A New Way to See God
We process the world we experience around us by filtering it through the cumulative experiences of our past. But that can create trouble when we are confronted by the divine and inexplicable. Faith in Real Life explored this topic together through the texts of Psalm 99 and Matthew 17.
1 The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! 2 The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. 3 Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he! 4 Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. 5 Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he! 6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the LORD, and he answered them. 7 He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them. 8 O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings. 9 Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy.
1 Six 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. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 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.” 5 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!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And 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.”
The Gospels were written to tell us who Jesus is but it turns out this is no easy task. Even the disciples didn’t know who they had in Jesus. He walked with them and taught them—but they did not understand. If the followers of the first century were confused, it is no wonder many of us have the same problem.
This particular scripture, the transfiguration, is part of the unfolding of Jesus as Messiah. In all three synoptic gospels, the transfiguration is preceded by Jesus asking the disciples ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter famously replies ‘You are the messiah, son of the living God.’ Jesus initially is quite pleased with Peter and says to him “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” It certainly appears that Peter now understands who Jesus is. But, almost immediately, when Jesus tries to discuss what kind of Messiah he is, it is clear that Peter had no idea what Jesus was talking about. Peter was worshiping the messiah that he imagined—not the messiah that Jesus was. When Jesus realized Peter could say the correct words but still completely misunderstand, his response was sharp. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
We can only view the world except through our filters and experiences. If you are raised in a home that makes pancakes every morning and then stacks them in the closet, when you visit a neighbor who eats them, you will think the neighbor strange. The example sounds a bit silly but in real life we tend to hold onto our views—and it is pretty difficult to alter them. It turns out our brains are like self sealing tires. New ideas might penetrate but are often quickly sealed off.
This was the dilemma of the disciples. It was inconceivable that the one who saves, the messiah, could save through his suffering and helplessness. Over and over, Jesus tried to tell them— but it was too big a shift from the human expectations of a God of power and might.
Not unsurprisingly, this is a difficulty we share with the disciples. There are some things that we cannot understand until we have experienced them. No one can prepare you for marriage, or childbirth or the loss of a loved one. You can be given the facts but you will not know what they mean until you have had the experience. Jesus was introducing something new. But the disciples (and we), hold on to what is familiar.
So Jesus takes a few disciples up a high mountain. And then some amazing things happen. The man the disciples ate with, walked with and learned from was suddenly transformed. Not only his face, but his whole being radiated light. Suddenly he was in conversation with Moses and Elijah (symbols of the law and prophets). This is quite a step up from local rabbi. It’s like suddenly realizing that your seminar discussion leader was the preeminent expert in the field. Or the man you were discussing religion with was really the Pope incognito. Even though the disciples had been intimates with Jesus, suddenly seeing him as a peer with the pillars of faith would have been astounding.
Peter’s response is to mark the spot, to create a memorial, —but God interrupts —“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Echoing God’s blessing at Jesus’ baptism, this message is for the disciples, and for us, ‘Listen to him.’ “He has the authority and he has my blessing. Quit trying to figure this out on what you know. Listen to what he is telling you. I know it sounds improbable and even impossible—but listen to him. He is my beloved Son.”
I’m not sure which is hardest—realizing that Jesus spoke with such authority or that he is serious about the expectations and demands of discipleship. I’d be on the ground and terrified too. The grandeur of God is overwhelming. The radiance of God is intimidating. This is the God of our Psalm this week. (Take a minute and read it.)
Then Jesus —this holy and anointed one touched them and said, ‘Do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.’ The same man that walked up the mountain was the same man who was transfigured —who was the same man who walked down the mountain. The awe and majesty of God was, at the same time, the same man they talked with and learned from. This teacher, ordinary in so many ways, was holy. Holiness was approachable.
In the HBO series, The Young Pope, there is an episode in which the pope is preparing to give his first audience to the people. His speech writer suggests he begin by telling the people to look to the sky. Then to ask, ‘Do you see God?’ After a dramatic pause, to then say, “If not, it does not matter. Look to your neighbor—you have the means.’ Most of us, and certainly Jesus’ early followers, tend to think of God as above and beyond us. When we are used to describing God as absolutely above us—omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient, It is a radical idea that God is personal and God is with us.
But that radical new way of experiencing God still could not be fully understood. The promise that there is no human experience that God does not share had yet to be demonstrated. There was absolutely no human way to imagine that the same Jesus who taught them, who was blessed by God and who had the same authority as the law and the prophets would be the same Jesus who would be present to them (and to us) long after he was placed in a grave. So, 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.” Only after the disciples experienced the living Lord could they understand what Jesus meant by the word ‘messiah’.
Listen to him. God is present in the ordinary. God is not just ‘up there’. God is with you. God is alive in the most ordinary encounters. The old revival lyrics—’He walks with me and he talks to me and he tells me that I am his own’—are true.
That is the epiphany and the promise of the transfiguration. For the disciples, it was a new way to see Jesus. And for us and the disciples, it is a new way to see God.
Listen to him. Let it be so.