I’ve not posted a few of the most recent sermons, so I figured I would do so. This one was delivered at Russell Memorial UMC on February 10, 2013. Enjoy!
[EDIT] : Dr. Billy Watson has informed me that the audio of this sermon is online! Follow the link to listen. Thanks!
17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then 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.’ 5While 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!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 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.’
It has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for the most part, I suppose you could say this is true.
What is beautiful to one person may be repulsive to another. Some may find the desert—vast, dry, and endless—a thing of great beauty and wonder. Others may see it as a desolate, godforsaken and useless waste of land, without beauty at all, instead preferring the forest, or the beach, or the mountains. Some might look at a painting by Van Gogh, and find it the most strikingly profound image they have ever seen, and others (including most of the people who saw his art when he was alive) would see it as hideous, talentless, messy piece of drivel. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but why would this be? I think it’s this way because the beholder, that is, each and every one of us, is not a complete person. We are incomplete in a way, and therefore only perceive the world incompletely.
N.T. Wright, Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar, tells this story about a historian and collector. He’s searching through an archive in Austria one day, searching for something that might be worthy of studying, when he comes across a faded manuscript that contains several pages of a musical score for piano. As he examines it, he decides to contact a friend of his, a dealer. The dealer phones a friend, who is an expert on musical history, and he comes over, and when he sees the manuscript, he becomes very excited. The handwriting on the manuscript looks like Mozart’s!
After more consultations and examinations, the collector discovers that this manuscript contains a previously undiscovered work of Mozart. The music is amazing, and sounds exactly like the kind of music that Mozart might have written. It’s a beautiful piece of music they find, but as they listen to it, and as they examine it more, they realize that there’s something incomplete about the concerto. Sure, all the pages are there, it seems, but when played, there seems to be places where the piano is simply marking time, and yet other places where the piano is silent. Highly unusual for a piano concerto. Finally, they realize that the piece they found is only part of the whole work, a work meant for more than just piano, perhaps a duet or an ensemble piece. The piece, while beautiful, is incomplete. It won’t be until they find the rest of the music that its beauty will be complete, and so for now, they are left wanting, waiting, and hoping for the missing piece.
He tells this story to address the problem I mentioned earlier: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, because we are incomplete, we perceive the world incompletely. We only have half of the music available to us, in a way. Beauty, in a way, is but an echo of a voice. Were we to hear the voice in all it’s fullness, were we to see the painting or experience the music in its entirety, I have no doubts that what we would see would be beyond description. It would be none other than the full glory and presence of God. When we are in the presence of God though, words fail us. We are rendered speechless.
It’s with scriptures like todays, the Transfiguration of Jesus, that I truly treasure the fact that I am a United Methodist. We Methodists treasure and value four sources for our theology: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. These four sources are invaluable when we try to go about understanding our faith, and the God whom we have faith in. Scripture, because it is the love story between God and humanity written down for all to see, to read, to wrestle with and to dwell in its mystery. Tradition, because we realize that God operates and interacts with us throughout history, beyond the pages of the bible, and because of that we hold the traditions of the church in high esteem. Reason, because the more we learn and the more we find out about the world around us, the more we get closer to the knowledge of God. For today though, I am thankful for experience, because in this scripture the experience of God is front and center—and experience can seldom be adequately be put into words.
Experience is where faith finds an anchor. Scripture confuses us, the traditions may seem strange at times, reason can give us a false sense of pride or even at times escape us, but the experience of God is something that nobody can take away from you—it is truly your own. Experiencing God is a truly unique experience, and no two experiences are exactly alike. It is from these experiences that our faith is enriched, both personally, and within a community of faith. One of my favorite things to hear is personal testimonies and witnesses of God from people. They are always interesting, always different, and always convicting in their own ways.
Experience also is something that you can’t dispute either—which is where a lot of people get tripped up, because while personal testimony is powerful, nay essential to the Christian faith, it also can’t be replicated, and therefore sometimes people have a hard time believing it or understanding it. Not only that, trying to explain an experience with God is often quite difficult. Despite that, if you have experienced God or know someone who has experienced God, you can’t deny the transformational aspect of it all. It changes us, and when you get right down to it, it’s impossible to go back to the way things were before you experienced God.
The transfiguration of Jesus Christ actually is one of my favorite passages, in a way because it is so very strange. The story is short, but packed in these 9 verses is an incredibly powerful, utterly mystifying, and thoroughly indescribable revelation of the divinity of Jesus. I think though what sets this story apart from the other ones is how intensely personal it all is. While we have seen Jesus do many wonders and miracles in the gospels up to this point, he usually does them in front of a crowd. Feeding the 5 thousand? Involved a lot of people. Healing lepers? Note the plural. Calming the storm? Walking on water? Turning water into wine? All in the presence of crowds. This story though, only includes 3 other people besides Jesus: James, John, and Peter.
