A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 6, 2011.
Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
This is a strange story, the Transfiguration. You know why? Because this was a strange event… Elijah and Moses – the late Elijah and Moses – having a parlay with Jesus, all of them dressed in dazzling white clothes. We can’t help but wonder what they talked about, but the only one who is quoted here is God who reaches down to them in the form of a Voice, the same Voice the disciples had heard at Jesus’ baptism.
This story is strange enough that even Jesus told the disciples who witnessed it not to talk about it; at least, not until he was raised from the dead. I wonder if they brought up the subject even then. Eventually their tongues were loosened, I suppose. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be recorded in the gospels, and all three synoptics – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – do record it.
Except, looking back on it – which they surely must have done – this transfiguration must have been a preview of Jesus’ resurrection. Why didn’t they realize that when it happened? Because some things can only be seen in hindsight, that’s why. This strange story of transfiguration is a reflection of other accounts in scripture, stories of those times when the presence of heaven and what’s happening on earth come so close together you can almost reach up and touch the face of God.
The Irish refer to them as “thin places.”1 Moses and the burning bush – not to mention the tablets on the mountain – Jacob wrestling God at the Jabbok River, Job’s hearing God speak to him out of the whirlwind, and yes, Jesus’ baptism. “They are all cracked doors between this world and some other, brighter place where God is no absentee landlord but a very palpable presence.”2
Needless to say, these thin places don’t come along very often, but when they do there is no mistaking them, and certainly no turning back. In fact, the temptation is to stay right there, soak it all in, and vow you will never be the same.
Imagine how the three disciples must have felt. They are witnessing something that almost can’t be described. Somehow, we get the idea that the way this event is depicted in the gospels doesn’t tell half the story… like pictures of the Grand Canyon, as wonderful as they may be, can’t fully portray just how gorgeous it really is. They are in the presence of their Master as he visits with Moses and Elijah, who have come back to life. No wonder Peter wants to build three tents for them so they can perpetuate the experience. No one wants to exit from the thin places of life.
Of course, this story raises questions, and my guess is that you’ve always been a bit puzzled by it. For one thing, for those of us who are more literally-minded, we simply don’t know what to do with it. For example, how does Peter know that Jesus is talking with Elijah and Moses? Why not Abraham and Isaiah? Are they wearing name tags? I doubt he had seen their photographs in the encyclopedia or on Facebook. How does Peter know? And where’s he going to get the tents? Did they carry them around with them, or was there a sporting goods store nearby?
But that’s not the point, is it? To understand at least something of the point you have to consider this story in its context. Just prior to it, Peter has gotten into some big-time trouble with Jesus. His master has told the disciples what will happen in Jerusalem, that he will be tried, will suffer at the hands of the religious leaders, will be killed, and on the third day will be raised again.
And how does Peter react? He rebukes Jesus and tells him it will never happen to him, not on his watch, anyway. Peter had good intentions, to be sure. And for his efforts Jesus calls him Satan and lets Peter know he is not a Rock upon which the church will be built but a stumbling block, an obstacle to the very will of God.
It had to be, needless to say, the lowest moment of Peter’s time with his Master. If the transfiguration was a thin place, this confrontation with Jesus was about as thick as it could get.
It is right after this – right after this – that the transfiguration occurs. Notice Peter’s response to it. Does he turn to James and John and say, “Look fellas, the last time I spoke to Jesus he took my head off. Why don’t you take the lead on this one?” No, he doesn’t want to give up his position as the spokesman for the disciples, so if anything is going to be said, he’s going to be the one to say it. But he’s not exactly full of bravado either. Did you notice?
I can almost see him ducking his head as he says, “Uh, Lord, uh, it is good for us to be here; uh, if you wish… now you let me know if you think this is a good idea, or a bad one of course, but, uh, well, just let me run this one by you… What do you think about my setting up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah?”
And Matthew says, “While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” It’s probably as close as God has ever come to telling someone to shut up.
Boy, Peter has gone and done it again, hasn’t he? Every time, it seems, he opens his mouth he’s either being rebuked or interrupted. And if you think about it, being interrupted is, in its own way, a form of rebuke. Maybe it’s a good thing that Peter ducked his head.
According to Matthew’s gospel, the disciples have heard this Voice before. Again, it’s one of those ‘thin places”. At Jesus’ baptism they heard it. This is the last Sunday of Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means “to show forth” or “manifest.” It begins with Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River and concludes with the story of the transfiguration. At both times and in both places the Voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” At both the baptism and the transfiguration God manifests himself in a unique way and speaks from heaven. And Peter, James, and John have been there both times to hear what God has to say.
Have they listened? Between baptism and transfiguration, I mean, when the places in which they have sojourned were not so thin – when the air was thick and heavy with Jesus’ demands for discipleship – have they really listened? Of course not. The disciples of Jesus still don’t have a clue as what this is all about. So God, in his infinite wisdom and patience, says to them again, “Listen to him!”
Robert Fulghum, the author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, tells about a woman who was so stressed she went to see a psychiatrist. Near the end of the session, he wrote out a prescription and handed it to her. Rather than providing her medication, the wise doctor gave her some instructions. “Spend one hour on Sunday watching the sunrise while walking in a cemetery.”
She didn’t want to do it. Would you? But she did it. She was that desperate to find help for what was ailing her. The next Sunday morning, as the sun came up, she stood in the cemetery listening to the birds and watching the world come alive all around her. And she found herself getting in touch with her life again. There’s nothing like a cemetery to give a person perspective. There’s nothing like watching the sun come up in the morning to give you hope.
And it doesn’t take a long time either. The best and most meaningful experiences of life do not last very long. Think about it…
Can you recall that moment when Jesus came into your heart? Whether it was a private moment or very public, you knew instantly and instinctively that life would never again be the same. But it was just a flash, wasn’t it? Just a blink of the eye, and God made his presence known to you in a way you’d never known it before. It was, for you, the thinnest of all places. And you knew what had happened. You just knew. You couldn’t quite explain it, perhaps, but you knew. That moment became the beginning of the journey of faith that has brought you to this moment in life.
Burial services are brief. But as you gather around the grave of your loved one or friend, you know the next tomb could be reserved for you. So you reflect on the person’s life, but you can’t help but think of your own. Are you giving yourself to the spiritual realities that point beyond the grave?
It doesn’t take long for these experiences to happen… coming to know Christ, attending a burial. Why are they brief? Because that’s the way thin places are. Otherwise, if we built a tent to dwell there, we would start taking them for granted.
Occasionally, we all receive an epiphany. It speaks of the appearance or manifestation of God, and describes those times when God comes to us in a unique and powerful way. Thin places, they are, and they don’t last very long, do they?
But if we will allow these brief experiences, these visions of the life in God that is to come, to teach us what life now is all about, we will listen and not talk. We will take in the presence of God and let it soak down into our soul. And life as we know it will never again be the same. And that is because God has reached down to us to bid us come to him.
Lord, we give ourselves to you now, and the next time a thin place comes along, give us the faith to listen and to follow. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 59.
2Ibid, p. 58.