TEXT: Matthew 17:1-9
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9)
Years ago (more years ago than I like to think about) I worked as an orderly—or nursing assistant—first in a nursing home in Winnipeg, and then on a hospital medical floor in Lethbridge. Needless to say, I witnessed a lot of death, and a lot of dying. I also was present as—sometimes—people were successfully resuscitated. I suppose, all told, I spent close to a decade in that career. But, for whatever reason, in all that time, I never once heard anyone speak about or describe what is commonly known as a “near-death experience” or NDE.
However, as a pastor, I have been told about those kinds of experiences. Not a lot of them, but a few. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe people are more comfortable (or less uncomfortable) having that kind of conversation with a minister.
And I have to say, it does seem like there are some common elements in most of these stories. The ones I’ve heard as first-hand accounts sound very much like those related in the now-abundant literature about NDEs.
People who have been near death often speak about being outside their bodies, looking down as medical personnel try frantically to revive them. Many recall passing through some kind of celestial tunnel, and approaching a brilliant light—or even “a being of light.” Some actually report visiting heaven, and meeting long-deceased relatives or friends. A few even see Jesus.
In today’s gospel text, Peter, James, and John also see Jesus—but in a way they’ve never seen him previously … and in circumstances they could not even have imagined:
“… he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Matt. 17:2-3).
Did Moses and Elijah literally materialize in bodily form on that mountaintop? Or was it—as Jesus himself suggested—a “vision” of some kind?
We cannot, of course, know for certain what sort of experience the disciples actually had. But they obviously saw and heard things they had never seen or heard before. Evidently, Peter thought it was very real. Moses and Elijah seemed so concrete to him that he wanted to build “dwellings” for them to live in … as if he thought their conversation with Jesus was about some kind of real estate development!
Poor Peter. He probably didn’t know what to say. When Mark and Luke tell this story, they imply that Peter was just babbling—almost incoherently—because he was scared out of his wits by the whole thing.
Well, wouldn’t you be? Clearly, there was something going on here which, today, we would call “paranormal.” And—speaking about the present day—it’s interesting to consider how many people there are who believe they’ve had similarly unusual experiences.
According to studies conducted in recent years, nearly 20 per cent of Americans claim to have seen ghosts. 1 In the United Kingdom, three in five people have said they’ve encountered a ghost in their lifetime, with 40 per cent saying they thought their pet had seen one, too.2
Results of another study suggest as many as four million Americans believe they have been abducted by aliens.3
As for our own country, Canada has—per capita—one of the highest rates of UFO sightings.4 As recently as last year (2022) no fewer than 768 UFO reports were made to Canadian authorities.5
Focusing more on religious matters, millions of people worldwide claim to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary—and not just in tortillas and grilled cheese sandwiches, either!
In fairly recent times, Jesus’ mother has been reported showing up in places like Medjugorje in Bosnia, or a Wisconsin town called Champion—or on a farm near Marmora, Ontario. She’s even been seen by crowds of people in largely Muslim countries like Egypt and Syria.
So … what do we do when we hear such accounts? We may be tempted to belittle or dismiss them—or to try to explain them scientifically—but that does not make them go away, or make the people who’ve had them stop believing in them. In the end, I guess—unless you’ve had this kind of experience personally—it’s hard to understand why people see what they claim to see or have the visions they claim to have.
Here, I think—instead of dismissing such reports out of hand—or trying to explain them away—we need to adopt an attitude of humility. We should acknowledge that there are dimensions of mind and of spirit which transcend our conventional understandings.
I’m sure at least some of my readers will have had glimpses of that. And I think most of us will admit that, sometimes—as a result of a dream or a déjà vu experience—we’ve been given new perspectives and fresh insights.
I’m not trying to “creep you out” here, but I do think there’s more to us—and to our world—than can be completely understood or logically explained. And—for those of us who acknowledge that there is a power that’s higher than we are—I don’t think the unknown or unusual has to be creepy … or scary.
