See and Believe
(The Transfiguration, Luke 9.28-36)
August 6, 2006
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Luke 9.28-29)
Today’s gospel reading is the well known story of the Transfiguration of Christ. Six months from now we will hear this same lesson on the last Sunday of Epiphany; just as six month’s ago, we heard the same story as told by the Gospel of Mark. We read about the transfiguration every year on the Sunday before Lent begins; primarily because it reminds of the reason for the season. That glimpse of the transfigured Christ in his heavenly glory is a foretaste of Easter that gives meaning to our journeys through Lent and Good Friday. So we always read it before embarking on our Lenten season of sacrifice.
But the Feast of the Transfiguration also has its own day, and has for about a thousand years. And that day is Augusts 6th – and because August 6 falls on a Sunday this year – then it takes precedence over the usual readings of the day.
Now I am telling you all of this, because I had to go to Seminary for 3 years to learn this stuff – and I want to make sure that you all know that I was paying attention. And no, they did not tell us why August 6th is the day that was chosen as the feast of the Transfiguration.
Anyway, this morning we will look again at Luke’s version of this mountaintop experience and see whether we can discover a couple of new insights.
Let’s begin with Jesus’ stated purpose for the climb. We read that Jesus took Peter and James and John, with him up the mountain to pray. To pray.
Jesus liked to get away to pray – often alone of course – but this time he took three of the disciples with him. And so when they got to the top of the mountain, that is what they did. They began to pray. But as usual, the disciples must have nodded off in the midst of their prayers. Because we read that they were heavy with sleep. Sounds like me on most nights. My eyes are so heavy, that that my prayers often put me to sleep. So maybe it was night time or the wee hours of the morning when it happened.
While he was praying, Jesus’ face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. And not only did his clothes become white, he appeared with two of the prophets from old – Moses and Elijah. Well, that roused the disciples. Here there teacher was being transformed before their eyes and being placed in the company of the two most beloved prophets of the Jewish faith. Certainly a sign that Jesus was from God.
But in case the three disciples still didn’t get it, God makes sure by rolling in a cloud, which covered them. And then a voice in the cloud declares, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”
Whatever happened during the Transfiguration, I think that it is interesting to note that it came while Jesus was at prayer. It was not a separate event from Jesus praying; rather, it was in the midst of his prayer that God’s presence with him became noticeable to the disciples. The holiness of God broke in to the humanity of Jesus while he was at prayer. So prayer is the key to encountering God in a transforming way.
That much we understand.
But as a whole the story of the Transfiguration is difficult to grasp.
All of this stuff about dazzling white clothes – and appearances of long dead prophets – are the sort of things in the Bible that we sometimes wonder about whether or not they really happened.
That is probably the question that I get asked more than any other – Father Paul, how do we know that this stuff it true? Someone asked me this week, “How did the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah, anyway – there were no photos in those days? Good questions. Questions that remind us that faith will always be the required in our Christian walk. When we read these stories so many centuries after the fact, we really don’t know for sure what was intended. The Transfiguration could have been an historical event that was later spiritualized. Or maybe Luke was providing a metaphor to demonstrate that the glorified Christ of the resurrection was one in the same as Jesus, a man from Nazareth.
Biblical scholars have offered both of those explanations and a few others. So what do we believe – and do we all have to believe the same thing about the Transfiguration??
Well, as you might guess, I am going to answer that question with another story. And as you might also guess, it comes from a movie.
The movie is Second Hand Lions – one of my favorites. Like me, you might have watched it again last week when it was shown several times on one of the cable networks. Of course, as is true with most of my favorite movies, it is pretty corny, and has a fairly predictable story line. But that is saved, at least for me, by the presence of two of the all time greatest actors – Robert Duvall and Michael Caine.
Duvall and Caine play these two retired brothers who are at that age of just not knowing what to do with themselves any more. They are too old to do the things they used to do – primarily going on wild adventures all over the world, but they don’t know how to do anything else. So they spend most of their time sitting a on the front porch of this large rundown ranch house out in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, waiting for the next traveling salesman to come by to try to sell them something.
Their dilemma with life is summed up by Michael Caine’s character, who says about Hub, who is the Duvall character, “. . . A man's body may grow old, but inside his spirit can still be as young and as restless as ever.”
Well, the old men’s lives change one day when their irresponsible, good for nothing niece shows up at their door to drop off her thirteen year old son, Walter, to live with them for the summer.
Well, as you can guess, Walter doesn’t want to be there and the two old great uncles don’t want him there either. But Walter’s presence in the house with the old men, changes things. And it changes all of them.
And so as Walter gets to know his uncles and hears their stories, he hears the most amazing and fantastic tales of heroism and close calls.
Among other wild adventures, they were kidnapped into the French Foreign Legion in World War II and then evidently spent many years after that as mercenaries and ladies men; making and losing more than one fortune in several different exotic countries.
Well of course, Walter learns to love his uncles dearly, and he loves their stories. And he desperately wants to believe that they did all of those incredible things. But it nags at him. How could all those stories true? It doesn’t seem possible that they really fought in all those wars, and that Hub was once really married to an Arabian princess, or even that they were really as rich as all of their other relatives thought that they were??
So one night, he asks Hub about that – whether or not the stories are really true.
And Hub answers like this:
“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love... true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”
Because those are the things worth believing in.
You know, sometimes that is the best that we can do.
We believe because in our hearts we know that certain things are simply worth believing in. We believe, because to not believe, would render our lives as meaningless. We believe because something inside of us – something that was there before we were born – tells us that there is a difference between good and evil. And we must be on the side of good to have any true happiness at all.
And maybe Hub is right, maybe it doesn’t matter if all of the details are true or not; because it is the act of believing by which we are shaped as people of God.
In other words, the details of the Transfiguration are not nearly as important as our belief in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Because it is our believing that shapes us and makes us people of the Light.
Our understanding of Jesus Christ as the one who came to live among us; to free us from sin; and to invite us into an eternal relationship with God Almighty – that is the key.
The important thing to take away from the Transfiguration is that it was an occasion in which the Holy broke into humanity in such a way as to transform those who were present. And that still happens.
We witness the holy in many different ways – in the wonder of creation, through reading Scripture. Through our own innate desire to do good in the world. And most importantly, through prayer.
And every time we have those encounters with the Holy – those glimpses of the resurrection, we too are transformed.
Those encounters of God in our lives – those times that we can sense that the Holy is breaking into our human lives – those transfiguration moments are what sustain our faith. The book of Hebrews gives us the best definition of “faith.” It says this:
“. . . Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
We believe in these things of God – because we have faith.
And because they are the things that are worth believing in.