SEEING GOD’S GLORY
Exodus 24:12-18 Matthew 17: 1-9
“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.”
You see? You have heard of that word “transfigured,” haven’t you? Transfigured: a word found in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, ascribing great blessing on Americans. We are, in so many ways, blessed.
Transfigured: to change radically the figure or appearance of; to exalt or glorify.
That’s what we’re talking about today.
We’re talking about a day of wonder, of mystery, and even delight for Peter, James, John, and ages before: Moses.
We’re talking about a chance for personal counsel and divine insight.
We’re talking about a chance to get perspective on that which is beyond us.
We’re talking about a proverbial “mountaintop experience.”
Can you remember some of the people who were your heroes, or persons you idolized? My love for and intrigue with ocean liners started with a Titanic survivor coming to my elementary school in Richmond Virginia. I’ll never forget the woman’s story about how that great ship went down. My becoming a lifelong fan of the St. Louis Cardinals included a meeting with pitcher Nelson Briles who came to speak at our church. You may not know his name, but he had a name then. Meeting him intensified my love for the game. Can you think of people who made such an impact on you that they changed your life? Those are mountaintop days, and when you have them, you hope they’ll never end. Mary Ann and I have waited in line to meet characters at Walt Disney World or at Universal Studios with one of our little grandsons who was star struck to meet a princess.
Teenagers in the late fifties loved to see Elvis, and in the 60s they loved to see the Beatles. Today as the Daytona 500 takes place, I will be reminded what a thrill it was to meet “the King:” Richard Petty.
All of those examples, put together, can’t measure up to going up a mountain with Jesus and seeing him “transfigured;” or going up a different mountain and being in the presence of God as Moses did. Like any special meeting you may have had, none one wants it to end. Peter, James, and John wanted to stay on the mountain and be enraptured by the glory. But God, as always, had other plans. On the day of a baptism, God is issuing a commission, not an insurance policy. A God has special things for Moses, and Peter, and James, and John to do; and for you and me as well. Experiencing God’s glory is to get empowered, not enamored. Being enamored is for fans; being empowered is for followers. Even Moses wanted to stay on the mountain and not face the people, who had already begun to sin. Even Peter, James, and John wanted to stay close to Jesus on the mountain, not face the valley of suffering and need. It was an extraordinary day with ordinary reactions. Some groups of climbers who have climbed to the summit of mountains have wanted to stay if their food held out. Who wants a special day to come to an end? But mountains aren’t appreciated without valleys. The days of joy are not so appreciated until one of those Murphy’s Law days, comes along, when anything that can go wrong, does go wrong! Just as this week of Mardi Gras, ending in two days on “Fat Tuesday,” is seen by some as the final fling of fantasy and fun before Lent, so the day on the mountaintop ends with the descent into the valley; where the people were; where the needs were; where the journey continued.
Mountaintop experiences are ones from which we might date our lives as B.E., before the event, and A.E., after the event. They are that pivotal. Some have told me about the spiritual mountaintop experience they had at Cursillo, De Colores, Via de Christo, or on an Emmaus Walk. For many Presbyterians, a trip to Montreat, North Carolina creates such a memory. Some of our mission trip youth have been changed forever by their summer pilgrimage. Am I helping you recall any special events?
Now, how does one describe God’s glory? Might we be searching for the right words to say? If you remember the brilliant Anne Bancroft depicting the teacher of the Blind, Annie Sullivan, as she tried to help Helen Keller, portrayed by the late Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker,” she celebrated the amazing time when Helen made the connection between the sign language she formed and the object she described. How do you teach someone how to connect “water” with the word when she never had the concept of words? Similarly, in the new non-fiction book The Awakening of HK Derryberry, a boy born prematurely never gained sight and lives to this day with cerebral palsy. Only his grandmother stepped up and cared for that poor child, taking him with her to the coffee shop where she worked eight hours a day. He sat in a booth the whole time. Jim Bradford, a local businessman and Christian from Brentwood, Tennessee, chose that coffee shop over his normal one. HK changed his life; they became best buddies, and HK began to learn about a world he had never seen. At one point in the book, he innocently asks, “Mr. Bradford, what does white look like?” What does white look like when you have never seen anything? Grasping for descriptive words might be what it would be like if we were to ask Moses: “Tell me about God’s glory.” Or ask Peter, James, and John, “What did Jesus look like that day on the mountain?” Singer and songwriter Bart Millard of the Christian group “MercyMe” tried to capture that idea with these words written to his Lord: (I Can Only Imagine)
I can only imagine what it will be like when I walk by your side;
I can only imagine what my eyes will see when your face is before me
I can only imagine.
Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel, will I dance for
You Jesus, or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall,
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all,
I can only imagine.
Wow. What a good stab at describing the indescribable. All these examples are just attempts to describe the indescribable. Here’s a final one.
Oscar Hijuelos, in his national bestseller from 1995 called Mr. Ives’ Christmas, tells of the unusual transfiguration experience his main character has. At the corner of Madison Avenue and Forty-First Street in New York City, Ives begins to feel certain sensations: the sidewalk seems to lift under him ever so slightly; the street begins to flutter and stretch on forever; the buildings bow as if they recognize Ives, and in those moments, he could feel the very lift of the concrete below him. It was as if he could, for a few seconds, hear molecules grinding, light shifting, and the vibrancy of things everywhere. “In one slip of a second, anything seemed possible—had the moon risen and started to sing, had pyramids appeared over the Chrysler building weeping, Ives would have been no more surprised…. He began to experience a thorough love for all things. In the glow of such feelings people truly seemed blessed; truck and car horns sounded like heavenly trumpets; [and] the murmur of crowds and the other voices fell upon his ears like music…. Catching his own reflection in a window, Ives’ face [was] like a sphinx’s one minute, the next like Saint Paul’s, as it might have been when he was stricken with divine light…. To hear, to smell, to see, to feel, all were miraculous. [HarperCollins, 1995, pp.101,102] And looking back on his life-changing day, “He would have liked to tell his son how each time he walked along the street on a clear day, he vividly remembered his mystical experience. He had wanted to explain how a sensation of impending glory came over him, and how, for a few moments, he became aware of God that was like no God he had previously conceived.” [p. 111]
On a mountaintop; at the ocean; in a store window; in the face of a child; on a Damascus road experience; or in that time in Gloryland where we all hope to land, may you watch hopefully, and even longingly, for the glory of God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 26, 2017