Between these Jesus and his 3 friends, we can imagine an incredibly close bond. One does not simply travel with each other for months at a time all over Israel without becoming close. However, this would be what many consider the “inner circle” of the disciples, the ones whom Jesus is closest to (probably because these are the ones who tend to get mentioned the most.) It makes sense that Jesus would want only a few to see this particular event—because it’s that powerful, and not just anyone can take it.
It’s really easy to read this passage and somehow make it seem more like something out of a Disney movie than something that happened in the Bible.
Then again, I can see why. For something so profound, it is remarkably scant on description. The words on the page read “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” That is the entire description of it. Why would that be? We’ve seen so much more description in the gospels on so much more mundane and non-miraculous things. In this passage, Jesus is revealing his very divine nature to the Peter, James and John, and all we get is this? Where’s the rest of it? The gospel account is just so matter of fact, so instant, so sudden, you don’t really have any time to process it. It happened, and then it’s gone. It’s more David Lynch than Walt Disney.
Why would this be though? Why do we not have more of this? I like to think that the brevity means something more. Maybe the reason this is all we have is because this is all of the even that the 3 disciples that witnessed it could understand, and find the words to say. Jesus transfigured, clothed in white, shining face, talks with Moses and Elijah. God speaks, the disciples are knocked on the ground, and when they come to it’s like none of it ever happened. That’s all they could process, and so that’s all that was recorded.
Or maybe there’s something more to it than even that.
You see, I skipped over something that is the key to this whole story, this whole experience. When Peter sees Jesus transformed, and the two ancestors Moses and Elijah talking with him, what was his first reaction? It’s to build some “dwellings”—although a better translation would be that he wanted to build some small shrines, or altars, or even some churches there to commemorate what happened up on the mountain. He wanted to set in stone the momentous experience he was witnessing. In the middle of this proposal though he was cut off by none other than the voice of God itself. God speaks, and that alone knocks out the 3 disciples. The message? This is my son, listen to him.
When they awaken, they see everything back to normal. They see Jesus, as he was before he was transformed. They had just had a direct message from God powerful enough to knock them out. And the first words out of Jesus’s mouth—the one God told them to listen to?—are these words: Don’t tell anyone about this.
Why would Jesus say this? He had just revealed his divinity his friends, and now he doesn’t want them to tell anyone? He gave them physical proof that he was God, and he doesn’t want anyone to tell anyone? That goes against all logic that I can come up with. But I look back and I re-read the words of God, “this is my son, listen to him,” and we start to see the picture clearer. Maybe the disciples actually did this right. Maybe the disciples actually listened to him, and that’s why we have this short, strange, and sudden passage, that gives us very little description or detail. It’s because they listened, and understood what this meant.
The experience of the disciples was a tangible witness of the presence of God, and that in and of itself is something that actually can’t be described. In fact, to try and describe it, to try and set it in stone like Peter did, would not do the experience any credit. It would only cheapen it, and make it less important, less profound, and less…divine in a way. It all goes back to what I was saying about beauty. What we perceive is incomplete, and anything we would try to use to describe it would be incomplete.
That’s why this story is so short, strange and sudden. That’s the point. When you experience God, words defy the experience, and instead we are left speechless. Before the presence of God, the totality, beauty, majesty, glory and grace of God, we would all be left speechless. That right there is in a way the good news. This story acts as a turning point for the Gospel, the halfway point. It’s all downhill from here for Jesus. In his case, uphill. In going down this mountain, Jesus would then go on to climb another one, one that would lead to Jerusalem. One that would lead to Calvary. One that would lead to the grave and death itself. It is on that hill that the full divinity of Jesus was shown again. It’s on that hill that Jesus defeated death, and rose again to offer us all new life. All of that, quite frankly, leaves me speechless.
I’m astounded that the disciples even managed to get it all on paper, quite frankly, because their experience of God was so personal, and so profound, if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t know how to do it. But frankly, that is our task as Christians in a way. We get to experience God, and then we get to try and tell others about it. Of course it will fall short. Of course human language is going to be inadequate to the task of trying to describe the experience of God. But like I said earlier, its one of the most powerful sources we have that inform us and others about our faith, even though we as storytellers are flawed and incomplete. The mystery of it all is, that wholeness, that completeness, that beauty and truth of God still manages to shine through.
So don’t be afraid to try and tell others of your experience of God. Yes, it’s a daunting task, and it may prove to be almost impossible, but do it anyway, because in sharing your experience of God, you share God God’s self with others. You share a bit of eternity, a glimpse of beauty, an echo of a voice that has the power to knock you on your back. Just never forget that experience. Never forget what it feels like to experience God. Never forget what it feels like to encounter God, and to be… speechless. Amen.
 N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, p39.