When I was a kid, my mother bought me a little microscope at a hobby shop in Southland Mall, and a set of glass slides. This was pretty awesome as a gift, because it reminds me that I have ALWAYS been a nerd. I mean really, how many little six-year old kids are thrilled with the gift of a microscope? Dolls I could take or leave, except my Mrs. Beasley doll, but I used that microscope for the next three years to look at all kinds of things—blades of grass, creek water, butterfly wings, and, my favorite, my own blood. That was a trip. It was amazing how something that looked one way with the unaided eye looked completely different with the aid of some magnification and some light.
Magnification and light also were at work in the telescope my brother got about the same time with books and books of S and H green stamps—remember them? This was right about the time of the later moon landings, too. We would train that telescope on the moon, hoping that we could actually see the astronauts walking on the lunar surface. The cheap telescope my family could afford really was not nearly capable of that amount of magnification and resolution, but we still would see some of the features of the moon more clearly than we ever had before. We also saw that some of the things we thought were stars were actually planets!
I actually experienced objects differently once my knowledge of them had been changed through a shift in perception. I became aware- and for a little kid, weirded out—by the idea that that blade of grass was made up of thousands of green cells that looked like bricks, and that my blood wasn’t just red liquid but was made up of all kinds of weird round things floating in it. My mother never again had to tell me to not swallow pond water after I saw all the weird little critters like water fleas and bacteria flailing around in a drop of it.
Those experiences with the microscope and the telescope completely transformed my perception of the natural world. Microscopes and telescopes don’t just magnify light, they remind us that our world is so much more complex than what we see as we take things for granted in the hurry-scurry of our lives. And that is infinitely more true about the life of faith in God, as the Transfiguration reminds us.
It’s like that engraving on the side mirrors on your car: “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Things are really NOT as they appear. They are greater. And if that is true about a blade of grass, that is abundantly true about Jesus.
I’m not one who tends to hold with the idea that God “gives” us experiences for a reason. I’m more inclined to think that, later on, we attach the reason to the experience, particularly if the experience was difficult at the time we went through it, like when someone you thought was a friend betrays you, or someone takes a dislike to you for no discernible reason.
I will admit that I found a great saying about that hanging on a plaque in an Ace hardware store a few years back. It said, “There are two reasons why people are in your life-- to be a blessin’, or to be a lesson.” That saying made me laugh, but it once again makes a point about perspective, as well as about learning how to deal with challenges in our lives that can seem to make no sense. I do think we comfort ourselves or allow ourselves to move on in life by making meaning wherever we have an experience that puzzles or frightens us. But the experience of the Transfiguration IS given to us as both a blessing and a lesson. Taking it seriously invites us to open our minds to the understanding that whatever we think of Jesus as the Son of God, he, and God, are far greater than whatever understanding we have.
In today’s gospel reading, we see one of the most astounding perception-shifting passages in the Bible, and that is saying something. Jesus has been hinting to the disciples that he is more than what he seems to be, but they don’t get it. And let’s be fair—why should they? There certainly hasn’t been anyone like Jesus before.
The last few weeks, we’ve been hearing Jesus trying to encourage us to shift our perceptions with his parables. He’s been telling us outrageous stories that were deliberately exaggerated and extravagant in describing the abundant, profligate generosity, mercy, and grace of God. To remind us that no matter how amazing we think God is, God is far beyond what our imaginations can conceive.
Now we flip to this account from Luke, and we are shown an unaccountable, fantastic event that tears at the fabric of our understanding of reality. What if WE are also being invited to have our perception transfigured, so that we can live our most fulfilled, most amazed lives by perceiving the glory of God in our midst?
Have you ever had such an experience? Felt just a brush of God's glory spread over you and make you feel fully alive?
That is exactly what God’s presence in our lives does. God approaches us over and over to pull our perception up out of the puny horizons of our meager striving to see that there is something greater on just beyond the horizon of our limited sight. What if we allowed ourselves to be right alongside Jesus’s friends and be blown away by the wonders of God’s presence in our lives all around us, instead of simply trying to engage in a transaction with God to save our souls but otherwise leave us alone to do as we please?
Their perception of Jesus shifts, and suddenly they see him more for who he really is, both human AND divine, the very things we drone through about believing, without thinking too much about it, every week in the Nicene Creed. Sounds simple when you say it, but it is obvious from a careful listening to the gospel that the Christians of Matthew’s time were still struggling to figure out who exactly Jesus is, just as we also are all these hundreds of years later. Listen to how raw and fragmented the parts of the story are, and how little explanation there is. They thought they knew Jesus, as frustrating as his speaking in parables and answering questions with questions could be. But here in the Transfiguration we are reminded that he is far more.
Just like with Moses, if we are really confronted with even a glancing blow of encounter with God’s glory, it overwhelms us. So we allow—and even seek out-- a veil to be placed between the true fabric of reality in God’s universe, and our everyday existence. But in doing so, we also make it easier to ignore the everyday wonders of God’s presence in our lives. We end up being comfortable—but also blind.
It doesn’t help that the story depicts Jesus as changing. It’s important to realize that Jesus was-- and is-- as he appeared at that moment all along. Only the veil between his two natures was more forcefully pulled aside at that moment. Rather than saying that Jesus has changed, it’s more precise to say that the perception of Jesus is changed by this experience on the mountain. The perception we have of Jesus as a wisdom teacher and faith-healers is expanded by this glimpse into his true nature as the Son of God. And Peter’s there to see it all—kind of showing him what is really meant by his proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah. The glory of God that exists on the other side of the veil is real.
In the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of effort made by certain theologians to try to discover what they called “the historical Jesus,” and by that they meant they one whose presence could be verified by actual documentary evidence. Of course, what happened as this quest progressed was a stripping away of all of the things that would have made Jesus anything other than a first century Jewish peasant, and often people weren’t left with very much to actually believe in about Jesus. That’s why it is good to remind ourselves that we are engaged not in a scientific experiment, but in a quest of faith throughout our lives—not that there is anything wrong with scientific experiments mind you, because I am a BIG fan of science. Don’t misunderstand me. But science and faith sometimes do not ask the same questions. Science asks “what?” and “how?” But faith asks “what does it mean?” and “how do we live faithfully?” and “what is good?”
So what does the transfiguration mean? What the disciples saw in this experience will never be fully captured in words or descriptions, or explained by science, probably. But one thing that is implied by this story is that Jesus is not merely a human being, limited to a human lifespan, but he is the fulfilling of the law and the prophets—that’s what is suggested by the appearance of Moses, the law-giver, and Elijah, the greatest of prophets. Jesus is the Christ, not just a dust-covered Jewish peasant and prophet.
The Transfiguration is not just the story of a magic trick. And I believe it is NOT a parable. I believe it actually occurred so to remind us of the amazing reality of God’s presence and glory all around us—even in a blade of grass or a drop of water—or the real love that God has for each and every one of us, puny as we are. And that can be overwhelming. We need tiny doses of that sort of thing at a time. That’s why, at the end of the story, Jesus does that most human thing of all to bring his friends back from their amazement—he touches them with his hand, reminding them that he is ALSO still their pastor and friend. And so he does for us today.
Open your eyes-- and your heart , and your soul-- to see beyond the veil, unafraid, for the same Christ who dazzles with God’s glory is the same Christ who loves us.
--The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
Image: Transfiguration, from a series of paintings by Macha Chmakoff