Lightning in a Bottle


Lightning in a Bottle

Transfiguration Sunday marks the change in season. From Epiphany, a season of light and discovery to Lent, a darker season and one of reflection. The passage on the Transfiguration comes near the middle of the gospel account and afterwards we will journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem. 

Scripture: Matthew 17: 1-9

There are certain moments in history that define a year, a decade or even a generation. Looking back at the last century we can find many such moments. Certainly, The Great War and World War II were defining times, as was the Vietnam War though perhaps for different reasons. The Moon Landing stands out for some as a pinnacle moment of technological advancement and determination. The Woodstock Festival was a cultural moment that defined a generation. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a watershed moment for peace and unity. The Northeast Blackout in 2003 was a period of anxiety followed by a period of being unplugged for a few days.

Each of these moments or events evoke certain feelings in us. Some of them fuel anxiety, doubt and fear. While others fill us with hope and elation. Each of us no doubt has personal stories that also fill us with hope and elation. Times that we reflect on that fill us with joy. Often when these moments happen, we seek to find ways to capture them or later in life to return to them. To recapture the essence of the moment, to experience again what we felt years ago.

Today we can capture things through pictures and video. We even have the ability to share them with the world if that is our desire. However, the pictures and videos can only do so much to help us recapture those moments from the past. They never quite live up to what we remember them as. We’re trying to capture lightning in a bottle and that can be tricky.

Peter is often accused of this in our passage from Matthew’s gospel this morning. Of trying to capture a moment and not let it go. When I read the passage, I can hardly blame him and I think critics and commentators are often a bit too hard on him. Can you imagine being in the presence of Jesus, Moses and Elijah and then witnessing what Peter witnesses? The blinding light, the voice from the heavens. How do you go back to your everyday life after that? How can anything be the same after you witness those events?

Peter often gets a bad rap in this passage. He is seen as trying to contain the moment. Of wanting to hold onto the high for as long as possible. What if there is another possibility? What if Peters decision to build the three dwellings is born out of a sense of immense hospitality? How does that change the story? To think that Peter having witnessed the divine radiance of Jesus, being in the presence of Moses and Elijah provides a humble act of hospitality.

Moses and Elijah hold a great deal of significance in Jewish culture. Moses led the people out of Egypt, provided the Ten Commandments representing the Law and led them to the Holy Land. He died before they crossed over and was buried by God’s own hand so that no one knows his final burial spot. Elijah was a great prophet and represents that tradition. Scripture tells us that Elijah didn’t die, but instead was swept up into heaven.

“A key job of the Prophet in Israel was to mediate the covenant by applying Torah, the Law, to the people. Sometimes that application was in a call to return to God’s covenant intentions for his people and often that call came in the form of rebuke and the cry of repentance to a stiff-necked and disobedient people. This is in part why Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophet) appear with Jesus even as Jesus in his own being fulfills the Law and the Prophets perfectly, not so much applying the Law to the people as fulfilling its very purpose through his own life and sacrificial death.” (Scott Hoezee)

If we can read this passage through the first century eyes of Peter, we realize that he is in the presence of Jesus, who he believes to be the Messiah, Moses and Elijah. His impulse to build the shelters is perhaps very understandable and relatable.

When you consider Peter’s actions in this passage as being about hospitality rather than holding on to a mountain top experience it changes things, providing a whole new perspective.

We need to remember that Peter isn’t rebuked by Jesus for wanting to build the dwellings. He is interrupted by God’s voice from the cloud declaring, “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” But afterwards Jesus doesn’t say to Peter that his idea was a bad one. Rather, Jesus sees the three disciples prone on the ground, whether because they are praying, afraid or have simply been knocked over by this display of power the text doesn’t tell us. Jesus says to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Scott Hoezee makes an interesting observation that this passage appears to be all about what we can see. He writes, “It is ironic that this moment of transfiguration always strikes us as being all about what can be seen and yet when God’s voice thunders from heaven, what he says is that the disciples must listen to Jesus! Apparently, if they listen to what Jesus says, they will discover windows on glory they had never before suspected were there.

“Perhaps it’s no different today. Our modern time is as enamored of outward glitz and glitter and eye-popping spectacles as any era has ever been. The media is drawn to megachurches full of glamour. Our attention is nabbed by the spectacular, the superstars, the headline grabbers. But true glory lurks in unexpected places and in generally humble wrappings. It lurks in every believer, in all those about whom Jesus once prayed to be one with even as he and his Father were one.” (Scott Hoezee)

Friends, moments when we encounter God’s true power and divinity are rare. Often, we see Jesus the teacher and healer, we don’t have these large displays of visible power. Yet, the power is always there and that same power is here too. It is present in this room with us and through the Holy Spirit we can use that power for the benefit of God’s kingdom.

We often try to capture the essence of moments in our lives. We stand in awe at some of the happenings of the world, we take in the stillness and grandeur of the natural world God has created. We want to capture it. We wonder, what would it be like to encounter the fullness of God’s promises, to hear God’s voice, to see God’s radiance and power? What would that be like, how would we feel?

Breath deep friends. Fix your eyes on the cross and know that you have already experienced all of this and more. Amen.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

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