As people of faith, we know—at least, I hope we know—that the God who is beyond our comprehension comprehends us perfectly. More than that, he loves us perfectly. We may not understand the mind of God any more than a newborn infant understands the mind of its mother. We may not grasp the fullness of God’s love for us … in fact, we probably cannot grasp the fullness of God’s love for us … but we can feel it!
And isn’t that the point, anyway? Scripture tells us that God sent his Son into the world because he loves us.
We may not comprehend the ways and purposes and plans of God; but, in Jesus, we see him. In Jesus, we see his ways and purposes and plans. We see God’s Word made flesh.
I think that’s why the account of the Transfiguration appears in the gospel record. To be sure, this story underscores the truth that everyday life is filled with imponderables—that not everything is physical and material, explainable and definable. But, even so—even after the disciples had this extraordinary experience—everyday life resumed.
… they fell flat on their faces, scared to death. But Jesus came over and touched them [saying] “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus. (Matt. 17:6b-8)6
At the end of the day, they saw Jesus standing before them, alone. Whatever had changed about him—whatever had changed about them—this was still the same Jesus.
He was their focus. He was their authority. He was their point of reference. And so it must be for us. In the midst of life’s challenges and confusion and defeat, there is One who gives us direction and victory—and he is our most precious gift.
Jesus teaches us how to love our neighbours as ourselves. In Jesus, we find grace and wisdom to deal with unsettling circumstances.
Because of Jesus, we can face each day’s trials knowing that our future with him is assured. In Jesus, we see beyond the limited perspectives of the material and the physical.
In Jesus, we see more than Moses and Elijah, more than the Law and the Prophets. In Jesus, we see more than poets or musicians or scientists or politicians will ever see. In Jesus, we see the coming Kingdom which already embraces us.
Of course, there’s still down-to-earth business with which we must deal. There’s a pot roast in the oven which can’t be allowed to burn. There are relationship troubles that need to be resolved. Our futures are uncertain. Financial matters press. Health problems loom. Life is filled with practical realities. This was as true for the disciples as it is for us.
If we read a bit further in chapter 17 of Matthew, we find out what happened when Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountaintop. At the bottom (17:14-15), there was an epileptic man in need of healing. Also, there was the journey to Jerusalem—a destination fraught with promise and peril. Ahead of them lay Calvary and the cross—seemingly the end, but in fact a new beginning.
Through all of this, the disciples would need to keep their eyes fixed upon Jesus. Through all of this, they would need to remember what Jesus had told them. Through his words, they had gained new insights—new understandings—which took them far beyond anything they had ever hoped for or imagined.
It will be that way for us, also, as we follow the Lord. Answering his call to discipleship may seem at times to be dangerous, or burdensome, or even embarrassing. Yet Jesus reminds us that his burden is easy and his yoke is light. In him, we are caught up in a love that will transform us and illuminate us. To know that we are loved by God is a blessing; to respond in love to the needs of our neighbours is a joy.
Yes, a joy—and an example of something that comes from far beyond us—from far beyond the dimensions of this world. It comes from a place where joy is found in serving others, in bearing our burdens patiently, in embracing the hope which Jesus promises, and in trusting when even that hope seems to be lost.
Over the past several weeks of Epiphany, we have been shown how to make sense of the nonsensical, how to discern wisdom in apparent foolishness, how to discover revelation where others hear only words. In the visit of the Magi; at the baptism of Jesus; in the preaching of John the Baptist; in the response of called disciples—in all of this, we have caught a glimpse of heaven’s kingdom.
God is always creating new beginnings and offering them to us … if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
All around us, people are convinced that life is a dead end, that there is no tomorrow worth waiting for, that what they have done wrong can never be forgiven. We all know folks like this. But you and I know different.
In Jesus, God has begun something new—something unstoppable. In Jesus, we may know—here and now, in the midst of our daily experience—that life is much more than what can be analyzed in a test tube or catalogued as data or proposed in a theorem. In Jesus, we have beheld the love that transfigures us—and that makes our lives abundant.
On mountain peaks or valleys deep, we need not fear, for God is with us! We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
6 From The Message, Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson