“Eyewitnesses of His Majesty”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
February 3, 2008
Scripture: 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” — 2 Peter 1:16
One day Jesus took three of his disciples, – Peter, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, – aside, and the four of them climbed a mountain to its summit. Tradition identifies that mountain as Mt Tabor in Southern Galilee, which the text says is “high” but truth to tell is very modest in this regard compared say to Mt Whitney in our Sierra Nevada. I have climbed Tabor, with the help of a jeep on a good road up to the Franciscan church that marks the spot. Once up there the three witnesses saw Jesus’ face begin to glow with a luminescence like the sun and his garments become white as the essence of light; “his face shone like the sun and his garments became white as light (Matt. 17:2).” Peter saw this take place and this is what he is referring to in his second letter when he says that the three of them were “eyewitness of his majesty.”
We Christians know that Jesus is the incarnate God, that in him all the fullness of the one and only God was present bodily, and is present spiritually to this day in his spiritual presence that we call Holy Spirit. It is important to bear witness to his majesty all the time and in every way that we can because the true faith is always in danger of being subverted into “cleverly devised myths.” One of my favorite writers, the 19th century Dane Soren Kierkegaard, alluding to the miracle of Cana in John 2, says of the theologians of Denmark in his time: “Not content with the miracle of the changing of water into wine, they bend all their effort to change the wine back into water.” This ungrateful perversity is still with us in our time and the Gospel of the Incarnate God is still being corrupted into clever ideologies and comfortable nostrums. One sometimes feels as if even the Christians who should witness to the majesty of our chief joy and treasure are bent on making him trivial, or at least keeping him under wraps.
In yesterday’s NYT (2/2/08 p. B11) there is an article about how a certain minor league umpire dislikes an organization called “Baseball Chapel.” He is a Jew and objects especially to their invocation of Jesus. “It was very uncomfortable. They’d say Jesus this and Jesus that. And at the end they’d say in Jesus’ name.” I said to myself, “Baseball Chapel’s etiquette might be debatable but their theology seems to be sound.” Their web site says that their “… purpose is to glorify Jesus Christ,” and one can hardly fault them for that. I wish more Christian organizations were that simple and straightforward.
The “Baseball Chapel” situation poses an insoluble dilemma: we Christians understand our worship to be the glorification of the majesty of God as revealed in Jesus Christ; how can we be true to this insight without excluding those who do not wish to hear anything about God as he is in Jesus? Must we abridge our faith for the sake of fellowship? And why does this faith arouse such hostility in academic circles? One can speak of Moses, Mohammad and Siddartha Buddha without catalyzing much hostility, but gentle Jesus infuriates the world, especially the intellectual world. My hunch is that the world intuits that it has more to fear from him than from the others, in the sense that he discloses the world’s lying cruelty and hungry violence utterly – see the Cross of Christ- while the others allow enough of a cover up to abide that the threat is not acute.
Herewith Jesus we are up against the unyielding crystal of the truth, the hard diamond of reality, which cannot be abraded, not even marked, by the drill of compromise. We see the majesty of God in Jesus and we cannot abridge or abate that vision in any way, without falling prey to “cleverly devised myths” that obscure from our view “the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So the first message of our text is the one that you find in every pericope of the NT: Jesus is the divine truth, the non plus ultra of reality, and it stands to reason we must accept that truth wholeheartedly and right away, and not seek to change it. The bedrock of truth is that only in such a faith in Jesus can we possibly be fully alive because in such a faith we are in touch with our creator as he redeems us from the destruction of the old creation and transfers us to the new creation that began with the Resurrection of Jesus.
In the Epistle for today we read that as Jesus’ person shone before them God spoke: “For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,’ we heard this voice borne from heaven for we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:17-18).” Clearly this shows that the work of the theologian, the preacher, the teacher and every other Christian worker or believer is very simply to bear witness that we have heard the voice of God, through the Apostles Peter, James and John, that testifies who this Jesus is. The witness that identifies Jesus flows from God through the Apostles to us. We are indescribably blest to have this testimony; we know the human name of God, and we are in direct line to receive all his power and presence. So let us renew the simplicity and the passion of our faith and love for Jesus, and laugh at the imbecile attempts to improve on this life-giving faith by means of “cleverly devised myths.”
Two more points to bear in mind: In the Gospel account (Matthew 17:3-5) Moses and Elijah appear before the eyes of the apostles and speak with Jesus, then a cloud descends and the voice from heaven identifies Jesus as God’s beloved son, ending with the command, “Listen to him!” Sometime during this episode the Apostles closed their eyes – they were in a cloud and would not have seen anything in any case, and the action was audible not visible. After the command, “Listen to him!” the text tells us that they opened their eyes, “.and saw “no one except Jesus alone (vs., 6-8).” Now it is very “politically incorrect” these days to hint that our Christian faith supersedes the Jewish faith in any way. For my part I believe that it does, as it supersedes all religions and all other faiths, and that this very Gospel text is testimony to that fact. Why do we have together in a few lines the disappearance of Moses and Elijah, (symbols of the Jewish Law and Prophets) and the double emphasis on the sole power and presence of Jesus, namely, “Listen to him!” and “They saw no one else but only Jesus alone?” Both of these statements stand in positions of emphasis in the Greek text. Our Gospel message is, therefore, among other things, the demand and demonstration that Jesus alone be utterly sufficient for our lives, which will be so if we listen to him and do not concoct clever myths to obscure him and stifle his invitation to a relationship with him.
Secondly, in the Gospel the Transfiguration is narrated immediately after Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer and die in ignominy. Lent begins on Wednesday and we begin then the slow sad march with him to Golgotha. Here we get a glimpse of who he really is, a flash of Resurrection light in the darkness of his Passion and death, to re-assure us that this slow march is not a march of prisoners but a procession of conquerors.
This Jesus is truth and life, therefore rejoice in him, love him, follow him praise him and glorify him because in him our apostles saw the life of God shining forth and heard how he supercedes all religion, all politics, and takes us to the realms of eternal life, and they told us, so now we know, and therefore have everything we need.