“Were you there when…”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson returns (please note that this was written in 1999 and so don’t you get confused about the reference to Valentine’s Day!)

Exodus 24:12, 15-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Every year, the Epiphany Season closes with “The Transfiguration of our Lord.” The event carries neither the hype nor the nostalgia of Christmas. It has no gut-rending introspection like Good Friday, and it lacks the euphoria of Easter. Every year it just seems to come and go — nothing changes, and hardly anyone notices.

In Sunday’s lesson from Second Peter, we read a reference from an eyewitness to Christ’s transfiguration. The author says he was there. When Jesus’ face shone like the sun and His garments became white as light, he was there. When Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, he was there. When the cloud covered them and frightened them, he was one of them. When the voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased; listen to Him,” he was there, and he listened.

Peter confronts what he calls “cleverly invented myths” that had cast many doubts on the identity of Jesus Christ. The author had no doubt that Jesus was the Son of God and that, even though they had expected Him earlier, He would eventually come again. The Transfiguration was literally and figuratively a mountaintop experience — not easily forgotten, and of great spiritual impact. Perhaps we fail to share that impact because, unlike the nailing to the tree and laying in the tomb, we neither reenact the event nor appropriate it to ourselves. If a song asked, “Were you there?”, we would yawn an unresponsive, “Nah.”

How would life be different for us if we had actually, physically been there at that moment in time? Some of you may think that this is only a theoretical question. The fact is we were not actually, physically, historically there, so what’s the difference? That, however, is precisely my point. I am convinced there would be a difference in the way we worship, the way we think, the things we say, and the way we live.

In many ways, the Bible says that we are often in the presence of God and fail to recognize Him. We “entertain angels unawares.” We feed Christ, clothe Him, give Him something to drink, visit Him when He is sick or in prison, but ask, “When did we see you hungry, naked, thirsty, sick or in prison?” We see Him at the cemetery and think He is only the gardener. We walk with Him on the road, but do not know Him.

Next Friday will be Valentine’s Day. The following powerful story illustrates human love at its best. It is way beyond the superficial stuff usually associated with Sunday’s holiday. The author saw it immediately as the kind of totally unselfish and gracious love we ordinarily only see from God. In his book, Mortal Lessons, Dr. Richard Selzer wrote:

“I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve.

“Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry- mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily? The young woman speaks.

‘Will my mouth always be like this?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘It will. It is because the nerve was cut.’ She nods, and is silent. But the young man smiles. ‘I like it,’ he says. ‘It is kind of cute.’ “All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”

One is not bold in an encounter with God. Peter was bold at the onset of the Transfiguration. He piped up with: “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” My guess is that he was very impressed with being in the presence of three great men of God. After the cloud and the voice, he knew it was an encounter with God Himself. He and his friends fell facedown to the ground in awe. What started as an experience on a mountain top, suddenly became a mountaintop experience. Some events make us enthusiastic, piping up with all sorts of irrelevant exuberance. Others leave us silent, but changed.

When John Bunyan was converted to faith in Christ, he accepted his Baptism in tearful silence. Afterward he was changed forever. He later spoke of his return home: “I was so taken with the love and mercy of God that I knew not how to contain myself till I got home. I thought I would have spoken of His love to the very crows that sat upon the plowed lands before me.”

Henry Sloane Coffin once wrote about an announcer in a railway station who, on an oppressive summer day, would call out the destinations of waiting trains. He would urge others to board for enticing mountain and seaside resorts, but he would remain in the sweltering station, without glimpse of forest or ocean, and without the exhilarating air to be breathed on the mountain tops. The author concluded: “God forbid that you and I should spend our lives telling the uplifting experiences of prophet and lawgiver, psalmist and sage, on the heights of vision, and in the lofty encounters of disciples with the Incarnate God, and be ourselves strangers to the everlasting hills, and aliens to the mountaintop experiences where we, too, can encounter God.”

We cannot go up the mountain with Jesus, but in our own way each of us can experience a reality even more mind-blowing than the Transfiguration. I can imagine the giddy delight and trembling terror of the disciples. I can even get a hazy mental image of a transfigured Christ, but my mind is totally unprepared for the love that brought Him here in the first place. That His love for me and for you would take Him to the humiliation and suffering of the crucifixion is incomprehensible. But I will shout of it as long as I have breath in me. That is my mission. That is your mission.

Peter and the others saw the glory of Jesus when He met with the Old Testament’s two most famous characters. But it was something else altogether when they saw it again in His resurrection. Our celebration of the Lord’s Transfiguration needs to be a twofold experience. On the one hand, we need to experience and encounter God along with the other three disciples. On the other hand, we need to leave that mountain top as little Christs who, like the young man with his accommodating lips, can share or, better yet, be the love of God in what we say and do.

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