What is it that gives hope, peace, and serene joy to the Christian life? Briefly, it is the vision of glory, a glimpse into the Promised Land of Heaven, which the Lord can and does give to His people. Today’s Gospel shows forth a kind of process through which the Lord lays the foundations of hope, peace, and joy.
The Paradoxical Prelude – The text says, Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. Note that in order to get them to a place where they can see glory, the Lord must first lead them “up a high mountain.”
It’s easy to pass over this fact: they had to climb that mountain. Anyone who has been to the site of Tabor can appreciate just how difficult a climb it is, almost 2000 feet and steep as well. It takes the better part of a day and the climb might well have been more dangerous back then. Once at the top, one feels as if one is looking from an airplane window out on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon). So Tabor is a symbol of the cross and of struggle. It was a difficult, exhausting climb for Peter, James, and John and it tested their strength.
I have it on the best of authority that as they climbed they were singing gospel songs like these: “I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain, and I’m doin’ my best to carry on!”; “My soul looks back and wonders how I got over!”; “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, every round goes higher, higher.”
This climb should remind us of our life here on this earth. We’ve often had to climb, to endure; we’ve had our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of earning a college degree, or raising children, or building a career. What do you have that you really value that did not come at the price of a climb, of effort, of struggle? Most of us know that although the climb is difficult, there is glory at the top. We have to endure, to push through. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength.
Herein lies the paradox: peace, joy, and hope are often the products of struggles, climbs, and difficulties. These things are often the prelude to seeing and experiencing glory. Scripture says,
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady (Romans 5:3-4).
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it—and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the test tube of fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return (1 Peter 1:6).
Yes, there is a paradoxical prelude to glory and it can only come through God’s wisdom—human beings just don’t think this way. An old hymn says,
“Trials dark on every hand. And we cannot understand, all the ways that God will lead us to that blessed promised land. But he guides us with his eye and we follow till we die and we’ll understand it better by and by.”
The Practices Portrayed – The text lays out various aspects of how Peter, James, and John come to experience a joyful peace in the presence of the Lord’s glory. The text says, And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” There are three things Peter, James, and John do that enable them to come to this joyful peace:
1. They see. The text speaks first of the event itself that they see. It uses a word that says the Lord was transfigured (μετεμορφώθη (metemorphothe)), that His appearance was gloriously altered. While common in the Christian vocabulary, this word is in many ways mysterious and difficult to understand. The text supplies some information, telling us of a brightness that shone through the Lord, a kind of dazzling light.
But we ought not get lost in speculation and miss the point: that Peter, James, and John are given a glorious vision, beams of Heaven! Yes, this is Jesus. This is who He really is. The magnificence of His glory so astounds them that they fall down in reverence.
Have you ever seen or experienced glory? Maybe it was at the birth of a child, or upon hearing some other wonderful news. Perhaps it was a profound experience of relief, or a deep vision in prayer, or at the Liturgy. Yes, look for glory and rejoice when it comes!
We must learn to see things as they really are. Regardless of the trials and struggles, we must endure on the way. If we are faithful our end is glory.
So look for glory and expect to find it. The Lord can and does give us glimpses of glory in our life, beams of Heaven as we go! Do not minimize glories when they are revealed. Cultivate a spirit of wonder and awe at what God has done and continues to do in creation and in your life. Glory is all around us. Learning to see this glory is one of the ways God produces peace in us.
2. They are scriptural. Notice that the text says that Moses and Elijah appeared with Him. Why Moses and Elijah? Because Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, which is a Jewish way of speaking of the Bible. Thus another way of having peace produced in us is to search the Scriptures. The other day, I “cheated” and looked at the last page of the Bible. I know, we are not there yet, but I looked anyway. Guess what it says? It says that Jesus wins and so does everyone who is with Him. We have to stay rooted in our story. If we stay with Jesus, glory is at the end of our story. Know your Scriptures and thereby know your story, a story that ends with glory.
3. They savor. Peter wants to stay on the mountaintop, to pitch tents and stay put. Some preachers give him a hard time for this, but I see it as a good thing, even if a bit excessive. The point is to savor glory, to store good memories and experiences deep in our soul, to cultivate a deep gratitude for the wonderful things the Lord has done for us, to savor deeply our experiences of glory.
The Prescription Proclaimed – The text then says, Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.
The prescription couldn’t be simpler and yet how poorly we often follow it. Listen to Jesus! In other words, carefully ponder every word of His teaching and begin to base your life on what He says.
How much pain, anxiety, and strife come into this world and our lives simply because we do not listen to the Lord and obey His teachings! Our stubbornness, our lack of forgiveness, our unchastity, our greed, our lack of concern for the poor, our idolatry, our lack of spirituality, and the fact that we are often just plain mean, bring enormous suffering to us and to others.
If we would but give our life to the Lord and ask Him to conform us to His word, so much suffering would vanish. We would have so much more peace and would experience greater joy and hope.
Listen to Jesus and by His grace conform your life to what you hear Him say. There is no greater source for joy, peace, and hope.
The Persevering Purpose – The text says, As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
There is fairly universal agreement that the purpose of this mountaintop experience of glory was to prepare the apostles for the difficult days ahead. Thus, while Jesus tells them to keep it to themselves, He wanted them to keep it, to remember it. Having seen and savored glory, having “seen what the end shall be,” having been bathed in beams of Heaven, they need to keep the memory alive and remember who Jesus is as the Passion begins. If they do this, they will be able to endure the folly and suffering of the cross.
Did they successfully persevere in keeping the memory alive? Only John made it to the foot of the cross, but one out of three isn’t so bad. Having experienced peace and joy, and having seen the Lord’s glory, John made it to the cross, enduring its shame and remembering the glory he had seen.
What about you? Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Have you experienced His love and glory deeply enough that, when difficulties come, you don’t allow them to overwhelm you? Have you come to experience and possess a peace and joy that the world did not give and hence cannot take away? Have you allowed the Lord to lay a foundation of hope in your life? Have you let Him take you up the mountain and show you glory? Have you seen the promised land and have you seen what the end shall be? This is what this Gospel describes and promises.
There is an old hymn by Charles Tindley that says,
“Beams of Heaven, as I go, / Through this wilderness below / Guide my feet in peaceful ways / Turn my midnights into days / When in the darkness I would grope / Faith always sees a star of hope / And soon from all life’s grief and danger / I shall be free someday.”
Notice what it is that gets us through: beams of Heaven!
Yes, it was those same beams of Heaven that Peter, James, and John saw on the mountaintop. Those beams, having been experienced and remembered, shine on every darkness and show the way. Those beams of Heaven give us hope and turn our midnight into day. Let the Lord show you His glory. Savor every moment and never forget what the Lord has done for you. The light of His Glory will light every way.