Glimpses of Eternity
Read Matthew 17:1-9
Because of my own life-long struggle to come to grips with the unbelievable, I have striven to help people to find the hidden kernel of truth, the fragment of reality, amongst the seeming absurdities among the tenets of Christianity such as the virgin birth, Jesus’s ascension into heaven, the bodily resurrection, et al. The event celebrated this Sunday, the Transfiguration, is certainly one of those absurdities if, in fact, we are meant to understand it as an event in history. But like most such stories, the truth is not in its historicity.
It is tough for us to see a world in which we have not yet lived. Seeing, recognition, is difficult within our present framework of perception. We perceive through ‘spectacles’ coloured with the learned reactions to situations in the familiar world assembled from information from our five senses. Yet, if the world is to be changed, we need to be changed. A vision, a gift, is needed in order to see that which we don’t expect to see: a transfiguration.
There are moments in life, fleeting moments, when the curtain between present and future is drawn back, and we glimpse, just for a moment, what tomorrow holds for us; glimpses, moments. It changes us to stand, even for a moment, in the future.
The teenager is playing basketball, one-on-one, with his father. His dad shoots and misses. The boy steps back, shoots. It’s a perfect shot and for just a second that seems eternal, father and son contemplate the reality that the son, who was once taught by the father, is now better, greater than the father. “You know,” says the father good-naturedly, “I think you made that shot better than I could.”
The son smiles, but doesn’t answer, because both of them, for one small instant, have been given a glimpse of the future; the day when they will meet, not on a back yard basketball court, but over a deathbed when the father could say, but won’t have to say, “You know, I think you will live longer than I.”
For just a moment, when by a glance across the room, or the play of sunlight on shadow, or the aroma of a favourite dish, the future is made present, and reality floods in. We couldn’t stand much more than a moment of such realness, but we don’t need much more than an instant to change us.
The transfiguration of Jesus is also a glimpse into the future. Location is important to understanding this strange, dreamlike episode in Matthew’s gospel. Indeed, it may even be describing a dream, but don’t get bogged down in the historical facts about the event. We are after the message that Matthew intends to convey with this story, coming as after the core statement of the gospel, right after Peter’s confession. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?’ Peter replies, “You are the Christ of God,” i.e. the Messiah, and Jesus tells them not to tell anyone this. He then goes on to say that the Son of Man must suffer and die, and rebukes Peter for taking issue with this, following with the message that those who would follow him must take up their cross daily, noting that he that would save his life would lose it and he who loses his life will gain it. If you wanted a summary of Jesus’ Way in a couple sentences, this is it.
So here, after the core message of the gospel is related, comes this mountaintop experience, where Jesus, dressed whiter than white, is revealed in the company of the two great figures of Judaism, Moses and Elijah., and he is announced as God’s beloved son with the injunction, “Listen to him!” Thus the vision of the Transfiguration serves as a validation of what Jesus has just taught. ‘You may not like it,’ says the voice, ‘but he is right; listen to him!’
Peter who, as usual, represents us, blurts out, ‘This a great place to be, let’s set up camp here!’ Matthew tells us the disciple is terrified and doesn’t know what he is talking about, and then the vision is gone. As with all glimpses of eternity, it is to last but a moment, and its purpose is to change the way we act in the world, thereby creating the world anew. Jesus and the disciples now must go back down from the mountain, back to the valley, back to the real world where there are sick people to be healed, disputes to be settled and lots more work to be done.
There was no way to freeze the glistening mountaintop moment in time, to make it last forever, to capture its radiance, to serve as ongoing proof of who Jesus was. The disciples had to return to the real world, unable to tell anyone about what they had experienced, with nothing more to sustain them than a glimpse, one shining, very strange moment when the veil separating the past, present and future was thrown back and they saw.
I dare say most of you will have had times which you wished could go on forever; wished that you could tell everyone exactly why and how your heart was strangely warmed in some moment of ecstasy and worship. But you can’t. It would be hard for anyone to understand why so inexplicable a moment has changed you. They would have had to have been there to understand. So you cherish your glimpse of glory and return to the real world, but you return different, because for one shining moment you have seen.
I’m talking about these sporadic moments that come to us, quite unexpectedly, when we experience time in ways unlike our normal encounters, when the curtain between present and future is drawn back and we know the future as if it were now.
“Well, that was all wonderful,” Peter, James and John must have thought to themselves on Monday morning as they got back to the business at hand in the valley. But what good does it do? Glimpses of eternity do not assuage all your doubts or tell you what to do next. You couldn’t build your whole faith on such unexpected, sporadic and momentary glimpses. But it does make a difference to have seen and heard and experienced for yourself a reality beyond what the world tells you is real. Afterward, when you walk outside, it will be an ordinary, routine, even drab day in the valley, with nothing visibly different. But you will be different, having seen God’s future, and you will act accordingly. You will bring God’s world into this one.
It does make a difference to have seen, even for a moment, the future, to have heard the reassuring voice out of the silence. When you go from here, though the world may not look as pretty as it does in here, it will be a typical day in February, with nothing visibly different from when you came in. But you see, you will be different. Although you might not tell anyone, some may note your shining face, coming, as you are, from the mountain. You will be different, having seen the future, God’s future, having heard the word that keeps you going until your next glimpse of eternity.