2 Peter 1:16-21
There is something sacred about being on the top of a mountain. It is a sacred space. It is also the reward for many hours of slogging up some steep path. And I have never stood on a peak where I did not think that being on the mountain was more than enough reward for the exertion of the day.
There are, however, times when sacred moment and space are somehow diminished. After high school my brother and a friend hiked the Kungsleden in northern Sweden. They were gone for about six weeks. One of the highlights of their hike was the ascent of one of the higher peaks. This is a very remote area. As they reached the top a helicopter landed and a large group of American tourists disembarked. Suddenly the space was no longer sacred.
It wasn’t like that for Peter, James, and John. There is no mentioning of the beauty of the place, though I imagine it was beautiful. The sacredness of the moment came not from the place but from Jesus. Jesus was the one who sanctified the space and the moment. He is changed before the eyes of his disciples, his face shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white.
Peter, James, and John get a glimpse of God’s glory.
I was speaking with Pr Michael earlier this week. He is leading worship at Redeemer today. And he said that if this were today, Peter would not have asked to build three huts, he would have asked to take a selfie.
Both are about preserving the moment, though Peter wants more than a memory or a trophy, he wants this experience of God’s holiness to be the new normal of his life. That is why he wants to build three huts.
The event is over as quickly as it began, but it is not forgotten, because, we cannot forget an experience such as this. And as much as I would like to laugh at Peter, I feel for him, for Peter saw something that changed him.
This is not the same as being on a mountain top. It is not the same as going for a walk on the beach, or admiring the sunset. Matthew tells us nothing about the scenery, beyond the fact that they went up a mountain. Matthew does tell us about Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, especially about Jesus.
Perhaps you saw Lillian Daniel’s OpEd piece in the Huffington Post a few years ago. In it she tells about how she hates it when someone on an airplane finds out she is minister and then feels compelled to tell her that they are spiritual but not religious and that they find God in the sunset.
Peter, James, and John do not find Jesus in the sunset. They do find him on the mountain but this has little to do with the mountain and everything to do with Jesus.
And that, I think, is the point of this story. They see Jesus like they have never seen him before.
They probably could not put it into words, and neither can we, which is why we must be content with Matthew’s report of his face shining like the sun, his clothes becoming dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appearing on the scene.
Peter, James, and John saw Jesus like they had never seen him before. Seeing is not only what we do with our eyes, but also with our soul. Seeing has to do with understanding. Their eyes were opened. Luke uses this expression when the Emmaus disciples recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Something profound happened and their lives will never be the same for they who had been disillusioned and despairing now return to Jerusalem.
When in Acts 9 Ananias comes to Paul, something like scales falls from Paul’s eyes and he, the enemy of the church, is baptized.
Matthew begins this section with the words, “six days later,” which makes us wonder about what was six days earlier. Hard for people like me who sometimes can’t even remember what they did yesterday.
When we look back to chapter 16 we find the confession of Peter, Jesus’ foretelling of his death, and then this verse, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (16:21)
What Peter, James, and John saw on the Mountain was not only God’s glory but God’s glory entering our world in Jesus, and God’s glory revealed in Jesus.
Again and again we see that this is not what they had expected. They had expected the Messiah to come with might. But they learn, even if slowly, that the Messiah comes to suffer their pain, their loss, their death.
What was their epiphany? What was it that changed for them on the mountain? Not only did they see Jesus transfigured but what changed for them was that the revelation of glory confirmed the revelation of glory in the cross.
I don’t know if they remembered Genesis 1, if they remembered that God created us in God’s image. Perhaps they did, at least intuitively. For the image of God they now knew was also present in their neighbour, for God had become human and entered our weakness. The Jesus who spoke of his suffering and the one visited by Moses and Elijah were the same person. And if God could enter our humanity, perhaps they could indeed see God not only on the mountain top but also in their neighbour and in their enemy.
Lillian Daniel ends her column by asking whether she may now switch seats to sit next to someone who has been shaped by a great cloud of witnesses and been brave enough to encounter God in a real human community. That’s the vision that Jesus makes possible.
The second century church father, Irenaeus of Lyon, writes, “The Glory of God is the (hu)man alive, while the life of (the hu)man is the vision of God.”1 This vision happens not only on the mountain top but also in the valley, because God is in both places, and always where we are.
1Brian Volk, Ekklesia Project lectionary post, As We Watch: In Book IV of Adversus Haereses, the Second Century church father, Irenaeus of Lyon, writes, “Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei.” Many of us have seen this in truncated form: just the first half, often freely translated as “The Glory of God is the human fully alive.” I would render the complete sentence as “The Glory of God is the (hu)man alive, while the life of (the hu)man is the vision of God.” There’s no “fully” in Ireneaus’ Latin original. The point, however, is clear: God manifests God’s glory in our life and in our bodies, and our life’s focus and end is in seeing God.