SERMON: Just Let the View Take Your Breath Away (Transfiguration)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then 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.’ While 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!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
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.’
• Matthew 17:1-9
• • •
In 2014, Gail and I went to New England for a vacation, something we hope to do again this summer. One great pleasure of that trip was spending time on the coast of Maine. We saw various sights there, but there was a day trip I felt we had to make, and that was out to Monhegan Island, off the coast from Boothbay Harbor.
Monhegan is a small, rocky island about ten miles out from shore, where Native Americans once found good fishing. Basque and Portuguese fishermen also visited it centuries ago, and there’s a plaque, adjacent to the island’s one room schoolhouse, which commemorates a more recent visit by Captain John Smith in 1614. Monhegan is only about one square mile in area, is accessible only by boat, and there are no cars or paved roads on the island. Only about 65 people live there year-round.
For about the past 100 years, Monhegan has been a summer haven for artists and other visitors who appreciate its isolation and beauty. Great care is taken to assure that its wilderness areas remain wild. Monhegan has about 12 miles of trails, often steep and strenuous, that lead through wooded areas and over rocky ledges up to the highest ocean cliffs on the Maine coastline. I wish I had an IMAX screen here in the sanctuary this morning so that you could see what an amazingly beautiful and special place it is.
We took a boat out to the island for a few hours of hiking and taking pictures on a glorious summer day back in 2014. We began by making our way up a steep wilderness trail that led to the top of the hump-shaped island and over to its western shores. When we reached the top and stepped off the wooded trail onto the rocks at the top, we were completely unprepared for the sight we saw.
The Atlantic Ocean stretched out before us, dark blue-green under the blue skies. Far below, waves crashed in on the rocks while gulls flew over the swirling waters and nested on the cliffs. Looking to the north and south, we saw incredible cliffs standing guard over the pounding ocean waters. We were stunned. The vistas took our breath away. We were utterly speechless. It was as though we had come through a tunnel into another world, another universe, wild and blue and overwhelming. We must have stayed up on those rocks for an hour, just trying to take it all in.
I’ll never forget that experience. I’m sure some of you have had the same feelings of wonder and exhilaration as you stood at the rim of Grand Canyon, or glimpsed the grandeur of Rockies for the first time, or have been in a place where you can see what the sky really looks like at night without the interference of manmade lighting. Maybe you’ve stood and looked out over Yosemite or driven along a scenic highway in California, or perhaps you’ve traveled to other lands and seen other remarkable natural wonders.
I don’t know how to describe what we as human beings feel at those moments, except to say that magnificent sites like these look almost unreal to us. They are so beyond our day-to-day experience that we can barely process what we see. They make us feel small and overwhelmed with awe, but at the same time they expand our spirits to such a degree that we feel exalted and lifted up, as though we are filled with something lighter than air and can rise up into a new realm of consciousness to be a part of it all.
Today is the day we remember an event called the Transfiguration, when Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and was transfigured in glory before them. What happened on the mountain that day was something like our experience on Monhegan Island but even more than that. Peter, James, and John were exposed to something even more wonder-inducing than even the most awesome natural wonder on earth. It was as though God pulled back the curtain and gave them a chance to look fully into the heavenly dimension. It was so glorious that they fell to the ground, hid their faces, and didn’t know what to think or say.
Now, the text says Moses and Elijah appeared there on that mount with Jesus. This is not accidental. Both Moses and Elijah had their own transfiguration-like experiences with God.
When Moses was on the mountain and the Israelites were fooling around with the golden calf, Moses pleaded that God would show him his glory. And we are told that God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock and his glory passed by Moses that day. Moses was so affected by that experience that scripture says the skin of his face shone because he had been in the immediate presence of God.
Many years later, Elijah returned to that same mountain, to that same cave, and the Lord gave a great display of glory to Elijah before speaking to him about what he was to do next. Phenomena like earthquakes, mighty winds, and fire from heaven overwhelmed the prophet.
Throughout the Bible, various people encounter God when he pulls the curtain back and reveals that there is more to life than meets the eye. There are spiritual vistas and scenic views that we can’t even imagine. The Bible and the saints of all ages testify that there is an entirely different dimension of reality, which we sometimes call “heaven.” It is God’s realm, the spiritual realm, a realm that is inconceivable to us.
What are we supposed to learn from this Gospel story?
Well, I don’t know that the disciples were supposed to learn any particular “lesson” that day, nor do I think that there is really any “lesson” for us in this story. It was simply an overwhelming, unforgettable reminder to them and to us that God is great, God is glorious, God is greater than any of us can imagine. That there are things in life that will always be beyond us. That there are things about God and other dimensions of reality before which we must simply bow in awe and speechless wonder. Sometimes I just think God wants us to take in the view.
And maybe that’s lesson enough. We go through so much of life imagining that we are in control and that we have most things figured out. But on the Mount of Transfiguration that day, Peter and the others learned, as Hamlet said, that “there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.”
There ought to be a tangible humility about any person who has faith in God through Jesus Christ. Anyone who has had the least glimpse of God and the glory of heavenly things is forever scarred by the experience. He or she becomes hesitant to speak in dogmatic, opinionated terms about God and what God is like. Words can never capture glory.
This experience, as well as many other things Jesus revealed to them, confounded the disciples and demolished their proud, self-confident ideas about life.
But if they thought this mountaintop experience threw them for a loop, they had no idea what was coming. It wouldn’t be long before they would see Jesus on top of another hill, and once again, they would find themselves completely undone.
Here, at the Transfiguration, they saw Jesus in glory, but on the next mountain, the mountain of crucifixion, he would be put to shame. Here his face and clothes were transformed into shining brightness, but on the next mountain his face would be bruised and bloodied and his clothes stripped from him. On the mount of Transfiguration, they saw Jesus with Moses and Elijah, but on the mount of crucifixion, he would appear with two thieves. This mount was overshadowed by a bright cloud; that next mount would be covered in darkness. On this mount, they saw Jesus more fully alive than they could imagine. On the next mount, they would watch as he suffered and died on a cross. (see Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone-2, p. 14)
Talk about taking your breath away! Talk about seeing something that is so awesome it seems unreal, something so outside the realm of our experience that our minds can’t take in! And to think that this was the way that Jesus most fully revealed God and his love to us — it’s inconceivable!
There is more to life, more to God, more to Jesus than any of us can imagine. And sometimes God doesn’t ask us to do anything, other than to come out of our little worlds, get a glimpse of glory, and let the view take our breath away. Amen.