggests building three dwellings—sort of the first-century equivalent of taking a selfie.
The mood changes abruptly, however, when suddenly a cloud envelops them. Once, many years ago, I witnessed the sudden emergence of a fog bank that rolled across the landscape, which was very eerie to behold. Thus I am not surprised that the disciples were terrified when the cloud surrounded them. And then out of the midst of the cloud the voice of God speaks. We do not know whether God is addressing Peter specifically or talking to the disciples generally, so it is unclear if God is simply vetoing the idea of constructing three dwellings, or giving advice of a broader nature. One devotional commentary I read on this text translated what God said into the more modern phrase, “Shut up and listen!” (Forward Day by Day, February 7, 2016.) And then just as quickly as it began the episode is over, and Jesus is once again standing alone with the disciples. Luke says the disciples kept silent and told know no one what had happened. It must have been a long and very quiet hike back down the mountain.
These three disciples, Peter, John, and James, apparently not only refrained from telling anyone else, but they seemingly did not further discuss it with each other or even perhaps ponder it much as individuals. They had this bizarre and terrifying experience, which they cannot prove to anyone else, so they lock it away to the point that it does not even change their behavior. James and John still proceed to jockey for thrones in God’s kingdom, and Peter still denies Jesus three times on the last day of Christ’s life. They still do not get it. (R. Alan Culpepper, “Commentary and Reflections on the Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 207.)
How do we respond to moments of transfiguration in our own lives? Most of us are unlikely to experience a pyrotechnic mountaintop event, but that does not mean we lack transfigurative occasions and opportunities of our own. There are ample times when, if we choose and allow, things that were invisible can be made visible to us. A few years ago, when I was living in Utah, I participated in the local homeless population census. The count, which took place on three consecutive mornings between 4 and 7 AM, was revelatory to me, not just because it proved that we did, indeed, have homeless people living in my small, rural community (despite the denials of many of the local folks), but it also made me view the world from a very different perspective. Given the fact that there was no homeless shelter in this community, where and how would I have been able to survive when it was six degrees outside with a foot of new fallen snow on the ground? Now I knew. Where could I have gone, twenty-four hours a day, year-round, to have access to a bathroom with hot water? Now I knew. Where could I have gone to hide out from the elements and where the authorities would have turned a blind-eye? Now I knew. Where could I have gone to blend in, so that people would not have necessarily realized that I was homeless? Now I knew.
Such moments of transformation, transfiguration, and revelation can be scary, just as it was for the disciples. These events take us out of our comfort zones, and force us to see things we would not necessarily want to see, whether it be homelessness, physical or emotional abuse, drug or alcohol problems, health issues, discrimination or betrayal. Such transfigurations are made all the more scary if we suddenly discover that the issue is actually within ourselves. Even joyous occasions, like as the birth of a child, can still leave us feeling vulnerable and nervous; revealing that we are not necessarily the full masters of our own lives.
Silence is almost never the best option in response to such discoveries, particularly when we impose the silence internally on ourselves, but it is certainly a common response as we saw with the disciples. Even in Moses’ time, as described in our Old Testament reading, it was too difficult for the people to witness the radiant, reflected glory of God that was visible on Moses’ face, so he had to don a veil to hide it. How often in our own lives do we don a veil to hide something from others, or to hide something from ourselves? And how often do we seek to impose a veil on someone else, so that we do not have to see what they are trying to show? Amen.