March 2, 2014 Transfiguration 2 Peter 1: 16-21 Matthew 17: 1-9
Rev. Catherine Purves
When my kids were small and I was a stay-at-home mom, I confess that I would often sit with them while they watched children’s programs on television. I was happy enough to postpone doing a load of wash or starting dinner. I wasn’t so tempted to snuggle up on the couch with them to see the umpteenth rerun of a Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street, but there was one show that I actually hated to miss, and that was Reading Rainbow.
The host of that show, Levar Burton, always had an interesting lead-in to the book that was being presented. It was his own experience of something that was related to the book. So, if the book was about space travel, he might go to Mission Control in Houston and talk to the people who monitored the flights of rockets and space shuttles. If the book was set in China, he might take you to Chinatown in San Francisco and talk about how much he liked Chinese food. At the end of these little excursions, after he had peaked your interest, and just before the chosen children’s book was read and illustrated, Levar Burton would always say, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”
He had selected the book. He thought it was really good. It related to some aspect of his experience in the world. He wanted his viewers to like the book too. But they didn’t have to take his word for it. They could see for themselves. They could allow the book to take them someplace new and exciting, teaching them things that they didn’t know before, stretching their imaginations, and delighting them with visual images and the power of the written word.
Our reading from 2 Peter reminded me a lot of Reading Rainbow and Levar Burton’s perpetual introductory statement, “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Peter, James, and John were eyewitnesses to the transfiguration of Jesus, and to much more. They certainly trusted their own experience that had inspired their faith. But the transfiguration was an extraordinary story that might be hard to believe if you weren’t there, if you didn’t see it with your own eyes, and it was only Peter, James, and John who did see it.
Jesus led the three of them up a high mountain. There, his appearance changed. The three Gospel writers who later described the event struggled to put it into words. Matthew said that the face of Jesus shone like the sun and that his clothes became dazzling white. What was this transformation? Certainly Peter, James, and John had no idea. Then two other figures suddenly appeared with Jesus: Moses and Elijah, the great Law-giver and the greatest of the ancient Prophets. What was going on? What did it mean? Finally the glorious cloud of God’s own presence descended onto the mountain and they actually heard the voice of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Peter, James, and John held onto this fascinating, fearful, extraordinary experience. The full meaning of the vision didn’t seem to occur to them until after the resurrection of Jesus. Then, according to Matthew, Jesus again appeared, to all of the disciples, on another mountain in Galilee. There, in his resurrected glory, Jesus commanded them to go and share the story, making disciples of all nations. Now, they had a story to tell, a faith to proclaim , but would people believe them? Why should others believe because of their experience, just because they thought it was a compelling story?
Decades later when many of the original disciples were starting to die, and when the expected return of Jesus still hadn’t happened, people began to question and to doubt the story told by Peter, James, John and the others. And here we are, so many centuries later, holding on to those same stories, a handful of eyewitness accounts. Are we also tempted to doubt and to question those stories when Jesus still has not come again and when the world is in one almighty mess. Wouldn’t this be a good time for the Messiah to return? Or is that just wishful thinking based on a few ancient eyewitness accounts. To these doubts, whether they occurred in the 1st century or the 21st century, Peter confidently responds, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”
Yes, we have his eyewitness testimony about the transfiguration, the resurrection, and so much more, but our faith is not only based on his experiences. We don’t just have to take his word for it. The story that Peter and the others had to tell was confirmed by what he calls “the prophecy of scripture.” This is not, he insists, “cleverly devised myths.” The story of Jesus Christ is part of a far greater story. Jesus is the climax of that story that began back when the world was young, when God first created human beings and established a relationship with them. The story continued through the history of Israel when God called out a people to be his own and to become a light to the nations. It expanded through Jesus Christ to include even the Gentiles, as God revealed the dawning of his kingdom, a kingdom they could never have imagined. And now Peter and the others knew that everything that had gone before, and that had been prophesied, and that was unfolding in history would surely be complete in God’s own time when Christ returned in glory, just as they saw him at the transfiguration.
Then all of God’s promises would be fulfilled. But we don’t have to take his word for that. We have the word of Scripture, the testimony of the prophets, the Old and New Testaments, and centuries of prayer and study and worship in the church. That whole story is what compels us to believe. That story was told in many and varied ways by men and women, but, as Peter insists, they were not speaking on their own authority. “No prophecy every came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” It is, in effect, God telling the story.
What we may think about that story, whether we find it believable, is now suddenly unimportant. Once we realize that we are hearing God’s voice just as Peter, James, and John heard God’s voice on the mount of transfiguration, then the person of Jesus Christ becomes compelling. This is not just a story. It is not “cleverly devised myths.” It is not simply the ideas or experiences of ancient people like Peter, James, and John. We don’t have to take their word for it, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is far more than their words about it. It has a life of its own, just as Jesus Christ still has a life of his own as our resurrected Lord. We believe in him because he is the Word of God, the all-powerful story of God spoken into existence in our world, forever changing our world and giving it – giving us – a future in him.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Get to know him yourself. Pray and read and worship and experience life in this new kingdom that is dawning, a kingdom in which everything is an expression of what God has done for us through his Son Jesus. Listen to the story. Let it take you someplace new and exciting. Let it teach you things that you didn’t know before. Let it stretch your imagination, and let it delight you with visual images and the power of the Word. Know that it is God’s story, and that God is telling the story in and through Jesus Christ. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can take God’s Word for it.